New York Times embraces tactic of segregationist South in Gaza

Bull Connor’s firefighters turn their hoses on civil rights protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, 3 May 1963.

Associated Press

The New York Times, in an editorial earlier this month, endorsed the tactics that notorious segregationist “public safety” commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor employed against African American children in Birmingham, Alabama, during the civil rights movement.

The newspaper in its 11 April editorial rightly asserted, “There has been no apparent reason for Israel to use live ammunition” against the ongoing protests in Gaza that it said in general had been peaceful.

For a newspaper that has long failed to uphold equal rights for Palestinians, there is significant value in its noting that “much of the world has been shockingly mute about what’s happening in Gaza,” under a headline proclaiming, “Israel’s violent response to nonviolent protests.”

Nevertheless, the newspaper self-incriminates in recommending “the use of high-powered fire hoses” against “unarmed civilians,” a tactic which, along with police dogs, horrified many Americans in 1963 and contributed to the slow recognition by white liberals of the racism and human rights abuses occurring at the time in states such as Alabama.

The newspaper is, at the very least, opposing the deadly approach voiced by Israeli general Zvika Fogel just days after the editorial.

Fogel, a reserve officer who was reflecting official policy, justified the orders to Israeli snipers stationed along the boundary with Gaza to shoot dead unarmed civilians, including children.

That puts him on a moral plane akin to the murderers of Emmett Till.

By contrast, The New York Times is endorsing the violence of “law and order” men such as Bull Connor and presenting this as moderation.

The newspaper may see this approach as “liberal” and protective of Palestinian lives, but it remains hostile to Palestinian rights and accepting of violence against those Palestinians seeking to assert their rights.

Why should nonviolent Palestinian demonstrators, including children, seeking to exercise their right of return to homes and lands from which they and their families were expelled 70 years ago be told that Israel has a right to blast away at them with high-powered fire hoses?

The newspaper’s willingness to disregard UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and UN Security Council Resolution 237 – among dozens of others – indicates that it does not take seriously the rights of Palestinian refugees.

Different standards for Alabama and Gaza

There was a time in the civil rights movement when The New York Times stood more firmly on the side of human rights and rejected the intimidation and racism of segregationist leaders from Birmingham with powerful reporting from Harrison E. Salisbury on anti-Black and anti-Jewish violence.

Salisbury’s front-page article on the tense climate in Birmingham in 1960 can be seen on display at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church where members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed and killed four African American girls in September 1963.

Salisbury wrote of Birmingham that “every channel of communication, every medium of mutual interest, every reasoned approach, every inch of middle ground has been fragmented by the emotional dynamite of racism, enforced by the whip, the razor, the gun, the bomb, the torch, the club, the knife, the mob, the police and many branches of the state’s apparatus.”

Of Salisbury it was said he was a “monument to the fine perversity of the reporter in the field who deals in grit, risks life and limb and tilts against orthodoxy.”

Today, in a sad and cruel twist against the rights of Palestinian refugees, his newspaper embraces US government orthodoxy – which rejects the right of return – and recommends one of the tactics that the world found abhorrent when turned by white supremacists against African American children calling for their rights in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park.

Misrepresenting BDS

As for today’s nonviolent tactics against Israel’s actions, Isabel Kershner and Megan Specia on 20 April in The New York Times described “actors, musicians and artists critical of Israel’s actions against Palestinians” and noted hundreds of them “have endorsed the so-called BDS movement, a pro-Palestinian campaign that calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.”

As usual, however, there was not one word explaining that the movement is specifically against Israeli occupation, while supporting equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel and the right of return for Palestinian refugees – all rights endorsed by international law and uncontroversial demands for equality in practically any other contemporary context.

Instead, the very next paragraph provides ample space for BDS opponents to smear the movement:

“The Israeli government and other critics say the boycott movement is anti-Semitic and aims to delegitimize Israel and undermine its right to exist. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the movement wants ‘to see the end of the Jewish state.’”

That’s like going to Alabama in the early 1960s and reporting the civil rights movement is “anti-white” or is calling for the “end of Alabama,” rather than the end of institutionalized racism.

Would that The New York Times could find a modern-day Salisbury willing to “tilt against orthodoxy” and adequately describe a Palestinian movement for freedom and equal rights without consistently giving a greater say to the assailants of Palestinian rights.

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There is a scene in the movie "Exodus" where a beach full of Jewish refugees is under the guns of a large body of British soldiers, who order them to return to their boats. The Jews stand up and refuse to budge. The British are left with a choice: shoot, or let these people illegally enter.

As the senior officer is trying to decide what to do, one of the junior British officers says, "I guess this is where we find out whether we're better than the Nazis or not."

And the officer orders his men to hold their fire. And the scene ends with wild celebration by the Jews on the beach.

Same situation. Same group involved, different role.

Different answer.

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Michael F. Brown

Michael F. Brown is an independent journalist. His work and views have appeared in The International Herald Tribune, TheNation.com, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The News & Observer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Washington Post and elsewhere.