Terra Incognita: No fans of ours

The American hikers captured by the Iranian regime have a history of criticizing Israel.

September 7, 2009 10:08

SETH J. FRANTZMAN . (photo credit: AP)


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On August 1, three Americans went missing in the mountains of Kurdistan. There had originally been four of them travelling around the region and submitting articles to media outlets. On July 31 Shon Meckfessel stayed behind in Sulaimania, over 150 miles northeast of Baghdad, while Sarah Shourd, Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer went to a nearby town called Ahmed Awa. According to Shon, they had no idea that Ahmad Awa was near the border with Iran. There was no Lonely Planet for Iraqi Kurdistan and "they couldn't find it on their map," said Shon.

This Feb. 2008 photo released...

This Feb. 2008 photo released by Elizabeth Sibley, Shane Bauer speaks during the United Nations Association Film Festival in Berkeley, Calif.
Photo: AP

The next day one of them phoned to say they were being taken into custody by Iranian border guards. On August 9 Iran confirmed the three were being held.

BUT THE three "hikers" were in fact well-heeled journalists. Shane Bauer, the most prolific, had recently been in Syria, Ethiopia and Sudan doing investigative and photo journalism. Bauer has spent the past six years in the Middle East and Africa, and his writings have appeared in various media including the LA TimesChristian Science Monitor and Al Aljazeera. He has also written for left-wing American publications such as The Nation andMother Jones.

Reports that all three journalists were Jewish circulated online, making their way to the Vanguard News Network, a neo-Nazi online forum, which noted that "maybe they were spying. They worked in journalism. That is a Jew-infested industry."

Hate-filled posts about the three followed. It seems that Iran, at least officially, believes the same thing and wishes to use the three as yet another state-sponsored bargaining chip with the West.

But the connection of two of the journalists to Israel is worth mentioning. Bauer has a photo on his website titled "Neo-Nazi in Tel Aviv" taken on July 1, 2009. The photo shows an African woman and child in the foreground, but in the background is a woman with a tattoo of a three-pronged swastika, usually used as a symbol by Afrikaner nationalists. The photojournalist, Mr. Bauer, might have pointed out the irony of the Afrikaner symbol next to the black woman and child on the streets of Tel Aviv. But instead he seemed to be wanting to say something more, something negative about Israel. It wasn't titled "African woman in Tel Aviv."

The third traveller, Sarah Shourd, has written numerous blog entries praising Syria and condemning Israel. She identifies herself as a "teacher-activist-writer from California currently based in the Middle East. She loves fresh broccoli, Zapatistas [a radical leftist anti-government insurgency in Mexico] and anyone who can change her mind." In a photo on her website Through Unfettered Eyes: Dispatches from Addis Ababa to Damascus, she proudly wears a keffiyeh [the traditional headdress worn by Arab men] and considersPalestinian Blues, Leila Khaled: Hijacker and Occupation 101 as among her "favorite documentaries."

A May 3, 2009 post on her blog notes "It's been more than four months since the Israeli massacre in Gaza." Shourd speaks of Hamas winning "what many consider to be the first truly democratic election in the Middle East." (Apparently Israel is not in the Middle East.)

She also mocks the Western perception of Syria: "The hazy sketch of Syria we get in the US becomes progressively more hazy as to almost lose all definition once you are here. Dangerous? Conservative? Anti-American? Oppressive to women? Backwards? Extremist? It's not nearly as simplistic as that."

It is perhaps ironic because only last month Syria changed a law that sentenced men charged with honor killings to a maximum one-year sentence. Now the minimum is two years. Shourd further mentions that in Yemen "many Yemenis have challenged me, saying my analysis falls short. They say I am too apologetic toward the terrorists, framing them as victims rather than the perpetrators."

IS THERE a difference between the perception of Israel by the Iranian regime and that of Shourd? Whatever the case, we can only hope the experience of these three will change their opinion of Israel or Gaza. But for now, Bauer's Israel will be the "Neo-Nazi in Tel Aviv," and for Shourd Israel will be the country that massacres and places people in giant prisons.

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