New York Times “debate” on Palestinian refugees leaves out Palestinian experts

Palestinian schoolgirls class at a school run by UNRWA in Gaza City on 22 January. A New York Times “debate” on the future of the agency for Palestine refugees was notably lacking in Palestinian expertise.

Mohamad Asad APA images

The New York Times recently gave a platform to the head of an organization that thinks it is acceptable to deprive children of basic needs in order to pressure Palestinian leaders to cede rights.

This fits with the newspaper’s continued failure to give fair coverage to Palestinians, and especially the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

Asaf Romirowsky works as executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), a group that operates on campuses as part of Israel lobby efforts to thwart the growing Palestine solidarity movement.

Romirowsky is a former Israeli army officer and fellow with the Middle East Forum, the organization run by the prominent Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian demagogue Daniel Pipes.

In a 17 January Times article on the Trump administration’s slashing of the US contribution to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, David M. Halbfinger characterized Romirowsky’s position as being that “freezing the agency’s money could be a good step if it forced Israel and the Palestinians to the table.”

By contrast, the humanitarian agency has said that the cut has precipitated “the worst financial crisis in UNRWA’s history,” putting the futures of half a million children at stake.

UNRWA provides healthcare, education and other basic humanitarian support to more than five million Palestinian refugees in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Half of the two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip depend on emergency food aid provided by UNRWA.

So what Romirowsky is advocating, in the name of an allegedly scholarly organization, is that stripping some of the most vulnerable people in the world of food, healthcare and schools could be a good thing.

That is open advocacy of human rights abuses on a massive scale.

But Romirowsky reveals that his real agenda is not restarting negotiations that could lead to any kind of just outcome: “The endgame from a political standpoint has to be about fully ending refugee status and ending the right of return.”

In other words, Romirowsky supports the permanent ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

Vilification

Elsewhere, Romirowsky has vilified the American Friends Service Committee, the Quaker human rights organization whose members were recently barred by Israel from territory it controls.

The century-old AFSC won the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize in part for its work rescuing Jews from the Nazis during World War II. It also stood with African Americans in the struggle against segregation in the American South.

Yet merely because it extends its universal commitment to human rights to Palestinians, Romirowsky has charged that AFSC “has gone from trying to save Jews to vilifying them.” He has urged Jewish parents to reconsider sending their children to Quaker schools.

Romirowsky has also attacked other human rights defenders blacklisted by Israel, including Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, which he calls “odious.”

Yet in the Times, Romirowsky’s views are framed as a legitimate position within a sober “debate.”

Halbfinger provides a list of complaints anti-Palestinian groups routinely lob at UNRWA, including that “its schools inculcate hostility to Israel or even breed terrorists.”

Yet he fails to note that Israeli accusations against UNRWA have been repeatedly debunked.

The kind of fact-checking that is now so fashionable when it comes to false statements by President Donald Trump is still seldom found regarding Israeli claims.

Leaving out Palestinians

It’s not just that Halbfinger provides a platform for anti-Palestinian propagandists like Romirowsky and Einat Wilf, a former Israeli lawmaker whom he quotes accusing UNRWA of being “devoted to the Palestinian agenda of erasing Israel.”

It’s that the Times once again excludes Palestinian experts. True, two Palestinian refugees are quoted – one in Gaza “huddled beneath a flimsy nylon-and-sheet-metal roof” and another “outside a falafel shop at the Shatila camp in Beirut” – and they do raise powerful concerns, but all voices of authority and expertise are non-Palestinians.

Even one of the “defenders” of UNRWA that Halbfinger quotes is an Israeli politician, Yossi Beilin – an opponent of Palestinian refugee rights.

The headline of the article presages a “debate on [the] Palestinian refugee agency,” but it is a conversation in which Palestinian experts are silenced.

Halbfinger’s report also misstated history, referring to “approximately 700,000 Palestinians who fled the wars in 1948 and 1967.”

In fact some 750,000 Palestinians fled “or were expelled from their homes” – words Halbfinger’s article does use elsewhere – during the 1948 Nakba alone.

Approximately 300,000 more Palestinians were displaced in 1967.

Following an inquiry from The Electronic Intifada, the newspaper did issue a correction acknowledging that “an earlier version of this article misstated the total number of Palestinian refugees who fled wars in 1948 and 1967. It was about one million, not 700,000.”

The Times issued a similar correction in 2010.

Distorting BDS

And in an 18 January Times article on a key Senate committee’s approval of Kenneth Marcus as head of the US education department’s civil rights division, Erica L. Green misrepresents the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

Marcus is a former board member of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and headed an organization that filed a series of failed complaints to the civil rights office he will likely lead, claiming that universities were failing to protect Jewish students because they were not cracking down on Palestine solidarity activism.

Green claims that on “campus after campus” the BDS movement “has driven a wedge between Jewish students and students of color, challenging university administrations and straining the traditional bonds between Jews and other minorities.”

Another journalist might well have written that students – and off-campus Israel lobby groups – who reject equal rights for Palestinians are the ones driving the wedge.

Green fails to describe the goals of the BDS movement in its own terms: implementing international law by ending Israeli occupation and colonization, securing equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel and guaranteeing the rights of Palestinian refugees.

Instead, she labels it the “anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.”

It is difficult to imagine the Times describing, say, Romirowsky as “anti-Palestinian” even when that is clearly the case.

And while she refers repeatedly to Marcus’ accusations of anti-Semitism, Green fails to note that the Palestinian leadership of the BDS movement has strongly denounced all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism.

Such misrepresentations and omissions about BDS remain common in US media.

Green denies readers another piece of critical information: the Senate committee voted 12-11 to confirm Marcus – on strict party lines.

This may be evidence that Democratic leaders are responding to a party base that increasingly disapproves of Israel’s denial of Palestinian freedom and rights.

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The self proclaimed "paper of record" has been a corporate and imperialist mouthpiece since its inception. Nothing has changed.

It stays in operation because it still serves a useful purpose, even in the days of the internet, for its patrons. For most of the rest of us it makes good fish wrap.

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There was one owner/publisher of the NYT who rejected Zionism. He was Jewish and his name was Adlolph S. Ochs, its first owner/publisher.
Along with several other eminent American Jews (e.g., Henry Morgenthau Sr., former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey; Simon Rosendale, ex-Attorney General of New York; and E.M. Baker, President of the Stock Exchange) he feared that Zionist influence at the peace 1919 Paris Peace Conference might lay the foundation for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine which they opposed. The petitioners warned against any commitment "now or in the future to Jewish territorial sovereignty in Palestine"

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The NY Times has always been a ''Big Business Rag." Can not help if the goals and bottom line of the corporation have grown or altered along with their rapaciousness, sights and bellies. The Times has reflected those changes.

The question one might ask, if old Adolph were living today would his views on Zionism be the same?

Unless one considers David Gruen the Messiah, the Messiah has not yet arrived. Zionism is not a product of Rabbinic Judaism, it is a tool/device/weapon in the arsenal of criminal imperialism.

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No doubt much earlier than this, but as far back as Edward Said's monitoring of the world press during the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s ("Covering Islam"), the NYT has never seen itself as, or acted like, an investigative news agency dedicated to reporting the truth about events in the Middle East. And its most egregious mendacity is its coverage of Palestine. It's not going to change.

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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.