Despite a practiced guise of objectivity, the US corporate media’s reporting on Israel/Palestine is dominated by the Israeli narrative. An April 16, 2006 feature article by Steven Erlanger, The New York Times’ Jerusalem Bureau Chief, “Jerusalem, Now” in the Times’ Sunday Travel section exemplifies how seemingly professional journalistic standards can mask insidious biases and misinform readers. Erlanger, guided around Jerusalem by Israelis, omits Israeli violence, stereotypes Palestinians, whitewashes Israeli settlements and covers up Israeli efforts to take over East Jerusalem. “Jerusalem, Now” is among the most political and one-sided mainstream US news articles on Israel/Palestine published in the last year.
In “Jerusalem, Now” Erlanger repeatedly notes his effort to remain above the fray - “I try to see it through various lenses”, “I try to see Jerusalem as a place where both armies and souls contend”, “I try to see the barrier from both the Palestinian and the Israeli points of view”, etc..
However, Erlanger simultaneously provides clues that Israeli perspectives will dominate. He notes three times that he was guided around Jerusalem by Israelis whom he quotes and paraphrases - “Avi Ben Hur, the American-turned-Israeli-turned-guide”, “Avner Goren, an archeologist and guide”, “Eilat Mazar, an archaeologist.”
Israelis in Erlanger’s article are human beings holding professional jobs. In contrast, he never even names a single Palestinian. Erlanger’s Palestinians are an undifferentiated mass with “ramshackle” shops on dusty, garbage-strewn streets where they play soccer, and labor. They are enraged and “hate”, “militants” who carry out “suicide bombings”, “riot” and open fire on an Israeli kindergarten, and trudge “through the dust or the mud” at an Israeli checkpoint designed to “prevent a terrorist” attack.
American journalists frequently rely on Israelis to explain Palestinian realities. In Erlanger’s March 19 story, Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher furnishes the article’s misguided thesis that Hamas’ election victory is comparable to the Iranian revolution. Similarly, in Thomas Friedman’s one-sided April 12 Times column, Friedman quotes extensively two Israelis’ opinions of Hamas’ electoral victory, while citing no Palestinian views. Over the past five years, the Times has published 3.4 op-eds by Israeli writers for every op-ed by a Palestinian writer. Over the same period, the top five US newspapers published 2.5 op-eds by Israelis for every op-ed by a Palestinian.
Erlanger’s reliance on Israeli perspectives frames his portrait of Jerusalem. In his second paragraph Erlanger notes - “a narrow moral precipice, running between a military checkpoint and suicide bombing.” His disingenuous moral equation excludes Israeli violence and seizure of Palestinian land. He follows with a misleading proverb characterizing both sides, “We shall struggle for peace so hard that not a tree will be left standing.” But it is Israel that has uprooted over one million Palestinian-owned trees. He then adds another grossly distorted parallel -“I try to see Jerusalem as a place where both armies and souls contend.” But the only army is the well-equipped Israeli army, the fourth largest army in the world. Palestinians have only poorly equipped and barely functioning security forces, and some poorly armed militias.
Erlanger claims, “Today, after a long truce with most Palestinian militants, Jerusalem is calmer… the level of violence is down.” Apparently “calm” refers only to reduced Palestinian attacks on Israeli Jews, because daily Israeli violence against 200,000 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem continues unabated.
Erlanger mentions Palestinian “suicide bombings” three times in the first five paragraphs, and later adds Palestinian shooting at an Israeli kindergarten, and Palestinian “rioting.” He minimizes Israeli violence, noting only “Israeli troops reinvaded the West Bank”, “the siege of Bethlehem”, expropriating land from Palestinians, and “some Jews are plotting to destroy it and Al Aksa mosque.” The near absence of Israeli violence is remarkable since the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem reports that during this five year uprising Israeli soldiers and settlers have killed 3466 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and Palestinians have killed 998 Israelis. During this uprising Israelis have killed five times more children than those killed by Palestinian armed groups.
Israeli soldiers, settlers and police are almost invisible in the article. “Israeli troops” are mentioned once and “Israeli police” materialize once to separate “tussling [Christian] clerics”. Incongruously, Erlanger associates Christian clerics in Jerusalem with more violent words than Israelis. There are “furious intra-Christian battles”, “the Armenians and the Greeks battle”, there is “the war of the doormat, the battling over chairs” and “the struggle for the rooftop.”
Readers might therefore be surprised to witness the Israeli military’s ubiquitous presence and violence in Jerusalem. Israeli soldiers killed sixteen year old bystander Muhammad Ziad in March, 2006 in Jerusalem. Israeli police shot in the back and killed 31 year old Samir Dari in October, 2005. Police frequently assault peaceful Palestinian protesters. Near the Old City’s Damascus Gate, a major tourist thoroughfare, Israeli police regularly detain and beat Palestinians, as they do at other checkpoints. Israeli television viewers recently watched police assault a Hamas parliamentary candidate near Damascus Gate. In one of many cases B’Tselem documented, in November, 2005 police in Jerusalem severely beat taxi-driver Iyad Shamasneh, then released him uncharged.
Erlanger recognizes that “even archaeology is used as a weapon in the struggle over the land.” Yet when writing about archaeological digs in Silwan, he avoids mentioning recent Israeli government efforts to demolish 88 Palestinian homes in Silwan to build a Jewish historical park, a plan staved off for now by diplomatic appeals. The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions recorded the demolition of 94 Palestinian structures in East Jerusalem in 2005. Demolitions are executed with the large-scale presence of Israeli soldiers and police who often use violence against Palestinian civilians.
Erlanger also doesn’t prepare travelers to witness extremist, Uzi-toting Israeli settlers violently expelling Palestinians from their homes throughout East Jerusalem. He omits the burgeoning settler take-over in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, with now over 40 Jewish settlements there.
In fact, Erlanger makes the massive, illegal Israeli settlements and 200,000 settlers in East Jerusalem completely vanish. The words “settler” and “settlements” simply never appear. Instead, he names the settlements of Gilo and Har Homa a “Jewish neighborhood”, and “Israeli neighborhood”.
Not one government has recognized Israel’s 1967 annexation of East Jerusalem. With East Jerusalem under Israeli military occupation, the UN, the International Court of Justice, all major human rights organizations, and all governments clearly state that Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem violate international law. But Erlanger turns illegal Israeli settlements into cozy “neighborhoods”. Even if the Times Travel section claims to avoid politics, by calling settlements “neighborhoods” the Times takes a political stand against international law. The Times specifically chose the Jerusalem Bureau Chief to write about Jerusalem, rather than a travel writer.
Covering up the obvious developments in Jerusalem at this decisive moment is tantamount to taking a strong political position in support of Israeli domination of East Jerusalem. Ironically, this week The Economist outlines those developments in a cover story “The Last Conquest of Jerusalem” noting that “Israel’s plans for Jerusalem will create a large Jewish city but will have harsh consequences for the Palestinians, on both sides of the barrier”.
The massive Israeli construction of the Wall, settlements, checkpoints and roads transforming East Jerusalem are impossible for any observer to miss. Yet Erlanger fails to represent their scale or implications. Commenting on Israel’s Wall, Erlanger only notes that it scars the landscape, and that Palestinians feel it annexes their land and cuts off neighborhoods. He says Jerusalem is built on “struggle and rivalry”, but refuses to state the obvious, that one side has won the struggle.
In stark contrast, The Economist explains, “Jerusalem, centre of pilgrimage, crucible of history and the world’s oldest international melting-pot, is changing hands once more, but with a slow and quiet finality.” An accompanying Economist editorial notes that, “in Jerusalem as a whole Israel’s policy has been to entrench its control and create facts that cannot be reversed. This has entailed reshaping the physical and demographic geography of the city, settling Jews on the Arab side of the pre-1967 border and creating vast Jewish neighbourhoods to the north, east and south… Sealing in and cutting off the Palestinians of Jerusalem will only make another descent into violence more likely.”
In a case of “too little, too late” the Times’ Travel section includes a token secondary article, “In the West Bank Politics and Tourism Remain Bound Together Inextricably” by David Kaufman and Marisa Katz which quotes some Palestinian views on West Bank tourism. But “Jerusalem, Now”, nearly three times longer than Kaufman and Katz’s article, is on the front page of the Travel section and featured on the webpage.
“Jerusalem, Now” reflects either a woeful unconscious bias, striking ignorance, a blatant political agenda, or a combination of all three. By again failing to tell its readers what is happening in Jerusalem, The New York Times has abdicated its journalistic responsibility and is effectively complicit in Israeli violations of international law.