Gershom Gorenberg, an American-born journalist, has lived in and covered Israel for the last 32 years. He may be best known for his thorough, thoughtful and highly praised book on the founding of the settlement movement, “The Accidental Empire.” He is teaching at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism this semester — a first for him — and recently, during a public conversation with J School Dean Nicholas Lemman, spoke about some of the differences between the way journalism is practiced in Israel and the U.S.
The following is based on their discussion, sponsored by the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies at Columbia, and a follow-up interview
Q: How different is it being a journalist in Israel than here?
A: The pace in Israel is very intense, and there is the overload factor. There is also less objectivity in Israel and smaller degrees of separation. You won’t find journalists there unconnected to the story. It may involve a relative, a friend, a former army buddy. The debate is more freewheeling in Israel. As a journalist, you can always get hold of people [you want to interview], but you can’t get much distance [from the story you are covering].
Is objectivity the ideal in Israel?
It’s still the ideal, but it’s not achieved. Israel is a small town, the whole country is smaller than New York City [in population]. The smaller the society, the more people you know. This intimacy leads to not providing much background or context because everyone knows it, which makes the exercise too “inside.”
How does the U.S. press cover Israel?
People tend to feel that their views are facts and that other people’s views aren’t. Israelis respond like a parent who sees his kid’s bad report and has to conclude either that his kid messed up or has a terrible teacher. I get that feeling talking to people here, too. The expectation [of Israel] is perfection.
Is the American press on Israel’s side?
We Jews have a place in the American imagination that is mythical. Either Jews are not as perfect as they should be, or we feel that any criticism of Israel is based on 2,000 years of anti-Semitism.
Many American Jews see Israel as the New Old Land, the opposite of Herzl’s view [of a socialist utopia described in his novel, “The Old New Old Land”], and Israel is very uncomfortable in the role of taking the place of the Old Country — and does a lousy job of it. When Israel fails to function in that role, it creates a complex emotional relationship [for Americans].
When people see that you wear a kipa, do they assume that your politics are right wing?
It happens all the time in Israel. It’s true that most religious Jews in Israel are right of center, but about a quarter are left of center.
What are you teaching at Columbia this semester?
I am co-teaching a class with Ari Goldman on covering religion, including a trip to the Mideast, and it has been great fun. I’m also teaching a course on being a journalist and a historian, writing narrative history. The students are bright, there is great diversity among them and I’m learning a lot as well.