What are the difficulties when writing about Israel? That’s what I was asked on my recent visit to Hasmonean Girls’ School, talking to a dozen teenage students enrolled on an after-school Israel advocacy course – including the two columnists to my left.
Asking what’s difficult when writing about Israel is like asking what’s Jewish about Jackie Mason. It’s easier to say what’s not. I’m not Jewish. That makes it both easier and more difficult. Easier because of a comparative lack of emotion
al investment. More difficult because there is so much to learn – not just the history, but the culture that goes with it. Until two years ago, when I fell into the world of Jewish news completely by accident (a story for another time…), I thought a Friday night dinner consisted of fish, chips and mushy peas, wrapped in newspaper, eaten standing up.
One of the first phrases I learnt was ‘two Jews, three opinions.’ Experience has shown this to be a conservative estimate. Ever since, I’ve woken up to the weight of emotion surrounding Israel, and the range of thoughts on it. In short, I’ve learnt that writing about Israel is fraught with danger. I’d have told the Hasmo students that it was like walking through minefields, but I’d have been accused of saying Israel was riddled with mines.
How to avoid them? For right or wrong, this is what I told the girls. Your first line of defence lies in being able to ‘back up’ or substantiate what you produce. You need to make sure the information you give is correct. Posting a photo of a Syrian girl’s injuries and claiming that she is the Palestinian victim of an Israeli attack (as BBC reporter Jon Donnison mistakenly did on Twitter last year) is good example of how credibility can quickly crumble.
Additionally, you should write according to your purpose. As a journalist, my job is to inform, while an advocate’s job is to persuade. Never the two shall meet.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, especially in the Middle East. While ‘information’ and ‘persuasion’ sound quite distinct, they inevitably intertwine. It was encouraging to see that the girls picked up on the idea that persuasion can be achieved through information.
In this vein, ‘information’ can be both given and omitted, and the writer’s choice of addition or omission can be perceived as bias. I’ve noticed that the only radar on which Gaza rockets typically appear is that of the IDF, but that the world wakes up once Israel responds. Such subtle omissions can have a cumulative effect.
Finally, a writer must strive for balance, even in advocacy. If I’m doing my job, I should balance each article with quotes and comments evidencing a range of opinion. On Israel, this may mean finding both criticism and justification on a range of touchy subjects, but all sides should always be heard, Mr Galloway.
It is easy for ‘precarious balance’ to topple into ‘potential bias.’ If I don’t include someone’s full quote, I could be biased. If I present only one element of an historical context, I could be biased. If I assume, predict, describe or analyse anything, in fact, I could be biased.
What to do? Do I call that Fatah bloke Abu Mazen or Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas? Do I call that contentious area Judea and Samaria, the West Bank, the Occupied Palestinian Territories (as most of the world does) or Palestine? With limited space, do I include the story about Israeli forces fatally shooting a Palestinian protester or the one about another two rockets fired from Gaza? Whatever my choices, I could be biased.
It’s tough to achieve this balance, especially given the level of criticism aimed at Israel. But because of this, it is even more important to be fair. In two years I’ve learned that there is legitimate criticism, and then there is prejudice, and I’m constantly amazed at how many seek to dress up the latter as the former (David Ward MP seems only the latest to try).
I concluded class by saying that writing about Israel was very difficult indeed. Two weeks later I received a batch of excellent submissions, which they’d made look easy. Maybe I’m making too much of a fuss…
• Stephen Oryszczuk is foreign editor of the Jewish News