NY Times’ Jerusalem property makes it protagonist in Palestine conflict

A photo from an Israeli mapping website shows the Qatamon house where Ghada Karmi grew up. The original house was only the ground floor. The two upper levels, bought by The New York Times in 1984, were built around the late 1970s.

During an appearance at Vassar College in early February, controversial New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner was asked about the ongoing evictions of Palestinian families from homes in East Jerusalem which Israel occupied in 1967. Israeli courts have ruled that Jewish settlers could take over some Palestinian homes on the grounds that Jews held title to the properties before Israel was established in 1948.

Bronner was concerned, but not only about Palestinians being made homeless in Israel’s relentless drive to Judaize their city; he was also worried about properties in his West Jerusalem neighborhood, including the building he lives in, partially owned by The New York Times, that was the home of Palestinians made refugees in 1948. Facts about The New York Times’ acquisition of this property are revealed for the first time in this article.

“One of the things that is most worrying not just the Left but a lot of people in Israel about this decision is if the courts in Israel are going to start recognizing property ownership from before the State [of Israel was founded],” Bronner said according to a transcript made by independent reporter Philip Weiss who maintains the blog Mondoweiss.net.

Bronner added, “I think the Palestinians are going to have a fairly big case. I for example live in West Jerusalem. My entire neighborhood was Palestinian before 1948.”

The New York Times-owned property Bronner occupies in the prestigious Qatamon neighborhood, was once the home of Hasan Karmi, a distinguished BBC Arabic Service broadcaster and scholar (1905-2007). Karmi was forced to flee with his family in 1948 as Zionist militias occupied western Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods. His was one of an estimated 10,000 Palestinian homes in West Jerusalem that Jews took over that year.

The New York Times bought the property in 1984 in a transaction overseen by columnist Thomas Friedman who was then just beginning his four-year term as Jerusalem bureau chief.

Hasan Karmi’s daughter, Ghada, a physician and well-known author who lives in the United Kingdom, discovered that The New York Times was in – or rather on top of – her childhood home in 2005, when she was working temporarily in Ramallah. One day Karmi received a call from Steven Erlanger, then The New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief, who had just read her 2002 memoir In Search of Fatima.

Karmi recalled in a 15 May 2008 interview on Democracy Now! that Erlanger told her, “I have read your marvelous memoir, and, do you know, I think I’m living above your old house … From the description in your book it must be the same place” (“Conversation with Palestinian Writer and Doctor Ghada Karmi”).

At Erlanger’s invitation, Karmi visited, but did not find the elegant one-story stone house her family had moved into in 1938, that was typical of the homes middle- and upper-class Arabs began to build in Jerusalem suburbs like Qatamon, Talbiya, Baqa, Romema or Lifta toward the end of the 19th century. The original house was still there, but at some point after 1948 two upper stories had been built.

Erlanger, responding to questions posed by The Electronic Intifada via email, described the residence as “built over the Karmi family house – on its air rights, if you like. The [New York Times] is not in [the Karmi] house.” Erlanger described the building as having an “unbroken” facade but that it consisted of “two residences, two ownerships, two heating systems,” and a separate entrance for the upper levels reached via an external staircase on the side.

Questions The Electronic Intifada sent to Thomas Friedman about the purchase of the property were answered by David E. McCraw, Vice President and Assistant General Counsel for the newspaper, who wrote that the original Karmi house itself “was never owned even partly by The Times. The Times purchased in the 1980s a portion of the building that had been constructed above it in the late 1970s.” The purchase was made from “a Canadian family that had bought them from the original builders of the apartment.”

McCraw acknowledged in a follow-up conversation that as a general principle of property law, the “air rights” of a property – the right to build on top of it or use (and access) the space above it – belong to the owner of the ground.

Exiled from Qatamon

Ghada Karmi standing by the front door of her childhood home in Jerusalem’s Qatamon neighborhood in 2005. (Steven Erlanger)

Hasan Karmi hailed originally from Tulkarem, in what is now the northern West Bank. In 1938, he moved his family to Jerusalem to take up a job in the education department of the British-run Palestine Mandate government. Ghada – born around November 1939 (the exact date is unknown because her birth certificate along with all the family’s records, photographs, furniture, personal possessions and an extensive library were lost with the house) – has vivid memories of a happy childhood in what was a well-to-do mixed neighborhood of Arab Christians and Muslims, foreigners and a few Jewish families. The neighbors with whom her parents socialized and with whose children the young Ghada and her siblings played included the Tubbeh, Jouzeh, Wahbeh and Khayyat families. There was also a Jewish family called Kramer, whose father belonged to the Haganah, the Zionist militia that became the Israeli army after May 1948.

Karmi describes the house at length in her memoir – but she told The Electronic Intifada her fondest memories were of the tree-filled garden where she spent much time playing with her brother and sister and the family dog Rex. The lemon and olive trees she remembers are still there, Erlanger noted to The Electronic Intifada.

In the mid-1940s, the lively Qatamon social life gave way to terror as the dark clouds of what would come to be known as the Nakba approached. Violence broke out all over Jerusalem after the UN’s devastating recommendation to partition Palestine without giving its people any say in the matter. Spontaneous riots by Arabs were followed by organized violence from Zionist groups and mutual retaliatory attacks that claimed lives from both communities. This climate provided the pretext for the Haganah’s premeditated campaign to seize Jerusalem.

Poorly armed and disorganized Arab irregulars, who had nevertheless succeeded in disrupting Zionist supply convoys to Jerusalem, proved no match for highly-trained and well-armed Zionist militias which, on the orders of David Ben-Gurion, began a well-planned campaign to conquer the western parts of the city. The occupation of western Jerusalem and some 40 villages in its vicinity was executed as part of the Haganah’s “Plan Dalet.” These events are well documented in books including Benny Morris’ The birth of the Palestinian refugee problem, 1947-1949 (1987), Walid Khalidi’s (ed.) All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948 (1992), Salim Tamari’s (ed.) Jerusalem 1948: The Arab Neighborhoods and their Fate in the War (1999) and Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006).

Zionist militias used frequent bombings of Arab civilians to terrorize residents into fleeing. These attacks were amplified by posters and warnings broadcast over loudspeakers that those choosing to remain behind would share the fate of those killed in atrocities.

Karmi wrote that one night in November 1947, their neighbor Kramer came to see her father and said, “I have come to tell you at some risk to myself to take your family and leave Jerusalem as soon as possible …. Please believe me, it is not safe here.” Many Qatamon families left after the Zionist bombing of the nearby Semiramis Hotel, which killed 26 civilians including the Spanish consul-general, on the night of 4-5 January 1948.

The Karmis however held on, and Ghada records in her memoir her mother steadfastly saying, “The Jews are not going to drive me out of my house … Others may go if they like, but we’re not giving in.”

Toward the end of April, bombardment by Zionist militias against virtually undefended Arab areas became so heavy, and the terror generated by the Deir Yassin massacre earlier that month so intense, that the Karmis relented and departed by taxi for Damascus, via Amman, with nothing but a few clothes. Their intention was to bring the children to safety at their maternal grandparents’ house while the adults would return home to Jerusalem. A few days after reaching Damascus the elder Karmis tried to return to Jerusalem but were unable to do so. So began the family’s exile that continues to this day.

As Arabs left their homes, Jews were moved in by the Haganah. “While the cleansing of Qatamon went on,” Itzhak Levy, the head of Haganah intelligence in Jerusalem recalled, “pillage and robbery began. Soldiers and citizens took part in it. They broke into the houses and took from them furniture, clothing, electric equipment and food” (quoted in Pappe, p.99). Meron Benvenisti, an Israeli scholar and former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, wrote in his book Sacred Landscape of personally witnessing the “looting of Arab homes in Qatamon” as a boy. Palestinians also lost art work, financial instruments and – like the Karmis – irreplaceable family records, as the fabric of a society and a way of life were destroyed.

Jerusalem return denied

The Karmis’ story is a variation of what happened to tens of thousands of Jerusalem-area Palestinians during the Nakba, in which approximately 750,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled from their homes all over the country and never allowed to return. (In my book One Country I describe the departure under similar circumstances of my mother’s family from Lifta-Romema.)

As of 1997, there were 84,000 living West Jerusalem refugees (23,000 born before 1948), according to Tamari. Half lived in the West Bank, many just miles from their original homes, but thousands of others were spread across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Gaza Strip.

Arab property is well-documented through administrative and UN records, but tracing the fate of an individual house or proving title is extremely difficult if not impossible for Palestinians scattered, exiled and forbidden from returning home. Some, who have foreign passports that allowed them to make brief visits, have attempted to locate their family properties. In recent years a small Israeli group called Zochrot (Remembering) has even joined in – taking some displaced Palestinians back to their original villages and homes, whose traces Israel often made deliberate efforts to conceal or destroy. But such activities are not welcomed by most Israeli Jews still in denial about their state’s genesis.

Ghada Karmi recalls an earlier attempt to revisit her family home in 1998. The residents were unwelcoming and would not give her the phone number of the landlord, though a plaque outside bore the name “Ben-Porat.”

The owner of the original, lower-level house at the time The New York Times bought the upper levels was Yoram Ben-Porat, an economics professor who became president of the Hebrew University and was killed with his wife and young son in a road accident in October 1992. According to Erlanger, the house remained with heirs from the Ben-Porat family who rented it out until it was sold in 2005 to an Israeli couple who did some remodeling. It is unknown when the Ben-Porats acquired the house or if they were the ones who had the upper levels built.

During Karmi’s 2005 visit, Erlanger invited her to see his part of the house and introduced her to the Israeli tenants in the lower level who gave her free access while Erlanger took photographs. For Karmi, revisiting the house was disconcerting. She described to The Electronic Intifada its occupants as “Ashkenazi Jewish Israelis, liberals, nice people who wanted to be nice.” She felt like asking them, “how can you live here knowing this is an Arab house, knowing this was once owned by Arabs, what goes through your mind?” But, she explained, “in the way people have of not wanting to upset people who appear to be nice, I didn’t say anything.”

The New York Times

In the early years after their original residents left, many of the former Arab neighborhoods were run down. But in the 1970s, wealthier Israeli Jews began to gentrify them and acquiring an old Arab house became a status symbol. Today, Israeli real estate agencies list even small apartments in Qatamon for hundreds of thousands of dollars or more, and house prices can run into the millions. In Jerusalem, such homes have become popular especially with wealthy American Jews, according to Pappe. The New York Times did not disclose what it paid for the Qatamon property.

It was a curious decision for The New York Times to have purchased part of what must obviously have been property with – at the very least – a political, moral and legal cloud over its title. Asked whether The New York Times or Friedman had made any effort to learn the history of the property, the newspaper responded, “Neither The Times nor Mr. Friedman knew who owned the original ground floor prior to 1948.”

As Friedman prepared to make the move to Jerusalem from Beirut where he was covering the Lebanon war in the early 1980s, The Times hired an Israeli real estate agent to help him locate a home. According to McCraw, Friedman’s wife Ann went ahead to Jerusalem and looked at properties “and she, working with the agent, made the selection for The Times.” During the process Friedman visited Jerusalem and looked at properties as well, a fact he mentions in his book From Beirut to Jerusalem. By the time the property was selected, Friedman had moved permanently to Jerusalem and oversaw the closing.

The choice of the Qatamon property – over several modern apartments that the real estate agent also showed – makes The New York Times a protagonist and interested party in one of the most difficult aspects of the Palestine conflict: the property and refugee rights of Palestinians that Israel has adamantly denied. It also raises interesting questions about what such choices have on news coverage – with which the newspaper itself has had to grapple.

In 2002, an Electronic Intifada article partly attributed the pervasive underreporting of Israeli violence against Palestinians to “a structural geographic bias” – the fact that “most US news organizations who have reporters on the ground base them in Tel Aviv or west Jerusalem, very far from the places where Palestinians are being killed and bombarded on a daily basis” ( Michael Brown and Ali Abunimah, “Killings of dozens once again called ‘period of calm’ by US media, 20 September 2002).

In 2005, The New York Times’ then Public Editor Daniel Okrent echoed this criticism, writing:

The Times, like virtually every American news organization, maintains its bureau in West Jerusalem. Its reporters and their families shop in the same markets, walk the same streets and sit in the same cafes that have long been at risk of terrorist attack. Some advocates of the Palestinian cause call this ‘structural geographic bias.’” (“The Hottest Button: How The Times Covers Israel and Palestine,” 24 April 2005).

Okrent recommended that in order to broaden the view of the newspaper’s reporters, it should locate a correspondent in Ramallah or Gaza – where she or he would share the daily experiences, concerns and risks of Palestinians. This advice went unheeded, just as Executive Editor Bill Keller recently publicly rejected the advice of the current public editor that current Jerusalem Bureau Chief Ethan Bronner should be reassigned because of the conflict of interest created by Bronner’s son’s voluntary enlistment in the Israeli army.

Thus, in a sense, Bronner’s structural and personal identification with Israel has become complete: when the younger Bronner joins army attacks in Gaza, fires tear gas canisters or live bullets at nonviolent demonstrators trying to save their land from confiscation in West Bank villages, or conducts night arrest raids in Ramallah or Nablus – as he may well be ordered to do – his father will root for him, worry about him, perhaps hope that his enemies will fall in place of his son, as any Israeli parent would. And on weekends, the elder Bronner will await his soldier-son’s homecoming to a property whose true heirs live every day, like millions of Palestinians, with the unacknowledged trauma, and enduring injustice of dispossession and exile.

Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.