JERUSALEM — Where most people would see the shell of an old restaurant on a hill overlooking Mount Zion, Uri Dromi sees a place where visiting international scribes can have a scotch with the best and brightest of Israeli society.
Where some now see a dusty, ramshackle room with exposed pipes and crumbling walls, Dromi sees a lounge for reporters to meet quietly with their sources.
Stepping out to a veranda with a gorgeous view, where workers were completing tile work, Dromi said, “This is where journalists will be for eight out of 12 months of the year,” when the weather is warm enough.
Like many Israelis, Dromi speaks not with hopefulness but with certainty. He doesn’t simply want reporters to frequent his Jerusalem Press Club when it opens in the Mishkenot Sha’ananim area later this year. He’s sure they will.
Dromi, 68, is a Sabra and a former Israel Air Force officer who has combined his military career with a love and respect for journalism. He was editor of the IAF’s magazine and, continuing to serve in the reserves, has worked as director of information for the World Zionist Organization (WZO) and later director of the Government Press Office for the Rabin and Peres governments in the mid-90s.
But don’t call his work “hasbara” (Hebrew for image polishing.) He dislikes that term.
“It has no equivalence in any other language,” he says. “It suggests that if only the world sits down and listens to us, everything would [be] different. Well, I think the world listens to us, but our voice is one of many, and we have to sharpen our message to be noticed.”
I first met Dromi more than 20 years ago when he was running a program for the WZO called Do The Write Thing, which invited student journalists to the General Assembly of what was then the Council of Jewish Federations for a series of workshops on Israel-related topics (a precursor to The Jewish Week’s Write On For Israel program.)
More recently he’s served as director general of the Mishkenot Sha’nanim Conference Center, which hosts panel discussions, book launches and other cultural events, while regularly writing his own pro-Israel column in the Miami Herald. All the while he’s had a dream of establishing the press center in Jerusalem where, he imagines, a correspondent for The New York Times or Reuters can mingle not with government spokespeople but “warm and caring Israelis.” Asked for examples he cites Stanley Fisher, the former Israel Bank chairman, author Amos Oz, intellectuals like political scientist Shlomo Avineri of Hebrew University, and perhaps a Knesset member or two.
“In the long run I think this will have a positive effect on the image of Israel, while at the same time, the foreign journalists themselves will gain from these engagements,” he says.
Even before the center is open, the Jerusalem Press Center has existed in the form of programs run by Dromi and Linda Rivkind, who also worked at the Government Press Office, at the conference center as a project of the Jerusalem Foundation.
The foundation is building the center with a generous $2.8 million grant from the Helmsley Foundation, bequeathed by the (reputedly mean) real estate heiress Leona Helmsley and her husband Harry.
“The Jerusalem Press Center fits perfectly with one of the guiding strategies of our Israel program, which is to strengthen Israel’s standing by promoting unvarnished communications about the realities of the nation and life within it,” said Sandor Frankel, a trustee of the Helmsley Charitable Trust, in an e-mailed statement provided by the Trust.
He added that the foundation had already been looking to fund a program in Israel that brings together foreign and domestic journalists when Sallai Meridor, chairman of the Jerusalem Foundation and a former ambassador the U.S., made the proposal.
During a tour of the construction site for visiting journalists from American Jewish newspapers last month, and in a later e-mail exchange, Dromi said he wasn’t worried that news bureaus would see the center as a propaganda effort.
“Without being critical of other organizations, JPC enjoys the trust of the foreign correspondents, because of the work I have done with them together with my able colleague and partner, Linda Rivkind. They know we are Israeli patriots, who believe Israel has a great story to tell, and we offer them ample opportunities to look at it, without in any way trying to propagandize or hoodwink them.”
He says he has already conducted a survey among foreign press based in Israel who said they “view us as a professional and balanced organization.”
I asked the Times how the paper would view its staff frequenting the press center.
“We have a long established bureau in Israel and our correspondents are always out talking with a cross section of society,” said a spokeswoman, Eileen Murphy. “This is not a facility we would have any need to use.”
The press center is to include briefing and conference rooms and a VIP room, a state-of-the-art studio with satellite uplink and an opportunity for a great backdrop. The complex is located in the first settlement established outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City by British financier Moses Montefoire in 1860. From its balcony you can see the entire eastern face of Mount Zion, a monastery and the Ottoman walls of the Old City.
There will also be a lounge and a place to eat, drink and relax. There is already a place where foreign journalists hang out, the American Colony Hotel, which is next door to the Orient House, the former headquarters for the Palestine Liberation Organization (closed since 2001).
“I am not trying to put them [the Colony] out of business [of hosting journalists], but if it happens I wouldn’t mind,” he says with a wry smile, noting that the place has “terrible food.”
He says when the renovations are done the center will be a $600,000-a-year operation, recouping some of the expenses through an annual journalism exchange, starting with a group from the University of Miami in June. The center will also sponsor press fellowships and missions appealing to groups in specific coverage areas, such as music, science, art or technology.
Dromi believes that most journalists are “professional, not biased. They are here to cover a complex story. The more they meet true Israelis — people who make a living here, who raise children and grandchildren here, it has an impact.”