‘NYT’ coverage of the Human Rights Watch ‘Apartheid’ report is a game-changer

Robert Herbst

Mondoweiss  /  May 1, 2021

Having grown up in a secular liberal Jewish family in and around New York City, I’ve been reading the New York Times daily since I was a kid – take it from me, that’s a long time. Since I started speaking out about the Israeli oppression of Palestinians after Operation Protective Edge in 2014, I’ve come to understand the old Gray Lady’s blind spots when it comes to that oppression. I’ve been helped in that understanding by James North, who has repeatedly chronicled her omissions on this site.

On Wednesday, North launched another of his missiles at the Times for its article the day before on Human Rights Watch’s landmark report finding that, in persecuting Palestinians, Israel has been perpetrating the crime of apartheid, a crime against humanity. Labelling the article – by Patrick Kingsley, the Times’s new Jerusalem bureau chief – “biased” and an attack on HRW’s finding, North argued that Kingsley quoted five critics of the report and only two supporters, with one “undecided,” an Israeli general “uncomfortable” about Israeli policy. North also criticized the Times for giving voice to (1) the pro-Israel critics’ accusation of anti-Semitism so often applied to critics of Israel, and (2) the “outright lie” that HRW has been “actively seeking for years to promote boycotts against Israel.”

Having read Kingsley’s article the day before, I was reminded of the Kurosawa masterpiece Rashomon, which tells the story of a crime through the jarringly different accounts of the participants and witnesses. Unlike North, I was excited by the Times article, welcoming it and thinking it might be a potential game-changer in the Times coverage.  Here’s why.

Look at the headline and sub-header: 

“Rights Group Hits Israel With Explosive Charge:  Apartheid.” 

“Human Rights Watch is the latest watchdog to accuse Israel of perpetuating a version of the racist legal system that once governed South Africa. Israel says the charge is baseless.”

Here, for perhaps the first time, is the apartheid charge levelled against Israel in the Newspaper of Record, and the newspaper of record of the American Jewish Community. It not only lands there like a bomb, but it is presented as only the latest such charge by other “watchdogs.” The connection to South African apartheid is explicit, for all to see. And the Israeli defense is almost an afterthought, the message of its placement being, sure, they are going to deny it. But when stacked against the observation that HRW is only the latest watchdog to level the charge, the headline’s principal message is that no matter what Israeli critics say about HRW and its biases, those critics lack credibility because it is not just HRW, but knowledgeable others as well, who have levelled the charge of apartheid and racism, and continue to do so. That is powerful corroboration of the charge, right up front.     

This message is repeated in the body of the article, explicitly driving home the point. The lead paragraph says that “hundreds of rights groups gathering in South Africa in 2001 accused Israel of apartheid,” and now “two decades later, a small but growing number of Israeli and international watchdogs have come to a conclusion that many Palestinians reached long ago: that Israel is perpetrating a form of apartheid, the racist legal system that governed South Africa until the early 1990s.”

Kingsley then follows with his summary of the HRW report, linking to its 213 pages — “arguing that Israel pursues a policy of ethnic supremacy that favours Israeli Jews over Palestinians in both Israel and the occupied territories.” He then quotes Ken Roth, the Jewish executive director of HRW, explaining that HRW changed its mind about Israel’s racism/the apartheid label, because “Israeli policy, once considered temporary, had over time hardened into a permanent condition.”

“While much of the world treats Israel’s half-century occupation as a temporary situation that a decades-long ‘peace process’ will soon cure, the oppression of Palestinians there has reached a threshold and a permanence that meets the definitions of the crimes of apartheid and persecution,” he said.”

Kingsley then remedied his paper’s failure to report the B’Tselem apartheid charge, which North properly called out in his Wednesday piece.

“In January, the Israeli rights group B’Tselem made the same charge, joining two other Israeli organizations and echoing claims that Palestinians have made since at least the 1960s and which former President Jimmy Carter famously made in 2006.”

Again, the Times says, neither B’Tselem nor HRW stand alone; their views are buttressed by those of others, on the ground in Israel, whose business is to know what they are talking about.

These are the first seven paragraphs of the article before the usual suspects representing the Israeli government viewpoint get a chance to chime in. After five paragraphs critical of the report, Kingsley returns to his analysis of the report, which essentially rebuts the thesis of the pro-Israel critics that the criticisms of racism and apartheid are “baseless” and “outrageous.” He describes the international laws defining apartheid as “a crime against humanity in which one racial group dominates another through intentional, systematic and inhumane acts of oppression. Race is interpreted broadly to apply to ethnic groups.” 

Kingsley then refers to “the occupied West Bank as exhibit A”, noting that HRW says that “Israel has created a two-tier system with some Palestinians living under military rule and Israeli settlers under a civil legal system with greater freedoms, an inequity that HRW said ‘amounts to the system oppression required for apartheid.’” He then refers to Israel’s full governance of over 60% of the West Bank, its system of checkpoints and a permit system to regulate Palestinian movement, and “the forcible transfer of thousands of Palestinians out of their homes, denial of residency rights to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and their relatives, and the suspension of basic civil rights to millions of Palestinians,” which HRW cites as policies that meet the definition of apartheid. 

In other words, Kingsley cites chapter and verse from the HRW report that highlight the facts on the ground that fully rebut the charge from Israeli critics that the apartheid charge is “baseless” and “outrageous.”  While the next few paragraphs give the floor back to Israeli officials, the article again repeats that

“Human Rights Watch, however, is not alone in its evaluation. It’s report follows a drumbeat of similar allegations by Israeli rights groups.” 

In my humble opinion, repetition of that thematic argument unmistakably reveals the views of the article’s author, who gives the Palestinians, and particularly one Palestinian, the last word. Read the last few paragraphs of the story.

“Many Palestinians appreciated the outside endorsements as a vindication of the argument they have been making for years, though some were puzzled that the issue that governs their daily reality was still considered a debate.

In East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1967 and Palestinians consider their future capital, Fakhry Abu Diab, a 59-year-old accountant, says he has applied at least eight times for planning permission to expand his home to fit his growing family. And eight times the request was denied.

He finally gave up and built an extension without a permit. Now the Israeli government has served the whole house with a demolition order, one of dozens in the neighbourhood.

“In the same district, the government has allowed Jewish settlers to take over Palestinian homes and build hundreds of new ones, a ritual bath and a tourist center promoting the city’s Jewish history.

 “We understand very clearly what is going on,” Mr. Abu Diab said. “They don’t want me here or my children — and because of that they won’t give us permission. We are living in an apartheid system.” ”

We trial lawyers know that there are three key tenets in trying a case to a jury:  primacy, recency and repetition. She who gets to address the jury first has a huge advantage in establishing the narrative and factual framework of her case. She will also put her best witness on first. These are the advantages of primacy.  She will put her second best witness on last, and hope to sum up her case to the jury last.  Those are the advantages of recency.  And you can bet that she will repeat her main themes often so that they remain foremost in mind. 

In this article, Kingsley used primacy, recency and repetition to help the reader see that the HRW report levels a charge that is well-supported by the facts on the ground. Rather than a biased attack on HRW and its report, this Times article is on the mark, and a potential game-changer in the paper’s coverage. It reflects, in my view, the slow but ever-increasing perception that the two-state solution is dead, that the Israeli oppression of Palestinians is systemic, intensive and pervasive, and that the Jewish State is now comfortable with a one-state reality that privileges Jews over Palestinians at the expense of their human rights and dignity. Along with the knowledge that Israel does not intend to give all that up, comes an increasing awareness of the legitimacy of criticism of Israel and its Jewish population for its willingness to do nothing about the racism that underlies it all.  Kingsley, his editors and publishers cannot help but know this. By the way, before coming to the Times, Kingsley was The Guardian’s first-ever migration correspondent.  He covered the European refugee crisis and wrote a book on it.

The New York Times is the Walter Cronkite of our time. It is the most respected organ of news and opinion in this country and world in this digital age. Upon his return from Vietnam 53 years ago, Cronkite told the country that, notwithstanding the statements of the optimists in the Johnson Administration, the war could not be won, and that the only way out was to negotiate. At which point, President Johnson reportedly said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” And he had.  A month later, he announced he would not run for re-election.

I do not know if Apartheid Israel has yet lost the New York Times, and established Jewish opinion, but Kingsley’s article may be the first step in a tide that is starting to turn. We should do everything we can to encourage that turn in its coverage, with praise when it is due, as here.     

Robert Herbst is a civil rights lawyer; he was chapter coordinator for Westchester Jewish Voice for Peace from 2014-2017