Mouthpiece for Israel: US Media on HRW Report, Jerusalem
May 05 2021

Editor's Note: This article is part of the Press on Palestine series, an initiative by Palestine Square. It covers the month of April 2021. Press on Palestine highlights bias in mainstream American reporting on Palestinian affairs and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In April, Israeli settlers chanted “Death to Arabs” in the streets of Jerusalem and a new Human Rights Watch report described Israel’s crimes against Palestinians as “crimes of apartheid.” As has been the case, the pro-Israel media did its best to whitewash, downplay, justify, and, in some cases, outright ignore what has been going on in Palestine.

  1. Washington Post and New York Times, Apr. 27, 2021

        Israel is committing the crime of apartheid, new report says by Ishaan Tharoor
        Rights Group Hits Israel With Explosive Charge: Apartheid by Patrick Kingsley

Unable to reject the findings of a leading human rights organization well-respected in liberal circles, the Washington Post and New York Times chose to delegitimize the long-overdue HRW report by reporting almost exclusively on the reactions of those who opposed it. In the Washington Post write-up, Ishaan Tharoor shared responses to the news from just two sources: the Israeli embassy in Washington and the Israel lobby group J Street.

But this paled in comparison to the work of the New York Times’ Patrick Kingsley, whose article on the HRW report almost resembled an official Israeli press release. Kingsley shared reactions to the report from one of Benjamin Netanyahu’s advisors, followed by the Israeli ambassador to Washington, the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the ex-head of Israel’s administration in the West Bank, and the president of a right-wing Israeli think tank. These sources roundly rejected the apartheid label as a “slur,” “anti-Semitic,” and “preposterous”—with only the ex-West Bank administrator saying he was “not sure” if apartheid was the appropriate terminology. Finally, in the article’s 38th and final paragraph, Times readers got to hear from a Palestinian Jerusalemite, who expressed his view that the use of the term apartheid was accurate.

Noticeably quiet was the Times’ Isabel Kershner, who has typically covered HRW reports on Israel-Palestine, including the 2018 report that accused Fatah and Hamas of using arbitrary arrest and torture. But this time around, Kershner, who has never disclosed in the Times that her son served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), wrote nothing. Instead, she shared an article on Twitter penned by her white South African-Israeli husband (who also served in the IDF) for The Forward that rejected the apartheid label.

It is difficult to imagine any New York Times or Washington Post reporter implying that the findings of an HRW report condemning China, Russia, Venezuela, or another authoritarian country were too harsh. But an exception can always be made for Israel, despite the fact that these reporters are ostensibly tasked with covering Israel-Palestine objectively.

  1. New York Times, Apr. 23, 2021

        Israelis and Palestinians Clash Around Jerusalem’s Old City by Isabel Kershner

According to the aforementioned Isabel Kershner, the root cause of the recent “clashes” in Jerusalem were videos Palestinian youths posted of themselves assaulting Israeli Jews on TikTok. Kershner asserted that these videos “fuel[ed] the friction,” and elicited the attacks by Jewish youths “in response.” Her article made no mention of the role played by the repressive measures taken by Israeli police in Jerusalem against Palestinian worshippers in the first few days of Ramadan, which occurred prior to the earliest of these TikTok videos. This is not to say that the Ramadan crackdown was the source of the hostilities, either. In reality, the source of any violence in Palestine is the Zionist colonization of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Kershner also joined in on the chorus blaming settler violence on the “extremist Jewish supremacy group” Lehava. No further information about Lehava is given in the article, leaving readers to assume that the group is likely on the fringes of Israeli society. In reality, Lehava is closely affiliated with Otzma Yehudit, a far-right party that recently agreed to join Netanyahu’s coalition in the Knesset. The two Kahanist parties share offices in Jerusalem, and Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir has provided legal counsel for Lehava members in court.

Although Kershner is unlikely to ever write about it, the real story here is the rising sense of empowerment and political legitimacy felt by Kahanist parties that has accompanied the increasingly extremist tendencies of Israeli society.

  1. Washington Post, Apr. 23, 2021

        As coronavirus recedes in Israel, tensions rise in Jerusalem by Miriam Berger

Unlike Kershner, the Washington Post’s Miriam Berger was at least able to get the basic facts correct in her coverage of the Jerusalem events. Berger provided proper context of the Lehava party, acknowledging its links with Otzma Yehudit and Netanyahu. Furthermore, she started her narrative of the Jerusalem events with the Ramadan crackdown rather than with a reference to TikTok. Yet she couldn’t help but make reference to Israel’s coronavirus vaccination record—which is both bogus and has nothing to do with the story—in the article’s title, as well as its lede.

It is likely that major American media outlets will hope to be able to move past these stories that embarrass Israel and go back to writing near-daily articles about vaccination rates, for it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify Israel’s ongoing colonization of Palestine.

About The Author: 

Eli Powelson is an American historian based in Beirut and Los Angeles. He holds a BA in History from San Francisco State University, an MA in Arab and Middle Eastern History from the American University of Beirut, and will soon begin a PhD program in Middle East History. His research has focused on Palestine in the early British Mandate era with a special concentration on media analysis.

Read more