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Thursday, March 06, 2008

How (Not) to Become a Cambridge PhD

Yonathan Mendel wrote an article for the latest issue of The London Review of Books on "How to Become an Israeli Journalist". Mendel used to be the Middle East correspondent for Walla (a news website in Israel), but is now pursuing studies at Cambridge (he received a scholarship, along with several other Israeli journalists). By the way, when writing for Walla, Mendel went by the popular shortened version of his name: Yoni; I guess that when you write for the LRB, and definitely when you're a student at Cambridge, using your full name is more appropriately decorous.

Anyway, let's have a look at some of the pearls of wisdom (presented as "truths") offered by Mendel to budding journalists in Israel:

Why is it that a serious article is reporting a claim made by the Palestinians? Why is there so rarely a name, a desk, an organisation or a source of this information? Could it be because that would make it seem more reliable?

I listen regularly to the news on the BBC World Service (1323AM in Israel). When the BBC reports about something happening in my neck of the woods, the report usually ends with: "Israel claims it was only responding to missiles fired from Gaza" or "Israel refuses to disclose details of its military operation". Does that make the BBC unreliable too? What does Mendel expect the article to say: "Ahmed the Dead Terrorist confirmed that it was he that blew himself up in the latest suicide attack?". Would that make the journalist more reliable?

Israel never kidnaps: it arrests.

(This was made in reference to Israel arresting senior Hamas members in response to the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit). Well, guess what: there is a difference. A huge one. When Israel arrests/kidnaps people, it is people who have done something to deserve being kidnapped in the first place. Israel also tells the world who sits in its jails, allows the Red Cross to visit and explains why the arrest took place. Those nice people from Hamas and Hezbollah kidnap at random and then torture the family and the Israeli public by withholding the most basic information about the victim (for example, whehter he's still alive).

The Israeli army never intentionally kills anyone, let alone murders them – a state of affairs any other armed organisation would be envious of.

Indeed, many armed forces around the world can be envious of the painstaking process which the IDF (and the Israeli government) go through before ordering targeted assassinations. The difference is so obvious it embarrasses me to repeat it here (but I do it for those budding journalists): the IDF targets terrorists and occasionally hits innocent bystanders; the Palestinian terrorists intentionally target innocent bystanders.

Another useful word is crowning (keter), a euphemism for a siege in which anyone who leaves his house risks being shot at.

Hmmm... A scholarship to study at Cambridge? The word keter in Hebrew has more than one meaning, Mr. Mendel. One is, indeed, a crown. But another is "to surround" or "to enclose". I wonder how this one slipped past the LRB's editor.

It was curious to watch the newspapers’ responses to the assassination of Imad Moughniyeh in Syria two weeks ago. Everyone tried to outdo everyone else over what to call him: arch-terrorist, master terrorist or the greatest terrorist on earth. It took the Israeli press a few days to stop celebrating Moughniyeh’s assassins and start doing what it should have done in the first place: ask questions about the consequences of the killing.

First, Moughniyeh was an arch-terrorist. As arch as they come. But are Mendi and I following the same Israeli media? The very first news report I heard about the welcome death of Hezbollah's operations chief was immediately followed by a long analysis by a panel of experts about "what next?" and what price Israel will pay for this assassination. Perhaps Mendel suffers from "selective reading" disease? It would not surprise me, as this is a malady many editorialising Israeli journalists suffer from.

And then there are the Occupied Territories themselves. Remarkably, there are no Occupied Territories in Israel... in Israel’s mass media today they’re called the Territories (Ha-Shtachim).

Well, duh! After all, the entire State of Israel sits on "occupied territories" taken from Palestinians (or Syrians) in 1948 and 1967. To be precise, the West Bank and Gaza are not part of the State of Israel and are therefore hardly "occupied". Gaza certainly isn't, not for more than two years now. If anything, Israel proper and the Golan are the classic "occupied territories". Yet somehow I don't see Mendel calling Tel Aviv "occupied territory"; we wouldn't want to let go of all those wonderful coffee places and bars, would we? By the way, I wonder how the Palestinian and Syrian media refer to to Israel.

I could go on, but the point is clear. Mendel's area of study at Cambridge is apparently about the connection between Arabic language and security in Israel. That certainly explains his interest in the subject and his bias towards finding faults everywhere. Fair enough. He would not be the first pseudo-academic to become so obsessed with his field of study as to come up with the silliest ideas (this week's undisputed winner of the title "academic gone silly" is Prof. Shanon from the Hebrew University, but I digress). But what on earth does all this have to do with "how to become an Israeli journalist"?

1 comment:

Lisa said...

I was planning on a similar fisking, but you did such a great job that I don't need to bother.

BTW, I forgot to mention that I met him!