Mondoweiss – 1 August 2017
Guess who said this recently: Israel’s treatment of Palestinians looks “a lot like apartheid” – and not just in the occupied territories, but inside Israel too, where one in five citizens are Palestinian.
“I actually think the issue of apartheid is more relevant to how Arab Israelis [Palestinian citizens of Israel] are treated within the framework of the country [Israel].”
No, it wasn’t Jimmy Carter, the former US president who a decade ago famously went head-to-head with the Israel lobby by publishing a book that compared Israel’s policies in the occupied territories to apartheid.
The author of this even more incendiary statement is none other than Jodi Rudoren, the New York Times’ decidedly soft-on-Israel Jerusalem bureau chief from 2012 until her departure 18 months ago.
Her apartheid comment is included in an interview with John Lyons, who himself served in Jerusalem for many years, in his case reporting for the Australian newspaper.
In his new memoir, Balcony Over Jerusalem, Lyons describes not only the aggressive attacks he suffered at the hands of the Australian branch of the Israel lobby but allows other senior journalists to recount their own, similar experiences.
In other words, Lyons shows that reporters covering Israel and Palestine are systematically targeted by Israel lobbyists in an attempt to pressure them and their papers into self-censorship. The goal is to skew the coverage to make Israel look much better than it would otherwise, and the Palestinians much worse.
That has tragically dangerous consequences. By seriously distorting readers’ perceptions of Israel and Palestine, the lobby ensures that the conflict continues to be seen as intractable – and continues inflicting a heavy toll on life in the region, especially Palestinian life.
Abdication of responsibility
The Rudoren interview indicates that the lobby’s strategy has been paying handsome dividends.
The obvious question raised is this: why are we learning about Rudoren’s surprising views on Israel and apartheid as an aside during a sympathetic chat with Lyons rather than prominently in the pages of the New York Times, the world’s most influential newspaper?
Strangely, in her four years as Jerusalem bureau chief, Rudoren never raised the apartheid analogy. She never wrote an op-ed or analysis making that claim, or gave a voice to experts in Israel or abroad who have reached a similar view.
In fact, she never made any effort to publicise the myriad laws and administrative practices in Israel that might justify her reaching such a conclusion. If you want to understand her reasoning, you will have to look elsewhere, including to my chapter in the recent book Israel and South Africa: The Many Faces of Apartheid.
So why is this the first time we have heard Rudoren on this vital topic? Surely, if she deduced during her reporting that Israel was practising apartheid against its own (Palestinian) citizens, she had a duty to inform her readers. Not to have done so was an abdication of her responsibility as a journalist.
It is not even as though Rudoren can defend such negligence by claiming she only reached the conclusion that Israel practised apartheid on reflection, after she left the region. She departed Jerusalem for the paper’s head office to become editor in charge of international coverage. She could easily have written an oped or a feature explaining why she has belatedly become such a severe critic of Israel.
And yet she chose to do none of that.
Just setting out these imaginary scenarios hints, of course, at their implausibility. The reason Rudoren kept quiet in the NYT about Israeli apartheid is self-evident, as Lyon’s interviews make clear: to have done otherwise would have been career suicide.
Here is another veteran NYT correspondent, Clyde Haberman, telling Lyons that the lobby’s “non-stop assault” on the paper’s Jerusalem correspondents has made the posting a poisoned chalice. Few want it, says Haberman.
“We’ve had decades of correspondents that, no matter how talented they are or how many Pulitzer Prizes they have to their name, always end up being accused of being either anti-Semites or self-hating Jews; at some point, this seeps into the DNA of the newspaper. This is what you can expect if you go there – to have your integrity hurled back in your face every single day,” he says.
Pause for a second. Unless I have wildly misunderstood the implication of “seeping into the newspaper’s DNA”, a leading journalist at the US paper of record has just suggested that for decades its reporters and editors have toned down their coverage to avoid run-ins with the Israel lobby.
As near as he dare, Haberman has conceded that you won’t learn the full truth about Israel and Palestine from the NYT. And nor will US legislators and policy-makers, or journalists and editors around the world who look to the Times as the benchmark for their own reporting and analysis.
Rudoren appears to confirm that point. She says she developed a style of what she calls “defensive writing … to protect myself and keep me focused on the essence of what I’m trying to do”. Defensive writing? That sounds an awful lot like self-censorship.
No healthy debate
According to Lyons, Rudoren concludes that “there is not a healthy debate in the US about Israel because of the power of pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC” – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, whose muscle so terrifies the Congress that it receives settlement-building Israeli prime ministers like Benjamin Netanyahu far more rapturously than it ever does an American president.
Rudoren could have added that the debate in the US media about Israel is not healthy either. And that is because Israel loyalists in the US have developed, in parallel to the political lobby of AIPAC, a similarly sophisticated and bullying media lobby, represented by groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, CAMERA and Honest Reporting.
Rudoren knows that only too well. Just take a look at the page dedicated to her at the CAMERA website. It shows dozens of formal complaints to her editors about her reporting.
(I know from personal experience the organised campaigns targeting editors run by these lobby groups. I have my own, far more modest page at CAMERA. I had a short-lived role in Israel as a freelance journalist reporting for mainstream publications like the Guardian, where I had been previously on staff, and writing opeds for the International Herald Tribune. I was quickly vilified by these same media lobby groups. As a vulnerable freelancer and one who refused to “tone it down”, I soon found myself ousted from their pages.)
Social media censor
To avoid these kinds of confrontations with the lobby, the NYT issued Rudoren with a social media censor, whose job was to vet her comments before posting. For the first time in her journalistic career, Rudoren found herself treated like a pre-schooler.
Other publications have found different ways to protect themselves from the lobby’s wrath.
Lyons notes that Reuters, the agency that feeds news stories to media around the world, has a special rule book limiting the terminology that can be used about the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Germany’s largest newspaper group, owned by Axel Springer, requires journalists to sign a document agreeing that they “support the vital rights of the people of Israel”.
The Australian TV, radio and online group SBS has issued guidelines telling journalists: “We should avoid describing settlements as on Palestinian land or on disputed land, or occupied territories.” In other words, international law must be jettisoned to placate the Israel lobby.
The wider context for the Rudoren interview needs underscoring. There is a danger that some of Lyons’ readers may end up drawing two erroneous conclusions: that journalists like Rudoren have faced a backlash because they battle to tell uncompromising truths about Israel; and that the lobby is facing stiff resistance from the editors of mainstream publications.
Neither assumption would be valid.
As Mondoweiss has repeatedly pointed out, Rudoren was never a tenacious watchdog on Israeli power. In fact, quite the opposite.
For decades, the NYT has generally preferred to appoint Jewish reporters to cover Israel-Palestine, confirmed once again with the announcement last week that David Halbfinger would be the next bureau chief.
That in itself is a concern. When there are two deeply entrenched ethno-national groups in a conflict like this one, it is nothing less than irresponsible to keep appointing reporters from one side of that divide.
But more significantly, most of these reporters have also proven themselves to be deeply partisan, as one veteran Jewish reporter in Jerusalem confirmed to me in 2010. It was common, he told me, to hear Western reporters boasting to one another at local Foreign Press Association meetings about their “Zionist” credentials. They would illustrate their fealty, he said, by telling colleagues how they or their children had served in the Israeli army – the one occupying Palestinians close by.
He added: “I’m Jewish, married to an Israeli and like almost all Western journalists live in Jewish West Jerusalem. In my free time I hang out in cafes and bars with Jewish Israelis chatting in Hebrew. For the Jewish sabbath and Jewish holidays I often get together with a bunch of Western journalists. While it would be convenient to think otherwise, there is no question that this deep personal integration into Israeli society informs our overall understanding and coverage of the place.”
Is this not a precise description of Rudoren, her predecessors and most of her likely successors?
Children in the army
In a 2014 interview Rudoren admitted that her impressions of Israel before her arrival were derived from her teenage experiences in Jerusalem with United Synagogue Youth.
Of her posting: “I wanted to come here to cover this fascinating beat. Being Jewish certainly is central to that. I know a decent amount about Judaism, I speak Hebrew pretty well. I come knowledgeable about the Jewish American or Jewish Israeli side of this beat,” she told the Hadassah magazine.
Conversely, she arrived – like most of her predecessors – entirely ignorant of the Palestinian side of the beat, and unable to speak Arabic.
But at least Rudoren’s children were too young to have served in the Israeli army during her stint as bureau chief, as was the case with the son of her immediate predecessor, Ethan Bronner.
And at least her husband was not a propagandist for the Israeli government like Hirsh Goodman, the Israeli partner of Isabel Kershner, Rudoren’s long-time NYT colleague in Jerusalem.
Neither matter was treated as a conflict of interest by the paper’s editors.
In itself, partisanship should not necessarily be a concern, and there are times we would encourage it. Who would have wanted a non-partisan correspondent covering the rise of Nazism in Germany, for example?
In fact, all reporters are partisan, even if they rarely admit it or understand how their bias operates. The problem in the case of Israel-Palestine is that the partisanship works almost exclusively in one direction. Palestinian and Arab reporters are rarely allowed a mainstream correspondent’s job covering the region. And in the rare cases where they are, they must constantly demonstrate their “lack of partisanship” – in practise, they must show the same pro-Israel sympathies as their Zionist colleagues.
Lobby’s foot in the door
Despite the impression created by the Rudoren interview, the lobby is not the sole problem. She was also constrained, and continues to be, by institutional restrictions on what can be said in the mainstream media.
Media publications are themselves on side with Israel, even before the lobby starts hammering on their door. This happens for many different reasons, some of which are identified by Lyons.
At the simplest level, this occurs because there are often partisan editors who work closely with the lobby – or at least advance its aims – from inside the publication.
Lyons spends time detailing the problems he faced with Nick Cater, then a senior editor who blocked him from publishing any opinion articles in the paper.
Cater and others were doubtless outraged by Lyons’ role in producing one of the very few TV documentaries ever to have exposed the harshest realities of the occupation. Stone Cold Justice, produced by ABC TV, on the experiences of children at the hands of the Israeli army, went viral on social media, appalling the Israel lobby.
Lyons was lucky. Unlike colleagues on other publications, he enjoyed the protection of his chief editor – doubtless the main reason he can afford to be so frank about his earlier experiences in Jerusalem while still working for the Australian.
Exasperated by the Australian’s failure to stop Lyons’ reporting from the region, Cater brought in an Israeli embassy official to its offices in an attempt to rally opposition to Lyons. “To me the idea of an officer of a foreign government wandering the floor of my newsroom criticising me was outrageous,” Lyons writes.
There are many Caters in newsrooms across Australia, the US and Europe, and most are far more successful and effective than Cater himself – the reason why their influence, unlike Cater’s, remains out of sight.
Access to inner sanctums
The extent of these internal media problems can be gauged by another issue raised by Lyons. He notes how common it is for Australian editors, reporters and opinion writers to take lobby-sponsored trips to Israel, where they are bombarded with disinformation to make them even more wildly sympathetic to Israel than they were before they arrived.
Lyons writes: “For more than 20 years, Australians have read and heard pro-Israel positions from journalists, editors, politicians, trade union leaders, academics and students who have returned from the all-expenses-paid Israel lobby trips. In my opinion, no editors, journalist or others should take those trips: they grotesquely distort the reality and are dangerous in the sense that they allow people with a very small amount of knowledge to pollute Australian public opinion.”
Do not for one minute make the mistake of thinking that the situation is any better in the US or Europe.
All of this occurs without factoring in the most important pressure on journalists, which is gaining access to the inner sanctums of power in a self-declared Jewish state.
Editors back home understand that a useful bureau chief is one who can navigate the corridors of power in Jerusalem, and that to qualify he or she must have earnt the trust of Israeli officials.
The choice of partisan, Zionist reporters by most US outlets reflects power relations between Israel and Palestine in the US itself. When Washington officials themselves are so openly partisan towards Israel – think of perennial “peace brokers” like Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk – it would self-harming in the extreme for editors to choose a Jerusalem bureau chief who might jeopardise the publications’ access in Washington too.
For this reason, the few Jerusalem-based correspondents who actually want to speak truth to power quickly learn to pull their punches.
Exception to the rule
A memorable exception is Chris McGreal. He moved from South Africa, where he had covered the apartheid and post-apartheid years for the Guardian, straight to Jerusalem. Like Rudoren, the similarities between the two countries were not lost on him. But unlike Rudoren, McGreal went public with the comparison in the pages of his newspaper. According to accounts from well-placed individuals about that episode, he did so in the face of enormous opposition from within his own newspaper.
He managed it, like Lyons, because of a rare alignment of the stars: McGreal was a widely celebrated journalist, one unusually immune from pro-Israel sentiment, and with the necessary credibility, experience, expertise and bravery to take on the external and internal pressures directed at him by the lobby.
For these reasons, he and Lyons have kept the backing of their chief editors. But the enormous backlash McGreal’s article generated, including serious threats of legal action and a temporary break with the Israeli embassy, served – as it was intended to do – as a warning to other reporters and editors not to go down the same path.
Lyons has done sterling work by himself admitting – and getting others to admit – a great taboo: that a journalist writing with any kind of critical perspective on Israel is going to be ruthlessly pilloried by the lobby and their career put in jeopardy.
Sadly, as a result, most journalists keep quiet. Their silence enables the Israel lobby to continue working largely in the shadows.
Even if inadvertently, Rudoren has provided a service. She has shown that the facts are so stark in Israel’s case that even a deeply partisan reporter could not fail to recognise the reality of apartheid – even if she never thought to mention it to her readers.
Correction: We initially reported that McGreal’s apartheid articles came out after he left Jerusalem. McGreal pointed out that these articles were published five months before he left the Guardian’s Jerusalem bureau and he says that the timing of their publication was not connected to his departure from Israel.