Journalist Glenn Greenwald flagged a questionable editorial decision that The New York Times made in an article published on May 25, 2016, titled "A Split Over Israel Threatens the Democrats' Hopes for Unity." The sentence in question read, "Two of the senator's [Bernie Sanders] appointees to the party's platform drafting committee, Cornel West and James Zogby, on Wednesday denounced Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and said they believed that rank-and-file Democrats no longer hewed to the party's staunch support of the Israel government."
In the original print edition, Greenwald notes that the word occupation was placed in scare quotes (that is, "a pair of quotation marks used around a term or phrase to indicate that the writer does not think it is being used appropriately or that the writer is using it in a specialized sense"). The Times removed the disputed punctuation later in the day with no editorial explanation.
"The refusal to use the word occupation without scare quotes is one of the most cowardly editorial decisions the New York Times has made," Greenwald says. "This is journalistic malfeasance at its worst: refusing to describe the world truthfully out of fear of the negative reaction by influential factions...." He is referring to powerful Israel supporters in the United States, like GOP billionaire and conservative Zionist Sheldon Adelson, to whom New Jersey governor Chris Christie had to apologize when he referred to the West Bank as part of the "occupied territories."
One is hard pressed to ask, what is the problem in calling the Occupied Palestinian Territories just that, territory occupied by Israel in the 1967 war? This is the exact terminology of Amnesty International. Oxfam uses Occupied Palestinian Territory. The Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem employs Occupied Territories. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has adopted occupied Palestinian territory (oPt). Even the US Department of State refers to The Occupied Territories. Further, UN Security Council Resolution 446 determined in 1979 that "the policy and practices of Israel in establishing settlements in the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967 have no legal validity and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East." Clearly, then, each of these entities uses the word occupied when referring to the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.
Earlier this year, another Israeli human rights organization, Yesh Din, released a position paper describing how the government of Israel has unofficially adopted a document from 2012, the Levy Report, which made a case for not recognizing the Palestinian territories as occupied, and therefore paved the way for rethinking the legality of building Israeli settlements there. In fact, major US news outlets had for years already been calling illegal settlements on the West Bank and East Jerusalem "neighborhoods" or "communities." Here the terminology has been watered down to evoke a residential district, reminiscent of a peaceful suburb, thus belying the true nature of the illegal military occupation that upholds it.
Another recent example of the media's questioning of the use of the word "occupation" occurred on the NBC program Meet the Press, during which host Chuck Todd pushed presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on the Palestinian question. Sanders had just noted that for a lasting peace in the Middle East, it would behoove the United States to respect the needs of the Palestinian people and not push them aside, and to level the playing field between the Palestinians and Israelis. Todd then asked him what the Democratic Party platform should say: "Do you want to refer to the Palestinians as an occupied people? Do you want to say that Israel is occupying Gaza and the West Bank?" That Todd posed these questions shows that the mainstream media, such as NBC, are interrogating, publicly, the use of the term occupation and disputing the longstanding international understanding of the illegality of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
As more and more media outlets toe this line, the consumers of news may slowly follow suit and accept the insidious nomenclature. Glenn Greenwald's concern with The New York Times' use of scare quotes around the word occupation is potential foreshadowing of a new kind of doublespeak, spurred by the Israeli propaganda machine and furthered by a deferential news media.
Zeina Azzam is executive director of The Jerusalem Fund and its educational program, the Palestine Center, in Washington, DC. Views expressed are her own.