Where is the outcry?

The New York Times reports on soccer team Beitar Jerusalem’s recruitment of two Muslim players — who aren’t even Arab; they’re from Chechnya — and the reaction of racist fans:

The team, Beitar Jerusalem, has long been linked to Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party, and for 15 years has been notorious for racism and violence, including an incident last spring in which fans stormed a local mall chanting “Death to Arabs” and beat up several Arab employees. Founded in 1936, it is the only one of Israel’s professional soccer teams never to have recruited an Arab player.

The current controversy concerns the team’s addition of two Muslim players from Chechnya. Although one is injured, the other is expected to play for the first time in a match on Sunday against a team from Sakhnin, an Arab-Israeli town.

In anticipation of the Muslim players’ arrival, some fans unfurled a banner at the team’s Jan. 26 game saying “Beitar Pure Forever.” Some critics said the banner was reminiscent of Nazi Germany’s expulsion of Jews from sport, and it led to nationwide soul-searching.

The greatest irony?

“We cannot accept such racist behavior,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “The Jewish people, who suffered excommunications and expulsions, need to represent a light unto the nations.”

There has long been a double standard in the American media in which blatant Israeli racism towards Arabs and Muslims is largely ignored — or, at best, excused as an outlier — while even the slightest hint of negative sentiments towards Israel — even if motivated primarily by political considerations — is reflexively excoriated as anti-Semitic.

Take, for example, the recent brouhaha at Brooklyn College, where a predictable uproar was fortunately insufficient to prevent the institution from holding an event featuring speakers who support Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (B.D.S.) policies relating to Israel. Following the event, Brooklyn College professor Corey Robin blogged about a previous speaker at the school:

In March 2011, David Horowitz spoke at Brooklyn College. Someone yesterday brought to my attention this report from the event. A few highlights:

Given this context, it was all the more disturbing last night when I looked across the crowd and saw tears run down the face of a member of the Palestine Club as Horowitz said to the group of mostly nodding heads, “All through history people have been oppressed but no people has done what the Palestinians have done—no people has shown itself so morally sick as the Palestinians have.”

Horowitz, who admitted he had actually never even been to Israel, proceeded to give everyone a lesson in Middle East politics: according to him, Muslims in the Middle East are “Islamic Nazi’s” who “want to kill Jews, that’s their agenda.” He added later, “all Muslim associations are fronts for the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The most revealing moment came when a young Arab-American woman directed a question to Horowitz and the audience: “You talk about Muslims as if you know them—We have a Muslim American Society, we have a Palestine Club [on campus]. I want to raise the question to any of the Jews in this room, and students, have you guys ever been threatened by a Muslim on campus or an Arab?” To this, the crowd almost unanimously spun around in their seats to face the young woman and replied “yes.” Someone shouted, “and we’re scared when we see Muslims on buses and airplanes too.”

Horowitz encouraged anti-Muslim hate by telling the crowd, “no other people have sunk so low as the Palestinians have and yet everybody is afraid to say this,” claiming that Muslims are a “protected species in this country” and that he’s “wait[ing] for the day when the good Muslims step forward.”

As Robin then asked:

First, how is it that the comments of Horowitz can be so easily admitted into the mansion of “the open exchange of ideas” while the comments of Butler and Barghouti [who spoke at the recent BDS event] seem to threaten the very foundation of that edifice?

It’s a good question, but not one we’re likely to see answered by traditional media establishments any time soon.

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Returning the favor to Bibi

Alan Berger thinks President Obama should pay Israel a visit just ahead of the nation’s January 22 elections:

A politician is expected to reward friends and punish whoever dares to cross him. So Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s barely veiled backing for Mitt Romney not only bent the unwritten rule requiring Israeli leaders to preserve a posture of immaculate neutrality in US elections; it meant that Obama owes the Israeli pol some sort of payback.

If Obama’s past performances can be taken as a reliable guide, there is little chance he would retaliate against Netanyahu by meddling in the Israeli election scheduled for Jan. 22. But he should. Not for the petty motive of settling scores with Netanyahu, but to safeguard the true long-term interests of Israelis, Americans, and all the peoples of the Middle East…

Considering that a new party to the right of Netanyahu’s Likud is polling 12 to 14 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, that Likud’s own list is now dominated by radicals impatient with democratic restraint, and that Israel’s centrist and left-leaning parties seem to be in steep decline, an Obama speech could hardly be expected to enable someone other than Netanyahu to form the next government. In Israel’s parliamentary system, however, the shape and disposition of a government is often determined in the bargaining, balancing, and bribing with ministerial portfolios that go under the rubric of forming a coalition. And the right sort of speech from Obama could have a crucial effect on the post-election process of deal-making.

The coming fight over Chuck Hagel

CNN reports, encouragingly, that at least some prominent Republicans and Democrats are rushing to his defense against the shameless Israel lobby and others:

In one of its letters the group said, “We write to you, Mr. President, in support of Senator Hagel because we believe our polarized political life is much in need of leaders with the kind of bipartisanship and independence of conscience and mind that Chuck Hagel’s service to our country has exemplified.”

Among its notable members are Former National Security Advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, Former Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci, Former Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering, Former Sens. David Boren, Nancy Kassebaum-Baker and Gary Hart.

To help get its message out the Bipartisan Group in the last few weeks approached the Podesta Group, one of Washington’s leading lobbying and public relations firms, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. Some of the members have been doing television interviews as well to help defend Hagel and his record.

The criticism of Hagel before there is even a formal nomination “is not acceptable” and “unseemly,” according to this source and that is the motivation for the actions by these notable foreign policy veterans – “to show he has a record” and to defend it, this source added. “Premature judging…is unfair.”

Meanwhile, Joe Coscarelli predicts that the fireworks are just getting started:

If you were under the impression that he had already been chosen based on the beating he’s taking in the press — for not loving Israel enough, for calling someone “aggressively gay,” for being the Republican he is and was — then just wait until after the weekend. Then the actual fun begins, although at least Hagel will have the White House really defending him.

The official line today, according to NBC, is that “chatter” about Hagel as Obama’s final decision is “premature,” but the White House did admit he’s a “leading contender.” Other options to replace Leon Panetta after the sinking of Susan Rice included deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Pentagon Under Secretary Michele Flournoy.

But detractors have already aimed squarely at Hagel, as laid out by Foreign Policy:

That campaign has included anonymous Senate aides calling Hagel an anti-Semite, the Washington Post editorial board writing that “Chuck Hagel is not the right choice for defense secretary,” and the Emergency Committee for Israel, which counts among its board members Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristolrunning a television ad criticizing Hagel’s opposition to unilateral sanctions against Iran. “For secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel is not a responsible option,” the ad claims.

A visit from the boss in Gaza

Khaled Meshal made his first visit to the Gaza Strip today as the head of Hamas:

For Mr. Meshal, 56, it was a triumphant visit, and Hamas fighters, armed with rifles and wearing balaclavas, lined the streets where he was to travel. He entered from Egypt, through the Rafah crossing, an indication of a new alliance with Cairo.

“Gaza, with its martyrs, cannot be described in words,” he said as he arrived here, with tears in his eyes. “There are no words to describe Gaza, to describe the heroes, the martyrs, the blood, the mothers who lost their sons.

“I say I return to Gaza even if I never have been here. It has always been in my heart.”

Mr. Meshal’s visit resonated on multiple levels, reflecting the many changes that have swept the region since the Arab Spring. Mr. Meshal was permitted to cross the Egyptian border now that allies of the Muslim Brotherhood — a cousin of Hamas — have come to power. But it also reflected at least a symbolic effort to heal divisions within Hamas between Mr. Meshal and the leadership in Gaza, and for Hamas to promote its contention that it was victorious in its recent battle with Israel. Mr. Meshal fled the West Bank with his family after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and had never returned to Palestinian territory. In 1997, when he was in Amman, Jordan, agents from the Israeli intelligence service, posing as Canadian tourists, tried to kill him by injecting him with poison. The agents were captured by Jordanian authorities, and Mr. Meshal lay in a coma until the agents handed over the antidote.

Color me ignorant, but it seems bizarre to me that Meshal can navigate around Gaza so freely and openly just weeks after the conclusion of fighting precipitated by an unexpected Israeli air strike on a senior Hamas operative, Ahmed Jabari. The fact that Jabari was apparently a somewhat key contact of Israel’s makes Meshal’s very public visit all the more striking.

Israel has, quite obviously, not always been above attempted assassinations of Meshal (as evidenced by its failed 1997 attempt), so it’s interesting to guess exactly what’s preventing it from taking the easy shot now. Obviously, there would be international repercussions of some sort. But given the recent overwhelming vote (over Israel’s strong objections) to award Palestine nonmember observer state status at the United Nations, it’s not particularly clear that Israel cares much about its increasing isolation anyway.

So what is preventing Israel from assassinating Meshal? If the entire reason for its restraint is the recent truce negotiated by Egypt, then perhaps there really is some baseline level of trust between senior Israeli and Hamas officials. After all, it seems unlikely Meshal would risk appearing in public in Gaza if he didn’t have utter certainty that he wouldn’t be targeted.

Irony of the day

Today’s New York Times reports on Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to expand settlements by building 3,000 new housing units in the Palestinian land known as E1 (just east of Jerusalem proper). But the way reporter Isabel Kershner concluded the article suggests a certain wry sensibility about Israel’s endless self-delusion:

But beyond the tit-for-tat measures set off by the United Nations vote, analysts pointed to a trend of deteriorating relations between Israel and Europe in particular.

“That is because the top-level people making decisions here in recent years are completely insular and out of touch with the rest of the world, especially regarding the Palestinians and the settlements,” said Mark Heller, a foreign-policy analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “Self-righteousness may be good for domestic politics,” he said, but it is not a policy.”

At the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, 138 nations voted in favor of upgrading the status of the Palestinians and 41 abstained. The nine that voted against it were Israel, the United States, Canada, the Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Panama and Palau.

Yes, Mr. Heller, key decision-makers in the 138 countries that voted in favor of Palestinian observer status at the United Nations are out of touch with the “rest of the world,” by which he means the nine countries that voted no. At this point, Israeli rhetoric has entered a self-parodic stage.

Netanyahu’s free ride

Gershom Gorenberg urges the United States to take a harsher stance towards Israel’s settlement expansion:

American opposition to settlement would matter only if an Israeli government felt that it was paying a direct cost in support from Washington, or an indirect cost in political support at home. Only rarely, though, has settlement caused enough tension between Washington and Jerusalem to become politically significant in Israel. The clearest example was when the first President Bush linked loan guarantees to a settlement freeze and turned relations with the U.S. into a major campaign issue in Israel’s 1992 election.

As measured by actions, American policy has otherwise been acquiescence. The lesson to Israelis—politicians and voters—is that American objections are not to be taken very seriously…

Whatever administration officials actually intend, this is the way Israeli voters are hearing them: Bibi is still king in Washington, and pays no price for intransigence. Less than two months before the Israeli election, this is indeed counterproductive.

Meanwhile, A.B. Yehoshua argues against labeling Hamas a “terrorist” group:

The time has come to stop calling Hamas a terrorist organization and define it as an enemy. The inflationary use of the term “terror,” of which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is particularly fond, impedes Israel’s ability to reach a long-term agreement with this bitter enemy. Today Hamas controls the territory; it has an army, governmental institutions and broadcasting stations. It is even recognized by many states in the world. An organization that has a state is an enemy, not a terror organization.

Is this just semantics? No, because with an enemy one can talk and reach agreements, whereas with a “terror organization” talking is meaningless and there is no hope for reaching accord. It is therefore urgent to legitimize, in principle, the effort to reach some sort of direct agreement with Hamas. That’s because the Palestinians are our neighbors and will be forever. They are our close neighbors, and if we don’t reach a reasonable separation agreement with them, we will inevitably lead ourselves down the path to a bi-national state, which will be worse and more dangerous for both sides. That’s why an agreement with Hamas is important not only for the sake of bringing quiet to the border with Gaza, but also in order to create the basis for establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The hardest job in the world?

That may be slightly hyperbolic, but the New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief will always have his/her work cut out for him/her. And then shredded to pieces, castigated, and masticated ad nauseum. (Even just recently, I have also covered various unsavory aspects of the Times’ coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.)

In this regard, then, criticism of Jodi Rudoren is no different than the intense scrutiny faced by her predecessors (a line that most recently included Ethan Bronner, whose son served in the Israel Defense Forces). She got off to a rocky start earlier this year by doing things as downright treasonous as linking (via retweet) to a Hezbollah-friendly Lebanese news site and acknowledging the existence of Electronic Intifada founder Ali Abuminah, also in a tweet. (It should come as no surprise to anyone that Atlantic columnist Jeffrey Goldberg found all of this very upsetting.)

Well, she’s back in hot water again. As part of an otherwise very admirable step into social media (especially for an employee of an “old-fashioned” media institution), Rudoren posted the following commentary on her Facebook page on November 19, during the recent Israeli strikes in Gaza:

In terms of Sarah Sanchez’s q about effects on civilians, the strange thing is that while death and destruction is far more severe in Gaza than in Israel, it seems like Israelis are almost more traumatized. The Gazans have a deep culture of resistance and aspiration to martyrdom, they’re used to it from Cast Lead and other conflicts, and they have such limited lives than in many ways they have less to lose. Both sides seem intensely proud of their military “achievements” — Israel killing Jabari and taking out so many Fajr 5s, Hamas reaching TA and Jeru. And I’ve been surprised that when I talk to people who just lost a relative, or who are gathering belongings from a bombed-out house, they seem a bit ho-hum.

It was this last word — “ho-hum” — that sparked an avalanche of criticism. This flood of responses included one from Philip Weiss, founder of Mondoweiss.net and a fierce critic of Israeli government policies towards the Palestinians. He posted an article extensively analyzing Rudoren’s “ho-hum” comment, as well as previous statements she’s made, and concluded the following:

Rudoren was posted to Israel last June with her family, and we have a couple of times now…commented that she seems culturally bound inside the Israeli experience. These observations in the Facebook shtetl support that view.

When, to her credit, Rudoren linked to Weiss’ column — calling it an “incredibly unfair analysis of my Facebook posts, taking everything out of context to support his agenda” — many of her Facebook subscribers took to her comments section to air their perspectives, including me:

I hate to say it, but “they seem a bit ho-hum” is something you would never see printed in the NYT — or anywhere else — about Israelis/Jews. I’m not even saying it was deliberate bias, but just that certain narratives become reinforced through sheer force of habit and complacency. That was irresponsible phrasing.

Others voiced similar concerns. (The response was not unanimously of one mind, however. Several commenters registered disgust for Philip Weiss, for example.) The next morning in Gaza, Rudoren again — to her credit once more — took to Facebook to explain herself:

My feeling is that my posts on social media have to adhere to the same fairness standards as my work in the NYT itself, but not to the same tone or content standards as I try to bring a bit of reflection/behind the news. So while people are right that I would absolutely never use a term like ho-hum in the newspaper in this situation, I might well use a different word, and probably many more of them, to describe what I have experienced as a kind of numbness and, frankly, strength in the face of all that is happened to the people here. Steadfast probably would have been a much better choice.

I did not at all mean to imply that people were indifferent to the suffering, or uncaring, or unfeeling — they are passionate about their cause, deeply connected to the land being destroyed, with incredibly close extended families loved and honored above all else. What I meant was that their reaction to the literal things that had been happening this week was (mostly) outwardly calm, even, stoic. There is little panic and little public display of emotion (whether sadness or anger) that you might see in other cultures. Talking to people has made me think this is a mix of resignation, routine and resistance, along with a religious viewpoint that views death in this context as a sacrifice, of course, but also a worthy one.

Whether or not Rudoren’s elaboration was entirely honest is certainly debatable. But whatever its degree of veracity, it appears that such off-the-cuff statements will no longer be forthcoming from the freshman Jerusalem bureau chief. Today, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan (who yesterday also tackled the allegedly “Orwellian” captioning of a Gaza photograph that appeared in the newspaper) took Rudoren to task for her social media commentary:

Now The Times is taking steps to make sure that Ms. Rudoren’s further social media efforts go more smoothly. The foreign editor, Joseph Kahn, is assigning an editor on the foreign desk in New York to work closely with Ms. Rudoren on her social media posts.

The idea is to capitalize on the promise of social media’s engagement with readers while not exposing The Times to a reporter’s unfiltered and unedited thoughts.

Given the spotlight that the Jerusalem bureau chief is bound to attract, and Ms. Rudoren’s self-acknowledged missteps, this was a necessary step.

The alternative would be to say, “Let’s forget about social media and just write stories.” As The Times fights for survival in the digital age, that alternative was not a good one.

Some would argue, however, that this nebulous middle ground is the worst position of all. The Times stakes a large part of its reputation on the lofty notion that its reporting is utterly devoid of bias, an idea that implicitly extends to the reporters themselves. Of course, it is impossible to be utterly devoid of opinions and biases developed through experience, research, or otherwise (also known as “living”).

As this inherent contradiction — practiced far and wide by mainstream media establishments — is subjected to increasingly incisive scrutiny by the likes of Jay Rosen and others, some organizations (especially those being distributed primarily via the Internet) have taken to disclosing political leanings and other relevant information upfront, and allowing readers to decide for themselves whether the reporting is worthwhile.

But in the case of Rudoren, it appears the New York Times is doing neither: now that it is no longer able to plausibly deny the existence of a functioning analytical brain inside its Jerusalem bureau chief’s head, it has decided to censor her, instead of embracing the newfound transparency of her possible innate biases. In fact, Rudoren’s critic, Philip Weiss, is among the frustrated:

Count me an unhappy reader. I like the transparency of social media, I like to know about reporters’ biases. The Rudoren moment showed us that even reporters for the most prestigious journals are real people with real responses, for better or worse; and I believe that Rudoren’s apprehensions about Palestinian culture are widely shared in the US establishment (indeed, I have admitted my own apprehensions re Islam). In the unfolding of the story, we got to see Rudoren, who is a smart, tough, thoughtful person, respond and evolve before our eyes. Now the Times, worried about its authority being diminished, needs to pull the curtain.

Chimes in Pamela Olson: No more unfiltered thoughts from Mrs. Rudoren– it probably would have happened sooner or later anyway, but it’s a pity.  It was a fascinating look into the mind of an establishment journalist just getting her feet wet, unconscious biases and all, revealing things that are supposed to be kept well hidden.  It’s always fun to watch the newbies– reporters, politicians, thinktankers– slowly learn the various orthodoxies they must adhere to.

Fellow blogger, friend, and Middle East obsessive Max Marder is on the same page:

For many, Rudoren’s social media activity has provided a refreshing peak into the way she covers her beat. She should not be criticized for talking to, or sympathizing with, actors on the fringes of the Israeli-Palestinian political spectrum as long as her reporting remains unbiased. The Times decision to attach an editor to her desk to supervise her social media use will prevent its readership from gaining insight into its reporter’s true feelings.

This decision sets a dangerous precedent. In journalism and in social media, as in politics writ large, censorship has been delegitimized and transparency is the ideal. The Times should know better.

Noted Israel critic Glenn Greenwald expressed similar concerns:

The reality is that all human beings – even including journalists – see the world through a subjective prism, and it is impossible to completely divorce one’s assumptions and biases and cultural and political beliefs from one’s observations and “reporting”. It is far better to know a journalists’ biases than to conceal them or pretend they do not exist. Having a window into what Sullivan calls “the unfiltered and unedited thoughts” of journalists is of crucial value in knowing that these biases exist and in knowing what they are – which is precisely why the New York Times acted so quickly to slam that window shut.

Me? I’m a bit conflicted. The New York Times‘ solution feels excessively heavy-handed and, worse, effectively eliminates any incentive for someone like me to bother following Jodi Rudoren’s Facebook and Twitter feeds anymore. At the same time, even if Rudoren’s reporting itself appears to be at least superficially neutral, her troubling Facebook comments leave an open question as to whether she is truly approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with an open mind. (Given her predecessor Ethan Bronner’s own familial entanglement, it can surely be said that the Times has followed a somewhat risky path in its Jerusalem appointments.)

I’m still willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. As Max Marder has pointed out (both in his post and in conversation with me), when it comes to this particular conflict, it is often difficult to distinguish bias on the part of the Times from one’s own political stance on the subject. Whatever mistakes Rudoren may have made so far, it seems likely that we’ve now lost an interesting source of first impressions from a newcomer to the region, thanks to the (understandable) skittishness of her employer.

Palestine’s United Nations bid

Fatima Ayub explains the factors that will decide how European countries vote tomorrow, when Palestine’s request to become a United Nations non-member observer state is officially voted upon:

As much as possible, the European Union tries to project a common position at the U.N., but often fails when it comes to resolutions involving Israel and Palestine (the vote on the Goldstone Report resolution in 2010 was a notable moment). Though the 2011 statehood bid was never put to a vote at the Security Council, European members were expected to vote against it there. But in the subsequent vote where the PA sought and received membership to UNESCO in October 2011, the European vote was significantly split. Eleven countries (Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Slovenia and Spain) voted yes, another eleven abstained (Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and the United Kingdom) and five voted no (Czech Republic, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Sweden).

This year’s resolution, despite being something of an anticlimax, has prompted much handwringing and mixed messaging from European governments. Denmark, France, Spain Norway and Switzerland (the latter two are not EU member states) have declared their support. It’s reasonable to expect that the states who supported the UNESCO bid will also vote yes, with the exception of Belgium who have declared they will abstain. And the Netherlands can be expected to move from the ‘no’ to the ‘yes’ category after a change of government earlier this year. The United Kingdom and Germany were wavering, declaring they would support the resolution with given public assurances that the PA would seek unconditional negotiations with Israel and forego applications to the International Criminal Court. At the time of this writing, the Palestinians have not agreed to condition their bid, which would curtail the meaningful gains of the upgrade, so Germany and the U.K. are at best likely to abstain.

The French think strategically…

…while the United States continues to think anachronistically:

France will vote in favor of the Palestinians’ request to heighten their profile at the United Nations, the French foreign minister told Parliament on Tuesday, embracing a move that Israel and the United States oppose.

The support of France, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, is the most significant boost to date for the Palestinians’ hopes to be granted nonmember observer status and thus greater international recognition. Russia and China, two other permanent members, have also thrown their support behind the Palestinian bid.

The French support appeared calculated to strengthen the position of the Palestinian Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah party governs the West Bank, after fighting with Israel in the Gaza Strip this month that left Hamas, the Islamic militant organization that oversees Gaza, ascendant.

For too many years, the American approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been incoherent. We want democratic elections, but then we decry the results and call the winners a terrorist organization. We want fewer terror attacks, but then support Israel in policies that only strengthen the hand of those same people we call terrorists. What do we want, exactly?