No journalist would consider it appropriate to be even-handed in describing the murder of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of several million in Darfur, but moral equivalence has become the mantra for reporting on Israel.
This is seen in daily coverage, where territory is "occupied" rather than "disputed," or those who attack restaurants and buses are "militants," not "terrorists."
Usually, journalists are careful to disavow their own preconceived notions, in order to avoid accusations of bias. Occasionally, however, readers get a chance to see a correspondent's personal views. Such was the case with an April 16 travel-section feature by Steven Erlanger, chief of The New York Times Jerusalem bureau. His description of the political status of the religious city is the first clue to how Erlanger sees this conflict.
In his more than 2,800-word report, Erlanger mentions twice that Jerusalem was King David's ancient capital, and once that Jerusalem was "where some once thought a Palestinian state might have its capital." Not even once, however, does he note Jerusalem as the capital of the modern State of Israel. Can anyone imagine such an omission by a foreign correspondent writing a guide for visitors to Washington?
Blink of an Eye
Eastern Jerusalem is characterized as "annexed." Erlanger fails to note that the 19-year division into an Arab East and a mixed West (Jews and Arabs lived side by side in Israel, while no Jews remained in the Jordanian-occupied parts of the city between 1948 and 1967) was little more than the blink of an eye in the 3,000-year history of the city.
Erlanger omits suggesting a visit to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, where Jews lived until they were killed or chased out during the War of Independence. The dramatic rebuilding and subsequent repopulation of Jerusalem's heavily damaged Jewish quarter would be a "must-see" if writing about a city like Philadelphia or New Orleans.
By contrast, "checkpoint" appears five times, and "barrier" six. And Erlanger urges a visit to the Qalandiya checkpoint – the "most telling glimpse" he says he can offer of this "modern city of struggle," and it is "open 24/7."
Does the Times' travel section similarly urge tourists not to miss night court in Harlem?
Erlanger claims to "try to see the barrier from both the Palestinian and Israeli points of view," but then goes on to list all of the reasons why Palestinians hate it, but none of the reasons Israelis believe it has been a lifesaver. Erlanger attributes a recent reduction in violence to "a long truce with Palestinian militants," rather than to defensive measures, like the checkpoints and barriers he repeatedly disparages.
Erlanger also repeats the debunked charge that the second intifada was triggered by a visit by Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount – one his "favorite places" in Jerusalem – finding not even a whiff of bigotry in the fact that non-Muslims may not enter without permission. Likewise, he notes that Palestinians are enraged by a foundation that encourages Jews to move to eastern Jerusalem, ignoring the underlying racism their fury reflects, which just last month resulted in the murder of an Arab for having sold property to a Jew.
Pandering to moral equivalence, Erlanger speaks of recent events, such as "the formation of a Palestinian government by Hamas, the election of an Israeli government committed to a new West Bank pullout," oblivious to the stark difference that Israelis voted for a party that pledges to compromise for peace, while Palestinians elected one that vows never to compromise with Israel.
Describing Israel's invasion of the West Bank in 2002 due to a surge in suicide bombings, Erlanger wrote, "As I rushed from the siege of Bethlehem to a suicide bombing near Tel Aviv, I thought, 'these people are nuts.' "
In his mind, those responding to terror and those causing it have taken equal leave of their senses.
This column was written for the Israel Advocacy Task Force of the Israel Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.