America’s reporting on Palestine has always been biased

Jeff Pearce
28 min readApr 25, 2024

From a riot during the British Mandate to Martha Gellhorn’s smears of refugees, American coverage has never been fair

In 1929, Vincent Sheehan, one of the top foreign correspondents of his day, was in Jerusalem — on assignment for a periodical put out by the Zionist Organization of America, though he had vowed to its editor that he would not write political propaganda, that a description of the country and the Zionist colonies [settlements] would have to be enough.” On the hot afternoon of August 14, an American stringer for the Times of London named Anne Goldsmith visited him and asked if he would join her as she walked over to the Wailing Wall, because she had to write a telegram about it for her paper. The Times usually relied on Gershon Agronsky, but he was away at a conference in Zurich (two years later, Agronsky founded what today is the Jerusalem Post). Would Sheehan help her report on that evening’s events?

Sheehan was slightly mystified. What was this all about? Goldsmith explained how she had just come from Tel Aviv, and there was supposed to be a “bust-up” later that afternoon and early evening at the Wall, which by then was a spot of increasing friction between Jews and Arabs (incredibly, Zionists offered to buy the Wailing Wall outright for £80,000 in 1919, but the Muslim authorities turned this down). Young settlers from Eastern Europe known as the halutzim were coming in from the settlements and Tel Aviv with arms, spoiling for a fight. The Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem had apparently even prepared extra stretchers, anticipating high casualties.

But as far as Goldsmith was concerned, “it would be a good thing if there was a row at the Wall to ‘show that we are here,’” and “that it would arouse world Jews and increase contributions to the new [United Jewish] Agency.” Sheehan was appalled. He wrote in his diary how “she was inconceivably cynical and flippant about the whole thing.”

Almost a hundred years later, it seems little has changed in terms of vetting stringers for major newspapers. Anat Schwartz, an accomplished filmmaker but someone who had no journalistic experience, was brought onboard to help write several articles for the New York Times about Hamas and sexual violence. It turned out that on X, she liked a tweet calling for Gaza to be turned “into a slaughterhouse.”

As The Intercept reported back in January, “Major U.S. newspapers disproportionately emphasized Israeli deaths in the conflict; used emotive language to describe the killings of Israelis, but not Palestinians; and offered lopsided coverage of antisemitic acts in the U.S., while largely ignoring anti-Muslim racism in the wake of October 7.” Nor were the American papers alone. The Breach, relying on anonymous staff blowing the whistle, reported last November how the Canadian CTV network “disparaged Palestinian guests, told employees that protests calling for a ceasefire should not be reported on, and blocked or delayed stories that included too much contextual information about Israel’s occupation and regime of apartheid in Palestine.”

But the bias is nothing new. From the days of the British Mandate to the early years of Israel, the English-language press — especially American news outlets — have gone out of their way to misreport the truth, sometimes even getting into bed with terrorists to do it. And one of the worst offenders is a reporting legend and feminist icon who has a journalism award named after her.

“Bitterly Indignant”

We first need to go back to 1929, when Vincent Sheehan reluctantly walked to the Wailing Wall with Anne Goldsmith. Perhaps because British and Palestinian police were well deployed near the Wall, nothing happened that first night. Sheehan found it hard to believe that Zionist leaders were trying to provoke a bloodbath, and though tempted to go to the authorities, he doubted that his warning would be believed. As he wrote later in his book, Personal History, he’d “had ample experience in this kind of thing for many years. I had seen mobs and street fights from Chicago to Hankou [now Wuhan] and back again. I knew the electricity that hatred sets up in the air.”

But here was his journalistic colleague not merely acting on a tip, but cheering for one side as she represented the Times, the most important newspaper in Britain.

Three days later, as Arabs and Jews fought near the Wall, a Jewish boy was stabbed on a soccer field, and his subsequent death sparked a new wave of violence. On the day of the boy’s funeral, about 3,000 Jews paraded with flags and tried to march into the Arab part of the city, and the British police beat them back with clubs as they rushed the cordon. Then it was the Arabs’ turn; they came on the same day with knives and clubs to attack Jewish homes at the Damascus Gate, with only six policemen there to hold the line.

Sheehan saw one brave Arab try to coax the mob to go back — he failed. “Some rushed under the horses’ bellies, others squirmed through between the inadequate six, in another moment we heard smashing and a long scream.” Minutes later, a mob of Jews “in all the stages of terror, fury, and despair were assembled on a hill. They were held back by some of their own people, but a short time before, one of them had thrown a grenade at some of the Arabs coming up the hill and had killed two.”

Then on August 24 in Hebron, a rumor that Jews wanted to destroy Muslim holy places sparked a massacre of 67 Jews, most of them Ashkenazic men but a dozen women and three toddlers as well. Scores of others were wounded; women were raped, one man was burned to death with a kerosene stove, while five men were castrated. And yet in the midst of all this horror, there were acts of compassion and heroism. As Tom Segev noted in One Palestine, Complete, the Hebron Jewish community later declared, “Had it not been for a few Arab families, not a Jewish soul would have remained in Hebron.” Arabs put themselves at risk to shelter Jews as those committing the massacre ran amuck.

“I was bitterly indignant with the Zionists for having, as I believed, brought on this disaster,” wrote Sheehan. “I was shocked into hysteria by the ferocity of the Arab anger, and I was aghast at the inadequacy of the British government.” It didn’t help that he was pushing himself to the brink, not sleeping, traumatized by his visits to survivors in hospitals in Hebron and Jerusalem, including a children’s ward. He worked around the clock to report and send cables back to his old wire service in New York, and his outrage was clear in his dispatches, using the term “Zionist fascisti” in one of them. The New York World, one of the many papers that published his wire service reports, got 3,000 letters of protest over his coverage in one day, and a large demonstration was held outside its offices. With the pressure up and advertisers threatening to drop it, the World put some distance between itself and Sheehan’s reporting, publicly labeling one of his articles “unjust.”

Bias has always been the white whale of media critics, especially right-wingers. Self-published author named Ashley Rindsberg devoted a whole book, The Gray Lady Winked, to knocking the New York Times for what he perceives as its failures, which conveniently include for Rindsberg the 1619 Project.

But if you look deeper into a century of American journalism history and beyond just one paper, you find that news outlets have cared less about the bias than the bottom line, eager to support a collective narrative shared by several of their competitors, as long as the presses kept running and advertisers kept paying.

Walter Duranty, the New York Times correspondent who did his best to cover up the Stalin-era famine in Ukraine, didn’t act alone — a whole group of other correspondents were in on the cover-up. American newspapers happy to take the deep discounts offered by Mussolini’s regime on their expensive telegraph rates for sending stories home — as long as those stories offered glowing praise of fascism. And when reporters Herbert Matthews and George Seldes tried to get the truth out about the Spanish Civil War for their respective papers, priests and Catholic activists bullied publishers and editors to tow a more pro-Franco line.

As Sheehan tried to report accurately what he saw, he soon became physically and mentally exhausted. He “was weary unto death of cabling anyhow and did not want to get any of my unfortunate newspapers into trouble with their Jewish readers and advertisers.” He told his wire service back home to let him go and not bother him anymore for reports.

What happened with Sheehan demonstrates how even our current debates over anti-Zionism vs. anti-Semitism and even the comparisons of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to fascists are nothing new in political debates over Palestine. “The right-wing Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky had indeed been influenced by European fascist movements, modeling his own paramilitary force on Mussolini’s blackshirts,” historian Deborah Cohen tells us in her book, Last Call at the Hotel Imperial. “Jabotinsky’s Jewish opponents in the Zionist Labour movement regularly called him a fascist.”

In The Seventh Million, Tom Segev includes a lengthy footnote describing how leaders from David Ben-Gurion to Chaim Weizmann regularly compared their rivals to Nazis in the early 1930s, and “long after the grisly details of the Holocaust became known, Ben-Gurion compared Menachem Begin to Hitler.”

As always, context and background matter. In retelling the story of Vincent Sheehan’s and his friend and fellow correspondent John Gunther’s coverage of Palestine in 1929 for Last Call at the Hotel Imperial, Cohen wrote how the two “likened Zionism to the conquest of Native American territory by the land-grabbing settlers.” When Sheehan and Gunther “invoked fascism, they meant Zionism was expansionist, aggressive, nationalistic, and racially exclusive, all characteristics of the kind of fascism they had seen firsthand in Italy, Romania and Hungary.”

Gunther wrote a feature titled “The Realities of Zionism” for the July 1930 issue of Harper’s Monthly. “In literal terms, it is not true that the country has been ‘taken’ by the Jews,” he argued. “Even today, of an estimated 2,750,000 acres of cultivable land in all Palestine, the Jews hold only about 225,000 acres. And one should point out that all this land was bought and paid for by the Jews, at a good price, and that the Arabs were willing enough to sell. Nevertheless, the bedrock quality of Arab resentment remained unmodified. Essentially the Arabs were being dispossessed. In the early days Zionist hopes ran very high; Zionists boasted that in thirty more years they would outnumber the Arabs, and the country would be ‘theirs.’ Dozens of details contributed to the indignation of the Arabs, and in time the opinion of an ignorant, childish, and credulous group of nomads and peasants was solidified to a passionate, relentless anti-Zionism.”

Despite the casual slurs, Gunther was genuinely sympathetic to the Palestinian Arabs. When it came to the riots and massacres of the previous August, “In each case, Zionist provocation came first.” He was far more critical of the British, observing shrewdly, “By virtue of its official commitments under the Balfour Declaration and the Palestine Mandate, Britain is obliged to remain in Palestine. Zionism not only serves to give the British an anchor in the Middle East, it makes that anchor moral.”

It should have been no surprise then that Britain’s so-called Shaw Commission investigating the whole debacle in November of 1929 absolved its authorities in its final report: “We cannot attach blame to any police officer for failure to prevent the Jewish demonstration at the Wailing Wall on the l5th of August.” In fact, it thought “the conduct of the British police in Palestine during the period of the disturbances deserves the highest commendation.” But more importantly for us here is that Sheehan ended up as a witness, having to defend his work and his own account of events. A lawyer for Zionist activists asked him outright if his sympathies were anti-Jewish.

“Anti-Jewish, no,” replied Sheehan. “Anti-Zionist.”

“Your sympathies with Zionism are at the moment imperfect,” said the lawyer.

Sheehan, who wasn’t about to be intimidated, told him, “They are non-existent.”

Ann Goldsmith was then brought in to testify, and the Times of London stringer lied to the panel of commissioners, claiming she’d never used the expression “bust-up” and no, she hadn’t warned Sheehan of imminent trouble at the Wall by the halutzim, and “no, she wasn’t a Zionist.”

For all the controversy over what the Shaw Commission referred to with ridiculous understatement as “Disturbances,” Sheehan — and John Gunther, for that matter — survived the backlash. Being American reporters, they owed nothing to the British public, which was the main audience for the Shaw Commission. Back home in the United States, opinions could be mixed over the Middle East in the 1930s, even among Jews, and it was also an era of widespread and open anti-Semitism. Sheehan and John Gunther both moved on from Palestine to other adventures; both wrote bestselling books, both later inspired Hollywood movies.

As for the “non-Zionist” Anne Goldsmith, it doesn’t appear that she ever had to pay any consequences for her behavior. Less than three years later, she was in charge of advertising and women’s affairs at Gershon Agronsky’s Palestine Post, later the Jerusalem Post.

The Papers Turn… and Turn Again

Nothing so explicitly demonstrates how media outlets will rank protecting themselves as job one and exploit the ephemeral “oh, that was yesterday” nature of news than its collective attitude towards the Nazis. Outraged Jews protested outside the World over Sheehan’s reportage in 1930, but a mere three years later, most English language newspapers — American, British, Canadian — failed the Jews over Nazi persecution. They failed to properly sound the alarm over the Holocaust. While once again, the New York Times took a lot of criticism for this decades later, Professor Deborah Lipstadt demonstrated in her book Beyond Belief that the Times had a lot of company with newspapers across the United States.

Many people assume that the West’s collective guilt over the revelations of the Holocaust death camps helped secure backing for the creation of the state of Israel. While some of that is true, well before the liberation of the first major camp, Madjanek in Poland, in July of 1944, the sympathetic coverage for a state of Israel had already begun.

For the October 11, 1943 issue of Life magazine, there was a photo essay on Palestine, its headline declaring, “JEWISH HOMELAND: Palestine Wants a Million More Jews.” Palestine was already being depicted as a virtual Israeli state in all but diplomatic recognition. “What gives the Jewish homeland pressing point now is that half the Jews in the world, some eight million, have been trapped inside Hitler’s Europe. At least three million of these are by now certainly dead.” As Professor Deborah Lipstadt pointed out, this casual line demonstrated again that reporters “may not have known just how bad things were [during the Holocaust], but they knew they were quite bad.”

The Life feature suggested reasonably that “the others,” i.e. those still left in Hitler’s Europe, “yearn desperately to escape.” But then comes this: “Palestine is ready to receive them, 300,000 a year, a million and more in three years. Yet a British White Paper of 1939 forbids further Jewish immigration into Palestine after 1944.”

In two short sentences, the magazine ran roughshod over close to two decades of Mandate history, not bothering to summarize the rise of tensions between Palestinian and Jewish residents, the infusion of Zionist-backed capital and purchase of land, the dispossession of Arabs. The British were implied to be the villain above, but a mere photo essay couldn’t begin to tap the complexities involved, and the magazine didn’t bother to try. It was easier to present a narrative for its choice of underdog.

“It is asserted,” claimed Life in the October 11 issue, “that as soon as the Jews have a sovereign majority in Palestine (they now number 35 percent), world Jewry will hand all its Palestine powers and properties over to the Jews in Palestine. The prospering of Palestine in the past twenty years has attracted and enriched the Arabs. Many farsighted Arabs see an industrial Jewish Palestine as a natural bridge between the Christian West and the Muslim Middle East, which is now one of the world’s major dead ends.”

For all of these claims, there is no Arab quoted, and no sign that the reporter ever spoke to one. The photo essay offered shots of a Jewish settlement, the “modernistic German architecture” of Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Circle, Tel Aviv’s beach, which “might be Miami Beach,” portraits of different successful Jewish residents, “Tel Aviv society, one of the most cosmopolitan in world [sic]” — but not one photo portrait of any of their Arab neighbors.

Thompson and Gellhorn, Poles Apart

Two celebrated female reporters: Dorothy Thompson and Martha Gellhorn. Two correspondents with unimpeachable credentials for opposing Nazism. Yet they finished the war with attitudes that were miles apart in assessing German guilt for the Holocaust — and over Palestine.

Dorothy Thompson was by then the elder stateswoman of journalism. Making her mark as a foreign correspondent in the 1920s, she later had millions reading her newspaper column and millions more listening to her radio broadcasts in the 1930s. Time magazine considered her almost as influential as Eleanor Roosevelt, and the character played by Katherine Hepburn in the 1942 comedy Woman of the Year was modeled after her (which she loathed).

In 1931, she wrote, “When finally I walked into Adolf Hitler’s salon in the Kaiserhof Hotel, I was convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany. In something less than fifty seconds I was quite sure that I was not.” It would be her most famous gaffe, a point of friendly teasing from her friends and rivals, yet Thompson did such critical reporting on the Nazis over the next handful of years that they expelled her from Germany in 1934.

Gellhorn hadn’t even begun her journalism career then. She will, alas, be saddled with the heavy carcass of Ernest Hemingway forever, despite the fact that she had more things to say and certainly deeper things to say than her husband of five years. As Gore Vidal once succinctly put it, “nothing interested him except a few sensuous experiences like killing things and fucking.” Gellhorn, however, went from diving into reportage as Papa’s companion in Spain’s civil war, knowing no Spanish, to building an impressive career over sixty years as a roving war correspondent and writer on international affairs.

When Thompson wrote about “The Lessons of Dachau” for Ladies’ Home Journal in September 1945, she argued that the “hideous crimes” of the Nazis were not “primitive outbursts of fury, but highly rationalized and scientifically perpetrated.” Thompson, however, put the blame on individuals, not on the German people. To one critic who called her a “turncoat,” she wrote back demanding to know just who were the “collective guilty,” and “Do you want to indict the directors of General Motors? Did they not expand their plant in Germany for war purposes, under threat that otherwise their profits would be expropriated?”

Gellhorn had no patience with this sort of view. She wrote a scathing piece on the issue in 1945 which concluded sarcastically that “the Germans, untroubled by regret — because after all they did nothing wrong, they only did what they were told to do — keep on saying with energy: we are not Nazis. It is their idea of the password to forgiveness, probably followed by a sizeable loan…Hundreds of thousands of people in khaki around here, and equal numbers of foreigners in rags, cannot see it that way.”

Gellhorn, unlike Thompson, actually went to report on Dachau in person, and her subsequent article was naturally stronger and makes for a devastating read. Here she is on how inmates reacted to the day American troops arrived to liberate them: “In their joy to be free, and longing to see their friends who had come at last, many prisoners rushed to the fence and died electrocuted. There were those who died cheering, because that effort of happiness was more than their bodies could endure. There were those who died because now they had food, and they ate before they could be stopped, and it killed them… Dachau seemed to me the most suitable place in Europe to hear the news of victory. For surely this war was made to abolish Dachau, and all the other places like Dachau, and everything that Dachau stood for, and to abolish it forever.”

In point of fact, the Second World War was not made and certainly didn’t start because of the Nazis’ crimes against vulnerable populations but because Hitler invaded Poland, and because the Japanese attacked Pear Harbor. The above is brilliant prose, but it helped a journalistic revision that the Second World War was a “just war” — the good guys were no longer in it to defend territory, they were on a moral crusade.

Nowhere in her article does Gellhorn identify her sources at Dachau, not the Polish doctor she spoke to or the German socialist prisoner who served as her guide. To be fair, it was the fashion of English-language journalism in the 1930s and forties to barely identify witnesses and sources this way, and we can’t doubt that what Gellhorn saw with her own eyes and heard was the truth. But to modern eyes, the prose has the curious effect of actually dehumanizing the Dachau prisoners: “Behind the barbed wire and the electric fence, the skeletons sat in the sun and searched themselves for lice.” It’s a powerful line, but no one gets a name.

Visiting Dachau had a profound effect on Gellhorn; it turned her into an ardent Zionist. But it was possible to fully recognize the horrors of the Nazis and come to very different conclusions about Israel. Dorothy Thompson did. In the 1920s, she had been an ardent supporter of Zionism, so much so that despite not being Jewish herself, she was once offered a job as a reporter with the Jewish Correspondence Bureau (now the JTA). She was a long-time supporter of the Partition scheme, but as her biographer Peter Kurth (American Cassandra) noted, when she visited Palestine in 1945, she wrote to her old editor at the New York Post “that the situation there is not the way it has been presented by many of the Zionists. It is one of the most complicated and difficult problems on the Earth today.”

She had been a close friend of Vincent Sheehan, but they had never found common ground over Palestine. In a few short years, after becoming increasingly alarmed over the extremist elements taking over the Zionist movement, she would declare that he knew the Middle East “better than most journalists, and the Zionist movement better, I believe than any.”

It’s been argued that Thompson hadn’t broken off her support of the Zionist movement completely in the 1940s, only criticizing its extremist elements. Her concerns weren’t baseless. In July 1946, the Irgun, led by Israel’s future prime minister Menachem Begin, planted a bomb in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel — part of which was used by the British authorities at the time — and the explosion murdered ninety-one people, among them seventeen Jews.

Thompson’s opinions, however, were enough for the editor of the New York Post, Ted Thackrey, to drop her syndicated column — which stopped Thompson from having an audience in New York and cut about a quarter of her income. Thackrey used the public excuse of her views about German guilt over Nazi crimes to evict her from the Post, but she and others knew there was more to it than this.

The paper’s own executive editor, Paul Sann, recalled later, “Thackrey was very close to the Irgunists and Menachem Begin. They were a must — conferences, interviews — but we were pushing their cause instead of covering it. I was against those bastards — I don’t knock them now they got a stake — but they were very, very suspect to me. I knew some of them, they were very creepy. They had an inordinate access to our columns.” (Quoted in Men, Money & Magic: The Story of Dorothy Schiff by Jeffrey Potter.)

Thackrey’s boss was also his wife, publisher Dorothy Schiff (he later quit, and they divorced), and in Men, Money & Magic, she remembered, “These terrorists and other pressure groups would come to Ted in the office. I think it was a psychological thing; he was jealous, wanted his own thing, and walked right into their hands. I didn’t know they were terrorists until I found out from one of our reporters, Fern Eckman…” Thompson herself noted how Begin and his fellow Irgun members were welcomed by New York City’s mayor William O’Dwyer “against the protests of a few courageous Zionists such as Albert Einstein.”

As for Thompson, she went on undeterred, sounding alarms in her column and articles. “What is patently happening,” she wrote in January 1949, “is that in default of firm decision by the [UN] security council, and in the face of the wretched weakness of Arab armies, the frontiers of Israel are being established by Israel armed force and already include far more territory than originally granted. Anyone who knows the Zionist movement knows that its extremists set no limit to Zionist expansion in the Middle East. Revisionists, Irgunists, and Sternists publicly claim not only all Palestine but all Trans-Jordan… and in private discuss the addition of Syria and parts of Ethiopia.”

The claim that Zionist extremists wanted parts of Ethiopia was not as farfetched as it may sound. Over the 1940s, a strange collection of Jewish activists and outright grifters tried to get their hands on different parts of Ethiopia, including Harar, claiming each time (wrongly) that it was “under-populated” and hoping to convince the U.S. government to back their schemes. After the war, Ethiopia’s emperor Haile Selassie gave a definitive no.

By June of 1949, Thompson was getting involved with helping a relief organization for Palestinian refugees. But she also lost another important platform — the Washington Star wouldn’t publish her columns on Zionism and threatened to completely drop her column.

For a speech at the 1951 annual conference of the American Council for Judaism, she argued that peace was possible “only if the U.S. ceases to treat one state in the Middle East as its particular protection and pet, and adopts more detachment and equality of treatment, and until the displaced Arabs are properly compensated for their losses.” Discrimination against Arabs was regular in Israel, and “despite all the claims of the Zionists, the minuscule Arab population, who represent not more than fifteen percent of the original indigenous Arab inhabitants, live as second-rate citizens, with serious restrictions on their rights. The fact that Arabs can sit in the Knesset does not give them equal rights as citizens with Jews. And it is these statutes which are responsible for a flow of Arab refugees from Palestine that has never stopped to this day.”

“Trolling” before the Internet was a slow-crawl campaign of ugly rumors about spouses, poison pen letters, and smear jobs in an opposition press. A writer for Boston’s Jewish Advocate, for instance, called Thompson “a haggard witch.” Her editors didn’t like her continually rocking the boat and when she wanted to attack Israel as “the 49th state of the Union” and “the only nation in history to have been canonized at birth,” they advised her, “Don’t carry torches.”

They considered such criticism of Israel “almost a definition of professional suicide.” In the future, it could prove to be, but Thompson vowed, “I refuse to become an anti-Semite by appointment. I simply feel too old and too stubborn, if you like, to begin at my age to yield to this kind of blackmail.”

In our era, there’s been renewed interest in Thompson, trying to cast her as a free speech martyr. In 2015, Gil Maguire wrote a feature for Mondoweiss that used a speech by President Obama as its news peg and was headlined, “Obama’s role model to journalists — Dorothy Thompson — turned against Zionism and was silenced.” Well, no, she wasn’t, and this is grossly overstating the case. The combative Thompson — who always appreciated giving nuances in reporting — would no doubt not have approved of how she’s depicted by Maguire.

While presenting many of the pertinent facts, he leaves the impression that all doors were closed to her, which wasn’t the case. During the 1950s, she could still travel, still write, and had a publisher for her book reprinting her columns. In 1956, her editors demanded her resignation as president of the American Friends of the Middle East (AFME), but in retrospect, this was probably a good thing. Thompson didn’t know it, but the AFME got funding from the CIA. Her prestige was still large enough that she could land an interview with Gamal Nasser at the height of the Suez Crisis. And despite the loss of lucrative markets like New York and Washington, Thompson kept writing her column three times a week until 1958 when she chose to retire.

Hers is still a cautionary tale. A younger, less established reporter with less resolve could have been crushed in trying to take such stands, and maybe some were. American journalism purports to tell the truth, and when its exponents are humbler, they claim to at least offer facts. But when it came to Palestine, journalists showed they were incapable of presenting the reality that foreign terrorists could influence a major New York daily while an American reporter was treated as an enemy.

Gellhorn’s Grumbles

Besides becoming one of the reporter legends in the Spanish Civil War, Martha Gellhorn covered Vietnam, Java, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and the U.S. invasion of Panama. She became a sainted figure of journalism with an award named after her and films and documentaries made about her while Dorothy Thompson faded into obscurity.

Months after Dorothy Thompson died in 1961, Martha Gellhorn wrote “The Arabs of Palestine” for The Atlantic Monthly. It’s Gellhorn at her worst. Early in the piece, she tells us that the Palestinians should be looked at “as a people” and “They are individuals like everyone else.” She then systematically undermines any reader sympathy for them in example after example that depicts them in a poor light.

Her guide takes her to a woman who apparently lies about her roof repairs, whom her guide and Gellhorn refer to as a liar and a crook. She meets a crank of a camp leader who denies the Holocaust and outrageously claims the Jews colluded with Hitler for their own destruction. “Arabs gorge on hate, they roll in it, they breathe it,” she later tells us. “Jews top the hate list, but any foreigners are hateful enough. Arabs also hate each other, separately and en masse. Their politicians change the direction of their hate as they would change their shirts.”

For Gellhorn, the great Palestinian sin is that they refused to concede that Israel had won its war for “independence” and occupied their homeland. They should make the best of their lot in places like Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan and give up on going home. Her story contains two assertions that contradict each other in the same paragraph. Her “tiny personal Gallup poll” supposedly found “plenty of refugees who were happy where they were and had no desire to return to Palestine, no matter what,” yet in the next sentence, she tells us with clear disapproval that “none of them wanted to return to Israeli, as Israeli citizens and dwell in peace with their Jewish neighbors.”

It is astonishing how irony-impaired Gellhorn was when she wrote this article, for she reminds her reader about the Stern Gang and the Irgun, both of which she acknowledges as ruthless, but then tells us: “Under the circumstances that created them, these two outlawed bands do not seem very different from Resistance groups, Partisans or Commandos, all of whom were admired as patriots, and none of whom obeyed the Queensbury rules.”

As you read Gellhorn’s piece, you realize that there is a deliberate theme, one she marked for us early on. “The word refugee is drenched in memories which stretch back over too many years and too many landscapes: Spain, Czechoslovakia, China, Finland, England, Italy, Holland, Germany… In Germany, at war’s end, the whole country seemed alive with the roaming mad — slave laborers, concentration camp survivors — who spoke the many tongues of Babel, dressed in whatever scraps they had looted… people like these defined the meaning of refugee.”

Gellhorn came to the region, thinking she would be confronted with bodies “rotting in the heat,” folks plagued with tuberculosis and rickets. And you realize that the Palestinians are not meeting her expectations of suffering. Without knowing it, they’ve somehow let her down.

Much of her scorn was reserved for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Just as Gellhorn saw the agency as a biased organization, so today, Israel has accused it of employing staff who supposedly took part in the October 7 attacks, and despite no hard evidence being provided, the U.S., UK, Canada, and others put the brakes on millions of dollars in aid to Gaza in response.

In 1961, Gellhorn blamed the UNRWA for never taking a proper census of Palestinians while spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a people she depicted as scammers. Twice, Gellhorn uses the term “welfare state,” and she paints a picture worthy of any conservative senator railing against liberalism. In one camp, most men had jobs, but they dared not inform the UNRWA, or they would lose their rations — never mind that anyone who has ever been on social assistance in the U.S. or UK would face the same rock and same hard place. To make the picture complete, we get descriptions of suffering children, and a UNRW official tells her that the men in the camp would never allow birth control as they want a lot of sons; he’d heard them say, “We need to have many children and grow and increase so that the world will never forget us.”

But if Gellhorn had picked up a copy of that 1943 Life issue, she would have noticed one photo caption that read: “Children are what Palestine Jews want most. Birthrate is high.” This, back when British troops still controlled the territory.

Her article demonstrates the limits, indeed the sheer absurdity of anecdotal journalism, of a reporter blundering into a backdrop without knowing historical contexts. She never visited Palestine during the British Mandate; she spoke no Arabic. She sought out schoolteachers because she hoped they might speak English She assumed that because she personally hadn’t found witnesses, she could rule out certain scenarios:

“Arab refugees tell many dissimilar versions of the Jaffa story [an Israeli attack on the town], but the puzzler is: where the relatives of those who must have perished in the fury of high explosive — the infallible witnesses? No one says he was loaded on a truck (or a boat) at gun point; no one describes being forced from his home by armed Jews; no one recalls the extra menace of enemy attacks, while in flight.”

She was predisposed to see history through an Israeli lens, and she depicted it as such, although to be fair, she didn’t hide her biases. But they still affected her selection of material. She briefly mentions the Egypt-sponsored fedayin of Gaza whose job was to “commit acts of patriotic sabotage and murder” but who were “devastatingly beaten by Israel again in 1956.” Had Gellhorn gotten past her contempt for the UNRWA, she might have checked its report which detailed how Israeli troops entered the Khan Yunis and Rafah camps in November 1956 and summarily executed 450 men, most of them refugees, in three different massacres.

Gellhorn casually portrayed these events in her article as military victories, but Rashid Khalidi noted in The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: “These massacres were the subject of a debate in the Knesset in November 1956, in which the phrase ‘mass murder’ was used.”

Unusual for its time, Gellhorn’s “The Arabs of Palestine” railed against the UN’s relief and works agency, already by then acquiring its false patina of neutrality, as if the operation was as saintly as the Red Cross. She didn’t like what she saw as its meddling in politics and helping Arab propaganda. Her complaints have helped give the article a new life on the Internet, and pro-Israel analyst Mitchell Bard wrote a piece for the Jewish News Syndicate in 2022, clearly admiring her reportage, which he quotes liberally, and suggesting Gellhorn could draft a similar article today.” On this point, he’s correct, but not for the reasons he thinks.

“Journalists are not on the ground in Gaza”

Without realizing it, Gellhorn and her article ushered in a new mindset over refugees, that they must now suffer according to media’s imaginings while being politically expedient. The Palestinians of 1961 couldn’t live up to the “iconic” refugees she saw in Europe. In our modern age, being a refugee has usually meant wearing an African face, an Asian face, or an Arab face. Nothing quite so gave the game away as when Western reporters made appalling comments about Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russian attacks in 2022. CBS foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata told anchors back in New York, “But this isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European — I have to choose those words carefully, too — city where you wouldn’t expect or hope that it’s going to happen.”

In the Telegraph, Daniel Hannan wrote, “They seem so like us… Ukraine is a European country. Its people watch Netflix and have Instagram accounts, vote in free elections and read uncensored newspapers. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone.” On CNN, journalist Julia Ioffre asked, “It’s one thing for sarin gas to be used on people in faraway Syria who are Muslim and who are of a different culture. What is Europe going to do when it is on European soil, done to Europeans?”

On Al Jazeera — a network that was created in the first place to redress the bigoted depictions of Muslims and Arabs — Peter Dobbie remarked, “What’s compelling is looking at them, the way they are dressed. These are prosperous, middle-class people. These are not obviously refugees trying to get away from the Middle East… or North Africa. They look like any European family that you’d live next door to.”

It can be no accident that the U.S. and other nations rushed to fast-track visas for Ukrainians while there was no hurry to let in Palestinians fleeing Israel’s assaults on Gaza and the West Bank in 2024. Those scrambling away from the rubble were expected by the UK Home Office, for instance, to submit fingerprints and other biometric data for their refugee claims, demands which were virtually impossible to fulfill. But though the Israel’s bombing of Gaza started in late October 2023, the story of the immigration troubles for Gaza citizens didn’t pick up any steam until the following March and April. The Palestinians apparently still aren’t the right refugees for the West.

And the West is proving it still won’t assign the right reporters to cover the Middle East. When Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief international anchor, appeared on The Daily Show in early April 2024, she declared, “Our major problem covering Israel-Gaza right now — this phase of it, which has been going on for six months — is that we can’t get there. This is an unprecedented situation. Journalists are not on the ground in Gaza.”

Jon Stewart interrupted her. “Well, there are journalists on the ground, they’re being killed — ”

“Well, right, I’m sorry, you’re right, you’re right,” said Amanpour. “I’m talking about independent Western journalists are not able to get there or anybody else except for those people who are absolutely risking their lives every single day — media workers, journalists. Almost a hundred have been killed there according to the CPJ [Committee to Protect Journalists].” But Amanpour eventually circled back to defending the Western press corps. “We go there to be the eyes and ears of everyone who can’t go, who’s not a local.”

On X, media critic Sana Saeed pounced on Amanpour’s sense of entitlement. What, she asked, in a brief thread about the video clip, was independent about a CNN correspondent? Amanpour was showing “a condescending racism: Palestinian/Arab journalists aren’t considered sufficient for the telling of their own story vs. ‘Western.’ Would Amanpour have recognized the plight and slaughter of Palestinian journalists… had Stewart not corrected her?”

An actual Gaza correspondent for Al Jazeera, Youmna El El Sayed, also pointed out on X, “Remember that when ‘Western independent journalists’ enter Gaza… it’s with a Palestinian fixer, a Palestinian translator, and speak to Palestinian people and officials, to report a story, while Palestinian journalists live the story and report it to the world.”

After a hundred years of misrepresentation from the supposedly “impartial” Western press corps, Palestinians are entitled to ask, what do these English language correspondents really bring to the table? Because if the past is anything to go by, the survivors of Gaza are far better off only talking to their own.



Jeff Pearce

Writer person. Books - Prevail, The Karma Booth, Gangs in Canada; in June 2021, Winged Bull, a bio of Henry Layard, the Victorian era’s Indiana Jones.