Behind the Lines: The pooh-poohing of J'lem by the press

The Tel Aviv centrism of the media has had a profound and ongoing effect on the way the public views Jerusalem.

Jerusalem Day parade 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Jerusalem Day parade 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
This column, like most that occupy this space, is being written in my neighborhood caf . In many ways it's an unremarkable coffee shop - raucous yet intimate, so-so food and good coffee; the waiters are friendly, yet let me write in peace. It could have been a caf anywhere in the civilized world. But the manager is an atheist Palestinian; the proprietor a secular Jew, who only bothered to get a kashrut certificate a couple of years ago; the customers are both Israelis of all hues and religious persuasion and foreigners who live in the area. At any hour of the day, you can hear at least three languages being spoken among the fewer-than-a-dozen tables. It's the kind of place you can't imagine being anywhere else but Jerusalem. For me, it's one of the things that make life in the capital worth living. I decided to begin on an optimistic, local-patriotic note, because I'm feeling a bit guilty. This week I wrote a series of columns in the Post with a recurring theme: The grandiose events surrounding the 40th anniversary of Jerusalem's unification are a hollow festival, since the state of the city has never been so desperate in every way, and aside from paying lip service, no one in power is doing anything about it. I left one culprit off the list: my own profession. But the fact is that the media share a significant portion of the blame. In the first place, none of the major national Hebrew papers is based in Jerusalem. Three newspapers are edited and managed daily in the capital. One is the anti-Zionist, Arabic-language Al-Quds. The second is the non-Zionist Hamodia, official mouthpiece of the haredi Agudat Yisrael party, and is written in a rather archaic and outmoded Hebrew. The third is the paper you are now holding, proudly Zionist, but in English. There's nothing new about that. The last Hebrew dailies in Jerusalem closed more than four decades ago, but over the last few years, all three major Hebrew dailies have significantly downsized their Jerusalem offices. In the past, most of their senior journalists, especially those reporting and commenting on current affairs, lived in the city. Now their Jerusalem staffs consist almost entirely of junior reporters, and most of the photography is done by agencies or freelancers. So, too, the electronic media. Though the government-owned IBA television and radio are still required to work mainly in the capital, the industry leaders - ratings giant Channel 2, cutting-edge Channel 10 and the burgeoning cable and satellite channels - are all based in Tel Aviv, save for Channel 2 news, which operates in Neveh Ilan. In 2005, Telad, the only independent television company in Jerusalem, lost its Channel 2 license and has since ceased most of its activity. Trendy IDF Radio is based in Jaffa, and a recently published plan to move it to Jerusalem has employees up in arms. New media are no exception. None of the major Web sites and Internet companies is based in Jerusalem. The only serious Web site operating from the capital is Scoop, a news site which uses local content sent in by independent non-professional writers around the country, making it the quintessential outsiders' news organization. THE TEL AVIV centrism of the media has had a profound and ongoing effect on the way the public views Jerusalem, and the contrast to its "competitor." It starts with the jargon which reflects the feeling that Tel Aviv is where things are happening. Street names in Tel Aviv - Dizengoff, Shenkin and the like - are used without reference to the city, as if readers and viewers from Kiryat Shmona to Eilat immediately relate to the faraway place and concept. There are dozens of Herzl streets around the country, including one in Jerusalem that actually leads to Mount Herzl, but "A stabbing on Rehov Herzl" can only mean the one in Tel Aviv. It's the same with institutions. Everyone knows where Habima, the Cameri and Beit Lessin theaters are, but the Khan Theater is referred to as "the Jerusalem Khan," as if culture in the capital is an anomaly rather than the norm. The Ha'uman 19 dance-club was one of the country's leading clubs for a decade, but the media always called it "the Jerusalem club," since nightlife in Jerusalem is by definition quaint and unexpected. The city's stereotype as a backwater "hard" town, is maintained at all costs. The Jerusalem scene lacks nothing in sophistication or variety, but it will always have a second-class status in the media, and local artists know they will be seen as having "made it" only after succeeding in Tel Aviv. Any social trend or cultural phenomenon, even if it encompasses fewer than 50 people, will almost immediately be reported and commented upon if it occurs in Tel Aviv; major authentic trends in Jerusalem can go unnoticed for years. THE REASON for this derisive attitude cannot be only geographical. The vast majority of journalists were not born in Tel Aviv. And the drive between the cities on most days takes less time than the journey between downtown Tel Aviv and its outlying suburbs. Neither is it a result of leftist post-Zionism. Indeed, some of the veteran radical leftists have stubbornly remained in Jerusalem. They are remnants of what was once, back in the 1970s and early '80s, a proud group of journalists who were the Jerusalem media mafia. They had arrived in the city as Hebrew University students in the heady days after the Six Day War - iconoclastic, mainly secular, with yet unclearly defined left-wing views. They revolutionized state-run Israel Radio and were the founding generation of Israeli television. They formed bohemian circles in a handful of caf s and restaurants, wrote in radical student papers and then in the first real city newspaper in the country, Kol Ha'ir, a local version of Manhattan's Village Voice. But they grew up and became yuppies, first courted by the Tel Aviv papers and then commercial television with fat paychecks. Most left the city, and the new generation of writers and broadcasters, cosmopolitan and spoiled, eager to imitate the American ideal, bought into the illusion of Tel Aviv as an international city. Their only chance of reaching a senior position in the profession was to work there. That the city was no more advanced and had less culture and tradition than other similar-sized locations on the Mediterranean - such as Naples or Marseilles, and definitely was no Manhattan - only made them more determined to denigrate the capital they had rejected. Even in its poor and forsaken state, Jerusalem still had immeasurably more authentic cosmopolitanism and originality than Tel Aviv, and a real claim to be an international city. That only spurred the Tel Aviv media to describe it as a failed and backward town in the grip of Jewish and Arab fundamentalists - which may yet turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of Jews have left Jerusalem over the last couple of decades, mainly for lack of affordable housing and employment, but the constant image of the city as little more than a site for violent haredi and Palestinian rioting also played a large part in generating the waves of emigration. Tel Aviv always had better copywriters (from its title as the "first Hebrew city," which might have been historically false but served the purposes of the Zionist movement to prove that it was capable of building a metropolis - to the more updated '80s slogan of "the city that never stops"). Jerusalem's publicists always fall back on the old Western Wall, mosques and churches theme - not exactly cutting edge. Young people - and those who aspire to youth - will always prefer to be identified with the new brand. The Israeli media's ongoing campaign to ignore Jerusalem's world centrality is simply the height of parochialism. Every time a semi-fashionable magazine places Tel Aviv on a list of cities with fantastic nightlife, the ranking is breathlessly quoted in the Tel Aviv tabloids. The more mundane detail - that only a negligible number of foreigners actually come here with the specific aim of sampling Tel Aviv's wonders - is never reported. The fact remains that most of those arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport for the first time, Jews and non-Jews alike, have their sights set farther east.