Yoram Binur: Israeli journalist penetrating the Arab world

Binur, 68, grew up in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood. The path he took, which led to his engagement with the Arab community, was quite a unique one.

 YORAM BINUR: In the news years. (photo credit: Screenshot: Channel 2)
YORAM BINUR: In the news years.
(photo credit: Screenshot: Channel 2)

Fifteen years have passed since Yoram Binur was an adventurous journalist working for Channel 2 News as a TV correspondent for Arab affairs in Judea and Samaria – and he does not miss those days one bit. “Do I still have a desire to cover news items? No, I do not miss working in the media at all,” exhorts Binur.

But if you were to return to journalism, would you cover the Arab world differently? 

“Well, that’s never going to happen, but if I were to go back to being a reporter, I would cover the Arab world according to my conscience, just as I did in the early days.”

Binur, 68, grew up in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood, where his parents, who’d made aliyah in the 1920s from eastern Europe, had been living for many years. The path Binur took, which led to his engagement with the Arab community, was quite a unique one.

“From my perspective, it all started when I constructed a pigeon coop in my parents’ yard,” Binur explains. “When I was 15, I had over 250 pairs of pigeons, and my specialty was raising Syrian Damascene pigeons. So, I began trading in pigeons with Arabs, which is how I ended up spending time in Ramallah, and other places people I knew didn’t normally frequent. So, I began picking up Arabic, and I actually got pretty fluent, which paved the way for me to be offered to cover the Arab world for an Israeli TV station.

“I no longer have pigeons, but I’m still a member of a few Facebook groups for people who raise pigeons. In high school, I was enrolled in the Middle East Studies track, but I spent most of my time at Yehuda Alfi’s horse farm, and not in school. I used to go with Yehuda to the livestock markets in the territories. As his young assistant, I would ride the horses to check if they were in good condition, before he would buy them.”

 NOW: LOVING life in Tel Aviv.  (credit: Courtesy Yoram Binur)
NOW: LOVING life in Tel Aviv. (credit: Courtesy Yoram Binur)

Binur carried out his IDF military service in the Haruv Reconnaissance Unit, and later obtained a motorcycle mechanic’s license so he could tinker with and fix vintage motorcycles. Next, he worked in an industrial design studio and was also a mentor for young boys.

“Then, one day I got a phone call from someone who’d served in the army with me, who told me that the Jerusalem Kol Ha’ir newspaper was searching for someone who could speak Arabic to write articles about ongoings in Jerusalem’s Old City.” Binur had studied Arabic language and literature at the Hebrew University, and that’s how he transitioned to working as a journalist.

One of his assignments was to assume a false identity as an Arab man, and integrate into Palestinian communities using the name Fat’hi Awad. His cover story was that his family had fled Haifa in 1948, to the Balata refugee camp, and that he had left on his own to go study in the US.

At first, Binur lived for a month in the Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. “It was not a very soft landing there,” Binur recalls. “They put me through the wringer, including testing me on my knowledge of the Koran. I truly believe that had I not answered his questions correctly, I’m not sure we’d be sitting here right now having this conversation. 

“Later on, I continued operating under this same persona as an Arab worker in Tel Aviv, where I worked in a wedding hall, a garage and then in a pub. No one ever figured out that I was a Jew impersonating an Arab man. I even started dating a Jewish woman and lived with her for a while. I would hang out with her friends, and to the best of my knowledge, none of them ever suspected I wasn’t who I said I was.

“While I was living as this Arab man, I learned just how much Palestinians do not like the Jews, and how little we understand about what goes on inside Arab communities. And that’s why I was not at all surprised when the first intifada broke out.”

Binur described his experiences in his book, My Enemy, My Self, which was originally published in English, and was later translated into eight languages, but not into Hebrew (“I did not have any control over that,” he claims).

How deeply did you internalize the character of Fat’hi Awad?

“Quite profoundly. Someone who takes on a fake identity to the extent that I did, does not ever completely leave it behind, and this affected my work as a journalist. I still dream in Arabic, and this language is still closely connected to me until this day.”

According to Binur, the hardest day of his career was Purim 1994, the day Baruch Goldstein carried out his infamous massacre in Hebron. “I’ll never forget that day for the rest of my life,” Binur states. 

“Perhaps it seems like I’m the type of person who puts himself in risky positions, but even though my goal was to do the best reporting I could, it was my responsibility to get my crew home safely. Notwithstanding the fact that all the people who worked on my team knew the level of risk they would be exposed to in this job. 

“So, Purim morning that year, I received a message that something big had happened in Hebron, with multiple casualties, and that I needed to get there as quickly as possible. My team and I immediately set out for Hebron, quickly bypassing all of the roadblocks.

“When we reached A’aliya Hospital, we saw a mob outside. Then, suddenly someone shouted, ‘Yahud! Yahud!’ and people began rushing toward us. They even tried to overturn our car. I quickly put the car in reverse and we sped away. If the car hadn’t had central locking, I’ve no doubt they would have succeeded in dragging all of us out of the car, stuffing us with rice and raisins, and cooking us for dinner. 

“Since we couldn’t reach Ma’arat Hamachpela (Cave of the Patriarchs), we climbed up to the roof of the hospital and broadcasted from there, under the protection of the Jabari Family. We were able to get photographs of some of the bodies being transported away from the area.

“Then, all of a sudden, an Arab man came up to me and began accosting me in a loud voice, saying that I’d interrogated him in a Shin Bet building, which of course was ridiculous and incorrect. Luckily, we had protection, and my life was saved. It was only a matter of seconds before this man was going to throw me off the roof. I guess I got used to these dangerous adrenalin-inducing events, which seemed to happen to me often in those days.”

Do you ever have occasion to go into Judea and Samaria these days?

“Not very often. After all of the confrontations I experienced over the years with various individuals, I think it’s probably not prudent for me to go into these areas without my press badge. And anyway, once I was no longer working as a journalist, I no longer felt a desire to move around there. Once I’m done a job, that’s it, I move on.” 

Did you ever experience any rivalry with other journalists who were also covering Judea and Samaria?

“I sure did – especially with Zvi Yehezkieli, who works for Channel 10. We were actively and fiercely competitive – especially when it came to trying to get an interview with Yasser Arafat. Our relationship was always gentlemanly and friendly, though.”

In 2009, Binur was fired from his job. “I was really miserable working for the station, and the letter I received announcing that I was officially no longer employed by the station was short and concise,” Binur recalls. “I had always known that this job was not going to last forever, and so when it was over, it was over. I was fine with moving on to the next stage of my life.”

Did you look into other media outlets to see if they were in need of a journalist to cover Arab affairs?

“No. I didn’t really feel like doing the same job for a different channel.”

What field did you choose to work in next?

“I didn’t. I waited a bit, as I was concerned about my health – I had to undergo five cardiac catheterizations. Financially, I was doing well, so I wasn’t stressed to find a new job right away. Nowadays, I get my pension, and I’m renting out one or two apartments. Luckily, I don’t feel the need to own a new car or live in a fancy house. When my car breaks down, I fix it on my own, and I like preparing my own meals.”

After retiring, Binur opened up a motorcycle repair shop. At one point, he was working on 30 different motorcycles at the same time. At the current time, he has around a dozen in his shop waiting for his attention. “I’ve always loved motorcycles,” adds Binur. “There’s nothing like the feeling of hurtling down the road on a motorcycle out in the countryside, disconnected from civilization, enjoying the scenery and breathing in the fresh air. For me, this is very calming.”

Binur currently lives in Tel Aviv’s Shapira neighborhood, with his dog Gingi and his cat Gura. 

“Although I grew up and lived most of my life in Jerusalem, I love living here in Tel Aviv,” Binur muses, “despite the fact that it’s such a poor city and has lots of problems. When I moved to Tel Aviv, I felt like a little boy who’d grown up in a slum in Brazil that had just been relocated to Disneyland. I love spending time near the sea and eating at restaurants that are geared toward blue-collar workers. For me, this is living the good life.”

Binur also spends his time training dogs, doing martial arts, and engaging in metalworking. “After I’ve spent an hour working out with a punching bag, I’m a much less angry person, less violent,” Binur concludes. “On days when I’ve had a good workout, even if someone were to spit on me, step on me or even curse me out, I wouldn’t feel the need to react.”

Do you remember that you told me in a previous interview that you had dreamed of one day making it to Damascus? Is that still one of your dreams?

“Yes, it’s just that the Damascus I dream of reaching no longer exists.”

Translated by Hannah Hochner.