Newhouse in Israel
Day 1 - Friday/Saturday, March 9/10 - Syracuse, New York, Istanbul, Tel Aviv
The Jerusalem Press Club has invited Professor Joel Kaplan, 15 Newhouse journalism students and me to learn about and tell stories in Israel over Spring Break 2018. This is an ambitious project: we're visiting all four corners of the country, from Jerusalem and the West Bank to the northern border with Lebanon and Syria to Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean Sea to the Dead Sea and the Negev desert. Check out our itinerary.
The students come from all walks of Newhouse: Magazine, Newspaper and Online graduate, Magazine undergraduate, Newspaper and Online Journalism undergraduate, Goldring Arts Journalism graduate and Broadcast and Digital Journalism graduate and undergraduate.
We're off to a rousing start, plowing through the snow in Syracuse and making our JFK ➡ IST ➡ TLV flights with plenty of time to spare. Please check back here for updates on the stories the students are telling. You can also follow us on Twitter #newhouseinisrael.
One of the things you learn quickly in journalism, is no matter how well you plan, there's always something that can go wrong. The crack staff at the Newhouse Cage arranged for us to carry on all our equipment in sturdy cases. Good plan - broken equipment doesn't help us when we arrive. What we didn't plan on was Turkish Arlines limiting not only the size of carry on luggage, but also the weight. Turns out our sturdy camera kits were too heavy. What to do? Check the cameras and risk them leaving our sights or come up with Plan B. We chose Plan B. The students would take the cameras out of the sturdy cases and carry them on in their backpacks. Much lighter. They checked the sturdy (heavy) cases. Not ideal, but in journalism, you have to "make it happen."
Day 2 - Sun, March 11 - Jerusalem
If you've come all this way, why not start BIG? Our first full day in Israel took us to some of the most holy places on the planet. The Temple Mount is sacred to Muslims. A stone atop the hill is considered the spot that connects Heaven and Earth. Over the centuries, humans built an honorific plateau to mark a location so worthy. As with much of the Middle East, control has changed hands depending on who was the conquerer of the day. At the moment, Muslims are in charge. A golden dome marks the site.
Because this was our first day, we got the lay of the land at a morning briefing called Israel 101:
- “When you say Jewish people, try to think of it as a cultural background.”
- “We have the most startups per capita after Silicon Valley.”
- Regarding compulsory military service excepting ultra-Orthodox Jews: “It’s not about going into the military, it’s about being part of civil society.”
- Top 5 Street foods: 1) falafel 2) shoarma 3) borakas 4) shakshuka 5) hummus.
We expect to be digging in to a variety of stories in the coming days. And, as is customary for the Newhouse mafia, we represented.
Day 3 - March 12 - Ramallah, Rawabi, Haramish
The Jerusalem Press Club has put together a schedule to really give the students a taste of what's going on in the Middle East. This is not a one-sided presentation that makes Israel or the Palestinians out to be the good guys, bad guys, victims or perpetrators. In fact, one student said today he hoped to finish the trip with a firm understanding of which side was right. He now knows that's not going to be possible - what a great thing to learn.
We started with a drive through East Jerusalem past the wall/security barrier (depends on whom you ask) to Ramallah. "It's like two different worlds right across the street from each other," our tour guide said. Indeed, the images of a much more prosperous and bustling West Jerusalem contrasted starkly with the garbage-strewn, traffic jammed East Jerusalem.
Professor Khalil Shikaki is the foremost pollster of the Palestinian people. You want to know what Palestinians think? This is the guy to ask. He told us the tide is changing as the younger generation of Palestinians grows ever more tired of corrupt and inefficient government. Perhaps it could lead to a breakthrough in how to solve the up-to-now intractable conflict between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors.
Next we heard from that very government the younger people are disenchanted with. Elias Zananiri is vice chairman of the Palestinian Committee for Interaction with the Israeli Society and clearly blamed Israel's insistence on building and expanding settlements in the West Bank for the lack of progress in solving this problem.
So we went to one of those Israeli settlements/occupations (depends on whom you ask). Miri Ovadia, a representative in the Binyamin regional government, invited us in to her living room in her home in Halamish and served us tea and coffee and cookies. To her, Israelis are not occupying, they're merely returning to the lands of their forefathers, building connections between the past and the future.
The future of the Palestinians isn't solely dependent upon the decisions the Israeli government makes. There are people like billionaire businessman Bashar Masri who are taking things into their own hands, building a Palestine on their own. It's a village called Rawabi, just north of Ramalla, that comes complete with zip lining, Roman amphitheater and fine shopping. So far the town has about 5,000 residents, but the goal is a proper city of 40,000. Masri says success here shows what can be done to modernize life in the West Bank.
One thing is clear when you come to Israel and the West Bank: everyone has a story and is willing to tell it. That's the fun and interesting part for journalists. Our students rose to the occasion and took on tough topics without hesitation. They could tell when it was time to perform their jobs as reporters and ask tough questions and not just sit there as stenographers. Yes, all the people we spoke to had their points of view. But, they were their perspectives. Getting to the truth, or at least telling the other side, is a great lesson learned on this trip.
It wasn't all work. We took an hour to wander the streets of downtown Ramallah, exploring street food and the markets and shops.
What makes a visit to Israel so astounding is being in the places you've heard of for... pretty much ever.
Day 4 - March 13 - Gush Etzion, Bethlehem
Our quest to understand the history and reasoning and passions behind what's going on in the Middle East continued today in the West Bank - this time south of Jerusalem.
We began in Gush Etzion, a conglomeration of Jewish settlements with a long, long history. (Everything over here has a long, long history.) Rabbi Alan Haber greeted us with a genuine New York City accent. That's where he lived until he decided to move his family here decades ago. Why? To return to his roots. He says this is his family home, and to him, family is the millions of Jewish people who lived here before him. In fact, he met us under the Lone Tree, a symbol of hope for Jewish people while they had been forced out of this area and before they could return. Jews would look from miles away and say to their children: "See that lonely tree, that's where we're from," Haber said.
Haber is an unabashed promoter of the Israeli-Jewish cause. Students peppered him with questions that revealed some of the emotions that connect Jews to this land. He talked about the establishment of Israel soon after World War II and how the Holocaust shaped the country's open arms to anyone of Jewish heritage. "If they're Jewish enough for the Nazis, then they're Jewish enough for Israel," he said. (Haber said anyone with at least one Jewish grandfather was considered a Jew by the Nazis.)
Leaving the settlements, we crossed to the other side, literally and, as is so often the case here, figuratively. We drove to Bethlehem to the Palestinian side of the wall/security barrier (depends whom you ask). Graffiti speckles the wall, some poignant, some vulgar, some political, some hopeful. The despair the Palestinians feel personally (imagine a wall to keep you away, you, just because of who you are) and economically (imagine how much more difficult it is to go to work when you have to go around a wall only to get to a checkpoint) comes through in the painted pictures.
This place holds so much meaning for the Palestinians, a man came up to our tour to make sure we were hearing his side of the story. The moment got a little tense as guide and passerby debated terminology (wall versus security barrier) and who was here first. In the end, a five-minute snapshot of discussions that have been going on for thousands of years.
One group that's trying to change the debate by having more debate is called Roots. Jews/Israelis and Muslims/Palestinians are sitting down and talking, taking time to find common ground. How strange is this? The Israeli we interviewed, Shaul Judelman, said he hadn't met a Palestinian until he was an adult. Never spoke to one! It's that distance despite proximity that's driving him to push for greater understanding between the people on both sides of the conflict. "Step out of the objective truth, because it's worthless," Judelman said. Instead, focus on the subjective, the feelings, the emotions - that's what's driving the two sides apart.
One of the things you can't escape during a visit to Israel is the momentousness of the Biblical geography. The names and places are so familiar because they're in so many religious stories. Even if you aren't religious, you likely know the famous place where the night was silent and where the manger replaced the bed. The tiny doorway to the Basilica of the Nativity contrasts with the huge number of people who line up to see the place where Mary gave birth to Jesus.
On a personal note, seeing the spot where Jesus was born and then, just a few feet away, where his mother Mary placed him in a manger was surprisingly meaningful. I didn't expect to feel such a connection. From afar, the Middle East's eternal arguments and wars over whose land is more holy and to whom it belongs can seem perplexing - is it really all worth it? But now, after being in the Basilica of the Nativity, it's a little more clear to me. There's something about this place that makes the history real. The traditions and holidays, the stories and songs aren't derived from an amorphous past, they're part of a continuum. When you get to see and touch the history, you become part of it.
We wrapped up the night with a correspondent's dinner at the Jerusalem Press Club. Fine dining and conversation with students and reporters from The Washington Post and the Alhurra news channel as well as experts on the Middle East. What a great way for the students to learn from the people who are doing what the students dream of doing.
Day 5 - March 14 - Jerusalem
Today we spent the morning in Jerusalem, first learning about the Orthodox Jewish community, known as the Haredi. Tzippy Yarom was frank in her description of the Haredi life she leads, strictly adhering to religious teachings:
- the wife works to provide for the family
- the husband studies scriptures
- spouses must be Jews
- it's good to have lots of kids
Because religion plays such a big role in Israeli society, people like Yarom matter-of-factly say things that seem out of place in American culture. For example: "You came to a Jewish state, so the least you can do is go to Cypress to get married." What? At first blush, that sounds like a pretty harsh statement. She's basically saying: leave if you want to get married. The only marriages officially performed in Israeli are between two Jews. People of two different religions have to leave the country to get married. This is a controversy here, but not for Yarom.
But here's how Yarom explained it: If the point of the state of Israel is to promote Judaisim, then the best way to do that is to create more Jews. Every time a Jew marries someone from another religion, the children produced in that marriage are, in a sense, lost - they won't become Jews. So, to her it's logical the only official marriages are the ones that produce the children that will further Israel and the Jewish state. Outsiders should know that coming in and if they don't want to play by those rules, then they should have their weddings somewhere else.
After an introductory talk, Yarom took us on a tour of the Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem. Because the women were working, we saw few on the streets, but lots of men. Yarom explained how each element of a man's attire sends a message about where he's from and which strain of Judaism he practices. The hat, coat, even the socks all give clues. A Hasidic Jew wears a long coat and a round hat. A Lithuanian Jew wears a short coat and a fedora, she said.
These clothes come from Orthodox haberdashers. Moshe was nice enough to show us around his shop, called Enzo Rosso.
From there we went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. This humbling experience left many of the students without words. There's not a lot to say. More questions than answers. The museum takes you through the progression of persecution to isolation to execution. The museum's goal is to not let the individual people who suffered get lost in the massive numbers. It's easy to simply look at the Holocaust as millions of Jews killed. But to personalize the suffering, to make it individual, forces you to think harder about what happened.
The museum's archive of victims is its most dramatic attempt to make sure each person is remembered. Some 4.6 million names have been collected on forms called Pages of Testimony. Anyone can fill one out and send it in. The museum will research to confirm the person was a victim of the Holocaust, and then the sheet goes into a binder. The collection is astounding and humbling.
Day 6 - March 15 - Safad, Golan Heights
We checked out of our Jerusalem hotel and headed north for a tour of Israel where it borders Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. This is a key part of the tour because it helps to explain the mindset of the Israeli people and its government. Essentially surrounded by countries that at one time or another have been hostile to it keeps Israeli politicians awake at night. Yes, at the moment, Israel is in good shape with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But parts of Lebanon are still hostile and Syria's civil war instability makes it unpredictable.
Our first stop - Ziv Medical Center in Safad, where hundreds of Syrian refugees have been treated. The process is a tricky one for the doctors, because they don't really know who they're treating. They leave the security process up to the Israel Defense Forces. The IDF representative at the hospital explained soldiers wait at the border with Syria to collect and transport the injured to the hospital. They make sure the refugees are not carrying weapons or explosives but don't ask - and really don't want to know - more than that. No ID check. They don't know whether the patient is a rebel fighter or a member of ISIS. The Israeli government's position on the civil war in Syria is to take no position and instead just help out when it can.
This comes at a cost: each patient is hospitalized for 18 days on average with a bill that comes to about $13,000 dollars on average. About 1,000 refugees have been treated.
The students interviewed a man who said he hobbled 35 kilometers on crutches to the border after a bomb injured his leg. The IDF representative would not allow him to reveal too much information about himself (no pictures of his face allowed), because she feared for his safety when he goes back to Syria. It might not look so good he went to Israel for help. He said he has a wife and daughter, his opinion of Israel is much improved after his treatment, he'd assassinate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad if he had the chance and he can't wait to go back to Syria. The patient spoke in Arabic to a translator to who spoke in Hebrew who spoke to a hospital official who spoke in English.
All this helped Professor Joel Kaplan teach the students an important journalism lesson. It's always good to bring a healthy dose of skepticism to a story. Kaplan asked the students to think about the motivation the refugee had to tell his story. He'd been in the hospital two months. Did boredom influence what he wanted to say? What we would report was essentially third-hand information because it had been through two translations by the time we could understand it. Could the translators have influenced the story? Maybe the answer to both questions is "no," but that doesn't mean those questions shouldn't be asked.
We left the hospital and continued our tour of the north of Israel heading east to the Golan Heights and the border with Syria. The location has great strategic importance militarily. Whichever country controls the mountain ridge controls the border. The significance is so clear when you see the drop-off is so steep on the eastern (Syrian) side. There's virtually no way a military force could climb the hill to take the top. That's why Israeli forces occupied the Golan Heights after the 1967 war and then annexed the location in 1985.
The students were thrilled at the opportunity to tell stories from a location they'd seen and heard about in so many news stories already. They also realized how hard it is to stay focused on their jobs as reporters, knowing just a few miles a way, thousands of people have been and are suffering from a civil war.
We wrapped up our reporting day in Majdal Shams talking to a Druze family. The Druze are a minority in Israel that traces its lineage to Syria. They have their own religion and the two brothers we spoke to feel torn about where they are. On the one hand, they love the idea of returning to Syria - one said the year he spent studying in Damascus was the best of his life. But they also recognize and appreciate the freedom they have to practice their religion (a distantly-related form of Islam) in Israel.
As we and our waistlines are beginning to discover, the food here is varied and awesome. Majdr and Afeef's mom is a great cook, and they welcomed us into their dining room for a Druze dining experience to die for.
A few shots from the bus ride:
Day 7 - March 16 - Misgav Am, Haifa, Tel Aviv
We began the day at Kibbutz Dafna in Misgav Am in the northern part of Israel. These are collective farming communities that sprung up soon after Jews started returning to the newly created Jewish state. Barry Praag, who's originally from London, greeted us and gave us a tour. He explained the philosophy of the kibbutz - 100 percent communism. Everyone shared everything, no one wanted for anything.
In the early days, the collective even paid for people to go on two-month vacations overseas - what a system! But, Praag said human nature got in the way and showed how the Communist philosophy just doesn't work. Eventually, the lazy person figured out he didn't have to work and would still receive the same benefits. That two-month expenses paid vacation? You got one, for your whole life.
Nowadays, some kibbutzes are successful and some have to borrow money from the bank to stay afloat. Praag actually works in the nearby town as a school teacher. He's not a kibbutz dairy farmer as he was when he started.
The kibbutz are on the frontier of Israel, near the borders with neighboring countries that aren't always friendly. Misgav Am sits a few hundred yards from the border with Lebanon. It's also withing striking distance from Syria. In recent years, it's been pretty calm, but Praag said he remembered the days when bombs fell in rapid succession. That's why the community built bomb shelters. Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, said the country owed its security to the people who are willing to live on the kibbutz on the border.
All modern buildings built on the kibbutz are required to include bomb shelters, even though it's been a while since Praag and his compatriots have had to use one. Still, there are signs today things could go south. As we drove into the kibbutz, we saw on the border with Lebanon a large Palestinian flag blowing in the wind. Our tour guide explained this was a jab at the Israelis living nearby, to remind them Lebanon supports the Palestinian cause in the conflict miles away on the West Bank and in Gaza.
We left the kibbutz and headed west toward the Mediterranean Sea to the town of Haifa. Haifa is known for its peacefulness and cooperation. The city's population is 270,000, 80 percent Jews, 20 percent Arab Christians and Muslims. When other cities protest in anger and disagreement, the people in Haifa talk and try to understand. The group Beit Hagefen Arab Jewish Culture Center tries to bring these communities together. The group's leaders explained Israeli society is so divided: Jews and Muslims and Christians don't get to know one another. The only places where they commonly mix are:
- University - after studying separately in elementary and high school, they mix in higher education classrooms
- Hospitals - medical professionals come from all religions and work well together taking care of patients
- Sports teams - when you score a goal, no one cares to whom you pray
- Committing crimes - bad people come in all denominations
So Beit Hagefen uses art to bridge the gaps that remain. The group believes by talking first about what Muslims and Jews and Christians might agree upon, rather than jumping into the politics, there's a chance to find common ground.
All along the way, students continued to work on their stories.
From Haifa we drove down the coastline to Tel Aviv. The trip is reminiscent of heading south from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles - miles and miles of sparsely populated beaches. We checked into our hotel, just blocks from the beach, eager to experience what we've been told is a drastically different vibe from what we've seen in other parts of Israel.
dWe finished the night with a traditional Shabbat dinner at the home of a local Jewish family. After the opening prayer over wine and bread came plate after plate after plate of wonderful food: tomato salad, Jerusalem artichoke soup, barbecued chicken. Best of all was the cake and ice cream dessert made by the matriarch of the family, Sonia. She left Berlin at four years old when a Nazi grabbed her father by the necktie and told the "ugly Jew" to get out. Her family moved to Peru, where she stayed for decades before returning to Israel. We had a nice chat in Spanish.