Israel in The New York Times Over the Decades: A Changed Narrative and Its Impact on Jewish Readers

By Neil Lewis

Neil LewisNeil Lewis

Shorenstein Center Fellow,
Spring 2011
Formerly, The New York Times

Read the full paper (PDF).


A survey of nearly 3,000 articles in The Times about Israel over the decades from the 1960’s to recent years provides a long-range view that shows that it is a narrative with, in the broadest sense, two phases.

In the first phase, the early decades, Israel was depicted in the newspaper often as a struggling nation trying to thrive while surrounded by implacably hostile Arab neighbors. This reflected a picture of Israel that was probably prevalent in America, one that could be called the “Exodus” view, after the novel by Leon Uris and film starring Paul Newman and Eva Marie-Saint in which the post-Holocaust Jews of the nascent state were heroes and the Arabs were treacherous, dangerous characters.

But, over various points beginning in the late 1960’s through the next dozen years, the narrative began to change to a second, more equivocal phase. The template of the small nation as a David battling a Goliath composed of its enemies no longer fit after Israel prevailed handily in the 1967 War. And gradually, the situation of the Palestinian refugees began to emerge.

The early coverage of Palestinians by The Times typically treated displaced Palestinians as a generic refugee problem — a result of the shifting politics and decisions of the international community — and somewhat divorced from Israel’s concerns.

Gradually, that shifted to a notion that the Palestinians’ situation was directly tied to Israel’s creation and was in some way an ineluctable part of discussions about Israel’s hopes for a peaceful future.

The bulk of the news about and from Israel was distinctly favorable, sometimes even admiring in the early decades of its existence.

Israel was depicted as a nation created by the Western powers explicitly — and the implication was justifiably — as a Jewish state in the aftermath of World War II in which Hitler had almost succeeded in wiping out European Jewry. It came into being through a just turn of history.

And many articles celebrated the impressive ways in which the society, a hybrid of European refugees and Jews native to the British mandate territory of Palestine had created a modern, flourishing state. The Times did its part in chronicling what was indisputably a remarkable story.

The first-rate journalists from The Times and other newspapers in those early years also filed articles with a critical eye about Israel but in doing so, they were like their counterparts in, say, France.

The anniversary of the founding of Israel is an occasion for official joy in the country. But for many Arabs, it is instead commemorated as the “nakba” or catastrophe, the time when half the region’s Arab population — estimated at between 700,000 and 800,000 — had fled or were driven out. Exactly what happened remains a heated debate.

Part of the appeal of the term “nakba” for Arabs is certainly the hope that it may provide some rhetorical and moral counterweight to the emotive terms “Holocaust” and “Shoah” (Hebrew for “catastrophe.”). It has been in use among Arabs since 1949, according to one expert.

The word does not, however, make its first appearance in The Times until 1998 in an article that was part of a series examining Israel on its 50th anniversary. “Nakba” which has become a familiar term on university campuses because of the considerable support in such places for the Palestinian cause, subsequently appears in The Times’s news pages only a few dozen more times.

Read the full paper (PDF).