One of the top journalists to report on Palestine-Israel has died.
Donald Neff passed away on May 10 in his hometown of York, Pennsylvania, at the age of 84. The cause of death was heart disease and diabetes.
Neff was a luminous writer and meticulous reporter. From humble beginnings, he had reached the top ranks of American journalism. When he then turned his formidable talents to writing books and articles about Palestine, his contracts with mainstream American publishers dried up, his income plummeted, and his fame faded.
Today, even many activists in the growing Palestine solidarity movement are unaware of Neff’s groundbreaking work. This is unfortunate, since he exposed critical facts about Palestine with unparalleled precision and elegance. Much of the information he uncovered is still significant today.
During his long career, Neff reported on the Vietnam War from Tokyo and Saigon and was TIME magazine bureau chief in Houston, Los Angeles and Jerusalem. One of the first reporters on the scene at the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana, he also covered the Apollo moon landing and reported on the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island (not far from his hometown). In 1980 he won the Overseas Press Club of America’s prestigious Mary Hemingway Award for best magazine reporting from abroad for a 1979 cover story about Colombia’s cocaine network.
Neff was at TIME from 1965-1979. While based in Jerusalem, he exposed an incident that would change the course of his life.
Like most Westerners, Neff had arrived profoundly sympathetic to Israel. However, he wrote, “As my tour extended into years, I could not ignore a disturbing blindness in some of even the most gentle Israelis. They did not seem to see the Palestinians all around them…In general, this was just as well because when most Israelis did notice Palestinians their reaction to them was one of loathing or fear that quickly could escalate into violence.”
Neff’s experiences also revealed a power dynamic between the U.S. and Israel that he found astonishing.
He reported on Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s frantic attempts to convince Israel to relinquish Egyptian land Israel had acquired through its 1967 war of conquest and had managed to retain through American support during the 1973 “Yom Kippur” war. The U.S. was calling on Israel to return it to Egypt. Israel refused.
“The extent of Israel’s ability to resist U.S. advice,” Neff wrote, “was my first great eye-opener in Israel. I had had little appreciation of the astounding depth and strength of Zionism’s influence in Washington. I was stunned that a country completely beholden to the United States could thumb its nose at Washington.”
Various encounters through the years caused Neff “deep uneasiness” about the views and beliefs of some Israel partisans in the U.S., raising “the question of dual loyalty to a level I had never realized existed.”
A man who had been serving in the U.S. Navy when Israel tried to sink the USS Liberty, killing 34 and injuring over 170 Americans, told Neff that he had been “torn by the dilemma of whether he could actually participate in a U.S. retaliatory attack against Israel.” (This never came.)
Another American Zionist showed Neff his Israeli passport alongside his U.S. one. Neff was taken aback; it had been illegal for Americans to hold dual citizenship. The man proudly informed him that the policy had been changed in 1967 by the Supreme Court, adding with emphasis that the case had been brought by an Israeli and the swing vote was cast by Abe Fortas.
In later researching Fortas, Neff discovered that Fortas was a Zionist and that among his first thoughts when he left the Supreme Court had been to visit Israel. “There was nothing wrong with that,” Neff wrote, “but it did indicate an attachment of such personal importance that he should have recused himself from the dual citizenship case.” This ruling, Neff wrote, “had destroyed a 200-year tradition.”
Neff’s most intense experience, the “epiphany” of his essay title, came in March 1978, when a freelance reporter called to say that she had “heard reports that Israeli troops had just conducted a cruel campaign throughout the West Bank against Palestinian youth. Many Palestinians had suffered broken bones, others had been beaten and some had had their heads shaved.”
When Neff repeated the report to his TIME bureau staff, all Jewish Israelis, they were indignant. The report was obviously false, they said, because “that is what was done to us in the Holocaust.”
Neff decided to check out the facts for himself, taking along a skeptical Jewish American friend who was living in Israel.
“We went into the small hospital and a young Palestinian doctor who spoke English soon appeared. Yes indeed, he said matter-of-factly, he had recently treated a number of students for broken bones. There were 10 cases of broken arms and legs and many of the patients were still there, too seriously injured to leave. He took us to several rooms filled with boys in their mid-teens, an arm or leg, sometimes both, immobile under shining white plaster casts.”
When TIME published Neff’s report, it provoked outrage from both Israeli authorities and American Zionists. The New York Times failed to report on the incident, making it seem for awhile that Neff’s report was inaccurate. It wasn’t until an Israeli official investigated the incident and confirmed Neff’s facts that other journalists finally reported on it.
As a result of his reporting, Neff was made an honorary citizen of Bethlehem.
After Neff returned to the U.S. he eventually decided to leave periodical journalism in order to write books. He signed a contract with Simon & Schuster and wrote the first in what was to be a trilogy about the Israeli-Arab wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973
The book, Warriors at Suez: Eisenhower Takes America into the Middle East (1981), received wide acclaim. It was a National Book Award finalist and an alternate selection for both the Book of the Month Club and the History Book Club.
The Chicago Tribune Book World described it as “A true thriller” and said that the story was “as sobering as it is fascinating….important and compelling reading.”
The Tribune review, however, was to be among the few exceptions to a pattern later described by Ambassador Andrew Killgore, publisher of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
Books on the Middle East that editors disliked, Killgore noted, would be assigned to “a Zionist reviewer…the reviewer usually is Jewish, never a Muslim and only occasionally a Christian. If none of the facts presented in the book can be refuted, the book’s substance has to be ignored.” Often they would simply go un-reviewed.
Neff’s second book, Warriors for Jerusalem: The Six Days That Changed the Middle East, came out in 1985 and was again praised by experts. Former Undersecretary of State George Ball called it indispensable to anyone who wanted to understand “why we are in such a dangerous mess in the Middle East.”
While the Christian Science Monitor called it “one of the most significant contributions to modern historical literature,” most newspapers ignored it.
American Zionists had long disliked Neff’s work. When his report on the Beit Jala incident came out, even some TIME colleagues had complained. Neff was called an anti-Semite to his face, while others shunned him.
The book industry included such Israel partisans, as well. Simon & Schuster did not renew its contract with Neff, and his final book in the trilogy, Warriors Against Israel: How Israel Won the Battle to Become America’s Ally, was published in 1988 by Amana, a much smaller publisher.
Once again, Neff produced a powerful volume. Archibald B. Roosevelt, Jr., a grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, a polyglot who spoke 20 languages, and a former CIA officer with considerable expertise in the Middle East, wrote: “As an observer of Middle Eastern affairs for more than four decades, I was impressed by the originality of Neff’s presentation and surprised by his devastating conclusions, assembled from facts previously known to most of us only piecemeal. It is not only a good read, but essential background for serious students of developments in the Middle East today.”
Neff’s next book, on the history of U.S.-Israel relations, was published in 1995 by the Institute for Palestine Studies, headquartered in Lebanon. A second, updated edition was published in 2002.
Neff himself, and many others, considered this his most important book. Fallen Pillars: U.S. Policy Towards Palestine and Israel Since 1945 provides a detailed history of how Zionists overcame the recommendations of U.S. diplomats, the Pentagon, and intelligence agencies to create today’s uniquely special relationship with Israel.
Citing a multitude of memos and official studies, Neff’s opus details U.S. officials’ failed attempts and frequent frustration at a special interest lobby that held more influence over U.S. policies than they did. Already by 1949 “Israeli officials were openly bragging about the power of the Jewish American community to influence U.S. policy.”
Pillars shows the deep roots of many current issues. “By 1968,” Neff reported, “the CIA was convinced Israel had produced nuclear weapons, or was capable of doing so, and informed President Lyndon Johnson. His response was to order the CIA not to inform any other members of the administration, including Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk.”
Although, again, scholarly reviewers praised Neff’s book, most mainstream media chose not to review it. An exception was The Washington Post, which assigned it to Tad Szulc, a Jewish
American journalist whose primary expertise was Latin America and Eastern Europe. Szulc called Pillars “deeply flawed” and charged Neff with being “more Palestinian than the Palestinians.”
Neff’s final book, Fifty Years of Israel, was published on the 50th anniversary of Israel’s creation. A collection of the “Middle East History” columns Neff wrote for this magazine beginning in 1993, its short, footnoted chapters were based on a detailed handbook compiled daily of events related to Israel and Palestine from 1947 to the end of the 20th century. (See excerpt in sidebar here.)
Long before Google and other Internet search engines made their appearance, Neff’s computerized database was a frequently called upon source of information for authors and journalists. As the Washington Report’s late executive editor, Richard H. Curtiss, noted in his introduction to Fifty Years: “Over the phone I could hear the ‘click, click’ as he entered into his computer—which seemingly always was turned on—the key words that brought up almost instantaneous answers to whatever questions I asked.”
Donald Neff brought honesty, precision, and courage to a topic of world-shaking significance that most top journalists feared or obfuscated. For this, he paid dearly.
Those working to rectify one of the world’s most significant injustices and causes of ongoing tragedy owe deep gratitude to Donald Neff.
I personally am profoundly indebted. I first stumbled across Neff’s books when I visited the Washington Report bookstore in Washington, DC in the spring of 2001. While I had already seen at first-hand Israel’s ferocious treatment of Palestinians, I was largely unaware of Israel’s power in and over the United States. Neff’s work was as enlightening as it was disturbing.
A few years later I had the honor of meeting Donald Neff in person and conducting a long interview with him about his work. (A few minutes from this are on a video If Americans Knew subsequently released.)
I expect that eventually Neff’s books and articles, like those of other journalists who worked to tell Americans about Palestine but were largely erased from public awareness, will be rediscovered, as a new generation intent on justice discovers the power and relevance of his pioneering work.
Neff is survived by his companion of 15 years, Washington Report managing editor Janet McMahon, as well as son Gregory Neff of York; two stepdaughters, Victoria Brett of Northampton, MA, and Abigail Miller of Portland, ME; a granddaughter; and two great-grandsons.