Tackling a thorny issue for much of the Jewish community, the editorial page editor of The New York Times disputed frequent allegations that his newspaper is biased against Israel.
“Why do people think the Times hates Israel?” asked Rabbi Clifford Kulwin, as Andrew Rosenthal stood at the bima of his synagogue, Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston.
“Because we have an honest disagreement with Bibi Netanyahu’s policies on Iran and the settlements,” Rosenthal answered.
That question and answer came during an Oct. 15 talk on foreign affairs and the upcoming presidential election, delivered to an audience of about 100 people.
Rosenthal followed up with a personal refection.
“I was raised by an Irish Catholic mother and a father who was bar mitzva’d on his 70th birthday,” he said. “I am a Jew, an American Jew, and Israel is part of my heritage, and I come from it with a very deep, gut-level feeling….”
But, he added, “I do not believe that means I have to be constantly or even frequently or even sometimes supportive of the current government of Israel when I think they are not in Israel’s best interests.”
Yet criticisms of the Times’ coverage of Israel in its news stories and on its editorial pages have persisted for years. One recent storm of protest happened after the November 2011 publication of an op-ed column by Sarah Schulman, a professor of humanities at the College of Staten Island.
Schulman wrote of the notion of “pink-washing,” which she called “a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life.”
One angry response came from David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “Schulman, of course, is entitled to her views, however outlandish they may be,” he wrote in rebuttal. “But why the Times opted to publish them is another matter entirely.”
In an interview prior to his speech, Rosenthal told NJ Jewish News: “To say The New York Times newsroom hates Israel is just completely ridiculous. There is not the slightest grain of truth to that. The problem with dispassionate news coverage of a subject like Israel is that nobody accepts a newspaper’s dispassionate position. If you try to walk a line in the middle and report on what is going on and reach conclusions based on reporting and observation, you are viewed as taking sides,” he said.
As far as its editorials and op-ed columns are concerned, Rosenthal insisted they “are not supposed to be fair. They are supposed to be opinionated. We are supporters of Israel as a country and most often tend to default to the positions Israel takes, with two gigantic exceptions. One is the settlements — and I know that is a big deal. The other is the endless bellicose nonsense about Iran. I just reject this because not every Israeli is salivating to have a war with Iran,” he told the gathering.
When a woman in the audience suggested the Times should be more supportive of the government of Israel because of the Palestinian viewpoint that Israel should not exist, Rosenthal said, “If that were the only issue I would say ‘yes.’ But I don’t think that is the only issue. I think the Israelis have a legitimate complaint, that they don’t have a strong-minded partner, that they are still struggling against governments that believe they never should have existed or believe they should be eradicated.”
However, he added, “I’m not sure that it’s the attitude of the current Palestinian leadership…. It is a reasonable point, and I think we tend to criticize Israel because we think of them as family at the Thanksgiving table.”
Taking a look at the presidential elections, the editor called Barack Obama “the sleeping president” after his performance during his first debate with GOP opponent Mitt Romney.
He criticized Romney for “deliberate misrepresentation of Obama,” and the president for not answering his Republican rival’s attacks. “The person who should have responded was Barack Obama,” said Rosenthal. “I don’t know about you, but I just sat there. I was just stunned.”
Looking at America’s political climate, the editor said, “This has to be the most substance-free campaign I have ever covered — the nastiest, the meanest, with the most propaganda,” adding that such propaganda comes “more from the right than the left.”
Rosenthal charged that “the bedrock of the Republican campaign strategy is if you can divide the electorate on gut-level issues and get them to vote with their emotions, you can win. It doesn’t ultimately matter what you say.”
Troubled that “there is no center, there is no moderation, there is no conversation, in the political system,” Rosenthal said that “the Republicans have kept pushing farther and farther away from what we all used to consider some form of the center in this country.”
“They are so anti-abortion they may not be willing to make exceptions for women who have become pregnant because they have been raped by their fathers.”
“I think there is a strong element of racial politics in our country right now,” he said. “It is hard to imagine Obama would be vilified the way he is, and the freedom with which people use race in politics I don’t think would exist obviously if the president was not of mixed race.”