So You Want to Be Jerusalem Bureau Chief…
How to tackle -- and not tackle -- the most delicate assignment in journalism.
Even before she gets to Israel, Jodi Rudoren, the new New York Times bureau chief, is already explaining why she’d prefer not having "Zionist" attached to her name.
And to a Jewish reporter at a pro-Israel website, no less.
Rudoren, whom I’ve never met, should know this: It could be worse.
Instead of telling Adam Kredo at the Washington Free Beacon why she’s not a Zionist, she could be explaining why she’d prefer not having "Jewish" attached to her name.
Abe Rosenthal, the paper’s legendary executive editor, may have favored David Shipler for the post in 1979 not just because of his eye-catching reportage from Saigon and Moscow, but because he also thought he was ending the paper’s ban on sending Jewish reporters to the region. As Rosenthal subsequently learned some time after making the assignment, Shipler is not, in fact, Jewish.*
Rosenthal’s determination to end the ban finally came to fruition in 1984, when Shipler ended his tour and was replaced with Tom Friedman.
The bizarre circumstances of the Shipler tale — couldn’t Rosenthal have used the typical devices ("So, where are you going for the seder?") that assess Jewdar before he made the decision? — bespeaks the fraught relationship the Old Gray Lady has with the Old Testament’s People.
The Sulzbergers, the longtime owners of the Times, were famously nervous during World War II about reporting the Holocaust, often burying revelations of its horrors on its inside pages.
"Deep down, my father probably would just have soon not have been Jewish," Judith Sulzberger is quoted as saying in The Trust, the authoritative biography of the newspaper by Susan Tifft and Alex Jones, of Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the wartime owner who banned the use of phrases like the "Jewish people."
That reluctance had momentous consequences: Then, as now, what appeared on the Times’s front page often determined the news agenda for competitors and wire services.
The late Daniel Schorr, who started out as a writer and then a desk editor with my employer, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, bailed for the mainstream media in part because he could no longer stand to read the horrors coming across the JTA wire, edit, and relay them to subscribers (among them the Times, at the time) — and then, see nothing make the papers.
The ambivalence persists to this day. Tifft and Jones gleefully chronicle how, depending on who is pissing him off and why, Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., the current chairman, will bark that you know what, he’s Jewish, or you know what, he’s not. (He’s an Episcopalian, albeit one with Jewish ancestry.)
So, following the lead of Arthur O., or "Pinch," here are some rough rules for Times bureau chiefs (and other journalists) for navigating the world’s most delicate reporting assignment:
1. Polish that Sunday school Hebrew
It helps. The close 1996 elections, pitting Shimon Peres against Benjamin Netanyahu, were close enough that it took from Tuesday poll closing to Friday afternoon to make the official call. On Friday morning, I was staking out Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv with a bunch of other journalists, waiting for word that could translate into a news alert for my then-employer, the Associated Press.
Netanyahu’s spokesman emerged and said, in English, sorry, we still can’t call it, and then in Hebrew, for the Israeli press: Come inside, I’ve got news for you.
The Reuters reporter and I gave each other a quick "Can this guy be this stupid?" look and followed them inside the building.
Netanyahu was by that point sure he would win (he did) and he wanted the Israeli reporters to get the news out before the Jewish Sabbath cut off a significant portion of the country from news broadcasts. Instead, Reuters and AP were the first to have the alerts.
I’m being a little unfair to the spokesman; until around the mid-1980s, it had been a point of honor among most foreign correspondents not to speak Hebrew. The wires were first to wise up and hire locals who could speak the language. Soon the major dailies followed, and then by the 2000s it was no longer unusual for foreign hires to be familiar with the language. (There was never any such reluctance, as far as I can tell, with Arabic.)
2. But don’t show it off
There has persisted among foreign correspondents, at least until recent years, a stigma associated with the notion that once in your pre-journalist existence you might have become conversant with the language of the Torah.
I covered Israel’s 1993 mini-war against Hezbollah for the AP. After each Katyusha rocket hit, packs of journalists would pile into cars and head for the corners of the Israeli north to get the color and quotes.
The hardest hit town was Kiryat Shemona, a onetime magnet for North African Jews that was not exactly abundant in English speakers. I arrived at the semi-destroyed apartment building at the same time as a couple of foreign correspondents for the majors — one Jewish, one not.
When it became clear that no one among the families sorting through the rubble could speak English, the non-Jew asked me if I could translate. I looked at the Jewish one and she nodded: Could you please help us out?
This was nutty: I knew the Jewish one had started, like I did, as a local hire valued for her Hebrew fluency. She’d gone back to the States, and had now returned as a Foreign Correspondent, capital F and C. Clearly, she was discomfited by the notion that her buds might find out that she actually knew what was going on. I shrugged and translated.
It’s not just a matter of fears of being perceived as going native, which dog FCs wherever they’re placed; there is a deeper ambivalence about being a foreign Jew in the Jewish state.
A few years later — I won’t say exactly when to spare the Times correspondent embarrassment — I was among a gaggle of full-fledged FCs (and I was now one myself) at a stakeout. It was slow; the day was hot. Talk turned to office gossip and then to kids: What were the best schools? One Canadian correspondent said she had opted for the Israeli school system, because the one in her neighborhood was excellent, and she planned on placing her child in a Jewish school in Toronto when she returned.
The Times correspondent, who was Jewish, was appalled: "If that’s what you want for him," the correspondent said.
There are times, however, when the Hebrew-school memories creep back, and in poignant ways. On a bitingly cold night in December 1993, a gaggle of reporters huddled in the courtyard of Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue, waiting for the funeral cortege of Mordechai Lapid, a settler murdered in a drive-by attack, to leave for Hebron. (Lapid died in the arms of Baruch Goldstein, a physician who months later would massacre 29 Muslim worshippers at the Hebron mosque.)
As the mourner’s Kaddish broke over the loudspeakers, I heard a thin voice muttering along with it. I looked to my side; it was a visibly moved Clyde Haberman, then the Times correspondent.
3. Be careful, or folks won’t talk to you
Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic and Shmuel Rosner at the Los Angeles Jewish Journal are already wondering whether Rudoren has done herself in with her Twitter-shmoozing with anti-Israel activists Ali Abunimah and Philip Weiss.
"What she will not be able to do is to have good sources at the very top — at the offices of government in which people are already quite suspicious of the Times and will now be even more suspicious," Rosner writes. "Wouldn’t you be? With these people she’s probably toast, and without them she can’t be as good as a NYT Jerusalem reporter could be."
There may be something to this.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, reportedly regards the state’s two top enemies as the New York Times and Haaretz. His top aide, Ron Dermer, took delight recently in leaking to the Jerusalem Post his letter to the Times‘s management explaining why no, the prime minister would rather not publish op-eds in that paper’s sullied pages.
It didn’t help that Friedman, now the paper’s foreign-policy columnist, recently seemed to veer into Jew-baiting territory when he said applause for Netanyahu in Congress had been "bought and paid for by the Israel lobby."
4. Please, this is the Jewish state
Nobody stops talking.
Laura King, the venerable Los Angeles Times correspondent, likes to tell of the shock of transition when AP moved her from Tokyo to Jerusalem. Vox populi coverage was simply a no-go in Japan, she told me. In Israel, you were barely out of the office before passersby were opining.
Notably, Deborah Sontag, whose critical coverage for the Times often rankled the Israeli establishment, got an exclusive a dinner invitation from Ehud Barak, the prime minister, in 1999. He played the piano for her. It holds true now as it did in the 1940s: The Times still sets the agenda. There are few more efficacious ways of getting out your side of the story.
Rudoren has it right: After the Free Beacon "exposed" her as not being a Zionist, she tweeted: "Folks: What I told @freebeacon re whether I’m a Zionist was simple: the only ‘ist’ I use to describe self is ‘journalist.’"
She may yet get this Twitter thing down.
*This paragraph has been edited from its earlier version. The original version mistakenly stated that Rosenthal "made it clear" that Shipler was selected for the post because he was Jewish, and that Shipler later explained to him that he was not, in fact, Jewish. In fact, Rosenthal never made an announcement of that sort, and Shipler’s religious background became clear during an editorial meeting months later, not in an explanation that he offered Rosenthal.