A New York Times article headlined “Shaken and Grieving, Jewish New Yorkers Put Aside Differences” (10/14/23) appeared at the center of the front page in the print edition one day after it was posted online. Headlined online “For Jewish New Yorkers, Shared Grief Puts Divisions on Hold” (10/13/23), the piece hardly reflected the reality among New York City’s Jews, many of whom have been vocal and in the streets against Israeli policies toward the Palestinians long before this new war unfolded.
Readers who picked up their Saturday Times and saw the piece, below the lead photo of fleeing Gazans and a lead story on Israel’s impending ground invasion, would get the impression that a monolithic Jewish community in the United States’ most Jewish city sat in self-imposed collective silence about Israel’s far-right government, the intelligence failures before the Hamas surprise attack, and the brutality of the Israeli response.
What did not show up on the front page, nor updated on the online version, was that on Friday night, hundreds of Jewish activists and their allies protested outside Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer’s Brooklyn home, demanding an end to U.S. support for Israeli militarism (Business Insider, 10/14/23).
Newsweek (10/14/23) reported that “approximately 80 Jewish protesters were arrested Friday as they demanded officials in five major U.S. cities,” including New York City, “to stop Israel aggression toward Palestinians with fears of a ‘genocide’ breaking out in Gaza.”
‘Put aside divisions’
The Times piece—by John Leland, a Times veteran and prolific music and culture writer—relied on a handful of voices, like Eric Goldstein, chief executive of United Jewish Appeal–Federation of New York, as well as progressive rabbis Amichai Lau-Lavie and David Ingber. It quoted Stuart Himmelfarb, who “runs a small Jewish nonprofit agency,” and Betsey Nevins-Saunders, “who runs a criminal defense clinic at Hofstra University’s law school.”
Himmelfarb said he put aside his critiques of the Israeli government, saying his new focus was, “How in the world can the hostages be saved?” According to the Times, “the scale and scope of the attacks” inspired Nevins-Saunders to hold her fire against Israeli policies. Ingber said the crisis “has laid bare for many in the liberal community the dangers of anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist ideologies.”
The closest thing to a dissenting view in the piece was Nevins-Saunders, who “said she was not willing to put aside her criticisms of Israel,” but then proceeded to do just that:
Right now we do not have to say, “Yeah, but—”; “Sorry for the pain in Israel, but—”…. Sometimes we’re so quick to go to the “but” part that we negate that opportunity to grieve.
Lau-Lavie, saying “it was time to put aside divisions and focus on shared grief,” told the Times:
Our political position now makes no difference. Left, right, pro-occupation, anti-occupation, don’t know about it—we’re hurting and we’re shocked and we’re horrified and we want Israel to get through this.
I first encountered Lau-Lavie in 2006 when I covered religion for the Stamford Advocate, and I can say he’s generally someone with thoughtful ideas on both religion and the conflict in the Middle East; he was a big part of the protests against the far-right Israeli government’s judicial power grab this year (Vox, 7/24/23). The perspectives in the Times piece are valid, but they don’t represent any kind of complete picture of Jewish opinion in the unfolding of the new Israel/Palestine war.
‘Dismayed’ by ‘massive escalation’
The fact is that the actual mood among New York City’s Jews is that the phrase “two Jews, three opinions,” still applies. And if the opinions quoted in this piece matter enough for the Times, then so should other Jewish voices.
It should include someone like Audrey Sasson, executive director of the New York–based Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ). In a statement (10/7/23) issued days before the Times piece, she said that while she grieved for the Israeli dead and feared for the hostages, her group was “fearful about what’s to come,” and were “angry that leaders continually choose extremism, violence and occupation, and dismayed that official Israeli and U.S. statements are calling for massive escalation.”
It could have quoted someone like Arielle Angel, editor-in-chief of the New York–based Jewish Currents, who gave anything but a simple response (10/12/23) to the ongoing trauma in the Middle East, grappling with how left-wing and progressive Jews sought to channel their grief in the face of a mounting catastrophe in Gaza. The Times knows who Angel is, as the paper profiled her (12/30/22) last year, and it interviewed her (10/10/23) for a response to a pro-Palestine rally in Manhattan that came under heavy press criticism (Politico, 10/10/23; New York Post, 10/11/23).
Brad Lander, who as the city’s comptroller is the highest-ranking Jewish-American official in New York City government, wrote on Twitter (10/13/23) that it is, indeed, possible to hold nuanced views of the situation. “Watching what’s happening in Gaza right now—as someone who cares deeply about the future for a Jewish and democratic Israel—is excruciating,” he said. “I can’t stop thinking about the hostages,” he added. “And I can’t stop thinking about the children of Gaza.”
The paper could have, at the very least, included coverage of the Jews protesting outside of Senator Schumer’s house for the print edition, and provided an update in the online version, in order to present a much fuller and more nuanced picture of how New York’s Jewish communities were responding to the situation. This rally was important, because Schumer is perhaps the most powerful Jewish American in the federal government and his spur-of-the-moment trip (The Hill, 10/13/23) to Israel is widely seen as strong U.S. support for Israel’s fierce military assault on the people of Gaza. The fact that Jewish activists took to his home to protest this move shows that Jewish opinion in New York City is nowhere near the univocal scene painted in the Times.
‘Don’t weaponize my grief’
The Times piece ends at a “somber prayer gathering” in Borough Park, a Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn, quoting one activist saying that normally he’d engage in discussions about how to “make Palestinian life easier” but added, “That’s not an appropriate conversation in these days.”
But the Borough Park Jewish community is but one of very many Jewish communities across the city. It does a disservice to Jews to say that they’re all letting the emotional weight of the initial Hamas attack put a damper on difficult political discussions. In Israel, Guy Ziv, associate director of American University’s Center for Israel Studies, told NPR (10/16/23) that one poll “shows that only 29% of the public now think [Netanyahu is] qualified to be prime minister,” which “includes many of his own voters.” Various media have reported how the Israeli public has responded to the Hamas attacks by blaming Netanyahu (Middle East Monitor, 10/12/23; Jerusalem Post, 10/13/23; Bloomberg, 10/13/23; Ha’aretz, 10/16/23).
Sonya Meyerson-Knox, senior communications manager for Jewish Voices for Peace, told FAIR in an email that despite the documentation of many Jewish organizations and individuals marching against Israeli aggression, the paper painted a skewed picture:
In this article, however, the New York Times neglects the voices of tens of thousands of anti-occupation and anti-Zionist Jews who feel deeply alienated from legacy Jewish institutions and their support of the Israeli government. Many Jewish New Yorkers (of all ages) do not support the Israeli government, its military occupation or its apartheid regime—and they feel this way more strongly now than ever before. By neglecting the voices of so many Jewish New Yorkers, this article furthers the incredibly problematic myth that Jews are a monolith, and that to support Jews in this moment requires supporting the Israeli government’s genocidal war on Palestinians.
In an interview with FAIR, JFREJ’s Sasson noted that in contrast to the tone of the Times article, her group’s members were able to simultaneously grapple with their grief in response to the Hamas attacks, their worry about the hostages and their ability to speak out against Israeli policies. “We can hold many truths,” she said, speaking about how many of her members were experiencing many emotions at the same time. Sasson added:
A lot of our members are mobilizing to participate in actions that are calling for a ceasefire, and are trying to simultaneously hold their grief and say, “Don’t use my grief, don’t weaponize my grief.”
Did the Times piece weaponize Jewish grief? By marginalizing opposition among New York’s Jews to Israel’s brutal campaign against Gaza, it certainly made it easier for the bloodshed to continue.