The New York Review of Books has been described as "the premier journal of the American intellectual elite." It’s also been said to have an "ingrained distrust of Israel."
Unfortunately, these two often go hand in hand. While there’s no inherent relationship between progressive thought and Israel-bashing, one-sided attacks on Israel and its legitimacy are a staple of some self-styled "progressive" publications.
The New York Review, for example, was cited in Alvin Rosenfeld’s essay implicating "segments of the intellectual left," including some Jews who call themselves "progressive," as sharing with the far right and radical Islam an "emphatic dislike" of Israel.
Rosenfeld, a professor of English and Jewish studies at Indiana University, was referring specifically to an article by Tony Judt, whose "emphatic dislike" drove him to call for the end to the Jewish state. It is both shocking and telling that, well before Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made his infamous call to "wipe Israel off the map," it was Judt and the New York Review encouraging an end to the Jewish state.
But delegitimization of Israel is sometimes less overt and direct. In the March 29, 2007 issue of the biweekly magazine, Joseph Lelyveld, a former executive editor of the New York Times, takes a slightly more roundabout route. His review of Jimmy Carter’s widely criticized new book, Palestine Peace not Apartheid, emphasized two main problems. One is merely a complaint about style: "The former president’s peculiar combination of rectitude and starchy pride can be a little irritating," he says. The other complaint is much more striking, especially coming from someone who was until recently at the helm of one of America’s most influential newspapers. According to Lelyveld, Carter’s book doesn’t go nearly far enough with its apartheid analogy. "What's remarkable is how little [Carter] has to say about the analogy he sees between the bygone white regime in South Africa and the occupation of the West Bank," he writes, before correcting this supposed shortcoming by adding his own ideas of why Israel is like apartheid South Africa.
It’s not easy to establish yourself as more extreme an Israel-basher than Jimmy Carter, but Lelyveld does so by borrowing from the former president his main techniques of argumentation: distortions, lies, and ignoring or minimizing Israel’s legitimate security concerns.
• Lelyveld writes:
Obviously, apartheid had plenty to do with racism but land was also at the heart of the South African struggle. ... Under the Group Areas Act, for instance, more than two million blacks and other nonwhites were forcibly moved from what were sometimes called "black spots" in areas designated as "white" to remote settlements and tribal reserves that were rebranded as "homelands." In the process, their lands and homes were confiscated. Finally the denizens of the homelands were told they were citizens of sovereign states, that they were no longer South Africans. All this was in service of apartheid's grand design.
With adjustments for the large differences in population size and land mass, it might be argued that land confiscation on the West Bank approaches the scale of these apartheid-era expropriations in South Africa. Jimmy Carter is well aware of the pattern of land confiscation there; he quotes Meron Benvenisti at length on the subject. But since he thinks apartheid in South Africa was all about race and not about land, he fails to see that it's precisely in their systematic and stealthy grabbing of Arab land that the Israeli authorities and settlers most closely emulate the South African ancien régime.
Apparently aware that a straightforward comparison of Israeli policy in the West Bank to the race-centric policies of apartheid South Africa would fail to convince most readers that the two have much in common, Lelyveld instead resorts to a highly misleading juxtaposition. He sets up the comparison by discussing the forcible transfers of blacks into "homelands" and the revoking of these residents’ South African citizenship. But why? He makes no such claims about the West Bank, and for good reason — nothing of the sort has happened there. Unable to accuse Israel of these apartheid practices, Lelyveld apparently is trying to attribute to Israel guilt by juxtaposition.
Moreover, if land was "at the heart of the South African struggle," as the article asserts, it was so only to the extent that land and race issues overlapped. Nonetheless, Lelyveld disingenuously unlinks South Africa’s apartheid land policies from its racist ideology in order to compare supposed Israeli land confiscation to that of the apartheid regime. (This would be akin to saying that laws of eminent domain in the United States have much in common with apartheid policy because both involve taking land.)
Lelyveld misleads further on the issue of confiscation. Here, from Carter’s book, is Lelyveld’s evidence that Israeli authorities "closely emulate" the South African regime:
Later I received a briefing from Meron Benvenisti .... With maps and charts, he explained that the Israelis acquired Palestinian lands in a number of different ways: by direct purchase; through seizure "for security purposes for the duration of the occupation"; by claiming state control of areas formerly held by the Jordanian government; by "taking" under some carefully selected Arabic customs or ancient laws; and by claiming as state land all that was not cultivated or specifically registered as owned by a Palestinian family.
So Lelyveld’s evidence that Israel "confiscates" land in a manner similar to apartheid South Africa includes the fact that Israelis purchased land and retained Jordanian, British and Ottoman law relating to West Bank land as per Israel’s obligations under international law. (See here for details about the Hague Regulations of 1907 and Ottoman law about state land.)
Details aside, the article has it backward on the most basic of levels. Blacks were forcibly removed from their homes so that a region could be exclusively white. If there is any parallel in the West Bank, it is in the Palestinian insistence that their future state be Judenrein, despite Jewish historic, cultural and religious ties to the land. (Lelyveld apparently has no problem with the ethnic cleansing of Jews from land on which they have lived for millennia.)
• Elaborating on "other similarities [to apartheid] of which Carter seems to be unaware," Lelyveld asserts:
Israel has proven that it’s not at all dependent on imported cheap labor from the territories, that it can get along just fine with Thais, Filipinos, and Romanians. It has thus gone beyond South Africa’s apartheid theorists who dreamed of a day when they could do without black labor but never got close.
The argument absurdly conflates race with citizenship, and racism with security. Arab citizens of Israel can, and of course do, work in the country, often alongside Jewish workers. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, however, are not citizens of Israel but rather residents of an area from which a brutal war against Israeli civilians was launched only a few years ago. It was as a result of this war that the number of Palestinians working inside Israel was reduced. One can call Israelis’ apparent preference to hire workers from countries with peaceful relations many things; but a parallel to apartheid it is not.
• More evidence of Israel’s supposed similarity to apartheid South Africa can be seen, according to Lelyveld, in the fact that "there’s a much bigger and more obvious military presence in the occupied territories than normally existed in the black townships and ‘homelands’ of the apartheid state." By that logic, the U.S. occupations of Germany and Japan after World War II were also like apartheid with their vast armaments, bases and manpower.
• Lelyveld repeats the disproved canard about a supposed "network of roads for the exclusive use of the [West Bank Jewish] settlers and the Israel Defense Forces." (See here and here for rebuttals to this common error.)
• Lelyveld mischaracterizes United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, saying that it calls for an Israeli withdrawal from "the territories." This a particularly striking error, since he is well aware that the resolution makes no such call. During Lelyveld’s tenure at the New York Times, the newspaper on three separate occasions incorrectly described Resolution 242 as calling for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines. Each time, the errors were acknowledged with corrections, such as the one published on September 8, 2000:
An article on Wednesday about the Middle East peace talks referred incorrectly to United Nations resolutions on the Arab-Israeli conflict. While Security Council Resolution 242, passed after the 1967 Middle East War, calls for Israel’s armed forces to withdraw "from territories occupied in the recent conflict," no resolution calls for Israeli withdrawal from all territory, including East Jerusalem, occupied in the war.
It is precisely because 242's drafters did not believe Israel should withdraw to the precarious 1949 lines that they insisted the resolution call for an Israeli withdrawal "from territories" rather than "from the territories" or from "all the" territories.
Lelyveld clearly understood the content and meaning of Resolution 242, and clearly understood that by repeatedly getting it wrong the New York Times was harming its own credibility. After the third correction, he convened his staff and said to them: "Three times in recent months we've had to run corrections on the actual provisions of UN Resolution 242, providing great cheer and sustenance to those readers who are convinced we are opinionated and not well informed on Middle East issues."
But he apparently realized the New York Review of Books doesn’t hold itself to such journalistic standards. Not only does the former Times editor let Carter’s fallacious characterizations of Resolution 242 pass without comment, but himself mis-describes 242 by inserting what the resolution’s drafter’s intentionally left out — the definite article "the."
• Lelyveld echoes the partisan Palestinian line that the security situation became more dangerous "pretty much as a direct result" of the growth of Israeli settlements, ignoring the fact that anti-Israel violence by Palestinians preceded not only the settlements, but the occupation itself, and ignoring the fact that groups that perpetrate violence against Israelis continuously make clear they are fighting not against settlements, but against Israel’s very existence.
• Lelyveld minimizes the success of Israel’s security barrier (which he, of course, calls a "separation wall"), claiming a Hamas declaration that it would not bomb inside Israel was "as much or even more" responsible for a decline in attacks than the barrier itself.
Even Ramadan Shalah, a leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror organization, seems more willing than Lelyveld to unequivocally credit the fence for thwarting attacks. On Hezbollah’s al-Manar television station, he admitted the barrier is "an obstacle to the resistance, and if it were not there the situation would be entirely different."
• He suggests that U.S. support for Israel’s reaction last summer to Hezbollah’s attacks is evidence of American "bias" for Israel.
Lelyveld’s polemic is extreme, but it is hardly the only example of radical anti-Israel rhetoric in the pages of the New York Review of Books and other supposedly "progressive" magazines—as if there is anything progressive about closed-minded, distorted and error-filled delegitimization of Israel.