Palestinian Affairs: Read all about it

Why are Arabs so fascinated with Israeli newspapers whilst the opposite is true of the reverse?

Man reads Arabic newspaper in J'lem (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Man reads Arabic newspaper in J'lem
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Years ago, to my considerable surprise, I discovered that Arab newspapers – and the Palestinian press, in particular – feature an inordinate number of articles that appeared the day before in the Israeli and Jewish press. In fact, the Arab press hire local services to translate these articles into Arabic. Hebrew newspapers fascinate Arabs.
Take Al-Quds, for example, the most widely read Palestinian daily. A copy from a Friday in late July, which I selected at random from the heap that I have at home, features on page 16 an interview with President Shimon Peres taken from Yedioth Ahronoth.
On the same page – also lifted from Yedioth – is an article by Middle East analyst Guy Bechor. There’s also an op-ed from Haaretz by commentator, Arie Shavit. And there is still more material in this same paper from the Israeli dailies on page 17: a column by Yossi Melman and an editorial from Haaretz; an article by Zalman Shoval from Israel Today; and a piece by Nadav Haetzni taken from Maariv, together with a profusion of bits and pieces excerpted from everything in Israel’s national papers, including even the local city papers.
Ata Qaymari is a Palestinian journalist from East Jerusalem who runs a Hebrew-to-Arabic translation company. He tells The Jerusalem Report that he and his staff are up at dawn scouring the Israeli papers for appropriate articles to translate and send on to the Arab press.
Dozens of these translated pieces make their way each day into the Palestinian newspapers – and further afield, too, including the press in Jordan, Egypt, the Gulf States and London. The Arab papers duly note the source and author of the Hebrew article, apparently not overly concerned about copyright infringement.
Over the years, I’ve tried to discern some trend in the articles the Arab papers select. Are the pieces mainly right-wing or left-wing? Eventually, I concluded that nothing is nixed – although the bulk of Israeli material is of a political nature. That includes, of course, how Israelis view the Palestinians and Israel’s posture towards the wider Arab world – but also, the shenanigans of Israeli coalition politics.
Little is published from other spheres of Israeli life other than an occasional item on economics.
The translations are generally very accurate; occasionally, a headline is changed from the original Hebrew.
I’ve been asking Arab editors why they publish so many articles from the Israeli press for a long time and they always initially answer “because it interests our readers.” That is obvious – the question is why the goings-on of Israelis are so interesting to such a broad Arab audience.
Many of us might automatically assume that this fixation with the Israeli press stems from “Know thy enemy.” Israel is the powerhouse in the region, and so, every move it makes affects the Palestinians and the wider region.
But on second thought, something more complex may be at play here. Parallel to monitoring the Arab papers, I’ve long monitored the Israeli press, as well, to see if Hebrew translations of articles from the Arab press make their way into an Israeli newspaper. I discovered that the answer is: Almost never! I mentioned this at a conference of journalists and was advised to conduct an experiment: Translate a number of articles from the Arab press into Hebrew and submit them to the Israeli dailies. I decided to do just that.
Together with a friend, a Palestinian journalist from East Jerusalem, I translated an assortment of articles from the Arabic newspapers over the course of several months and submitted each translated piece to the Hebrew papers. How did I fare? No Israeli newspaper published any piece I submitted. Not a single, solitary article.
THIS RAISES A PERPLEXING question – are we Israelis not interested in knowing what goes on in the world of “our enemies”? We are surrounded by over 300 million Arabs from the Atlantic Ocean along Morocco in the West, stretching to the Gulf waters off Saudi Arabia in the East, as Arab spokesmen like to remind us on occasion.
The Arab world is a force both large and powerful – is it not important that tiny Israel knows what is happening there? Of course, there are a number of intelligence departments in the IDF; there are also several independent research institutes that regularly translate material from the Arab media, often to draw attention to incitement against Israel. In fact, there’s a joke among Palestinian journalists in East Jerusalem that the only audience Palestinian Television has are the Israeli research institutes. (The overwhelming majority of Palestinians tune in to Al-Jazeera.)
Rarely is anyone interested in getting articles from Arab newspapers translated. There are a few exceptions. Channel 10, one of Israel’s commercial TV stations, has an Arab desk that surveys the Arab media and selected segments are then broadcast. But these morsels are often juicy or gossipy and don’t focus on the more weighty political, social and economic issues.
And it’s not that the Israeli media does not translate foreign materials. There are plenty of translated articles from The New York Times, the British papers (The Guardian is a particular favorite) and Le Monde, but little from other newspapers and never from the Arab press So why are the Arabs so curious to know what Israelis are saying and writing? One reason is that this provides them with a highly convenient way to cover taboo topics – gossip about Arab leaders, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s illness, corrupt cabinet ministers, rigged elections, and so on. Just as the Israeli media can only discuss Israel’s nuclear capability by attributing the information to “outside sources,” so the use of Hebrew-newspaper articles enables the Palestinian press to circumvent its own government censors. And the censorship is not always government-imposed – in many Palestinian circles, it’s self-imposed.
But there’s a lot more to this story. My personal view is the keen Palestinian interest is rooted in Israel’s astounding success in surpassing both the Palestinians and the wider Arab world. Arabs perceive Israel as the victorious flag-bearer of Western culture in the Arab East, and it pains them that for decades they have trailed behind Israel on every count.
Researchers, historians, and Mideast experts have noted that the Arabs have grappled for years with the question why the Arab states lag so far behind the West. In the past, the reverse was true. For centuries, it was Western Europe that trailed behind the Arabs and Muslims. Indeed, there were periods when the Muslim and Arab armies extended their powerful reach to the center of Europe; 300 years ago, the Ottomans controlled the Balkans and laid siege to Vienna. The Arabs and Muslims brought to Europe the treasures of their ancient culture – medicine (the first school of medicine anywhere was in Cairo), philosophy, poetry, art and mathematics.
Unsurprisingly, then, those in the Arab world with a grasp of history ask how the Arabs declined to the very bottom rung of achievers in today’s world. Why did their economies fail? Why is the average annual salary in Egypt, Syria and Morocco just a few hundred dollars a year, while in the Western world – including Israel – the average yearly income is $20,000- $30,000. In 2002, Mideast scholar, Bernard Lewis published “What Went Wrong?” that examines this very phenomenon: How did a once-leading culture descend to the bottom of the ladder?
This is not a recent question. In the mid- 19th century in Istanbul, the Ottomans assembled their top brass to carry out sweeping reforms of the army. The leaders were also tasked with reforming the government, educational system, and the economy in order to close the broad, yawning gap with the West.
They continue to pursue an answer. Almost every branch of the Arab media, large or small, asks “what has happened to us?” There is no shortage of conjecture: Is the root cause the bickering and intrigues that Arab states are always getting into? Maybe Islam is to blame? Or perhaps the lack of democracy in Arab governments – or in Arab society, itself? Israel – a small country that overcame five Arab armies in its 1948 War of Independence (designated the Nakba or “catastrophe” by the Palestinians) and 19 years later, totally humiliated three Arab armies in the Six Day War – occupies a central position in this discussion.
It’s no coincidence that the anti-Semitic tract, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” finds a wide Arab audience. After all, the “Protocols” espouse a theory that gives comfort to Arabs seeking some explanation as to why Israel surpasses them in every way. The book doesn’t beat about the bush: Blame everything on the worldwide Jewish conspiracy! Not long ago, a program on Al-Jazeera discussed at length why Jews had won so many Nobel prizes. “We are a nation of 300 million strong and we’ve managed to win the prize only four times,” said one of the speakers.
Added a second participant cynically, “And only our traitors have won it.” The reference was to Egyptian Anwar Sadat, Palestinian Yasser Arafat, and Egypt’s Mohamed El-Baradei (Sadat and Arafat for their “treacherous” peace with Israel, ElBaradei for his unpopular stand in seeking to halt Iran’s nuclear program).
“OK, so we are a nation of halfwits,” opined a third speaker. “But why have a billion and a half Chinese barely managed to win the prize?”
There is also no end of discussion among Palestinians and the wider Arab public about the corruption of Arab leaders. Every leader is perceived as corrupt – after all, if he were not corrupt, how could he have made it to the top? It’s another widely-proffered explanation for the undue lag behind the West. “If we only had good leaders we would be successful,” is a refrain I’ve heard often on the Palestinian street. “The Palestinian and Arab leaders simply sell us out.”
All this may explain the almost obsessive Palestinian and Arab interest in what goes on inside Israel – and the mountain of translated Hebrew articles that find their way into the Palestinian press. At root, it may be an attempt to find the formula that has made Israel so successful.
I once asked one of my students in a university class I teach why he thought the Israeli media never translates or publishes articles from the Arab press. The student responded without hesitation: “We have nothing to learn from them.
And we do have what to learn from the Americans and Europeans, whose culture, economics and politics are on a high level. That’s why our newspapers translate their articles.”
Successful as we might be, what we ourselves may need is to be more aware of the pitfalls of being smug.