Michael Bronner

I had a sense of déjà vu reading a New York Times piece recently – the distinct feeling I’d read the same piece before, or at least a nearly identical one. 

A quick search revealed I had – bizarrely, also in The New York Times, by the same correspondent, less than six months apart:

On August 5, 2013, the news from Nahariya, Israel, was that Across Forbidden Border, Doctors in Israel Quietly Tend to Syria’s Wounded. The piece tells of skilled Israeli physicians treating a small number of gravely wounded Syrians whose relatives manage to transport them to the border.

Then, on January 29, 2014, the news from Nahariya was that Despite Decades of Enmity, Israel Quietly Aids Syrian Civilians.” The piece tells of skilled Israeli physicians treating a small number of gravely wounded Syrians whose relatives manage to transport them to the border.

It’s odd for any news organization to repeat a story; the January redux piece is not an update and makes no reference to its August incarnation. Is it because the doctors are so “Quietly” doing their work (as the titles suggest) that the Times felt the need to reprise? Lest we miss the point? (And what is the point the Times editors feel requires such urgent reiteration?)  

A close read of the parallel dispatches reveal them to be something other than journalism. 

The thrust of the stories, penned by Jerusalem correspondent Isabel Kershner, is that, because Israel and Syria are “technically” still at war (in the author’s overriding penchant for euphemism), it is both surprising and notably benevolent that Israeli doctors would help enemy neighbors in need. 

Both pieces begin, heartbreakingly (and unambiguously), with children: “a three-year-old girl…her face blackened by what doctors say was probably a firebomb or a homemade bomb,” and “[t]wo brothers, ages 10 and 8…playing marbles outside their home in a town in Syria when a rocket decapitated the older one and critically wounded his sibling.”

Enter the white knight, the Savior on the (Golan) Heights, as Kershner draws it: “Having rushed the surviving child to a local hospital, the mother [of the marble-playing sons above] recalled, medics told her: ‘If you want to save your son, you should take him to Israel.’”

The language Kershner uses to describe the exodus from darkness to light serves to infantilize the wounded and their relatives, trembling with misplaced fears as they approach the border: “I grew up hearing that Israel was an enemy country and that if you met an Israeli he would kill you,” one Syrian patient tells Kershner. Says another: “We got to the border. I saw soldiers. I was a little afraid.” All it takes for the latter is to actually meet the Israelis, however, and “the fear has passed totally.” 

“A large part of our treatment was to try to embrace her in a kind of virtual hug,” a doctor explains.

Any reader would want to hug both the children and the doctors helping them – any tiny human relief from the horror Syria’s become. But for Kershner, the ultimate purpose of drawing humanity is to piggyback politics, which she gets to in short order: “[S]ome Syrians say they now fear President Bashar al-Assad’s forces more than the Israeli soldiers at the frontier,” she writes, while others who had been afraid to come “now fear going back.” 

That's because in the world Kershner conjures, Israel is a passive bystander coincidentally proximate to an unstable Arab neighbor whose barbaric factions are tearing each other limb from limb – horrors to which Israel “cannot remain indifferent,” as she quotes Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon as saying, further spotlighting his comments on efforts to send food, toys and winter jackets to Syrian refugees as if charitable clothing drops are in any realm of the real world within the portfolio of the Israeli defense minister. The notion that any government, let alone Israel, would be “indifferent” to massively violent civil war on its (contested) border involving no less than an enemy army, Hezbollah and myriad radical Sunni fundamentalist fighters is beyond absurdity.

In Kershner’s version, however, the most capable (and proven interventionist) intelligence and special forces operators in the Middle East are sitting this one out, despite the threat posed by such proximate chaos: “Israel has repeatedly declared a policy of non-intervention in the Syrian civil war, other than its readiness to strike at stocks of advanced weapons it considers a threat to its security,” she writes. No reporter is obligated to credit nonsense no matter how “repeatedly” any government declares it, but in this case it suits the narrative.

Ironically, the sense of exoticism with which Kershner treats the professional practice of medicine seems demeaning, ultimately, to the Israeli doctors and medical staff, who would no doubt recoil at the suggestion that it’s at all surprising they would treat gravely injured patients to the best of their ability regardless of nationality. This medical ethic is enshrined in the 1864 Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field, which provides for “relief to the wounded without any distinction as to nationality”; as long as there have been wars, physicians and medics have treated wounded from the other side, both soldiers and civilians. In a more recent example, there’s not a single American medic I’ve met who served in Iraq who’s not treated overwhelmingly more Iraqis (of all stripes) than American GIs. And in many Israeli hospitals, Israeli doctors have long treated Palestinian patients, working alongside Palestinian doctors they are training. 

The world of these pieces diverges significantly from the more proximate and tactile view of reality held by Israelis; rather, the stories emerge as strategically decontextualized pieces of propaganda tailored to a particularly American fantasy image of the Promised Land. 

The Times has long been accused of institutional bias in its Israel coverage – the paper was publically called to task for not disclosing the fact that a son of it’s then-Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner (no relation), had enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces, and that Bronner had entered into a business relationship with a top Israeli PR firm that was also pitching him stories; and, more recently, critics have attacked Isabel Kershner, noting that she is married to an Israeli think tank analyst and writer whose work is dedicated to shaping a positive international media image for Israel. It seems unfair to attack Kershner for her husband's job description; in this case, her work speaks well enough for itself.

The most arresting quote in the duel hospital dispatches (all the Syrian quotes in the pieces are anonymous) comes from a grandfather who has accompanied his wounded granddaughter to Israel: “When there is peace,” he tells Kershner, “I will raise an Israeli flag on the roof of my house.” While one can imagine a shaken grandfather far from home overcome with emotion and gratitude towards those who’ve helped his wounded granddaughter, in a part of the world in which occupied territory is the very nexus of conflict, the image is just too loaded – too delicious - a land grab won not through the airstrikes, covert ops, asymmetric retaliation and overwhelming force that have long defined Israel’s defense strategy, but rather by means as sweet as “the hospital’s packaged chocolate puddings” Kershner describes one of the young Syrian patients hoarding in a drawer to share with siblings back home.  

Such a juicy quote, I guess, it in and of itself merits repeating the story, depending on one’s mandate. 

Michael Bronner is a founding editor at Warscapes. He’s reported from Syria and Israel for CBS News, Vanity Fair and others, and has written for The New York Times Op-ed page.

Image via MapIsrael