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Abraham H. Foxman

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Israel's Hard Times, and the New York Times

Posted: 12/27/11 06:43 PM ET

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, perhaps no newspaper's coverage generates more passionate and emotional reaction from the Jewish community in America and around the world than that of the New York Times.

Not surprisingly, the newspaper often becomes the target of withering attacks from those who believe that it is fundamentally biased against one side or the other in the conflict.

Enter the most recent controversy surrounding the Times -- a letter sent to the newspaper from Ron Dermer, a senior advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The letter was prompted by an offer, extended by Times editors, for the prime minister to pen an op-ed piece of his own stating his views on current issues facing the Jewish state.

The prime minister's office "respectfully declined" in a letter from Dermer, which outlined a litany of complaints and grievances about the newspaper's coverage of Israel. "The opinions of some of your regular columnists regarding Israel are well known," Dermer wrote. "They consistently distort the positions of our government and ignore the steps it has taken to advance peace."

The letter, published Dec. 16 in the Jerusalem Post, was immediately made public and has since generated extensive reactions.

One of Israel's leading journalists, Nahum Barnea, was highly critical of Prime Minister Netanyahu, suggesting that that Times' coverage of Israel was not as bad as Dermer claimed and, in any case, the newspaper was too important to break off relations with it.

I fall in between Barnea and the prime minister's office.

The New York Times is, indeed, one of the most influential newspapers in America, if not the world. As such, it is important to cultivate proper relations since its outreach to the world is continuous and unlimited.

The Times' coverage of Israel, both in its reporting and its editorial pages, is mixed -- problematic in some instances, less so in others. Nonetheless, compared to some other leading international publications such as the Economist and the Financial Times, the Times can appear respectable and relatively objective.

Still, Dermer was on to something. There has been an increasingly troubling imbalance in the way that the Times presents stories and opinions on the Middle East conflict. And, contrary to Barnea, who argued that being critical of Mr. Netanyahu's policies does not make one anti-Israel, let alone anti-Semitic, some of The Times' commentary goes beyond mere criticism.

Characteristic of this was the way that the newspaper discussed the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Instead of commending Israel for being willing to make great sacrifices and to take great risks to ensure the release of a lone soldier, the Times used the occasion to publish an editorial bashing Prime Minister Netanyahu for allegedly not taking an initiative for peace. What was so troubling, regardless of how one views Israel's policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, is that making those policies the focal point on a day when Israel showed humanity while the Palestinians hailed terrorists with blood on their hands spoke volumes about the Times' inability -- or worse, unwillingness -- to even acknowledge those facts.

Similarly, Israel's admirable and unique record of equality in the region for its gay citizens was demeaned in the Times. In a piece called "Israel and 'Pinkwashing,'" Sarah Schulman, a professor at the College of Staten Island, turned Israel's record on gays into a club against the country, suggesting that Israeli leaders use it to cleanse their image as human rights violators.

As with the Shalit editorial, the Times' decision to run this fundamentally flawed op-ed by an anti-Israel polemicist turned a positive story into a negative one.

In the past two years, the Anti-Defamation League has found the need to send 31 letters to the editor criticizing or raising questions on editorials, op-eds and articles about Israel and the Middle East conflict.

To its credit, the Times published many of these letters. But the fact that we saw the need to send so many letters -- sometimes as many as two or three a week -- reflects our growing concern about what is appearing in the newspaper.

Many of our letters have expressed uneasiness not only with how the Times portrays Mr. Netanyahu's government, but with the absence of an appropriate broader and long-term perspective on the conflict. This absence or distortion conveys the impression that Israel is the party most responsible for the failure to end the conflict and bring about a Palestinian state.

So it is understandable that the Times would give a platform to Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority ("The Long Overdue Palestinian State," May 14, 2011). It is quite another matter for the paper to allow Abbas to grossly distort the historical record, particularly the war in 1948. For the Times to not have at least commented critically on Mr. Abbas's refusal to acknowledge that it was the Arabs, including the Palestinians, who rejected the U.N. partition and invaded Israel upon its declaration of independence, is symptomatic of recent trends.

There are also the assertions, gone unchallenged on the editorial page, by regular columnists such as Tom Friedman and Nicholas Kristof arguing that the "Israel lobby" (or "American Jews") controls U.S. Middle East policy. Again, these are false accusations that go way beyond disagreement with Mr. Netanyahu or the Israeli government.

What, then, is the appropriate reaction?

I do not believe it lies in boycotting the Times, which is neither justified nor smart. Rather, there is a need to continue to be brutally honest with the editors about our perception of their newspaper. We still should commend them when there are indicators of fairness, but we also must be frank, as in the manner of the Dermer letter, when we see patterns of bias against Israel.

We believe journalism's role is to be as objective as possible. We have confidence that with objectivity, democratic Israel will fare very well.

We look forward to seeing the New York Times assuming that position in its coverage of Israel and the ongoing Middle East conflict.