This is my daily effort to discover good things people do around the planet. I’m planning to engage in these searches six days a week. I will gladly post your contributions regarding good human behavior, no matter how trivial they may seem to you (or, frankly, to me). Please join me on this trip and tell your friends.


Deconstructing the NY Times

The readers of this column are divided evenly along right- and left-wing lines, so when I attempt to discover goodness in a New York Times article about a dispute over homes in East Jerusalem, I’m painfully aware that no matter how tempting it would be to wink knowingly at either of the sides in this dispute, the inevitable result would surely be rejection by the other. I thank my friend AB for emailing me the 3/9/10 article An Eviction Stirs Old Ghosts in a Contested City, by Isabel Kershner. Read the first two paragraphs and you’ll know immediately what to expect next:

JERUSALEM — Having been removed in favor of Israeli nationalist Jews, members of the Palestinian Ghawi family have been sheltering this winter in a tent on the sidewalk opposite their home of more than five decades in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

For those who want to see a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the eviction of the Ghawis has touched on two sensitive nerves: the fate of East Jerusalem, where Israel and the Palestinians vie for control, and the abiding grievances of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war.

A quick Google search reveals that Manchester-born Isabel Kershner is despised equally by both Jewish and Arab commentators. Take a look at Isabel Kershner Takes On Israel's Radical Right, on Jewish right-wing site Arutz Sheva; and Isabel Kershner and her Israeli propaganda, on The Angry Arab News Service. Her book, Barrier: The Seam of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, is selling well on Amazon, although it has only generated three customer reviews. The Washington Post Book World citation successfully pinpoints the book politically: "Kershner carefully and humanely shows how the wall built by Ariel Sharon's government has not only exposed divisions but also created them--physically, politically and psychologically."

My own overall impression, after a short web search is of a left-leaning, gifted reporter, who may not think like me but is principled and honest enough to be relied on for information. I’ve been reading the Times for 35 years now, so I’m capable of getting the story through the conventional biases – or so I thought.

My friend AB, a proud small-C conservative and frequent Republican voter, added this comment to his email: "I wonder why the writer did not investigate why all the Jews left East Jerusalem in 48, leaving their property behind, why did at least not some of them stay, like the thousands of Arabs that stayed in Israel after 48."

Before I proceed, you need to know the context of AB’s comment, born by decades of bitterness over an uneven coverage of the Palestinian refugee story. From November, 1947, until May, 1948, the Jewish Quarter of East Jerusalem and Jewish West Jerusalem were under siege. Following six months of heavy fighting, on May 28, two elderly rabbis surrendered the Jewish Quarter and the survivors of a civilian population of some 1700, to the Jordanian Legion. Those were, possibly, the first Jewish refugees of the 1948-49 war, followed by roughly a million Jews who were driven out of their homes and lands in Iraq and Syria, and later North Africa. There were, in fact, more Jewish than Arab refugees who lost their land and possessions, yet the world knows little about the Jewish part of this tragic equation. My friend AB will tell you that this is because Israel made a heroic effort to rehabilitate its refugees, while Arab governments sought to cultivate the festering refugee problem, to be used as a political weapon.

Obviously, historic reality is not quite this smooth. Israel has been accused of fomenting at least two of those mass-exiles, in Iraq and Egypt. It has also been accused of working faster and better to improve the lot of European Jewish refugees, over their brethren from the Near East. Questions have also been raised regarding the mass escape of Palestinians from their lands, specifically over just how spontaneous and self-inflicted it was. In the end, despite all the dirt one can expose in the way Israeli governments have handled issues of land and resettlement from 1948 to 1967, it is still undeniable that Jewish refugees were able to establish a new life as equal citizens of a democratic state, while Arab refugees continue to this day to languish as a poor underclass in several tyrannical states, including their homeland, and you can’t in good conscience pin the responsibility for all that on Israel.

The two long paragraphs I spent explaining the context of AB’s complaint were also necessary in order to better understand what I find unacceptable in the Isabel Kershner article in the Times. She makes a cogent point regarding the success story I mentioned, of resettling Jewish refugees:

In 1950, to protect the new Jewish state from the claims of the Palestinian refugees, Israel enacted the Absentees’ Property Law. It essentially strips Palestinians of any rights to property left behind in what is now Israel if they were in enemy territory, including East Jerusalem, between November 1947 and May 1948.

I go there first, because the essence of the Jewish claim over the now disputed two-story house in East Jerusalem is based on papers of ownership presented to an Israeli court in the 1970s and ruled viable, and the essence of the objection to the evacuation of Arab families from the house has to do with the troubling notion of a law which favors Jewish antiquated claims on real estate while blocking similar claims from Arabs.

That’s the entire argument as presented by Kershner. Read her quotes from Israelis who uniformly oppose the evictions, summed up nicely by Yossi Klein Halevi, whom Kershner presents as speaking for "mainstream Israelis" (he’s a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, and my right-wing friends probably ID him as lefty). Halevi told Kershner that he opposed a Jewish "right of return" to properties lost in the 1948 war. Except "he noted that more and more Arabs were buying apartments in the predominantly Jewish neighborhood where he lives." In conclusion, he commented:

"It cannot go one way in Jerusalem… I am deeply torn."

But in order to use this opportunity for more than just pitting right- against left-wing arguments, or Jewish versus Arab arguments, I want instead to benefit all of us with a more deconstructive examination of Kershner’s piece.

Here is a list of all the voices and characters presented by Kershner, in order of their appearance:

David Grossman, a prominent Israeli author and peace advocate – protesting the eviction
Moshe Halbertal, a professor of Jewish law and philosophy – protesting the eviction.
Orly Noy, a spokeswoman for Ir Amim – protesting the eviction.
Maysoun Ghawi – evicted tenant
Yossi Sarid, a former Meretz leader
And, for balance, Yossi Klein Halevi.

The other side in the debate has no voice here, none at all. We’re only told that they’re "Israeli nationalist Jews," and "fervent Israeli nationalists." They don’t have names or faces, their views are implied as being the opposite of whatever the actual voices in the story are saying. The facts regarding the actual claims of the two sides in the dispute are buried under scrubbed language.

Here’s the Arabs’ claim on the property: In the 1950s, Jordan and the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees gave 28 refugee families homes there. The families say that Jordan promised them full ownership, but the houses were never formally registered in their names.

And this is the Jews' claim: A small Jewish community lived in the compound… from the late 19th century; the last remnants left during the hostilities leading up to the establishment of Israel in 1948, after which the area fell under Jordanian control.

Any real estate attorney worth his salt would conclude immediately that this is a tale of long-term ownership which was interrupted by agencies that did not own the right to the land. But Kershner does away with this inconvenience by talking about "remnant" Jews who "left" in 1948, and then the Jordanians somehow obtained "control."

This fast and furious play with the history of siege and starvation of a Jewish civilian population by a British-led Jordanian Legion could be forgiven, had the reporter taken care to represent the other side of that reality through additional voices. I have to say that my immediate reaction to the story was one of feeling assaulted by a propaganda monger with little more than support for one of the sides in mind. This is such an autistically one-sided article, it is equally offensive to both right- and left-wingers.

Which has to be my nugget of goodness for the day. Today I discovered that reporters with a mission who abandon their elementary obligation to their readers, namely to provide as full an offering of the facts as possible, contribute to the demise of the very people they wish to support. In a reality in which their side doesn’t stand a chance of ever being fairly represented, "fervent nationalist" Jews are more likely to rely on the law, giving up on values like empathy and neighborly sentiments. Fairness and honesty are not a luxury in a time of great disputes, they are the most essential, indispensable qualities.

Yori Yanover