When strategic silence must give way to truth-telling

The editorial pages of the two major newspapers in the US, the New York Times and the Washington Post, have long been unswerving in their support for whatever the Israel government does, issuing at most the mildest of criticisms even as Israel increases it apartheid–like treatment of Palestinians and commits the most horrific crimes such as in Gaza. While the news sections might report some of the atrocities, their stable of regular columnists could be relied upon to paint Israel’s actions in the most favorable light.

But that seems to be changing, at least at the Times. One of their columnists Michelle Goldberg wrote an opinion where she described Israel’s actions in Gaza as a “massacre” and defended anti-Zionism as a legitimate position for Jews and non-Jews alike that should not be conflated with anti-Semitism. Now, on the occasion of the Martin Luther King holiday, a new columnist Michelle Alexander reflected on what she learned from King’s courage in 1967 in condemning the US role in Vietnam when he knew that it would cost him support from all sectors of the public. He had kept silent on this issue for the longest time, on the advice of others who said that it would weaken support for his actions on civil rights where they felt he had the most to contribute. But at some point, King felt that to not speak out on a major issue for strategic reasons was actually an act of cowardice.

Here is Alexander saying that she felt a similar internal conflict and stayed silent on the Palestinian issue because she felt that the blowback she would inevitably receive would diminish her efforts on other social justice issues she cared about.

It was a lonely, moral stance. And it cost him. But it set an example of what is required of us if we are to honor our deepest values in times of crisis, even when silence would better serve our personal interests or the communities and causes we hold most dear. It’s what I think about when I go over the excuses and rationalizations that have kept me largely silent on one of the great moral challenges of our time: the crisis in Israel-Palestine.

I have not been alone. Until very recently, the entire Congress has remained mostly silent on the human rights nightmare that has unfolded in the occupied territories. Our elected representatives, who operate in a political environment where Israel’s political lobby holds well-documented power, have consistently minimized and deflected criticism of the State of Israel, even as it has grown more emboldened in its occupation of Palestinian territory and adopted some practices reminiscent of apartheid in South Africa and Jim Crow segregation in the United States.

Many civil rights activists and organizations have remained silent as well, not because they lack concern or sympathy for the Palestinian people, but because they fear loss of funding from foundations, and false charges of anti-Semitism. They worry, as I once did, that their important social justice work will be compromised or discredited by smear campaigns.

Similarly, many students are fearful of expressing support for Palestinian rights because of the McCarthyite tactics of secret organizations like Canary Mission, which blacklists those who publicly dare to support boycotts against Israel, jeopardizing their employment prospects and future careers.

Philip Weiss and James North write that Alexander’s piece has reverberated far and wide.

Alexander all but outs herself as a PEP, Progressive Except Palestine. Here is a principled person who has done groundbreaking work on human rights and anti-racism, and she is revealing that one of the reasons she keeps quiet is because she wants to protect her ability to participate in the mainstream discussion, to write about racism in the U.S. without being smeared and attacked.

This is an open secret that everyone knows: if you speak up for Palestinian human rights, your character will be assassinated. That is a very fair description of the mainstream landscape, surveilled by the likes of Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss of the New York Times, and Abe Foxman and Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL (Just ask Paul Krugman, who has rationalized his own silence on this issue on that basis).

Alexander also describes the very-productive struggle of the left here. She makes clear that she has broken her own silence thanks to Jewish Voice for Peace and Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar in the Congress. And no matter what you think about identity politics, it must be emphasized that just as queer rights organizing fostered the growth of Jewish Voice for Peace as one-time outliers in the Jewish community, the ascendancy of women of color into positions of real power at last has helped break the ice on Palestine.

Robert Herbst writes that the fact that the Times hired people like Goldberg and Alexander and allowed them to publish these pieces is reflective of a slow shift in the way that the paper’s owners have evolved.

Ironically, Jewish founder Adolph Ochs, after buying the paper and moving from Tennessee to New York, was determined that the Times would never appear to be a “Jewish newspaper” or a special pleader of Jewish causes. During World War II, the paper’s underreporting of the Holocaust drew tremendous criticism from the Jewish community. Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Och’s son-in-law and publisher from 1935 to 1961, was no Zionist, believing, along with his grandfather-in-law, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, a founder of Reform Judaism, that Jews were adherents to a religion, not a people or nation.

Neil Lewis describes how the Times’s Israel narrative changed over the years, under the influence of Israeli propaganda, or hasbara, an effort that the Palestinians could not match. “Teddy Kollek, who was mayor of Jerusalem from 1965 to 1993, knew every executive at the Times by first name.” And Times editors who visited Israel were generally “treated like visiting royalty.” Lewis also describes how Times editors reacted negatively to several instances of reporting critical of Israel in the 1980’s and late 1990’s by the paper’s Jerusalem correspondents.

At least four reporters for the paper have had sons serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. As a reader of the paper for the last 60 years, I know that Palestinian voices describing their struggle for human rights and dignity have rarely appeared in its the pages, while reliably pro-Israel commentary has come for years from Zionist Times columnists David Brooks and Tom Friedman, and more recently from Bret Stephens, Bari Weiss, Shmuel Rosner and Matti Friedman.

At the beginning of last year, however, 38-year-old A.G. Sulzberger succeeded his father as publisher on January 1, 2018 (after a year’s stint as deputy publisher). Since his ascension, there appears to be change afoot at the paper on the Israel-Palestine front.

In giving Alexander’s piece prominence on the first page of the Sunday Review, it may be that A.G. Sulzberger’s Times is serving notice that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, Jews and Gentiles, free to debate this perspective without fear or favor, notwithstanding the influence of those who would declare it anti-Semitic or otherwise illegitimate. If so, this could be a breakthrough moment not just for the Times, but for all of us involved in the struggle for Palestinian rights and dignity.

You can be sure that there will be a fierce reaction from the Israel lobby against Goldberg, Alexander, and the Times and the process has already started. But there is no question that this is a significant step. It will be interesting to see if the Post also moves in a similar direction or whether the Times will retreat in the face of the inevitable criticism it will receive.


  1. jrkrideau says

    That column is likely to affect the pro-Israel lobby worse than the Gillette ad hit the old shellback males.

    I had never heard of the Canary Mission before. It is nice to see that good old fashioned US traditions are being preserved. Senator McCarthy and President Nixon would be pleased at the techniques. Or in translation, those so-and-so’s are damn scary.

  2. John Morales says

    When strategic silence must give way to truth-telling

    Another misleading headline, though I like the post itself.

    There is no “must”, and even a “should” would be value-laden.

    IMO, “When strategic silence gives way to truth-telling” would have been a lot better.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    John @2: I sometimes wonder about your nitpicking. For Goldberg and Alexander (and perhaps Sulzberger), and for MLK back in the day, there was clearly a moral imperative at work. “Must” is wholly appropriate.

  4. John Morales says

    Rob, perhaps I “must” nitpick, that being my moral imperative.

    (Heh. Kidding. Of course I had a choice!)

    “Must” is wholly appropriate.

    In the sense of ‘should’, I grant that. In the sense of ‘not being able to do otherwise’, no.

    (And that is made clear in the quoted piece)

    Also, though I can’t deny it was ‘nitpicking’ (can’t do that if there are no nits to pick), my intention was to provide constructive criticism.

  5. says

    @John Morales:
    my intention was to provide constructive criticism.

    It’s a blog not a refereed paper. It doesn’t get reviewed and cleaned up for publication.

    Of course Mano may see things differently, but I don’t even see a point to correcting the (extremely rare) (tongue firmly in cheek) errors in mine, because if I correct them it’ll look like I am trying to pretend to be a better/more knowledgeable writer than I actually am. So when someone catches me out, I leave the error and their correction for their gratification. In other words, as is often the case, corrections are more about the corrector’s self-satisfaction than about improving the blog.

  6. Mano Singham says

    Marcus @#5,

    I don’t mind correcting factual errors, even minor, because not all readers read the comments. But in this case it was not an error but a deliberate choice of the word.

    John @#2 and #4,

    In using the word ‘must’, I definitely meant that King and Alexander felt internally forced to it, that it was a moral imperative as Rob @3 points out. That they could have done otherwise (after all, no one was holding a gun to their heads and they did do so for so long and it had been gnawing at them) is so obvious that I would’ve thought the moral imperative implication of the word ‘must’ would have been clear.

  7. John Morales says

    Marcus, it was not about seeking correction, but more about another possible consideration during future composition of post titles. And I am familiar with Mano’s and your own tolerance for good-faith commenters, else I would not have noted so trivial a consideration.

    Mano, thanks for the clarification. I can’t help being a bit too literal, at times, and upon reflection I have to concede I probably misled myself.

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