Maintaining empathy: ‘New York Times’ Jerusalem Bureau chief says goodbye

‘New York Times’ Jerusalem Bureau chief Jodi Rudoren sits down with the ‘Magazine’ to discuss her time spent covering the region.

I THINK that the inherent newsiness of this place and the tendency of most people to want to talk is a journalistic gift that keeps on giving,’ Rudoren says of her time here. (photo credit: COURTESY NEW YORK TIMES)
I THINK that the inherent newsiness of this place and the tendency of most people to want to talk is a journalistic gift that keeps on giving,’ Rudoren says of her time here.
On August 5, 2013, the front page of The New York Times carried “My Hobby is Throwing Stones,” a profile by Jerusalem Bureau chief Jodi Rudoren about the culture and cult of personality surrounding the image of the Palestinian rock thrower.
Rudoren was a year and a half into her stint at the head of one of the newspaper’s most important and scrutinized bureaus when she wrote the story. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post Magazine on Monday, looking back, she said she wanted to understand this “iconic figure in the conflict” and “completely caricatured figure.”
The fallout was quick. Rudoren’s message of incredulity – that generations of boys and young men were having fun engaging in an act that has harmed and killed people – was lost. She was vilified as a supporter of Palestinian violence and accused of glorifying violent perpetrators.
The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, a pro-Israel, American nonprofit that monitors media’s coverage of the area, is a frequent critic of Rudoren’s work. Her name appears no fewer than 472 times in a simple search on its website. The organization wrote an article titled The New York Times Romanticizes Palestinian Stone Throwers and Ignores Their Victims.”
“I was relatively new here, and I felt like in every story that I was writing… about this place there was a reference to a kid throwing stones,” Rudoren says.
“This was an iconic figure in the conflict and it was a completely caricatured figure, this notion of a Palestinian rock thrower. I just simply set out to answer, Who the hell is he? What is he thinking? What is he doing? Why? Where does he live? How did he learn to make a slingshot? What do his parents think about it? Who does he do it with? Is he celebrated for doing it? Is he shunned? How young does it start? How old does it go? Everything about who is this person – to dimensionalize this character.”
In November, after three and a half years in the region, Rudoren announced on Facebook that she’d be leaving her post as bureau chief, going back to New York to take up an editorial position as a deputy on the international news desk.
In her short time here, she’s experienced breaking news and developments that journalists could feel lucky covering once in their careers. Since 2012 there have been two Israeli elections, two wars between Israel and Hamas, the start and collapse of a peace process and countless tragedies, terrorism and deaths.
“Because of the incredible importance of this place and this issue to American foreign policy, because of the very deep interest of a lot of our readers, the deep connections a lot of New York institutions have to this place, I feel we cover it a lot more like a Washington story than an international story; we’re somewhere in between.... The responsibility for us is more ‘What does this mean and why does it matter?’”
Sitting in a café – over coffee and shakshuka on a rainy Jerusalem morning – Rudoren looks back on her reporting and experiences here and the challenges of writing about the people and events in one of the most contentious and followed conflicts in the world.
She’s written hundreds of pieces from both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, but says the criticism is always the same. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘Everyone knows the Times hates Israel,’ or ‘Everyone knows the Times is pro-Israel.’ – I respond, ‘Everyone you know!’ Just go on Google or Twitter, it’s not hard to find people who say the exact opposite thing from you about the exact same article.”
Whatever side she writes about ignores the reality of the other, she says.
“So many people in this conflict just ignore the idea that there is another side, another experience.”
RUDOREN SAYS that she had three short months when she knew officially she would be arriving in Jerusalem. She did a whirlwind round of meetings with former bureau chiefs, Middle East experts and activists based in the US, but she maintains her school of journalism is the “fresh-eye approach.”
This would be her first international posting. In her 20 years as working as a reporter and editor she’s covered local and national news in the US, specializing in politics and education, and writing features for The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.
In our conversation, she brings up her time in Chicago where, among the stories she wrote, she profiled exonerated death-row inmates. It was a sector of society that fascinated her. Central characters in controversial stories whose personal lives and struggles are often overlooked in the bigger drama playing out.
In the early 2000s, then-governor George Ryan had enacted groundbreaking and controversial legislation, declaring a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois and commuting or exonerating the sentences of over 160 death-row inmates.
Passions were high on both sides; families of victims felt robbed by the justice system, while advocates praised the move for its support of human rights.
Rudoren wanted to know what happens to a person when he gets out of prison.
These people are coming back into society; what are their lives like? During our conversation in Jerusalem she brings up the double standard that exists in writing about terrorism and tragedy in Israel vs the United States.
“Is anyone questioning why we wrote big profiles on the Planned Parenthood shooter and the San Bernardino couple? Aren’t people desperate to know who these people are and what is going on?” she asks. “In many ways, understanding [perpetrators of violence] and their stories is more substantive or more useful than the stories of the victims, in the sense that the victims are random and you can imagine another version of this happening.”
In part, it was this thinking that led to her to profile 17-year-old Muhammad Abu Hashem for the ‘My Hobby is Throwing Stones’ article. Rudoren wrote about the astonishing number of times Abu Hashem, a resident of Beit Umar, near Hebron, had been arrested (four times in three years), the example of his family (all of his five brothers and his father had spent time in jail), and the environment of his friends – in their free time, they play Arabs and army, staging mock arrests by IDF soldiers. It’s a shocking illustration of the fact that young Palestinians don’t mind throwing their lives away to throw stones.
“Journalistically, I put it there because I was shocked by it,” Rudoren says of Abu Hashem’s admission that throwing stones was his “hobby.” “I thought people needed to know that; not because I think it’s great that he thinks that or because I want to celebrate it or glorify it, but I want it to be on the front page of The New York Times and everyone can make of it what they will.
“If Palestinian kids have this as a hobby, what does that mean to you? What does that mean to the future of this conflict? Hear him say it,” she punctuates each word, “understand his perspective, because that is – for Israelis – the enemy you’re fighting against. You have to understand what you’re up against.”
A YEAR after that piece, Rudoren tackled an equally difficult and somewhat similar story. One of the more contentious points of the US-led Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations was the release of 104 pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. US Secretary of State John Kerry used the releases – which ended up being three batches out of a total of four – as leverage to bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table. Palestinians celebrated the homecoming of their heroes; Israelis mourned the loss of justice for the victims of terrorism.
Like in Chicago, Rudoren was drawn to understanding who were these central characters in this extraordinary situation.
“This was a different twist. This person was let out not because they were exonerated, not because they served their sentence, but because of a political deal. I wanted to know, who are these people? There are 78 people out; what are their lives like?” Just like with the stone throwers, Rudoren found a cult of celebration and glorification by the Palestinian people for these released terrorists.
In her piece titled “Remaking a Life, After Years in an Israeli Prison,” Rudoren followed Muqdad Salah, who spent 20 years in jail for murdering Israel Tenenbaum, 72, bashing him in the head with a metal rod. Rudoren also profiled Tenenbaum’s life and interviewed his daughter, Esti Harris. “If it was an anonymous character, it would be easier,” she told Rudoren. “If it advances the peace process, we all support even the release of this murderer.”
In an accompanying video with the article, Salah looks like a shell of a person, rarely smiling or expressing any exuberance over his current situation.
When he was released, a celebration was held with dancing and fireworks in the city center of Nablus. He was quickly married and given a nest egg of $50,000 by the Palestinian Authority.
He expresses regret for his crime but his melancholy seems to stem from his frustrations with boredom, confined to the West Bank and under surveillance by Israeli authorities.
“I got lots of different reactions,” Rudoren says of the piece. “People said ‘Thank you for telling us more about these things we’ve been reading about for a long time; this is deeper than we’ve ever seen; this is really interesting.’ Some people were outraged by some of the details in the article. Some people were outraged to learn how much money the prisoner got from the PA.”
RUDOREN WALKS through a Hamas tunnel uncovered by the IDF during Operation Protective Edge in 2014.
(Photo credit Rina Castelnuovo/New York Times)
WITH ALL of the criticism of her work, Rudoren says that the things she is most troubled by are accusations that she lacks empathy – and how accusations like these are used to undermine journalism in general.
She gives the example of one particular story. For Remembrance Day Rudoren profiled the mother of a soldier who fell in the Yom Kippur War. Since his death, there have been 23 people named after him – Gil’ad. Every year for more than 40 years, the mother holds a memorial service to honor her son and celebrate those who are keeping his memory alive.
“I thought it was this very important story, a very perfect wonderful human story… and it told you a lot about Israelis and how they mourn their war dead, which is very different from Americans,” Rudoren says.
But this story was also not without its criticism. “I got a text message from a Palestinian official: ‘Your lack of empathy for Palestinians is unbelievable.’ I thought, how does this have anything to do with Palestinians? And since when does empathizing with this woman mean I don’t empathize with Palestinians?” Rudoren continues, “Empathy is a key tool of journalism. It is a major and important factor in conflict resolution, and I think it’s a basic thing of being a human being. I’m pro-empathy; I don’t think it’s limited, I don’t think it’s finite.
“You do need empathy to tell the story of the prisoner in a way that dimensionalizes him, but it dimensionalizes him in all of his mess; whatever you find, you put in. I didn’t think either of those stories were pretty stories about the prisoner or the stone thrower; I thought they were tough stories.”
Later, in an email, Rudoren wrote: “What rattled me about the comment was the notion that even empathy was understood here as a zero-sum game.
The general ‘score-keeping’ by advocates as a frame for analyzing news coverage is bad enough, in terms of reducing the complexity of life and this conflict to some kind of zero-sum situation, but empathy? Always seemed to me it was infinitely available/accessible and empathy for one person need not have impact on empathy for another, regardless of their relationship.
“Of course it’s difficult to empathize with two people, or two peoples, in conflict, but it’s not only possible, it’s essential for mainstream journalism and outsider understanding of this place.”
FOR HER time here, Rudoren is proud of the stories mentioned above and of other stories she covered, including “Walking in War’s Path,” an interactive feature online that has a quick succession of still photographs mimicking a daily path walked by Israelis and Palestinians who were affected by 2014’s war between Israel and Hamas. Another piece, “Proudly Bearing Elders’ Scars, Their Skin Says ‘Never Forget,’” is about children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors tattooing prisoner numbers on their own arms. Stepping slightly out of her beat, in a series of articles Rudoren chronicled life of Syrian refugees in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp.
“Those stories affect your heart and you never really lose them,” she says.
In March of this year, Rudoren worked with Jeremy Ashkenas to investigate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s settlement construction record.
“I did it in partnership with someone from our data visualization interactive team. He did a really impressive body of work that shows visually the change in the settlements since Netanyahu’s first term, and together we did the most comprehensive accounting of where Netanyahu is on settlements.”
As for the stories that she never got to cover, Rudoren said she ruminated on a project that would explore the Oslo generation – those born in 1993, who came of age in the second intifada and who are turning 21 now – what their lives are like in this atmosphere of increased hopelessness.
When she gets back to New York, she’s looking forward to taking her experience as a correspondent and working with other international writers and sharing her passion for digital innovation.
“This is a critical moment in journalism. Are we going to continue to get readers that support aggressive, ambitious international coverage?” she ponders.
What will she miss? The food, and regular Saturday morning bike rides with NPR correspondent Emily Harris.
She looks back on her time fondly.
“I think that the inherent newsiness of this place and the tendency of most people to want to talk is a journalistic gift that keeps on giving. So I don’t know if I’ll get to work in such an environment again. I understand it’s a gift – even if it comes with a lot of booby traps.”