Jumping in

For NPR correspondent Emily Harris, her first concern in moving halfway around the world to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was to find a good school for her daughter.

Emily Harris (photo credit: Courtesy)
Emily Harris
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Oregon native Emily Harris had never once stepped foot in Jerusalem, or anywhere in Israel for that matter, until she became the Jerusalem correspondent for National Public Radio.
Her first trip to the Holy Land was January 2013, when she spent a week in Jerusalem with her family, checking out apartments before the big move. Just a short time earlier, in November, rockets had rained down over Jerusalem and Tel Aviv during Operation Pillar of Defense. But being in danger wasn’t much of a concern for Harris, who won a Peabody Award in 2005 for her work covering the Iraq War.
The most important thing, she says, was finding a good school for her eight-year-old daughter, Sabina. “That was the big thing – finding a place where she would feel comfortable,” says Harris, who moved here with her husband and daughter in March of last year.
A year into her post as NPR’s Jerusalem correspondent, it’s no question that Harris is happy with her decision. When the opportunity presented itself, she says, she didn’t think twice.
“This has always been a place that’s been confusing from afar, so the opportunity to look at it firsthand seemed like a great opportunity to me,” she says. “When it came up, I knew instantly that I wanted to do it.”
Much of Harris’s life has been similarly spontaneous. Her start as an international correspondent came about when she moved to Moscow in her late 20s with no job whatsoever. Eventually she found work as a research assistant for The Los Angeles Times, and freelanced stories for that paper and for the English- language Moscow Times.
Her risk-taking spirit also came into play years later, when she became NPR’s Berlin correspondent. “I moved to Germany in sort of the same way. I had been there once for two days, and I don’t think we even went to look for an apartment that time.”
But covering Israel and the Palestinian conflict, she admits, is an entirely different assignment, complete with challenges that aren’t found elsewhere.
For one, there’s the unavoidable criticism of bias, no matter what the story is about, or how objectively she approaches it. “One of the biggest challenges here is the deep commitment on both sides to their own narrative,” says Harris. “It can be hard to get people to agree on facts.”
Because of people’s devotion to their side of the story, she says, reports from here are under scrutiny in a way that reports from other places aren’t.
Another hurdle to reporting from Israel is the staggering amount of history, religion and politics that envelops nearly every aspect of life here. “One challenge as a newcomer is to learn enough context to be able to report what might seem like a relatively simple story,” Harris says. “So it feels like every story takes me forever, because there’s always more background and context to know and to understand.”
How she has managed to cover the complexities of this place that was so foreign to her just one year ago is a testament to her skills as a journalist, but also to her unquenchable desire to understand people’s motivations and thought processes.
She knows that the real reason she’s here is because every international news organization simply needs a correspondent on the ground to cover the never-ending conflict and peace talks. But the reason she is here is to tell what she sees as the more interesting story: the story of the people, through their eyes, their experiences and the things they are doing to change this country.
“One of the most difficult things is finding a fresh way to tell the story,” says Harris, “because there’s been an awful lot of stories about an American diplomat visiting and holding meetings.”
Focusing on compelling people is one way she has figured out how to tell this decades-old story in a different way.
“There are so many fascinating characters around here,” says Harris, here eyes shining and her youthful face lit up with a genuine smile. “I’m really interested in people who do things, people who are trying to change things, whether that’s trying to make this country more Orthodox, or trying to come up with a new solution for a peace deal… people who are trying to move things are interesting to report on, and there’s no shortage of that here.”
Harris’s favorite characters from her reporting over the past year include a group of women who ran for city council in the small ultra-Orthodox community of Elad, and the Palestinian-American developer who is building Rawabi, the first planned, privately developed Palestinian community.
Aside from the abundance of engaging characters, Harris revels in another upside to being based in Israel, a country that is a sliver of the size of other places she’s reported from. “Almost everywhere I go, I can be home if not for dinner, then at least by the next morning. Sometimes I’ll miss bedtime, sometimes I’ll miss dinner, but even if I go up to the far North, I know that if I leave early enough I can be back for bedtime. Which is very, very rare on a major international beat.”
The time difference also works in her favor, since she is seven hours ahead of her editors in Washington.
“I have the whole Jerusalem day to report, and then they come in between 2 and 4 p.m. my time. While they get going I can take a couple hours off to have dinner, put my daughter to bed, and by then it’s afternoon in DC and it’s my nighttime, but she’s in bed, so I’m done with any work-family conflicts.”
In that sense, Harris says, being a foreign correspondent parent isn’t much harder than being any other parent who’s trying to work a full-time job and raise a family. The harder thing as a parent, in her experience, is trying to explain a conflict to a child who didn’t grow up in a conflict zone.
“I actually like to ask other parents – you know, Palestinian parents, Israeli parents – how they explain what’s going on to their kids.”
Until last year, Harris and her husband had been raising Sabina in their native Oregon, which on a scale of conflict zones would probably weigh in at zero. But when Harris decided to have a child, she didn’t see her role as a mother representing the end of her career as an international correspondent. Quite the opposite, in fact. It was marriage and motherhood that weren’t high on her priority list.
Harris met her husband, a cellist, at an arts summer camp when they were teenagers. They waited a couple of decades to get married, and the idea of children didn’t enter the radar screen until later on.
“Until I was about 37, I just didn’t feel interested in having a child. I didn’t think about it very much. Then I got interested, and we got lucky.”
Now, at the age of 46, Harris feels fortunate to be able to raise her daughter in Israel, despite the challenges it presents. “As far as a chance to let her be exposed to the world, it’s terrific,” says Harris. “She knows where the Middle East is. She knows what other countries are around. She’s aware that people have serious, terrible fights over things. And she’s met kids from all over the world.”
It has been difficult for her daughter to be away from her friends in Oregon, “but they do Skype playdates and things like that,” Harris says with a laugh.
Technology also helps when mom has to leave the country for work, as she did recently, reporting on the crisis in Ukraine, and saying good night to her daughter through Skype or FaceTime.
“I think what is great about this in the context of family is that I’m doing something I really, really enjoy,” says Harris. “So if my daughter can see that, that’s really important. I think that’s a really important thing to know, to see your parents doing things that are meaningful to them.