Waltham, Mass. — As Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times for four years, Jodi Rudoren was used to dealing with sharp criticism of her reporting from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But when a Palestinian official chastised her for a poignant piece she wrote last spring marking Yom HaZikaron, Israel Memorial Day — profiling an Israeli mother, now 88, whose 20-year-old son was killed in the Yom Kippur War more than four decades ago — Rudoren was deeply disturbed by the man’s comments.
“He texted me: `your lack of empathy for Palestinians is unbelievable,'” she told a packed audience of about 200 academics, students and others at Brandeis University on Sunday afternoon. “And I was sickened.”
Rudoren, now a Times editor back in New York, had written of how the mother marked the death of her only child with a large commemoration each year, proud that 23 children had been named for him over the 42 years since his death.
“It was a way of describing how Israelis mourn,” said Rudoren.
But she has come to realize that in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “empathy itself has become a zero-sum game.”
The declining ability of Israelis and Palestinians to see the humanity in the other side — and the difficulty in keeping politics out of journalism, or anything else in discussing Israel — were recurring themes during an ambitious two-day conference this week on “Israel and the Media” sponsored by the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis. It included 20 presenters and panelists — Israeli, Arab and American journalists, academics and media experts — approaching the topic from a range of viewpoints.
Much of the audience was comprised of university professors from around the country who have participated in the center’s summer program, which trains a new generation of scholars and includes a trip to Israel to better understand the complexities of the modern Jewish state.
“People [living in the region] don’t want to know the complexities of the other side,” observed Rudoren during a roundtable discussion. “They are stuck in their own narratives.”
The next day, Shlomi Eldar, a former reporter for Israel’s Channel 10 who covered Gaza for more than two decades, recounted a dramatic moment from Operation Cast Lead in 2009. An Arab friend, a doctor at an Israeli hospital, called in tears to say that three of his young daughters had just been killed by an Israeli shelling of his Gazan home.
Eldar, who was at the TV station at the time, recalled: “I pushed the button and put him on the air, live.”
The heartbreaking cries of the doctor touched the hearts of Israelis, said Eldar. But he noted that the effect was temporary and such moments are rare.
He said he was reminded of the incident by the current controversy over an Israeli soldier who was videoed deliberately and fatally shooting a wounded Palestinian would-be terrorist lying on the ground.
Though the IDF charged the soldier with manslaughter, a poll this week found that two-thirds of Israelis consider him a hero. Another indication, Eldar said, of how Israelis and Palestinians have “stopped seeing each other as humans.”
‘Trafficking In Gray’
The point was also made and elaborated on in the conference keynote address by Ethan Bronner, a former Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times and now an editor at Bloomberg News here.
(The talk was the center’s first annual lecture named for Ilan Troen, its founding director, who was praised by his successor, David Ellenson, and others for helping to create, sustain and grow the center.)
Bronner noted that Palestinian terror attacks and Israeli responses, including the building of the security separation, have led to “decades of mutual disdain” between the two peoples who now know or care little about each other’s daily lives. He remembered a time when Palestinians in Gaza could freely travel in and out of Israel, and when Arab workers and their Jewish employers were guests at each other’s family celebrations.
“That’s all unimaginable today, and it’s very sad,” he said, wondering aloud if “this situation is in Israel’s interests.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, with Bronner and Rudoren on the program, much of the discussion during the conference focused on The New York Times coverage of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. In comments that combined journalistic principles and psychological observations, the two former Jerusalem bureau chiefs each noted that activists on both sides of the conflict are never satisfied with news coverage that seeks neutrality. (Bronner observed that Palestinians call the security structure a wall because it sounds formidable, the Israelis call it a fence because it sounds less so, “and we call it a barrier because it doesn’t sound like anything.”)
He noted that, for the most part, foreign correspondents “tell bad news — that’s human nature.”
When Rudoren asked for a show of hands on how many in the audience felt the Times coverage of the conflict was biased against Israel, most raised their hands. But when she asked if the newspaper’s reporting on issues like abortion and gun control was biased, no hands went up.
She left it at that, perhaps implying readers should consider their own biases.
The very question of whether The Times, or any other media outlet, is for or against Israel is naïve, according to Yoram Peri, who was editor of the now defunct left-wing daily, Davar, and now directs an Israel studies program at the University of Maryland.
In a session exploring how Israeli media portray the Mideast conflict, Peri announced that he was foregoing his planned talk so he could respond to a presentation by Anne Herzberg, legal adviser to NGO Monitor, at the previous session.
Herzberg had criticized foreign media in Israel for overly relying on human rights reports from dovish Israeli NGOs like B’Tselem and Break the Silence, which she said were inaccurate and biased against the government. She cited a number of examples.
The stated purpose of NGO Monitor is to analyze and counter such groups.
Peri said the separation between research and politics had been breached , and that it was unfair of Herzberg to discredit so many worthy NGOs. But his emotional comments were tinged with his own politics as he cited with dismay the widespread support in Israel for the soldier charged in the shooting death of the wounded Palestinian. Israelis should stop and search their souls, he said.
“What are we fighting for? What do we want to be? We are fighting today for our survival and our soul.”
In a brief response, Herzberg encouraged audience members to go to the NGO Monitor website for proof of her assertions.
‘Hyper-Coverage’ Of Israel
Another reflection of the very real tensions in the region came when panelist Menahem Milson, an expert in Arabic studies and co-founder of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which monitors, translates, and analyzes Arab media, presented deeply disturbing clips from Hamas broadcasts. They showed an imam quietly describing Jews as evil beasts, other imams passionately encouraging their brethren to stab and murder Israelis, and instructional videos on how to put poison on knives to ensure maximum damage when stabbing Jews.
Peri acknowledged that the clips were shocking but said one can always “pick and choose” examples of extremism on both sides. He said that the Sephardic chief rabbi in Israel, Yitzhak Yosef, recently called for banning Arabs from the land.
(It appears, though, that the rabbi’s comments related to an ancient rabbinic edict that only non-Jews who observe the Noahide Laws are permitted to live in the land.)
Panelist Muna Shakaki, from the Al Arabiya news channel, said she scans videos regularly and had never seen the Hamas ones except via MEMRI. She added that most viewers prefer other, more sophisticated or entertaining channels.
In noting a major shift in pan-Arab television coverage of the Mideast, she said most of it used to focus on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but now it primarily reports on the results of the 2011 Arab uprisings in the region, in part because there is more access. She said her station did not refer to Palestinian killers as martyrs, and that while it concentrates on the Palestinian perspective it does not describe the conflict in religious terms.
One of the few points of agreement among presenters is that the Jewish state receives a disproportionate amount of media coverage. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on your perspective.
Jeff Jacoby, a conservative columnist for the Boston Globe, asserted that “the inevitable effect of hyper-coverage” leads to negative reporting on Israel. His unlikely example was Kim Kardashian, noting that everything about her and every part of her is scrutinized by the media.
I’ve always felt it’s a good thing that most Americans know more about Israeli politics than they do about almost any other country — surely they are more likely to be able to name the prime minister of Israel than the president of neighboring Mexico. It indicates an affinity with and concern about the society, and is reflected in consistently high support for Israel among Americans.
I raised the topic at a panel on coverage of Israel by Jewish newspapers in the U.S., which also included Forward editor Jane Eisner, Tablet senior writer Liel Leibowitz and Rob Eshman, editor of the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles. We mostly focused on the delicate task of striving for journalistic excellence in covering Israel as well as American Jewish life while being sensitive to the passions — and paranoia, at times — of our readers. Especially at a time when our community is so divided and the discourse is so uncivil.
In the end there was at least one major point of agreement at the conference: that there is little agreement on just about any aspect of media coverage of Israel, and that we could all benefit from more context, nuance, sensitivity and thoughtfulness in approaching the subject in all its complexity.
As Ethan Bronner put it in discussing the quest for balanced reporting, “My job was to traffic in gray. It’s a good way to get people to hate you, but that’s what we do.”