Back in the 1890s, two newspapers, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, were battling it out for the readership of New Yorkers and beyond. To garner more readers, they engaged in what became known as “yellow journalism,” which denotes running sensationalistic stories — or what we know today as click-bait. It got so bad that an English magazine in 1898 noted, "All American journalism is not ‘yellow’, though all strictly ‘up-to-date’ yellow journalism is American!” On May 10, the doyen of New York, and indeed American, newspapers stooped to such yellow journalism as to garner notice not only across the nation, but also internationally. This is not surprising, for three reasons. First, one of the most valuable plots of New York real estate remains the front page of the New York Times — and that is where the story ran. Second, the story took up a hot-button issue — Israel-Palestine. Third, the headline can justifiably be labeled “race-baiting”: “Campus Debates Drive a Wedge Between Jews and Minorities.”
To really assess just how bad this piece of journalism is, and the cavalier way in which the New York Times engaged in yellow journalism so as to actually exacerbate conditions on U.S. campuses, it’s important to separate myth from reality.
No doubt, the increasingly brutal attacks on Gaza last summer and the consolidation of extreme right-wing political power in Israel since the elections -- which includes the naming of people to high-level ministry positions who have openly declared the legitimacy of the Occupation, who wish to see it become a de jure annexation, and who have made statements favoring ethnic cleansing -- have ratcheted up protests on university campuses and beyond. And these protests have been met with resistance. But to couch the debates simplistically as being between “Jews and minorities” is to hopelessly distort what is actually taking place, and all for the sake of a sexy headline.
First of all, it reduces “Jews” to a single, monolithic group; if anyone else did so it might well smack of anti-Semitism. The headline also does the same to “minorities.” But that is what yellow journalists do: amp up a situation, depict it in its most incendiary manner. The article also omits the fact that plenty of people on either side of the fence are in fact neither Jewish nor a minority.
But the Times had a very particular agenda, and this is nowhere more evident than in the fact that it actually edited out comments from its interviewees that did not conform to the message it wanted to drive. This comes out in a statement issued by Omar Zahzah and Agatha Palma, two members of Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA:
The UCLA SJP members who were contacted by Medina and Lewin to provide quotes had been anticipating this article, but were dismayed to see that the Times had ignored their quotes in favor of those from quite a number of pro-Israel individuals at UCLA. This was especially discouraging considering the amount of attention the article gave to UCLA-specific issues. One of the SJP members interviewed, who identifies as Palestinian, spoke to Medina about recent experiences of anti-Palestinian and anti-SJP hatred to which SJP members and Palestinian students were subjected, but the authors of the New York Times piece omitted these comments. Ultimately, the authors saw fit to continue with the usual narrative that BDS promotes isolation and even harassment of Jewish students, while completely ignoring well-documented instances of harassment and intimidation against Palestinian students and students in solidarity with Palestine. [This statement has been updated.]
According to Zahzah and Palma, the NYT also omitted references to multi-ethnic and multi-racial cooperation:
Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters are made up of students from diverse backgrounds, including both Palestinian and Jewish. Likewise, chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a U.S. Jewish organization that supports BDS as “a grassroots tactic for human rights work that has a proven track record,” are springing up across campuses nationwide. JVP is one of the fastest growing Jewish organizations in the country and has more than double Hillel’s following on Facebook and more than three times their following on Twitter; these Jewish voices cannot be ignored or excluded.
It is also worth noting that JVP mission statements often invoke support for the Palestinian freedom as being directly correspondent with Jewish tradition. Given all of this, the authors should have specified: if campus debates on Israel and its policies are driving a wedge between students, it is between those who condone Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and those who do not.
This is made clear in the way the NYT depicts multi-ethnic solidarity as only involving non-Jewish students:
College activists favoring divestment have cast the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a powerful force’s oppression of a displaced group, and have formed alliances with black, Latino, Asian, Native American, feminist and gay rights organizations on campus. The coalitions — which explicitly link the Palestinian cause to issues like police brutality, immigration and gay rights — have caught many longtime Jewish leaders off guard, particularly because they belonged to such progressive coalitions less than a generation ago.
Coalitions that combine Jewish students and minority students are not restricted to UCLA, nor are they in fact even rare. Consider what Kristian Bailey, from Stanford, another school only selectively represented in the NYT piece, writes:
Multi-ethnic, progressive coalitions such as the one I organized with at Stanford have not taken stances on BDS, notably different boycott tactics, but we fully support selective divestment campaigns. Our coalitions feature Palestinian students who, working alongside Black, Chicana, Jewish and Israeli students (among others), seek direct action against the occupation. A generation of progressive students is cutting its teeth on the Palestinian issue, just as our predecessors fought for justice in South Africa and Vietnam, and agitated for US civil rights. Those who continue to miss the point of our organizing will only be confused as our coalitions continue to grow in strength.
Bailey also adds a crucial point:
American Jews who oppose the occupation and actively support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement are the fastest growing political group in the American Jewish community. Jewish Voice for Peace’s growth outpaced both J Street and AIPAC during Israel’s onslaught on Gaza last summer. Divestment is not driving a wedge between minority and Jewish students; Israel’s actions are driving a wedge within the Jewish community and larger US campuses, between those who can advocate a nonviolent, direct way to end the occupation and those who can’t.
There is one more way in which the New York Times story is inaccurate, sensationalistic and just plain wrong. The article portrays the agent behind this “wedge” as BDS. It is implying that if it were not for BDS, there would be no discord, that things would be fine and harmonious on campus. Consider these statements: “the effort to pressure Israel appears to be gaining traction at campuses across the country and driving a wedge between many Jewish and minority students…. The [BDS] movement’s goal is to isolate and punish Israel for its policies toward Palestinians and its occupation of the West Bank.”
It would be much more accurate to say that BDS has given critics of Israel a set of principles and goals to center their conversations and efforts around: the end of the Occupation, equal rights for Palestinians and others within Israel, and the right of return, as guaranteed and enshrined in international law. To say that BDS alone can “punish” Israel is downright silly. What is being debated is whether the international community can muster the political and ethical will to enforce its own laws with regard to Israel-Palestine. Israel has in fact isolated itself through its defiance of international law, and the United States has historically aided and abetted Israel, doing so by using its veto power in the United Nations and diplomatic and other power elsewhere to grant Israel immunity on the world stage. Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and its occupation is something for which Israel should indeed be held accountable. Finally, that it is a “wedge” issue is at least in part due to the disinformation that major news media let out with regard to this complex topic. I, for one, am glad that students and others are passionately debating this issue, instead of settling for the status quo.