Washington Post cancels Palestine

Protesters hold a map of Palestine

The Washington Post is flagging the word Palestine while The New York Times fails to grapple with Amnesty International’s report on Israeli apartheid.

Axel Heimken DPA

We’ve had an instructive few days in how US media look at Israeli apartheid and Palestine. Too often, they suppress.

For two weeks, The New York Times has failed to say a word about Amnesty International’s report on Israeli apartheid. There’s been no news story and no guest commentary.

This omission from the world section is profoundly disturbing. It points to anti-Palestinian racism at the newspaper being more virulent than I had imagined.

As a college student, I knew I could turn to The New York Times for updates on the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Students today must turn elsewhere for important Palestine-related news. This only hastens the newspaper’s irrelevance and heightens the importance of alternative news sources.

Nevertheless, Danielle Rhoades Ha, vice president for communications at The New York Times, stood up for the newspaper in a Saturday email to The Electronic Intifada.

“We have covered the debate over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, both the accusations by rights groups that Israel practices apartheid as well as with on-the-ground reporting of the underlying conditions that give rise to these arguments. While it is not our practice to cover every report published by NGOs, these issues have been and will continue to be an essential part of our Mideast coverage.”

But it’s not an “essential part” of their coverage if one of the most important human rights reports on Israel’s apartheid practices is simply disregarded. Current self-censorship cannot be excused because of earlier articles she points to.

It’s painful to see a communications professional carrying water for apartheid. Who wants to spend a Saturday afternoon sharing a quote that downplays Israeli apartheid (and ignores questions about anti-Palestinian racism at the newspaper)?

Patrick Kingsley, Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times, did write this interesting sentence over the weekend: “The settlers benefit from a two-tier legal system in which settlers who commit violence are rarely punished, while Palestinian suspects are frequently arrested and prosecuted by military courts.”

Human Rights Watch used very similar language in a 2010 report, “Separate and Unequal: Israel’s Discriminatory Treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”

HRW described “the two-tier system of laws, rules, and services that Israel operates for the two populations in areas in the West Bank under its exclusive control, which provide preferential services, development, and benefits for Jewish settlers while imposing harsh conditions on Palestinians.”

This suggests that Kingsley may be seeking to insert descriptive language about Israel’s apartheid without actually being permitted to use the term. We don’t know for certain because The Times has not yet responded directly.

Rhoades Ha wrote again Monday stating that her comment Saturday “represents the editors’ response.”

Today, Kingsley reported on Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s visit to Bahrain. In his final paragraph, he quoted Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, advocacy director at the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, on the visit.

“This is the most important date in Bahrain’s recent history, when Bahrainis stood up against an autocracy – and 11 years later they have invited the head of an apartheid state.” That is surely a reference to Amnesty’s report which has gone uncited by The New York Times.

Kingsley is not responding to questions from The Electronic Intifada. Consequently, it’s unclear how hard he is pushing for the Amnesty International story – or if he has moved on while trying to tell the story for attentive readers in other ways. Either way, this episode speaks very poorly for the newspaper and its resolve to fully address Israeli apartheid.

Striking Palestine

But it’s not just The Times falling short.

Now, The Washington Post is coming under scrutiny for changing a Democratic Socialists of America reference to the “Palestine solidarity movement” to the “Palestinian territories solidarity movement” as if activists are for Palestinian freedom and equal rights only within the occupied territories and not between the river and the sea.

Olivia Katbi, who organizes with the DSA, asked: “Are they not allowed to say Palestine in The Washington Post?”

A correction soon appeared: “In an earlier version of this story, a reference in a DSA statement was changed from ‘Palestine’ to ‘the Palestinian territories’ because of a technical error.”

Dave Weigel, the author of the article, tweeted his thanks for flagging the quotation. “That quote never should have been altered; it was a copy-editing mistake that got corrected, with a note explaining what happened.”

That elicited guffaws – along with further examples.

Adam Elmahrek, an investigative reporter with the Los Angeles Times, weighed in with pertinent questions of US media: “Are they studying whether it’s time to call Israel an apartheid state … in order to most accurately reflect the reality of the situation?” He added, “That is why we don’t say Palestine, right?”
But Elmahrek doesn’t stop there. He notes that “prohibiting the name Palestine betrays an obvious political bias by the news organization.”

Most damningly, he comments: “It’s a blatant political choice that sides with racist voices who say Palestine doesn’t exist. It betrays our mission to be truthful, honest and to hold the powerful to account.”

He also engaged in a Twitter exchange with Washington Post journalist Vanessa H. Larson, who quickly deleted her tweets and temporarily made her Twitter account private. Larson initially stated that “We have style tools that flag things, but normally nothing should be changed automatically.”

She further claimed: “This stemmed from an autocorrect-type technical error during editing.” This led Elmahrek to ask: “So is Palestine lumped into an autocorrect function that flags obscenities like the F word or the N word?”

Elmahrek’s is not the typical commentary of a mainstream news journalist, but one showing uncharacteristic bravery in questioning “Israel’s dehumanizing regime of systematic domination and settler-colonialism.”

With German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle firing five Arab journalists last week for statements that the network argued “amounted to anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial or Holocaust relativism, as well as statements that denied Israel’s right to exist,” it will be important to keep an eye on Elmahrek’s job security in the days and weeks ahead.

Too frequently, forthright statements like Elmahrek’s that promote freedom and equal rights for Palestinians invariably lead to campaigns calling for consequences for the outspoken.

Elmahrek knows this.

He tweeted his concern last year when the Associated Press dismissed newly hired journalist Emily Wilder in connection to her support for Palestinian rights. She, too, had questioned the exclusion of the word Palestine.

Elmahrek’s concerns about The Washington Post are clearly thoughtful political speech and appropriately critical of a state that has been widely criticized for practicing apartheid by numerous human rights organizations.

The Los Angeles Times, Elmahrek’s employer, itself ran an AP article stating that “Amnesty International and the other groups say the very fragmentation of the territories in which Palestinians live is part of an overall regime of control designed to maintain Jewish hegemony from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.”

Both The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times have come under prior attack by media-policing organization CAMERA for using the word Palestine. Both have issued corrections at the behest of the organization.

Elmahrek is calling typical Palestine policy – and censorship – into question. Long-overdue conversations in American news rooms are needed now. Otherwise, as Elmahrek tweets: “If we can’t ever say Palestine, it gives the impression Palestine doesn’t exist. A fake people from a fake land.”

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who has called Palestinians an “invented people” and castigated them for not more actively succumbing to their own ethnic cleansing, would approve.

Concerns about attacks on Elmahrek are not misplaced. He is on record multiple times supporting equal rights for Palestinians in one state.

That is a possible “violation” of the deeply problematic IHRA definition of anti-Semitism which provides as one example: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

Elmahrek’s tweets indicate he doesn’t support subjecting Palestinians to inferior rights in Israel. He believes Israel practices apartheid, which suggests “a racist endeavor.” Terming this anti-Semitic is absurd, but a path that could be pursued against Elmahrek in the ongoing effort to silence critics of what Israel is doing.

Excising Palestine from the conversation is, of course, not confined to US media. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation apologized in 2020 for using the word Palestine.

Israel’s refusal to leave the West Bank has in many ways backfired by providing time for many to understand that the issue isn’t just the occupation of 1967, but the dispossession in 1948 of some 800,000 Palestinians. Over 70 years of Israeli apartheid are now on the table. This is reflected in the current discussion over Palestine that Elmahrek is promoting.

But there’s a larger point here that shouldn’t be missed. This sort of pushback to excluding mention of Palestine wasn’t really happening 30 years ago and certainly wasn’t getting as much traction. A decade or two from now, one wonders if it will be Elmahrek writing a prominent newspaper’s editorials, including on Palestine.

First, he’ll have to survive the attacks of groups such as media monitor HonestReporting.

An internal political fight is on the way, not merely about free speech rights, but about Palestinian freedom and equal rights and how to get there in a country with congressional leaders who have promoted Israeli apartheid at practically every turn having learned very little from the struggle against Jim Crow segregation and South African apartheid.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will lead a congressional delegation of Democrats to Israel this week, including Ted Deutch, Bill Keating, Ro Khanna, Andy Kim, Barbara Lee, Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell. It would be surprising if a single one of them spoke out against Israeli apartheid during the visit. Progressive except on Palestine is alive and well in the Democratic Party.




No doubt the State Department, like the Canadian government, simply dismissed the report.
So no surprise that a key media organ of the State Department would ignore it.

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.