The Human Spirit: ‘Where are you from?’

Most Italians we met who wanted to get beyond the clichés and knee-jerk condemnation of Big Bad Israel.

Demonstrators wearing t-shirts depicting a defaced Israeli flag attend a protest against the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip, in Frankfurt July 26, 2014. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Demonstrators wearing t-shirts depicting a defaced Israeli flag attend a protest against the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip, in Frankfurt July 26, 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I’m usually quick to answer “Jerusalem” but on a recent trip to Italy, I decided not to answer at all. Why not? I decided it simply wasn’t the business of every beach peddler who wanted to haggle with me about the price of sunglasses to know from where I hailed. I imagined the peddlers, most from countries with Muslim majorities, discussing their day’s sales and the subject coming up of that middle-aged couple from Israel, reading and sunning on the Adriatic. In Florence, my husband was wearing a kippa (as opposed to a hat) on Shabbat eve, when we were heckled by a group of young men of Middle Eastern appearance. Indeed, we felt vulnerable.
We’re not the only ones.
Many Italians we met are concerned about their safety – or so it seemed to us. Those who knew from where we were expressed interest and empathy for Israel.
The evangelical Christians are, of course, in a wonderful supportive category of their own. When asked by the 30-something owner/manufacturer of a leather goods factory whom we met in one of his posh shops about our origins, I took a gamble and said “Jerusalem.”
Immediately he was eager to hear what was really happening in Israel.
He was typical of the Italians we met who wanted to get beyond the clichés and knee-jerk condemnation of Big Bad Israel.
He asked us for Internet sites that provide news and commentary with a wider perspective – something that would give him a way to let him make the case for Israel over espresso with his friends, who might be ready to climb down from the anti-Israel tree if they had the full picture.
What might be causing such a change? First, there are the ubiquitous, nauseating pictures of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff in those orange suits prior to their beheadings.
And suddenly, there aren’t just names that are hard to pronounce – Jabhat al-Nusra, Hamas, jihadis, al-Qaida, Boko Haram – but an encroaching caliphate.
In Italy, there was even talk of Rome being an appealing target for a global Islamic empire to attack because the Vatican is a symbol of Western culture.
The shop owner did ask about the number of Palestinians killed in Operation Protective Edge, but he seemed satisfied with our answers. In light of the developing threats to his own country, our insistence on protecting ourselves no longer sounded inhumane to him.
Where else could he read more? It’s easy to recommend our own The Jerusalem Post, of course, and a few others that confront the untruths, but I am concerned that our homegrown sites, no matter how broad their opinion base is, are suspected of bias. I’m sure he thought the same of my views.
Which brings us back, as usual, to the importance of the coverage of Israel in the international press.
Here, too, we have celebrated a few bright moments in the usual dismal coverage that we get. There was, for instance, the news team from Indian NDTV which showed footage of Hamas shooting rockets from a civilian area (directly outside their hotel window!). With good reason, the team waited until they’d safely left the Gaza Strip to go public.
They reminded me of the brave Italian film crew, back in October 2000, who captured the barbaric lynching of IDF reservists Vadim Nurzhitz and Yossi Avrahami in Ramallah and exposed it to the world – 14 years before the current beheadings.
What would happen was prescient of the damaged reporting that would follow.
Instead of being heralded for their bravery, the deputy head of the Jerusalem bureau of Italy’s state television channel RAI penned a letter to the Palestinian Authority’s newspaper Al-Hayat al-Jadida not only casting off responsibility for the footage, but denying that the events happened.
He promised to forthwith grovel to the journalistic restrictions of the PA.
And then he thanked the Palestinian Authority that had lynched the young men.
The real journalists who had exposed the lynch had to leave the region fearing for their lives.
But now I could also send the link from Protective Edge, of another Italian reporter, Milan Radio Popularo’s Gabriele Barbati. Based on his eyewitness account, he insisted it was Hamas, not Israel, that shelled and killed nine children in the Shati camp in Gaza. He, too, reported this news after crossing from the Strip.
Reporters worry that they may be burying their chances of getting access to cover the next Islamic story, and, perhaps more significantly, especially in light of the beheadings, they are rightfully afraid for their lives if they give the full story. Their reports must suit the expectations of those in charge. This is the exact opposite of how they report on Israel where the establishment – be it government or the army – usually becomes the target of their criticism.
Last Friday, in these pages, The Media Line’s President Felice Friedson wrote a moving tribute to the young, dedicated and insightful reporter who had freelanced for her news service: Steven Sotloff.
The most poignant sentence for me: “Sotloff was fearless to the point where he appeared to believe he would not be harmed because his potential foes would somehow sense his attachment to the Arab world and its people.”
From the last article he wrote for The Media Line, we understand that those sympathies were for what he saw as an altruistic Free Syrian Army, which he felt was being marginalized by its chosen allies, the jihadists Jabhat al-Nusra, who had pledged allegiance to al-Qaida affiliate ISI (his term). This feels like an unlikely cause célèbre for a journalist to identify with and risk his life to give voice to in the world, and let us remember that Steven Sotloff was a strongly identified Jew and Zionist.
So many men and women who arrive in our region believe that the worthiest journalistic story to tell is the heartbreaking saga of Arabs of our region – be they suffering Syrians, Palestinians or Egyptians. Soon enough, the genuine sorrows of living under dictators and terrorist regimes overwhelm their good hearts and they report about the victims of persecution with pathos.
But there are other stories to be told here – plenty of them with pathos and heroism and humor. Now that we are beginning to see greater openness to the other side, it’s time for us to get down from our own trees of media-bashing, too. My own ongoing complaint is our country’s squeamishness about embedding reporters with IDF fighting units and inviting them to work the checkpoints from the Israeli side. Every time I approach this subject, I’m told – ironically in a time when journalists are covering Syria – that this is too dangerous.
On a personal level, we could take a lesson in hospitality. Why should the foreign reporters feel so foreign? When we invited a group of foreign reporters to our home to experience a Shabbat dinner, they told us that though they had been here for months, ours was the first Jewish home to which they had been invited. And they let us know that they were not sympathetic to our side of the story. Not surprising. They had never heard our side of that story during a personal and intimate conversation. So what was our segue to get the conversation going? We just started with a simple, “Where are you from?”
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.