Student troubled by New York Times reporter’s “Jewish litmus test”

Students say New York Times reporters posed inappropriate questions for story on campus divestment movement.

Students interviewed for a New York Times article about campus Palestine solidarity activism say they were asked leading and inappropriate questions by reporters. In one case, a student says he was subjected to a troubling “Jewish litmus test.”

The students who spoke to The Electronic Intifada also expressed surprise that none of the statements they gave appeared in what they see as a heavily skewed article, which appeared on Saturday with the headline “Campus Debates on Israel Drive a Wedge Between Jews and Minorities.”

Lead reporter Jennifer Medina, who co-wrote the story with Tamar Lewin and Ronnie Cohen, referred questions to New York Times assistant national editor Jennifer Kingson.

In an email to The Electronic Intifada, Kingson said that Times reporters “behaved professionally and that the story we published was both fair and accurate.”

“Our reporters spoke to multitudes of students on many campuses, and the story depicts the range of viewpoints that they encountered,” Kingson wrote. She pointed out that the story mentions that “divestment activists say they are concerned about retaliation and the stifling of their views.”

“In a 1,600 word story, not all voices can be included, so many people who were interviewed were not mentioned – on both sides of the issue,” Kingson added.

Some of the students interviewed for the story, however, told The Electronic Intifada that the questions they were asked were driven by a specific agenda.

Hammering a “wedge”

The New York Times article hews closely to the narrative promoted by Israel lobby groups that the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is “threatening” and marginalizing to Jewish students. The story insinuates that BDS campaigning is the cause of various alleged incidents of anti-Jewish bias on campus.

The motivations of students supporting BDS are dismissively described as “what they see as Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians” – a phrasing that construes facts about Israeli human rights abuses and decades of military occupation and colonization as a matter of mere perspective.

Sarah Schulman, professor and faculty advisor to Students for Justice in Palestine at the College of Staten Island, commented on Facebook that “there is a lot that is wrong with this article.”

She pointed out that the article claims “hundreds” were killed in Gaza during Israel’s attack last summer, when in fact the number of Palestinian dead was more than 2,200.

Schulman rejects the article’s central assertion that campus divestment movements are “driving a wedge between many Jewish and minority students.” She points out that “many Jews, like Jewish Voice for Peace [JVP], are part of these divestment movements.”

But apart from a passing mention of JVP, these voices are silenced in the article in favor of Israel lobby-aligned students such as Natalie Charney at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In the New York Times story, Charney asserts that students making connections between the Palestinian struggle and protests against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, are “hating” something that is “central to who I am and what I stand for.”

“There’s more poison in the rhetoric than we’ve ever felt before,” the Times quotes Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of Hillel at UCLA, saying.

The article fails to note that Seidler-Feller is himself a major purveyor of poisonous rhetoric. In 2014, for instance, Seidler-Feller accused Omar Barghouti, a prominent Palestinian BDS campaigner, of giving a speech resembling “the anti-Semitic propaganda of 1930s” Nazi Germany.

Stanford University professor David Palumbo-Liu says the headline on the Times article can be seen as “race-baiting.”

“Weird question”

Safwan Ibrahim, an undergraduate student at UCLA, spoke to Jennifer Medina by telephone in mid-April, after the Times reporter emailed the campus Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) group.

“She asked me questions about divestment, about the campus climate, but not actual questions about the workings of the divestment tactic and why we’re doing it,” Ibrahim told The Electronic Intifada. “She just wanted to know what I thought about people saying it was anti-Semitic. She kept asking about Jewish students feeling unsafe.”

Ibrahim says he told Medina that he could speak to her about the experience of Palestinians on campus and the harassment that Palestine solidarity activists have faced from off-campus groups. He mentioned flyers that recently appeared on several campuses depicting images of executions and calling SJP “Jew haters.”

It later emerged that the person behind the flyers was David Horowitz, a key player in the Islamophobia industry who is also notorious for vitriolic hate speech against Palestinians and African Americans.

Ibrahim said it was unsettling how passive the university administration had been about the flyers and the atmosphere of intimidation they created for students like himself on campus.

But, according to Ibrahim, The New York Times’ Medina did not appear very interested, and asked to be put in touch with someone with no “ancestral ties” to the region.

Medina also spoke with Agatha Palma, another SJP at UCLA member and a doctoral student in anthropology. Palma described a similar experience.

“I’d expected to hear questions about divestment, but she didn’t ask about that,” Palma said. “She just wanted to hear about anti-Semitism and wanted to try to dig to see if there’s any information that we’re hiding from the public as SJP.”

Palma says Medina then asked her a “weird question.”

“She asked me if there was anything as an organization that we believe in and tell our members not to say publicly,” Palma recalled.

“If there were, why would I tell her? But there isn’t,” Palma said. “Everything we believe, we say publicly; it’s very carefully laid out in our positions and our constitution.”

Jewish “litmus test”

An even more troubling interaction occurred between Times reporter Ronnie Cohen and David McCleary, a Jewish member of SJP at the University of California at Berkeley.

He spoke to Cohen for more than an hour, phone records seen by The Electronic Intifada show, after the Times had contacted SJP specifically asking to speak to Jewish members.

McCleary also provided copies of text messages between him and Cohen.

“We talked about everything – why as a Jew I was supporting BDS, why this wasn’t singling out Israel, all the standard questions, but there were all these weird questions about my Judaism,” McCleary told The Electronic Intifada. He said he felt like he was being subjected to a “Jewish litmus test.”

According McCleary, Cohen asserted that his name “didn’t sound Jewish.” Cohen also asked him if he had had a Bar Mitzvah – the Jewish ritual for adolescent boys.

“I had to explain that Judaism goes through the mother,” McCleary recalled. “I went to Jewish Sunday school growing up. I’m about as Jewish as you get.”

But the question McCleary found even more disturbing is when Cohen asked him: “Do you look Jewish?”

In an exchange of text messages after the conversation, McCleary told Cohen that her “questioning of my Jewish identity was deeply troubling.”

“I am sorry,” Cohen responded.

Minimizing Jewish role

The text messages seen by The Electronic Intifada also show Cohen apparently trying to shape McCleary’s statements to minimize the role of Jewish students in SJP. The exchange begins with a message from Cohen asking the student if he is “the only Jew in SJP.”

“No. I can think of three other active core members off the top of my head, likely more at the general meetings,” McCleary responds.

“One of less than a handful of Jews?” Cohen then asks.

“If you’re trying to find a phrase to minimize Jewish participation I can’t help you,” McCleary shoots back. “There are a disproportionately large number of Jews in SJP based on campus demographics.”

But as far as McCleary is aware, he is the only Jewish SJP member at Berkeley that the Times approached.

McCleary felt that the New York Times article – which did not quote him or any of the other students interviewed for this post – “completely misrepresented my experiences as a Jewish student at Berkeley.”

“In my experience at Berkeley I have never experienced anti-Semitism,” McCleary said. “What I have experienced is being called a terrorist, a Nazi, a kapo – which is the most anti-Semitic thing you can call a Jew – but only by other Jews in opposition to BDS.”

Kapo is the word used to refer to Jews who collaborated in the Nazi extermination camps during the Second World War.

McCleary also spoke about the atmosphere of intimidation provoked by a David Horowitz article published in the campus newspaper The Daily Californian. Horowitz characterized SJP as “Jew-haters,” part of a wave of anti-Semitism “not seen since the 1930s, when Hitler was laying plans for the final solution—the physical extermination of European Jewry.”

But in the end, according to McCleary, none of his concerns were deemed fit to print by the Times.

“It was very clear that what I had to say about BDS and Jews’ relationship to BDS complicated their narrative,” McCleary said. “For them to find out that SJP at UC Berkeley is disproportionately Jewish interferes with that narrative that they are trying to invent.”

Questions from an iPhone

Paul Hadweh, a Palestinian student at UC Berkeley, met with Ronnie Cohen. His experience corroborates that of the other students: that instead of reporting, the Times was attempting to shape a very specific narrative, looking for anti-Semitism where it didn’t exist.

At one point, according to Hadweh, Cohen told him, “I don’t know how to rephrase these questions so I’m going to read out the questions my editors told me to ask.”

She then pulled out her iPhone and read questions that to Hadweh’s recollection included: To what extent is BDS used as a fig leaf for anti-Semitism? Why is it that you are singling out Israel when there are multiple Arab countries that violate human rights and women’s rights?

Hadweh says that in his responses he stressed that the BDS movement was not about Judaism, but about a settler-colonial project and ending the abuses of military occupation. He also stressed that SJP has members of all faiths and backgrounds, including many Jewish students.

That is a message Times reporters heard consistently from the SJP activists they interviewed – and would certainly hear speaking to students in the Palestine solidarity movement across the country.

But it is not a message that fits with the bogus narrative of Jews on campus besieged by “angry brown and Black students,” as UCLA’s Agatha Palma put it.

The experience has left a dirty feeling that Times reporters attempted to manipulate these students, and when their words didn’t fit a preordained story, their voices were excluded altogether.

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Comments

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Hey, you got that right!

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That's actually not that ridiculous of a question! I come from Ukraine, and my family definitely stood out as Jews there because of their facial features! This visual identification was used to discriminate against them many a time! Therefore, Cohen's question is not necessarily out of line. If the person she was interviewing is not visibly Jewish, they may be less of a target for anti-semitism, which is what she was trying to ascertain during the interview.

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It certainly is a ridiculous question considering that Judaism is a religion, not an ethnicity. Russian Jews, Arab Jews (Sephardim), Western European Jews (Ashkenazis), Ethiopian Jews (Falasha)...do not share genetic lineage and look nothing alike. There is no genetic code for Jewish.

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I don't know where you are getting your information from, but we do look alike... Look at a typical Ashkenazi Jew, a random Ethiopian, and a Palestinian, and the resemblance will stand out ;-)
While there are a number of different studies on Jewish genealogy, many have found that Jews (including Ashkenazim) do have DNA that's distinctive from non-Jewish neighbors.
One view: http://www.livescience.com/221...

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While subpopulations within a society will share genetic and physical features, this does not carry over to others in different societies who happen to share the religion of said subpopulation. Again, there is no Jewish genetic code, which means that Jews of the world do not look alike, even if Jews in a particular society share more features due to social preferences for marriage and reproduction.

Further, I am aware of the genetic studies that have been conducted over time - nearly all of them in an effort to prove common genetic lineage originating in Palestine. While there is some disagreement across studies, a few things stand with strong evidence:

1. As I said, there is no genetic code for Jewishness
2. Ashkenazis are genetically closer to Europeans than to Sephardim Jews, who are genetically closer to non-Jewish Arabs (including Palestinians)
3. A large proportion of the Ashkenazi genetic pool originated from approximately 11 European mothers. This was determined from mitochondrial DNA, which is passed exclusively from the maternal lineage
4. Paternal lineage of Ashkenazi Jews shows genetic derivation from the Middle East, although not as strongly as Sephardic Jews or Palestinians.
5. Falasha Jews are genetically closer to non-Jewish Ethiopians and share little of the variable haplotypes with Jews from Europe or the Middle East.

Biology aside, the notion that Jews "look alike" or are separate from their native society was considered anti-Semitic before it became politically advantageous for Jewishness to be considered a racial or ethnic identity. Regardless of where anyone stands on this issue, it's the right of all peoples to self-identify as they see themselves. But sometimes that can fly in the face of realities and can have profound implications on others. So, when Jews of the world claim to be one race with a homeland in Palestine, despite biology, reason or history, it affects the native non-Jewish Palestinians quite profoundly.

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It's only in the last several decades that it has become "politically advantageous" to be Jewish. For centuries, being Jewish meant discrimination and less access to schooling, employment and residential options for many Jews (primarily in Eastern Europe). I have no idea what the sources of your conceptions of Jewish origins are, but you seem very motivated to make sure that they fit your narrative of disowning the Jews from any connection to Palestine.

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you just perverted what I said and made it fit your narrative. I said no such thing, at any point, that it was "politically advantageous to be Jewish". Rather, the term "politically advantageous" was used in the context of Jewishness being defined as a single ethnic or racial identity that encompasses Jews from vastly different ethnic, cultural, and racial backgrounds. There is a tremendous difference and I don't like being quoted out of turn or context.

I also never said that there is no Jewish connection to Palestine. There certainly is, as there is Jewish connection to Egypt, Iraq, Iran and the whole of the Middle East. However, for Jews not native to the region (native in the historic, cultural, ethnic sense; or, in other words, in the sense that Palestinians are native) the connection is tenuous beyond the religious connection, which is shared by all the Abrahamic faiths. Having a religious connection does not make one a native of the land in the same way that Catholics from Venezuela are not native to Italy simply because they have a strong connection to the Vatican.

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Ridiculous to compare Catholics in Venezuela and their connection to Vatican with Jews and their connection to Israel. Catholics do not originate from one specific region. There were conversions across the world, that's how it spread. But I guess you can't find another way to discredit the Jewish link to Israel so you aim for false comparisons.

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you're claiming that all Jews descend from from a small population in Palestine 3000 years ago. Most sane people realize utter fantasy of such a claim, but I just gave you scientific forensic evidence to the contrary, and you're still clinging to your thesis. What's worse, is that a whole colonial movement (one that is bringing white Europeans and Americans to replace the indigenous population that has been living there for hundreds, if not thousands, of years) is propelled by this nonsense and you think it's perfectly fine. I'll leave it to readers of this thread to make up their own minds.

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What exactly is 'looking Jewish' though, when you can be a white, black or brown Jew; tall, short, thin, fat, varying facial features?

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In some Slavic countries (Russia & Ukraine for example) Jewish people did look distinct from the Slavic population. What did they look like? Not that different from Palestinians actually, but slightly lighter I would say. When we came to America in the 1990s, my mom passed for an Italian. But in Ukraine, she would have never been able to conceal that she was a Jew. It wasn't just the long nose or dark hair... I don't know enough about physiognomy to identify the particulars, but there is a distinctness to my parents features... In America, where there is so much more diversity of features than in Ukraine, that distinctness has become less pronounced. Here we are just "white." Nevertheless, I can identify the "semitic" look amongst Jews, Palestinians, some Arabs, and many Ethiopians.
Moreover, in America being Jewish does become "just a religion." In Russia/Ukraine, and for centuries in Eastern Europe, being Jewish was an ethnicity - with distinct customs, language, and laws applied to Jews. During the time of the Soviet Union, Jewish people were explicitly marked "Jew" on their documents, whereas Russians were marked "Russian" and so on for the other nationalities. Only the Roma and some indigenous Arctic groups were also labeled by their non-national name. This was not just a formality, but came from a centuries-long system in which these groups did not belong to the mainstream, whether by personal choice or policy.
Thus for me- even though I was a kid when I moved to New York, Judaism is an ethnicity, not a religion.

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This is an excellent investigative article so closely on the heels of that awful NYT piece. Way to call them out!

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Thanks for this great piece.

I just wrote to Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the NYT to ask her to investigate and comment on the information in this article. I urge others to do the same. Her address is:
public@nytimes.com

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Back in March, according to Lawrence Davidson, "Natalie Charney, student president of the UCLA chapter of Hillel who complained that this was all the result of an “overall climate of targeting Israel” that has led to the “targeting of Jewish students.” "

Natalie Charney is portrayed in the Times article as just another Jewish student. Of course they cherry picked the students to interview and filtered the responses!

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This is a text-book example of bad journalism that will likely be taught in journalist schools in the future for both historical reasons related to the ongoing biases at the Times and as an example of how not to research and write a story on a complicated issue that is highly politicized. One can only hope enough pressure is put on the NYT's public editor for her to investigate and hopefully criticize the reporters and editors involved. It's a sad commentary on how useless the NYT remains on anything having to do with the Middle East, never mind Israel.

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All of us prefer to be considered VICTIMS and get sympathy. So we define
ourselves as poor Jewish "victims".

What is "driving a wedge" is not anti-Semitism at all but the brutal oppression
of a settler colonist and powerful collection called Zionists which has claimed
that it is "Jewish", speaks for all Jews, acts for all Jews. It murders, rapes , steals, massacres, appropriates land etc. all the name of Jews everywhere and for all time.

This despicable group has the support of the US (Executive and Legislative).

I don't want to hear specious arguments about "anti-Semitism" while Israel
continues its barbaric oppressions. Should the murdered say "Thank you,O Israel!"
with their dying breaths? All peoples deserve the human dignity of anger.

---Peter Loeb, Boston, MA USA

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.