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Sunday, December 09, 2007

The risk was not theirs alone to take

About a year and a half ago I wrote a post about a naive student on Hebrew University's one year program (for foreign students) who got himself kidnapped late one night after going to have a latte in a coffee house in Nablus.  Apparently there wasn't a drop of coffee to be had in all of Jerusalem.

At the time I honestly couldn't locate enough scorn to spill on this thoughtless idiot who needlessly endangered himself  - and others - by illegally going to a PA controlled area (although if you read the post, you'll have to admit I sure tried!). 

This kid was one of those loathsome people who exhibits a far more insidious form of racism towards Arabs than even the most strident Kahanist could ever muster.  By this I mean he objectified and infantilized them and got his thrills by venturing into dangerous places that were technically off limits in order to show off the rapport he enjoyed with the noble savages held captive in the evil Israeli cage.

However, my anger was not directed at his underlying racism, since we're all more than a little racist, (although we may hide behind labels like 'red lines', 'irrational fear' and 'the matzav' to quiet our conscience over looking a little too closely at Arabs who get on the buses we ride).  No, what burnt my toast was that he hadn't considered for a moment why it was illegal to visit PA-controlled areas. 

Being from abroad it never entered his mind that if he were kidnapped, someone's son - actually, probably a whole unit of 'someone's sons' - would have to risk their lives to go in and try to rescue his unworthy @ss.  And barring a military option, his ransom might ultimately run into untold hundreds of terrorists freed needlessly... just to return this witless imbecile to the bosom of his upper middle class American bubble.

In that post I recounted the following conversation I'd recently had with a journalist /fellow blogger about wanting to force people to confront the very real dangers in the people and causes they embraced:

"I once joked with her about wanting to drive a Joo-hater we both loathe into the center of Nablus and throw him out of the car just to see him pleading to the advancing crowd, "No, wait... I'm not a Jew... I hate the Jews more than you do!!!" 

Naturally my journalist friend, who has spent a great deal of time in Nablus and other Arab cities, was appalled at the implied prejudice in my statement and chided me for assuming that any white face in Nablus would automatically become a target.

I reluctantly agreed that I was simply indulging in a little schadenfreude fantasy, and that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians who might glimpse such a person being thrown from a car in Nablus would have no interest in him... for good or for bad.

But I did bite my tongue just a little.

What I really wanted to tell her is that, as a journalist, most (if not all) of her visits to Nablus and other Arab locales are carefully coordinated with Palestinian politicians and/or journalists.  She is nominally escorted to and from most of her interviews, and as a known journalist, she represents arguably the only segment of the Israeli/international population to whom it would be expedient to show one's best face."

This was back when this journalist and I were still on speaking terms, so she chimed in with the following comment at the end of the post:

"Nice try, David, but, em, no cigar.

Yes, I do have a "connected" driver in Gaza - as do all journalists in that area - because things are a bit unstable over there lately.

But in the West Bank I get around on my own - in Palestinian taxis, mostly. I also travel by Palestinian "sherut" from East Jerusalem to Qalandiya checkpoint, which I cross on my own by foot. I would like to emphasize that none of this is unusual, by the way. That's the way lots of Israeli journalists travel to and around the West Bank. I ain't special.

I've got the "inside" story about what happened to silly Benjamin, and as usual most of the details that were rerported are incorrect. There was a lot more going on than the public knows.

And, as a Palestinian journalist asked me today, What would happen to a Palestinian Arab guy with a long, orange beard a la Muhammad Abu Tir, and a keffiyeh wrapped around his neck, if he wandered into the Kikar Shabbat neighbourhood of Jerusalem?"

As I read her comment I couldn't help but glimpse the same kind of potentially-destructive bravado I'd sensed in the student whose kidnap was under discussion... as if to say "Look, nothing to be afraid of here!".   

Of course, this was long before the fall of Gaza, but her 'expert' assessment of that population as "a bit unstable... lately", revealed volumes.  It was as if she were a lion tamer explaining to the crowd that the chair and whip were only temporary measures due to the big cats being unusually agitated... only at the moment, mind you.  Usually they're pussy-cats!

But the real problem with her comment was the head-shakingly bizarre assessment that a Palestinian walking into a religious neighborhood of Jerusalem was somehow taking the same chances with his life as a Jew going into the heart of Nablus.  Besides being a clear swipe at the religious community, the inescapable implication was:

a) that Arabs are a rarity in Jewish areas of the capitol (who does she think does all the construction and heavy lifting, for crying out loud?).


b)  that any Arab who ventured into a religious Jewish neighborhood was taking his life in his hands (because, you know, you read about Arabs being lynched in Mea Sha'arim all the time).

I and several other commenters asked this journalist some hard questions about her comment... but apparently she didn't feel the need to defend what she'd written and never returned to rejoin the thread.

Flash forward to last week when I was sitting on line waiting to get my car tested (an annual rite here) when I heard the news report on the radio that three Israeli journalists had been questioned on suspicion of having traveled to an enemy country without permission from the Israeli government. 

Granted, to use the word 'suspicion' in this case is just silly since none of them had government permission to visit Lebanon or Syria... and their stories filed from those countries pretty much remove all doubt of their presence on enemy soil.  But I digress.

The point I wanted to make was that not surprisingly, one of the three journalists under investigation is this same woman from my comment board who had tried so hard to soft-pedal the inherent dangers of breaking Israeli law and visiting territory controlled by one's enemies.

I remember seeing her report from Lebanon on Channel 10 at the time and wondering out loud what exactly she'd hoped to gain by going there.  Beyond the admitted novelty of seeing an Israeli reporter filing a story from a country where just months before our soldiers were under fire, the report itself was a complete fluff piece.  No scoop... no inside information... no revelations that couldn't have been gleaned from over here. 

This was not long after the cessation of hostilities and it seemed she was there simply to say "Hey, look where I am!  See, there's nothing to fear from these nice Lebanese folks.  I'm up here and I honestly don't know what all the fuss was about.  Why can't we all just get along?!"

While not exactly a Hanoi Jane-worthy performance, there was absolutely no justification for breaking Israeli law to file such a story, and certainly no justification for potentially risking who-knows-how-many lives if someone had decided to disappear her. 

Seriously, what if she (or one of her two colleagues) had been kidnapped?  How many bus-loads of terrorists would Israel have had to release to buy their freedom?  How many Israeli soldiers would have had to put their lives on the line simply because the Israeli Government's assessment of what is - and isn't - unreasonably dangerous (and illegal) didn't cross the minds of a few arrogant journalists trying to make a name for themselves?  How much more impotent would our government have appeared if the worst had happened and, for whatever reason, we could not gain the necessary support to act???

Not surprisingly, the press has closed ranks behind these three journalists while ignoring the perfectly valid reasons why such stunts are illegal.

We'll leave alone the many well-intentioned public and private individuals who have succumbed to the urge to carry out free-lance diplomacy and travel to meet with our enemies.  While they represent a liability to the government's ability to make/coordinate policy, their presence on enemy soil is generally high profile enough to push kidnapping to the outer realm of statistical probability.

But for those - like our intrepid journalists - who are below the radar, but who feel they are above the law... the likelihood of coming to harm becomes very real.    It's all very well and good that these three felt it was worth the risk... but I contend that it wasn't only their risk to take.

Posted by David Bogner on December 9, 2007 | Permalink


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That dumb kid was one of my students, I was the Hillel programs director that year for overseas students. What was interesting was hearing from his peers after he was safely back in Israel. Apparently, a number of students who had been to PA controlled areas had specifically told him what to do/wear if he insisted on going to Nablus. They told him not to go alone and not to wear anything which would signify that he was Jewish. Of course, genius went alone to practice his Arabic and wore a kippah. Brilliant.

I also was a student at Hebrew U at the time, studying Communications & Journalism, and unfortunately, the academia pretty much have the same views and attitudes as your journalist ex-buddy. It was interesting being a pragmatic right-winger (a term my husband coined) while being in a bastion of left-wing impracticalities (my term for HU).

Great post and good insights. Chag Sameach!

Posted by: Aliza | Dec 9, 2007 7:11:38 PM

I wonder if Rinat Malkes is also being questioned. She went to South Lebanon for a newspaper in Brazil, if I remember correctly.

Posted by: david | Dec 9, 2007 8:16:22 PM

Very insightful comments. I feel the same way about people like that kid who went rock climbing in the Utah wilderness by himself some years ago and had to cut off his own arm. Real-live people have to risk their real-life lives to try to rescue these narcissists. It ain't right.

Re: the journo's comments, the egotism of her thinking is embarrassing to the profession and her employer, but also characteristic if the kind of self-loathing practiced by so many of our Jewishly ignorant co-religionists.

Posted by: SkiCat89 | Dec 10, 2007 5:27:02 AM

Arrogant fools like that reporter are a problem not only when their pathetic asses need rescued or ransomed -- they're corrosive to social relations. By placing themselves in harm's way, they're setting themselves up as arbiters between factions they consider morally equivalent. In effect they identify themselves with those who believe the wholesale slaughter of Jews is their sworn duty. Such sympathy only emboldens ones enemies to even more outrageous actions.

I don't mean to trivialize this, but allow me to offer a story that I believe illustrates how appointing oneself as the arbiter between criminals and victims destroys any chance of real reform. Years ago, when our sons were in grade school, they had a very kind-hearted vice-principal named Mrs A. Whenever a child was sent to Mrs A's office for disrupting class, the dear child always received a word of sympathy from Mrs A. You see, only Mrs A was able to see the inner pain these children struggled with -- and she (and only she) knew how to ply them with kind words, sweet smiles and candy until they saw the error of their ways.

But Mrs A was far more than a sympathetic ear, she was the self-appointed public defender of each poor misunderstood child. As Mrs A looked deeply into each tormented child's soul, she unerringly saw the redeeming qualities (which the wicked teacher had somehow missed). Mrs A never failed to explain to the child that teachers often re-act inappropriately when dealing with over-exuberant children, so (although Mrs A herself would never be as cold-hearted as the child's teacher had been) she urged the youngster to try to see it the teacher's way and to be more understanding of the teacher's feelings.

As you might imagine, these little darlings soon learned that the safest way to get away with misbehavior in class was to preemptively bring their grievances against the teacher to their attorney down the hall. To Mrs A's great surprise, the school grew steadily more chaotic until she (even with her bottomless supply of sympathy) could no longer handle the torrent of good little children driven to desperate behavior. Amazingly, the following year (when Mrs A was replaced with a gruff gravelly-voiced monster) the children instantly transformed themselves into the good little boys and girls that Mrs A intuitively knew them to be all along.

On a small scale (as in the cottling of miscreants in a grade school) with great effort the damage these fools do can be rectified, but on the grand scale (as in offering aid and comfort to terrorists in the Gaza Strip) entire societies are devastated and no cure is possible.

Posted by: Bob | Dec 10, 2007 6:01:00 AM

My, my - I do remember being poo-pooh'd when I fingered this young journaliste back then.

You're coming along fine - you'll be a good rabid-right-wing-settler any day now.

I've given up arguing.... I'll just let reality drip into your, ummm, egg-nog....

Posted by: Ben-David | Dec 10, 2007 10:23:45 AM

Aliza... Thanks. BTW, I prefer the term 'compassionate conservative'. :-)

david... To my knowledge it is just the three which is puzzling considering how many journalists have done the same thing. In this respect there is likely something to this Journalists assertion that she is being singled out for some reason. Bottom line, when someone remains silent about the government's attacks on democracy (freedom of speech, assembly, travel, etc.) during the disengagement but miraculously finds her voice when the government treads on her democratic rights... I'm inclined to be unsympathetic.

SkiCat89... While I may agree with the sentiment, I try to avoid such sweeping declarations. It chases away the good lefties. :-)

Bob... Nice illustration.

Ben-David... There is a big difference between being critical of someone's actions and making ad hominem attacks on someone because you don't like their politics.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Dec 10, 2007 3:17:21 PM

While I understand the concern that a journalist who puts himself in danger also places potential rescuers at risk, isn't Rob ben Yishai's case different? Didn't he serve the national interest by showing Syria to be lying?

Posted by: soccerdad | Dec 10, 2007 5:08:12 PM

soccerdad... C'mon now, really. Israel has satellites that can tell if Assad is having a bad hair day and you think the government really needs a journalist to make a personal visit to Syria to prove anything to the world? And by 'the world' you have to remember that you are referring to the reading public (i.e. subscribers to media.. i.e. people who buy papers and potentially increase Mr.Yishai's marketability), not governmental decision makers in the US and Europe who have already received the satellite imagery from the Mossad. His trip, like the others was all about self-promotion. Full Stop.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Dec 10, 2007 5:19:35 PM

But there was a larger reading public: the world. Unless I am wrong, there was a disturbing trend towards crediting the Syrian version of things. It was only after Ron ben Yishai pulled his stunt that reporters started advancing past "the neo-cons are saying this"/"the reasonable folks are saying this," reports of bureaucratic infighting. (The NYT and WaPo were presenting the Israeli claim on one side and the IAEA denial on the other.)
From this side of the ocean it looked to me as if Ben Yishai moved the story along in a way that was beneficial to Israel.

Posted by: soccer dad | Dec 10, 2007 9:39:54 PM

What burns me up is the fact that they really think they are getting "the story" - by being in the country for a very short time, by speaking to people through interpreters (how many reporters speak Arabic themselves?), and with a childish attempt to simplify everything.

Posted by: westbankmama | Dec 11, 2007 1:34:43 PM

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