'A New York Times Reporter in Israel Is Invariably Called an anti-Semite or Self-hating Jew'

Clyde Haberman reflects on 37 years at the Times, his stint in Jerusalem and on Israel, then and now: 'You’re fencing yourself in. You’re building your own Warsaw Ghetto.'

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Clyde Haberman recounts the time a member of Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations – “A president of something or other,” as he puts it – got up and said: “Every morning when I read you, I get sick to my stomach."

“Your health is everything,” the veteran New York Times journalist responded. “You should stop reading."

It is a rare moment of ire in Haberman’s otherwise bemused reflections, over lunch in Manhattan, on his 37 years at the Times and on the four years he spent in the early 1990’s as the paper’s correspondent in Jerusalem. “As if I’m not a human being,” he snarls. “As if I don’t have feelings, so you can call me a no-good, self-hating anti-Semite (several expletives deleted) straight to my face.”

Haberman, 68, has just parted ways with the Times, much to the regret of legions of fans of the smart New York City columns that he’s written for the past 18 years. Before that he reported for the Times on several major and historic national and international news stories, from Japan to Jerusalem, from the fall of Saddam to the fall of communism, and was also the Times’ bureau chief in Tokyo and Rome.

But his stint in Israel during the tumultuous days of the Oslo Accords was undoubtedly special for the Orthodox-born-and-raised Haberman, in more ways than one.

“Throughout my career,” he says, “I’ve had my fair share of “you’re an idiot” letters, but many more letters of praise as well. Israel is the only assignment I ever had in which in four years I never once got a letter that said "nice job." If I would have gotten one, I would have had it embossed and put it on a wall, like a business does with the first dollar bill it makes.”

This, he says, is the lot of most New York Times’ reporters in Israel, as well as other prominent American journalists who have agreed to an Israel posting. I ask whether sending a Jewish reporter is hence a good or bad idea. “All other things being equal,” he replies, “it is probably better to send a non-Jew rather than a Jew – just as I would probably prefer to send a non-Indian to India. It’s better to avoid that extra component.”

But when I point out that a majority of the Times’ representatives in Israel in the past 30 years have, in fact, been Jewish, Haberman says: “You may be surprised to learn that there aren’t as many correspondents clamoring for the job as Israelis would like to think. Every Times person in Israel has been subjected to non-stop assault. People realize that it entails a lot of scrutiny, grief and verbal abuse.”

“We’ve had decades of correspondents that, no matter how different they’ve been one from the other, no matter how talented they are or how many Pulitzer Prizes they have to their name, always end up being accused of being either anti-Semites or self-hating Jews. At some point, this seeps into the DNA of the newspaper: This is what you can expect if you go there - to have your integrity hurled back in your face every single day.”

And things are probably much worse now, Haberman concedes, because of internet and emails and the ability to instantly respond and protest. Not only that, he adds, but Muslims and Arabs, in general, and Palestinians, in particular, have also adopted “the same ‘beat the newspaper over the head’ format that Jewish groups have come to perfect."

After a while it became clear to me, he adds drily, “that if I didn’t want to be accused of hating Israel, I should start every story with: ‘50 years after 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust, Israel yesterday did one thing or the other.’”

“Jews still don’t believe that the world won’t turn on them. It’s hardwired into their systems. They can’t accept that the Holocaust is a distant memory for most of the world’s population and they get upset when they are not perceived as perennial victims, even though they hardly look like victims anymore. But historical memory today is almost an oxymoron. People hardly remember the Vietnam War, and even 9/11 is a starting to be a fading memory for younger Americans.”

Haberman recounts how impressed he was by Yitzhak Rabin’s inaugural speech after his second election as prime minister in 1992, when he told the Knesset that Israelis “have to stop thinking that the whole world is against us." These words, Haberman notes, “were like a large gong for me”, and the phrase even made the front page of the New York Times. “It was such a dose of reality and such a refreshing change from Yitzhak Shamir, who kept insisting that the whole world was against us – all 5 billion of them.”

But that was a brief hiatus, I remind him, and it is Shamir’s view that has prevailed. “I know,” he sighs. “All there is today is ‘we're under siege, we’re under siege.’ Israel has built fences and barriers and walls all around it. It has basically built its own ghetto, its own Warsaw Ghetto, to keep everybody out.” To which he adds, almost instinctively: “I know I’m going to get into trouble over that.”

Haberman freely admits that he had truly believed that the Oslo Agreement was the "psychological breakthrough," after which all the other details between Israelis and Palestinians would be worked out. “I’m at the back of a long line of ‘better-than-me's’ who got it all wrong.”

He ascribes some of the misplaced optimism to his chosen profession. “We focus on lousy news,” he says. “So when the rare really good news story comes along – such as the Oslo Accords, or, two decades later, the Arab Spring – it is so refreshing and exhilarating for journalists that they tend to cling to it perhaps more than they should.”

But when people complain to Haberman about the media’s propensity to focus on the negative, “I tell them that a thousand airplanes take off and land from New York’s Kennedy Airport every day. So let’s say we have a headline ‘A Thousand Planes Took Off Safely from JFK.’ And the next day we’d have the same headline, and the next – who would read that? But when there is a crash, everybody reads." Besides, he adds, “A society in which good news is news is usually a pretty messed up society.”

I ask Haberman whether the New York Times is singled out for special disfavor by Jews and Israelis only because of its prominence and influence, or also because it is a "Jewish" newspaper. “I’m not even sure that’s true anymore. Other than my banter with my good friend Joe Berger (the Times’ religion reporter) I’ve never heard a Jewish joke in the newsroom. And if you go down the line of current editors (and he lists them) there aren’t many Jews, and those who are Jewish aren’t necessarily practicing Jews.”

I mention the resurgence of criticism of the Times’ coverage of the Holocaust. “There’s no denying it was terrible and there’s no denying that some of the Times’ publishers, including Arthur Hays Sulzberger who was publisher at the time, were conflicted about their Judaism.”

“But the Times’ has apologized so many times for its Holocaust coverage, it has done so many ‘al khets,’” he says, invoking the traditional Yom Kippur prayer of penance, “that I suspect that any attempt to drudge up this issue is disingenuous in the extreme.”

It’s more a matter of perception, he adds, recounting the time a Jewish lady in a group he was lecturing asked him about a report written by a Times reporter called David Cohen. “I wracked my brains,” he says, “but didn’t know who she was talking about. But then a light came on in my head and I said: ‘it’s David Chen, not David Cohen.’ She had subconsciously inserted the O.”

“You better get used to it,” he told his sheepish questioner, “There are less and less Cohens going into this business and more and more Chens, and Hus, and Lius.” Part of the problem of Jews and Israelis who habitually complain about the ‘self-hating Jews’ in American journalism," he adds," is that they are simply behind the times.

I ask him what surprised him most about Israelis. For someone from the Upper West Side, he says, it was the diversity of the population and the coarse and rough day-to-day contact with other people. “But while I may have eaten better in Rome and Tokyo,” he adds, “Jerusalem was the most viscerally grabbing city I have lived in, perhaps because I’m Jewish.”

“I could see myself happily living there,” he adds, “if I was in another line of work, if I didn’t have to involve myself in people’s miseries and conflicts.” And if he didn’t have to be subjected to the steady stream of animosity and criticism that seems to come with the territory, I add, as we say goodbye. 

Clyde Haberman