NYT Article, Conflict of Faith or Conflict of Interest?

NYT Article, Conflict of Faith or Conflict of Interest?

by Gabsy Debinski

I see this weekly update as having a dual purpose. The first; to enhance community members’ understanding and insight into issues they have probably already heard or read about. The second; to inform our community of Israel related issues or commentary they may not necessarily have encountered.

The New York Times is one of the most prominent and widely circulated online and print publications in the world. Whether one agrees with its politics or not, it holds great influence and credence. I’m not sure how many of you read the Times’ articles. Nonetheless, from a global perspective, its contents are important.

An article published last Saturday (15/02/14) in the New York Times Beliefs column titled ‘A conflict of Faith; Devoted to Jewish Observance, but at Odds With Israel’ caught me completely off guard. It was one of the most controversial articles I have seen in the NYT for some time, and considering its recent track record, that is a bold call.

Written by Mark Oppenheimer the piece is about religious Jews who passionately oppose the existence of the State of Israel. He uses five interviewees; an Orthodox trio, one Conservative Jew and one Reconstructionist movement Rabbi, as vehicles through which to explore this theme.I suggest you read the article in full. It is short and will provide relevant context. Also, it will allow you to form your own opinions that may differ from my interpretation.

The first subject is philosophy professor, Charles H. Manekin. The writer touts Manekin’s religious credentials to prove his point that these are people who are serious about Judaism and their faith. Describing him as “an Orthodox Jew who keeps Shabbat, refraining from driving, turning on lights, even riding in elevators on Saturdays” who believes “his orthodox faith calls him to take stands against Israel.”

According to the writer, Manekin, who became an Israeli citizen in the 1980s (confusing much?) denounced “Israel’s excessive reliance on military force, its treatment of Arab citizens and its occupation of the West Bank.”Charles Manekin sees modern day Israel as antithetical to his faith: “As a religious Jew…I am especially disturbed by the daily injustices perpetrated against the Palestinians.”

An article about religious Jews who actively oppose the existence of the State of Israel is one in which it must be acknowledged that the subjects are uncommon. The writer does in fact reference that “for an orthodox Jew in a skullcap” this sort of view “is exceedingly rare.” However, he stops there.The truth is that against the backdrop of the Pew survey of American Jewry conducted last year this is not simply a peripheral view as he makes out, but rather, a statistically irrelevant one.

An article written by Jonathan Tobin in Commentary Magazine explores this further. Tobin says:

“The Pew Research Centre of U.S. Jews published in October reported that 91 percent of Orthodox Jews, 88 percent of Conservative Jews, and even 70 percent of those who identified themselves as Reform Jews are either very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel. That means any discussion about observant Jews who are anti-Zionists is, by definition, one about a very tiny minority.

“But considering that three of the five Jews whose views are featured in the piece seem to fall into the category of Modern Orthodox, of whom 99 percent told Pew they were very or somewhat attached to Israel with one percent saying “not very attached” and zero percent “not at all attached,” the trio constitute a sample of a group that is not merely a minority but one so small that it is statistically insignificant.”

It continues, perhaps hitting the nail on the head:

“Once that is understood, it becomes clear that one of the main failings of the article is not only the fact that its author has no interest in challenging their views but that it fails to put that fact in proper perspective.”

Another interviewee in the article is Daniel Boyarin, who teaches Talmud at the University of California, Berkeley. He believes that “Zionism was always flawed.”

When asked to elaborate on this Boyarin explains; “The very concept of a state defined as being for one people was deeply problematic and inevitably going to lead to a moral and political disaster.”

The fact that the New York Times gave great prominence to such a marginal view says much about the publication’s agenda when it comes to covering Israel. But this realization is not new. Only a few weeks ago The New York Observer published a piece titled; ‘The tyranny and lethargy of the Times Editorial page‘ which critiques the Times’ lack of editorial diversity and narrow scope of idea and opinion. This critique largely focused on the work of columnist, Thomas Friedman, who many of you may recognize for his often one-sided reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Observer article quotes a Times employee who says that “Friedman is the worst. He hasn’t had an original thought in 20 years…he has been wrong about every major issue for 20 years.”

Where the situation gets a little stickier, however, is in Oppenheimer’s look into the historical legitimacy of the Zionist dream for American Jewry. About this he writes:

“Zionism was not always the norm among American Jews…Skepticism toward Zionism used to be common. Before World War II, Reform Jews tended to believe that they had found a home in the United States, and that Zionism could be seen as a form of dual loyalty. Orthodox Jews generally believed, theologically, that a state of Israel would have to wait for the Messiah’s arrival (a view some ultra-Orthodox Jews still hold). In the 1930s and ’40s, the persecution of European Jews turned many American Jews into Zionists. Major organizations, like the American Jewish Committee and Hillel, the Jewish campus group, turned toward political Zionism after the war.”

The article may be correct in asserting that prior to 1948 support for Zionism was not widespread among American Jews. Tobin affirms this himself stating “many Jews, especially those affiliated with “classic” Reform temples, viewed it as a threat to the rights of American Jews to be treated as equal citizens in the United States.”

However, in suggesting that the Jewish State was only offered as reparation for the Holocaust and not because Jews worldwide had a long held desire for a sovereign state in their homeland, the NYT’s article distorts the universal Zionist dream and its historical evolution. Indeed, in this regard the article treads on very delicate territory.

One can still criticize the policies of the Israeli government whilst understanding that Israel has a right to exist and is still very much a safe haven for Jews around the world. These five people fail to acknowledge this, opting instead for a view that contradicts history.

We are no strangers to this anti-Zionist rhetoric, but it is frightening to conceive that this time it’s coming from within.