Panel ponders how Jewish press should cover Jewish state

When Ori Nir was a reporter for Ha’aretz, he once met with the Palestinian Authority’s newspaper censor for a story. The official noted that papers were free to publish what they wished, but if they transgressed “the rules,” fines would be allotted.

What were those rules? In a nutshell, don’t make Palestinians look bad.

The censor had recently fined a newspaper for running a photograph of a Palestinian family washing a donkey at the beach. Apparently, it made Palestinians look bad.

That story got a laugh out of the roughly 50 editors of Jewish newspapers in the audience at Nir’s speech at the American Jewish Press Awards in San Francisco.

But when Nir asked about self-censorship within the American Jewish community, the guffaws ceased.

Nir shared the dais with Israel Consul General David Akov and Vice Consul Ishmael Khaldi in the late June panel. Nir, a longtime reporter for Israel’s Ha’aretz and the Forward in New York City, is now the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now.

He said Jewish newspapers do a disservice to their readers when they whitewash Israel’s wrongs or blindly cheerlead the Jewish state.

“You are not working for Israeli hasbarah [public relations], you’re working for the readers,” said Nir, who emphasized that he was speaking as an individual and not for the leftist Americans for Peace Now.

“Should there be feel-good stories about Israel? Absolutely. There are lots of positive things, and it’s a good thing to accentuate the positive. On the other hand, what your readership deserves is for your publication to … report the internal discussions going on in Israel. I think that would be a good service not only to readers but to Israel and its public image.”

Akov agreed with most of Nir’s points, noting that readers of Jewish papers deserve better than warmed-over hasbarah.

“You should not cover Israel as if it’s great or bad but try to portray Israel as a fascinating place. Yeah, I’m not objective, but when people visit Israel, whether they like what they see or they don’t, everyone agrees it is a fascinating place,” he said.

“I think you have an asset in that. If you were the press of the Swiss community in the United States there’d be little beyond reviews of cheese and chocolates. How would you find interesting topics?”

Khaldi noted that if a Jewish newspaper’s goal is to educate its readers, the paper you’re reading has its work cut out for it.

“In this part of America people don’t know enough. They have iPods and laptops, everything that is possible. But they don’t know where their own backyards are,” said Khaldi, the first Bedouin in Israel’s foreign service.

“I ask [school children] where North Carolina is on the map and they don’t know it. I ask how many years America will be celebrating on July 4 and they don’t know.”

Khaldi added that Jewish newspapers should report more than just politics and terrorism from Israel; they should explain the deeper problems as well.

“If, one day, you make aliyah, your kids or grandkids will have more rights than my future kids in Israel. You have to tell the real stories.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.