The media’s role in coexistence

The media covered the aftermath of the Carmel Fire and its potential for coexistence on an international level when Israel received help from "unfriendly" nations.

Media 521 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Media 521
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The Carmel fire on December 2, 2010 was the largest natural disaster in Israel’s history. It was also a rare moment in which Israel sought after and received help from nations that are not usually friendly towards Israel.
The media covered the aftermath of the Carmel Fire and its potential for coexistence on an international level.
However, as a former social worker I have always been more interested in how politics affect ordinary people in their day-to-day lives. I was curious what feelings were like amongst local ethnic groups in the Carmel since the fire, so I went and joined Dr. Deborah Heifetz and her class from Tel Aviv University’s International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation on a trip to the Wadi Nisnas neighborhood in Haifa, near where the fire occurred.
The aim of the class is to work with local groups interested in conflict resolution and recommend ways in which groups can engage in coexistence. In order to do this, the class partnered with Yadid, a nonprofit community development organization. Yadid community member Frial Basul and her son Shadi Basul partnered with the class and lead the tour. Both wanted to use the class’s recommendations for their local coexistence work. Frial and Shadi are Arab Israeli community organizers that have lived in Wadi Nisnas for decades.
Wadi Nisnas is a mixed Jewish and Arab neighborhood. This spirit of coexistence was prominent throughout the neighborhood. Peace symbols, doves and pomegranates dotted paintings and sculptures on street corners, buildings and sidewalks. Jews and Arabs mingled in the marketplace, shops and restaurants.
However, challenges remain on the path to coexistence. Although Jews and Arabs have actually historically gotten along fairly well, these days it is more difficult to coexist. Both Frial and Shadi talked about having positive relationships with Jews. Frial longed for the days in Wadi Nisnas when Jews and Arabs were very close. She told great stories about how she and her Arab Muslim neighbors celebrated holidays with Jews.
They used to bake bread during Passover so that her Jewish neighbors would have fresh bread to celebrate the end of Pesach. Her religious Jewish neighbors would often ask her to turn lights on and off during Shabbat.
Sadly, Frial and Shadi also discussed current problems between newer Russian immigrants and Arabs, as well as hard feelings between Arab Israeli families and Palestinians that have been relocated to Wadi Nisnas for security reasons. Frial and Shadi hoped that the class could help in this area.
Although the fire did not burn through Wadi Nisnas, many community members had friends and loved ones on the other side of the Carmel. Frial said the days during the fire felt like a war because everyone came together to help, Jews and Arabs alike. She and her neighbors brought food to local hospitals for those affected by the fire.
However, this feeling of togetherness seemed to rapidly fade as soon as the fire was out. By the time we got there, negative news stories about the response to the fire had already surfaced. On December 14, 2010, two days before our trip, there was a story on the front page of Haaretz about Palestinian firefighters that had assisted in the fire but were not allowed to go to an honorary ceremony in Haifa because they could not pass a security checkpoint. During our visit, Shadi mentioned this story a number of times as another reminder of Israel’s discriminatory policies towards Arabs. You could tell from his tone that he often discussed examples of racism, especially when he ended the sentence with how, yet again, Israel was discriminating against Arabs.
Dr. Heifetz shared with me afterwards that this news story did not make sense to her. She could see how this episode was most likely a bureaucratic mistake made by the Israeli government. She did not believe this was an intentionally malicious act. She acknowledged the presence of racism in Israel but found it hard to believe that Israeli intelligence would be so stupid as to purposefully block these firefighters from taking part in the Haifa ceremony.
In fact, the following week’s news proved her thinking correct. The same group of firefighters went to two other ceremonies that week, including one with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. This confirmed that the Haifa incident was a bureaucratic mistake rather than intentional racism. Unfortunately this follow up story did not get the coverage that the first story did, probably in part due to its complexity and lack of sensationalism.
This information glitch demonstrates one of the main challenges facing coexistence work within Israel: the influence of the media on people’s feelings toward each other. Just as the Carmel Fire seemed to have encouraged peaceful relations (albeit briefly), the Palestinian firefighters’ story quickly reaffirmed prejudice. Due to Arabs’ and Jews’ traumatic histories, Dr. Heifetz noted that it is easier for each group to assume these stories about racism are accurate, making them more difficult to analyze critically.
In addition, it is challenging for local journalists to report with a critical lens, considering many of them have been affected by the conflict.
There is an evident need for policy changes and improved institutional efficiency so that such potentially discriminatory situations occur less. Beyond this, the lessons I took away from this visit were twofold. Firstly, I understood the importance of media literacy in promoting coexistence. It is crucial to educate ordinary citizens to be more critical of their news, as well as train media professionals to report in a more balanced manner. Secondly, it is essential to foster meaningful relationships between Jews and Arabs.
Otherwise, their only source of information about the other side is from the news. Frial and Shadi more than anything wanted Jews to become closer to Arabs so they could see how much they had in common: the same houses, same food, the same needs in life.
It was moving for me to see how much Frial and Shadi cared about developing meaningful relationships with Jews and could distinguish between discriminatory acts and Jews as individuals. My guess is they were able to do this in part because they lived alongside Jews during times when relations were better. Knowing this historical legacy makes me understand why Heifetz’s class’s work towards recreating coexisting relationships is so very, very important.
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