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More Intellectual Dishonesty at the New York Times

In an article in Sunday’s New York Times co-signed by Isabel Kershner and Ethan Bronner, the readers of the “Paper of Record” were informed that, “…Israelis are turning inward and discovering that an issue they had neglected -- the place of the ultra-Orthodox Jews -- has erupted into a crisis”.  

So, the Israelis have suddenly become aware of the social problems provoked by the rise of state-coddled authoritarian fundamentalists in their midst?   

Funny, my friends and contacts from Israel have been talking obsessively about the problem for over 15 years, with many of them predicting quite openly during all of this period that, if left unchecked, the rise of the haredim will eventually lead to the destruction of any remaining semblance of democracy within their society.

But if Kershner--an Israeli citizen--and Bronner--whose son has served in an Israeli Army which has been in daily contact with the gratuitously violent behaviors of the fundamentalist settlers on the West Bank--are to believed, this sense of alarm surrounding the issue of the religious right is a brand new phenomenon. 

Their pose of being “shocked, just shocked” about the rise anti-democratic fundamentalists in the society they have inhabited for years, is nothing short of mendacious.

If the two reporters had a modicum of intellectual honesty they would have said something like this.

“For years, we, the reporters who inform the American people about the goings-on in Israel and occupied Palestine, a group that—as Allison Weir and Jonathan Cook have shown—is overwhelmingly comprised of Jews with deep emotional, and quite often familial, attachments to Israeli society, have systematically downplayed the scale and impact of religious fundamentalism within the Zionist state.

Since its founding, and with ever-increasing intensity since the rise of the Likud Party under Begin in the late 1970s, the discourse of Israeli identity has been predicated on the idea that Israel is a bastion of Modernity, Rationality and Democracy surrounded by a sea of essentially medieval people, savage beings beholden to the dark superstitions and violent dictates of the Koran.

After having consumed an Israeli media diet rooted in this master trope for decades, and after having watched many of our friends and family members go off to war on the basis of this premise, we have become deeply imbued with this way of looking at the world. 

Moreover, as people who are acutely aware of how crucially important the implantation of this Manichaean narrative of a plucky and democratic Israel besieged by religiously-fueled fanatics has been to securing massive US military and diplomatic support for the country to which we are deeply attached, we have a strong disincentive for reporting on the existence of similar tendencies in Israel.

Insofar as the Americans find out that important elements of Israeli society are just as, if not more, chauvinistic, authoritarian, and anti-modern as our own, endlessly repeated, caricatured version of “the Arabs”, we are bound to lose support from the States.

As our mothers used to say, some things are best left unsaid outside the confines of the family.

In other words, when we said in the article that “the Israelis” had neglected the issue of the place of the ultra-orthodox in their society we were, in fact, really referring to what we ourselves had done in our roles as reporters before the US reading public.”

Indeed, even when Bronner and Kershner finally do get down to telling us about the “sudden” sense of crisis about the roles of religious zealots in Israeli society, they do so in a way that is largely sympathetic.

No one-size-fits-all negative portrayals of the religious haredim here. That treatment is strictly reserved for religious people who derive large parts of their worldview from the Koran. 


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No, unlike the world’s millions of Islamists who are regularly presented, per se and en masse, by the same guild of Israeli-based reporters as urgent threats to civilized society, the fundamentalists within the Jewish homeland are portrayed here as a diverse and generally reasonable group whose image has, unfortunately, been marred by the existence of “a few bad apples” among them. 

Bottom line: though “our” pre-moderns may have some rough edges and bad habits, they, of course, really have nothing to do with the nihilist fanatics on the other side.

One of the most important, if least discussed, factors in the advent of industrial-scale blood-letting during the 20th and 21st centuries has been the development of discourses of historical knowledge (the flagship elements of these institutionalized practices being Soviet Studies, Holocaust Studies and now Security/Terrorist Studies) that effectively place the problem of "massively destructive evil" in places that are remote from the knowledge consumer in both geographical and historical time.  

Why are these practices so dangerous?  

Because they effectively encourage the citizenry to suspend their critical faculties regarding urgent moral and civic threats in the heart of their own societies, thus making them much more willing to sign on to crusades designed to extirpate the pure malignancy that allegedly exists in other places.

While academics and think-tank types are the ones that generally develop these “scientific” tropes of the depraved “other”, it is ultimately the reporters at powerful media outlets that, with their daily reporting rooted in the same simplistic premises, cement these “realities” (and their implied solutions) into  the minds of the general populace.

In this sense, Kershner and Bronner have been “doing their part” for years. 

I wonder how many of their readers have any clue regarding just how much--to put it in academic terms--their “positionality” vis-à-vis the subject of their inquiry” affects their particular rendering of events?

Thomas S. Harrington

Thomas S. Harrington

Thomas S. Harrington is professor of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of Public Intellectuals and Nation Building in the Iberian Peninsula, 1900–1925: The Alchemy of Identity (Bucknell University Press, 2014).

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