A New York Times reporter and photographer get into a car. They travel across one of the world’s happiest countries — and find only anger, alienation and regret.
If that sounds like a joke, it’s because New York Times coverage of Israel has descended into farce. Indeed, last week’s front-page story by Jerusalem bureau chief Patrick Kingsley, which promised to help readers “discover what it means to be Israeli today,” is a comical caricature of the paper’s own biases, exposing much more about the New York Times than about the country it is supposedly covering.
To understand why, it helps to first understand a couple of facts about that country: Israel has consistently ranked at the top of measures of global happiness. The 2021 World Happiness Report, for example, found Israelis to be among the happiest in the world and ranked Israel as the 12th happiest out of 149 countries over the past three years.
In other words, if you were to ask random Israelis to “think of a ladder, with the best possible life for them being a 10, and the worst possible life being a 0,” then ask them to “rate their own current lives on that 0 to 10 scale,” chances are you’d find them saying that they are living close to the best possible life. That’s what pollsters found.
According to other polling, by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, more than 88 percent of Israelis, including 76 percent of the country’s Arab citizens, were satisfied with their lives.
Nearly two in five said they were “very” satisfied.
It was this country that Kingsley set out to explore, meandering from the northern border to the southern tip over 10 days to “discover” Israelis and duly report back to readers of the New York Times.
And here’s what he reported back:
•The first person he encountered, an elderly kibbutznik, is “bothered” by the country. His father, readers are told, is also disappointed. Or he would be, if he were to come back to life and survey the country he helped build. “If he took a look,” the kibbutznik speculated, “he’d say a single sentence: ‘This wasn’t the child we prayed for.’ And then he’d return to his grave.”
•The next person profiled “question[s] his connection to Israel.” He and his fellow haredim might appreciate the security the country provided, but are “ambivalent” about the state, with some rejecting its very legitimacy and others merely “bristling” at the government, the Times reported.
•The third person, an Arab in Haifa, is “alienated.” She insists that her city, which is in Israel and not the West Bank, is nonetheless “occupied” land. “It’s not Israel,” she said. “It’s Palestine.”
•The fourth, a Mizrahi Jew, “feels left behind by today’s Israel.” She points to “evidence of Israel’s persistent discrimination against Jews of Middle Eastern origin.” Her parting words to readers: “Everyone treats us like garbage.”
•The Russian Jew readers are next introduced to also recounts being stereotyped and excluded by Israelis. But at least the newspaper in this case allowed itself to share some optimism. “She hopes the synthesis [of Russian and Mizrahi culture] can help mold Israel society back into a melting pot, instead of a mosaic of competing tribes,” reports Kingsley. In the parting words the journalist selected for her, though, we are reminded that it is an angry optimism. “We are Israelis, and your culture is my culture,” she scolds her compatriots. “Stop dividing people into Russians, Americans, French people, Mizrahi — stop! We are Israelis.”
•The sixth Israeli introduced — a self-described “ambivalent settler” — is the first person we meet who doesn’t discuss grievances with the country. Instead, it seems her role for the Times is to show that even moderate Israelis are antagonistic to Palestinians. She and others like her “support equality for Palestinians,” Kingsley reports, before adding: “At least in theory.” (What she means by both “Palestinians” and “equality” is left unclear. More on that later.)
•The seventh Israeli Kingsley profiled is an Ethiopian Jew, who we’re told is frequently arrested, disproportionately prosecuted, isolated, alienated, scrutinized, detained and opposed to the system.
•Next, readers are introduced to Bedouin living in Israel’s Negev desert, and are told, yet again, of Israeli “oppression.”
•At the final stop on the newspaper’s tour, readers get a reprise of their first stop: Another elderly Israeli Jew insists the earlier generation would be “disappointed” in the country. And yet, finally, at the end of a 260-mile trip, we meet someone described as “happy.” Even this, though, is made to fit with the newspaper’s cynical narrative of Israel. He is happy, Kingsley speculates, because of his indifference to whether the country should exist. “We can be part of any country,” he said. “We can be part of Israel. We can be part of Israel-Palestine.”
This is not a holistic reflection of Israel. It is not, as promised, a discovery of “what it means to be Israeli today.” Rather, like the parable of the blind men and an elephant, it is a microscopic exploration of extremes that misses the bigger picture and misinforms.
There is little or no sense given that anyone in Israel is living their best possible life, World Happiness Report be damned. Nor is there a hint of the widespread contentment found by pollsters.
Far from it.
Even compared to a more subdued survey finding — according to one recent poll, 52 percent of Israelis felt personally optimistic — there is a sharp, glaring divergence. To travel through a country where even half the residents are optimistic and encounter so many whose accounts are pessimistic is like flipping a coin and coming up tails. And then again tails. And then again tails. And then again tails. And then again tails. Something would seem off about that coin.
Also curious is that among the six Jewish Israelis the Times chose to profile, readers are introduced to three immigrants and another Jew with suspiciously accented Hebrew. Which is to say, half or more are immigrants — a strange way to reflect a country in which 79 percent of Jews are native-born. This decision contributes to the fog of alienation and estrangement with which the newspaper seems intent on shrouding the country’s Jews.
Readers are also told of two people who say Israel isn’t legitimate. Another raises questions about the country’s legitimacy. Another rails against the “system.”
The possibility of replacing Israel with a new country encompassing both Israel and Palestinian-ruled territories repeatedly pops up — in Haifa, Tekoa and Eilat — although it is an idea that, off the pages of the New York Times, is broadly understood to mean the gerrymandering away of the world’s only Jewish-majority country, and which consequently holds very little currency among the average Israeli.
It isn’t only the residents painted in bleak colors. In villages, farms take a back seat to quarries. Israeli cities are “shabby,” or “tired,” or once “dour” but now “garish.” Neighborhoods are “rundown.”
Everything Jewish, we’re told, is new, and built upon or alongside ruins of something Arab. By contrast, Jewish history in the Jews’ ancestral homeland is treated as entirely recent. The Galilee — understood as “the center of Jewish life in late antiquity” — is dotted with the ruins of synagogues, but the Times tour guides tell readers only of a former Palestinian village.
The 1948 flight of Palestinians from Haifa and from a former village within Tel Aviv’s municipal borders is likewise noted, but not the flight, expulsion, or massacre of Jews from Migdal Eder or Kfar Etzion, near Tekoa, in 1929, 1936 and 1948. The displacement of Palestinians in 1948 is certainly relevant to the conflict, but so is the historical rootedness of Jews to the land, and so are Palestinian attacks against Jewish communities long before any occupation and before even the birth of the state. To repeatedly cite the former while ignoring the latter on a tour seems designed to cast Jews as outsiders and oppressors, feels less like good-faith reporting and more like advocacy for a particular narrative.
And, indeed, the Palestinian narrative somehow saturates the journalist’s account of the Israeli experience. The occupation is highlighted twice in the first nine paragraphs of Kingsley’s 5,000-word feature, which spans well over 100 paragraphs. But the words “terror” or “attack” or “bomb” don’t appear even once, as if Palestinian terrorism has done nothing to shape Israel or the views of its residents. The Palestinian accusation of apartheid appears. But rampant anti-Semitism in the West Bank, Gaza, or elsewhere in the Arab world is invisible.
A dark cartoon
So goes the Times’ account of Israel: A story of the country as an “unwanted” child, an “unsolvable” puzzle of “incompatible” factions burdened by “grievances” and “consequences.” And that’s only in the first seven paragraphs.
Then there are the “underlying tensions and inequities,” “divisions,” “unrest,” “fury,” “ambivalence,” “illegitimacy,” “alienation,” “injustice,” with a history of “discrimination,” “bias,” “ethnic abuse,” greed, misfortune, “slums” where people are treated like “garbage,” ethnic jokes, stereotypes, illegality, distrust, “apartheid,” “anger,” “crimes,” lack of belonging, “police violence,” “demolitions,” “oppression” and “disappointment,” a land of “shabby,” “tired,” “dour,” “garish” towns, where coexistence is a “deception.”
And finally, a happy non-Zionist to show us where the problem lies.
This is a cartoon. And whatever thoughtful insights Kingsley offers are buried in this avalanche of cartoonish negativity. Yes, societies all have some darkness, not least one forced into decades of conflict and war. One would expect an appropriate share of the above adjectives in an honest exploration of any country. Israelis will certainly recognize some of the themes Kingsley dwells on.
But this is over the top. In a country whose history of conflict makes all the more remarkable its resilience, vibrancy and happiness, the New York Times, whose reputation of anti-Israel advocacy has grown in recent years, bends itself out of shape to curate discontent. It isn’t following where the Israeli roads leads, letting chance encounters eventually paint an accurate picture. Rather, it’s flipping a two-headed coin to get the intended result.
The cheating is apparent to those familiar with the country. It looks desperate. The desperation is clumsy. And the clumsiness is funny.
But it’s also sad because a newspaper’s reporting isn’t meant to be funny. So the joke is on readers.
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