Thursday, March 26, 2009

Let's Get the Facts Straight About Israel's Actions in Gaza

An article by Ethan Bronner on March 20 in the NY Times alleging wanton killing of civilians by Israeli soldiers in Gaza was as upsetting to me as it must have been to many other readers. Had these allegations been true, they would have been a terrible stain on the honor of Israeli soldiers and of the Israel Defense Forces.

But they are not true. The March 20 article did not quote a single soldier claiming to be a witness to or participant in such murders. Indeed, the article was a fourth-hand report: it was based on an article in Ha'aretz, which in turn was based on a document written by Dany Zamir, which in turn quoted soldiers who had served in Gaza--but who had not witnessed the incidents in question.

Over the past four days, articles in Ma'ariv (in Hebrew) and the Jerusalem Post (in English) have reported on the results of an IDF investigation of the two specific claims cited in the March 20 article. And those claims are false.

The details are contained in the following letter that I have sent to Bill Keller, Executive Editor of the Times, and to Clark Hoyt, the Public Editor (ombudsman). In the event that I do not receive a satisfactory response, I will be in touch with both of them by phone and will let everyone know the result. In the meantime, I urge everyone to check the facts yourself by reading the articles in question, and any other sources of information that are based on verifiable eye witness accounts and on documents--and not on hearsay and rumor. And I urge you to communicate your conclusions widely to friends and acquaintances, and to write or call the Times and other media, notably NPR and the Washington Post, asking politely but insistently that they correct their errors.

I specifically did not write a Letter to the Editor, intended for publication, because I have no desire to criticize Ethan Bronner in public. My concern is simply to do whatever I can to see that these terrible errors are corrected promptly, fully and prominently in the Times.

The text of my letter to the Times follows:

March 25, 2009

Mr. Bill Keller, Executive Editor, and Mr. Clark Hoyt, Public Editor
The New York Times

This letter is a heartfelt plea that the Times immediately research and then publish an article correcting the misstatements, untruths and unfounded allegations contained in its March 20 front-page article on the conduct of Israeli soldiers in Israel’s Gaza operations.

That article, by Ethan Bronner, gave prominent display to charges that Israeli soldiers killed civilians without provocation in the Gaza fighting. No eyewitnesses to these alleged atrocities were named in the article, nor, apparently, were they interviewed by the Times. Instead, this fourth-hand report cited: an article in Ha’aretz, which cited a conference report published by one Dany Zamir (a vociferous IDF critic who was once jailed for refusing to serve in the West Bank), which in turn cited conversations with soldiers who served in the Gaza operation at a colloquium organized by Zamir at Zamir’s Rabin Pre-Military Academy.

The Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv on March 22 reported on detailed Israel Defense Forces investigations of these allegations. The soldiers who discussed the alleged atrocities now admit that their charges were based entirely on hearsay, not first-hand observation. The IDF officers in charge of the investigation have concluded that the alleged atrocities never took place.

The investigation quotes a marksman accused of firing on and killing a Palestinian woman and her two daughters as saying he saw the women and her daughters in a forbidden area, he fired warning shots (not in their direction), he was immediately confronted by his commander demanding to know, “Why did you fire at them?” and he responded, “I explained that I did not fire at them, I fired warning shots.” The woman and her daughters were not harmed.

The Ma’ariv article, in Hebrew, appears at the following web address:

The translation of the conversation between the soldier and commander is mine; however, the Times can easily arrange for its own authoritative translation.

A similar newspaper account of the IDF findings appears in today’s Jerusalem Post (March 25) and can be found at the following web address:

The Jerusalem Post article quotes IDF sources as saying that soldiers who heard the commander’s angry questioning of the marksman assumed he had indeed fired at the civilians, and a totally false rumor spread from there.

A second alleged incident in which soldiers killed another unarmed woman has also been found to be completely untrue, according to the IDF investigation as reported in both papers.

If the New York Times can produce Israeli soldiers who witnessed or perpetrated any alleged atrocities in Gaza first-hand, and can discover any corroborating testimony or evidence supporting their allegations, now would be the time to do so. If not, you owe your readers, and the Israel Defense Forces, a prominent correction and apology, as well as an explanation of how such fourth-hand reports found their way into the newspaper of record.

I know Ethan Bronner to be an intelligent, conscientious and principled journalist. In this case, however, he wrote an article that turned out to be false, and that has done tremendous damage to the truth, as well as to the honor of individual Israeli soldiers and the Israel Defense Forces. I’m sure both the Times and Mr. Bronner will want to correct the record promptly and fully, and in a location as prominent as that accorded to the original article.

I respectfully suggest that time is of the essence and that the New York Times must act immediately to remedy what was done. I look forward to receiving a personal response at your earliest possible convenience.

Efrem Sigel

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

This Republic of Suffering

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War
By Drew Gilpin Faust

This Republic of Suffering is a very different Civil War book. I'm used to Civil War books that tell the story of battles, campaigns and leaders. This is a book about how an entire society, North and South, dealt with the most pervasive aspect of the war: its indiscriminate slaughter. Six hundred thousand people died in the Civil War, 2% of the population, by far the bloodiest war ever fought by Americans.

In a series of chapters most of whose names consist of just a single word—Dying, Killing, Burying, Naming, Believing and Doubting, Numbering—Faust examines death from every point of view: the soldiers who fought and died, the families that mourned them, their fellow comrades who struggled to bury them, the civic and religious leaders, writers, poets and ordinary citizens who sought to make sense of the war and its awful toll.

Throughout the book it is the voices of ordinary citizens that we hear, mostly through their letters or diaries, and already in a chapter or two we are already aware of the trauma that this war inflicted on everyone. It changed the way war was waged; it changed the way the army and the society treated the memory those who had fallen. One of the scandalous aspects of the war was how many dead soldiers could not be identified or counted or buried properly. After the war ended the army and the society at large undertook an enormous effort to rebury and identify them. This led to a permanent change in the way the U.S. military operated; identifying the dead and protecting and preserving their remains became a core value of military service. Honoring the memory of those dead, through holidays like Memorial Day, was a lasting legacy of the Civil War.

This is a work of immense scholarship, precise and eloquent prose, and lasting impact.

(For information about my new novel and my other writing, see