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Through a Different Lens

Women Bring the News from Israel

When Israeli journalist Inna Shapiro was commissioned by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz to write a feature about the Intifada, she chose as her subject Alecia Sorokin, newly arrived as an immigrant from Russia. Alecia was a nurse and a wife—and mother of Sasha, a five-year-old with an angelic face. In May 2001 a terrorist bomb exploded as Sasha entered a Netanya mall along with his parents and sent him to the intensive care unit. Alecia was seriously injured, suffering extensive burns and two broken legs. Shapiro followed Alecia on the difficult journey of physical and emotional rehabilitation. She also explored Alecia’s sad new status: since Sasha s father was instantly killed by the bomb, Alecia was no longer just a new immigrant to Israel, but also a young widow. Shapiro called her story “One Year in Israel.” Shapiro was not alone in focusing on Alecia to symbolize the tragedy of human loss in Israel. Deborah Sontag, New York Times correspondent at the time, wrote a dramatic piece about the family headlined “In a Fatal Flash, Immigrant Dreams Turn to Dust.” The Netanya bomb had killed five and injured over a hundred, yet both women journalists chose to focus on the human element of little Sasha and his parents. Lilith asked some of the numerous women in the media who cover the Israeli/Palestinian conflict: Do they have a unique viewpoint, experience, and approach, influenced by gender?

Shapiro is a correspondent for Haaretz and an independent TV producer working on Mideast current events programs for foreign networks, including PBS’s NewsHour. For Israel-based Shapiro, as for most of the women reporting on Palestinian/Israeli relations, trips into the occupied territories have been routine, even at the height of the Intifada.

 Often she hurries back at the end of the day to drive her young son to his after-school activities. That connection made the human cost of the separation fence being built by the Israelis come alive for her.

On assignment for the NewsHour. Shapiro. 43, attended a screening of “The Apartheid Wall,” a presentation by the Palestinian Authority. On a cognitive level, Shapiro understood the hardships it showed, like peasants separated from their fields. However, it was a chance conversation with a Palestinian woman journalist that made some of the consequences of the wall hit home, no matter its political or security functions.

“Because of the route of the wall, it took me an hour to drive my kids to school this morning,” the Palestinian told her.

“I saw myself,” said Shapiro, “how I would have gone crazy to take my own child to school one hour in each direction.” This woman’s story was included in the report; episodes where Shapiro encountered Palestinian women in situations she could relate to made her “understand in my guts that what they want is a ‘normal life’.”

When asked if female correspondents have a different agenda, Shapiro’s first reaction was a resounding no, but then she corrected herself “For example, I once wrote a piece about Russian immigrants injured during the Intifada. Although I didn’t say to myself, T will plan to interview women,’ it was three women I decided to interview. Was it a coincidence? I don’t think so.” 

Rina Castelnuovo is a pioneering Israeli photojournalist. A contract photographer for The New York Times for the last nine years, whose photos have made page one of the paper, Castelnuovo talks with humor mixed with determination. “When I began taking pictures, I was consumed with the idea I have to prove I can do it just as well as my male colleagues. That was two decades ago, and there were just a few of us trying our luck in this male-dominated profession.”

Although “things are different today” insists Castelnuovo. when she started out as one of the four women photographers accompanying the Israeli army into Lebanon in the early 80’s, “there are things I did then which I regret and would never do them today.. .In particular, while six months pregnant with the second of my three daughters, I accepted an assignment to travel as the sole photographer with Israeli troops withdrawing to new lines from the north to Southern Lebanon. It was supposed to be a short mission, relatively easy. It turned into an overnight ordeal where we ended up being stranded along with hundreds of soldiers, waiting for the order to pull out while being attacked with Katyusha rockets.” And yet Castelnuovo is adamant that “When we cover horror, war, bombings, funerals, there is no difference in approach. Being a woman you have no exclusivity over compassion, tears, or fear compared to a male colleague.

“[When starting out] my driving force was a phrase I often heard at home while growing up with parents who were survivors of the Holocaust and Nazi death camps, ‘If only the world knew…’ Yet maiming and becoming a professional, I know the world knew then, and it does know today, of peoples’ suffering and injustice. It is naive today to believe we can make a huge difference. But what we can do is make sure that those issues remain.. .in the world public eye.”

Castelnuovo recounts her recent experience with the Israeli disengagement from Gaza in August to illustrate that if sex discrimination is gone from the profession, it is still a reality in society.

She was photographing the synagogues where protesting settlers had barricaded themselves in. “Despite the fact that those were the very last moments of Jewish presence inside those synagogues, most of them stripped of any religious objects, I didn’t think at the time I would be breaking any religious code because of my gender. To my great surprise I was chased out from the men’s floor and sent to the women’s floor (Ezrat Nashim).”

With wry humor she observes that “I even momentarily united settlers and soldiers—both took time off from struggling with each other and in one voice ordered me to go to where I belong…in Ezrat Nashim, where nothing much was happening as most women and girls were busy looking at the forced evacuation of the young men below,. ..Here I needed my experience and patience to sneak back in when all were too busy scuffling, which I did, sometimes successfully, mostly not…”

“Although the new openness of Israeli society has lessened discrimination against women in the media so that there are now reporters, correspondents, and editors at all levels,” says journalist and law professor Dr. Ilana Dayan, “there is still not even one single woman in senior management position.” She ascribes this to Israel’s “militaristic ethos creating a male bias.”

Dayan’s intensity and intelligence characterize the top-rated radio and television news programs she hosts. Dayan teaches freedom-of-speech law at Tel Aviv University.

When addressing Israeli/Palestinian issues, Dayan feels “the national dimension is so strong and so seminal that it overshadows gender The fact that you are an Israeli reporter is more important than if you are a man or a woman.”

“In the Middle East you must be careful with boundaries,” stresses Kimberly Dozier, 39, the outspoken and eloquent Jerusalem-based correspondent for CBS Evening News, who told Lilith that being a woman reporting from the Middle East “opens some doors and closes others—you can get in where men can’t go—to see the women cooking in the back room who in actuality are the head of the household—they give a picture of the heart of society.”

Dozier, who arrived in Israel at the height of the Intifada, is now concentrating more on the conflict in Iraq but continues to cover stories such as the Gaza disengagement and the Palestinian elections. She says that religious law and its impact on women is the one paramount issue to which Jewish and Muslim women both relate. Ironically, it was Jewish women who stepped in to rescue the non-Jewish Dozier when she was physically assaulted by a man while she was being filmed for a story in the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim section of Jerusalem after a suicide bombing. Bearing out her misgivings about the timing and location of the piece, a large crowd formed as a general power outage brought people out on the streets gathering around her and gawking. Although Dozier made sure to cover her shoulders and elbows in deference to dictates of religious modesty, an onlooker was apparently angered by her blond hair.

“Shiksa, shiksa!” he shouted and hurled the heavy camera case at her head, knocking her against a wall. Everybody in the crowd stood frozen—until women suddenly started clucking and spontaneously banded together to assist Dozier back to her car.

“We have to get used to helping other women.” Dozier, a Wellesley graduate, claimed that her CBS colleagues who went to women’s colleges have acquired an ethic of supporting women. This viewpoint is reiterated by Fox News Channel Jerusalem correspondent Jennifer Griffin, 36, a 1992 Harvard graduate who spent years in a girls’ school.

Griffin’s two daughters were born during the six years she has been stationed in Israel, “I think being a woman allows me to tell stories in a more empathetic, emotional way. There was one story I did on how at a checkpoint in the West Bank (near Nablus) two nights in a row pregnant Palestinian women trying to get to a hospital to give birth were shot at by the soldiers— in one case her husband died as a result of the gunshots. That was a story that, as a new mother, I told in a very powerful way. There were also numerous examples [where I sat] across from the Israeli mother or father of a victim of a terror attack—and I was able to capture their loss in a way that really made a viewer feel that—and the senselessness of the death.

“I remember a case where I went to cover the Palestinian mother of a suicide gunman who’d attacked a settlement in Gaza. What was unique about this story is that this was the first mother to make a video with her son—kissing him on the head—sending him off on his ‘mission’ (to kill and be killed) with her blessing. This gave an incredible insight into the mentality of mothers who were influencing their sons to be “martyrs’ on the Palestinian side. I think the stories I tell give a greater understanding of what motivates people— rightly or wrongly….Often it involves a lot of tears—both mine and theirs.

“My emphasis is always on the human story,” says Griffin. “That’s why I prefer interviewing real people—not politicians. I can predict what the politician will say before the interview even begins. When I talk to real people you never know what you’ll end up with.”

Being a leftist and a feminist are intrinsically tied together for controversial Haaretz correspondent Amira Hass, 49. “I cannot distinguish between them,” she insists. “Both determine my approach, what interests me, and what annoys me most.”

Hass took the unique step of not only reporting from the occupied territories, but actually going to live there—in Gaza from 1993, and since 1997 in Ramallah. Hass speaks in a low voice, with the conviction and determination that have made her a courageous hero to some, and an extremist to others: “Personally I feel privileged that I live according to my beliefs,” she says, “I live a bi-national life in both communities.” Her book Drinking the Sea at Gaza (Henry Holt. 2000) chronicles the Israeli occupation from the vantage point of peoples’ lives and experiences.

She summarizes her prolific writings since 1991 for Haaretz as a systematic analysis of the Israeli policy of closure in the lands it conquered, controlling Palestinian freedom, depriving their movement, and planning a future Palestinian state as an accumulation of isolated enclaves.” Hass considers her writing as one inspiration to other Israeli women who formed the organization Machsom Watch, in which volunteers— mostly middle aged women—stake themselves out at Israeli army checkpoints to document transgressions against Palestinians. Her gender has proved both a help and a liability. On the one hand, Palestinians are very suspicious of Israelis, but somehow less so of women: “A man couldn’t have lived in Gaza with the same ease as I did.” Hass’s writing has met objections both from her Israeli paper and from the Palestinians she has interviewed. Her pessimistic reporting from the field during the Oslo years contradicted the popular perception that the peace process was surging ever forward, and although her reports were published, they were not highlighted.

“Male correspondents who came to the territories to report for one or two days got more attention for their ‘bravery’ than I, who actually lived there. Maybe because men know better how to market themselves, whereas I thought it was sufficient that my content speak for itself.”

Asked whether she feels solidarity with other women correspondents and individuals in the Middle East, Hass retorts, “Why only the Middle East? Why not the entire world?”

Judith Colp Rubin is co-author of Yassir Arafat: A Political Biography (Oxford University Press, 2003), and now writing a history of women in the Middle East, An American journalist with 18 years writing experience about the Middle East, she divides her time between a Washington suburb and living with her family in the heart of Tel Aviv. Asked whether her gender affects the content of her stories, Colp Rubin responds that “women are more likely to probe beneath the headlines and political activities to reveal something about the psychological makeup of the people involved. In writing about Yassir Arafat, I wanted to explore the impact on his life of having lost his mother at a young age and not marrying until he was well into his middle years. To me, this was just as important as his political activities.”

But Colp Rubin, 43, was skeptical about whether gender per se can lead to closeness between nationalities: “Sometimes you can bond with another woman by bringing up the subject, for example, of raising children. But such a solidarity is fleeting. The differences within the Middle East are too great to make such bonds overcome the political differences—and everyone is politicized.

“I remember once interviewing a Palestinian woman in Nablus who was talking about her 14-year-old son. He had got-ten up that morning and she had made him breakfast, urging him to finish all his food. I could certainly relate to that. But then he went off to a demonstration with his mother’s consent and after throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers was fatally caught in the fire of bullets. I simply couldn’t understand why she hadn’t talked him out of going to that rally with the same emphasis with which she had urged him to finish his breakfast.

“Unfortunately, the majority of societies in the Middle East are very male-dominated, so however close you might get to a woman there is always some male figure, be it a husband brother or father, lurking close behind. I believe any woman who does not know that will find out the hard way.”

Isabel Kershner, Middle East editor of the Israeli magazine The Jerusalem Report, says she has been “received with respect in Palestinian society,” yet maintains that a woman cannot become “too chummy” with Palestinian sources. Unlike her male colleagues, in that “traditional conservative culture” it would be a problem for her to develop a real relationship with men. Contact must remain on a very professional level, and she is “always conscious to have it not seem going beyond that.”

Kershner is the author of the just-published book on the Israeli-built separation wall. Barrier: The Seam of the Israeli- Palestinian Conflict (Palgrave MacMillan, 2006). She defines herself as a feminist, saying she does not approach a story differently than a man would but that being female can be an advantage, such as with her interviews with the families of two teenage Palestinian boys shot by a security guard. In that case, she says, being a woman definitely gave her access to their mothers, who would have been off limits to a male reporter.

On the other hand she insists, for other stories like her analysis of the internal workings of the Fatah, the only hint of her gender would be in the byline. Her work often takes her across Israeli army checkpoints in the West Bank. “If a male gets in, I get in.”

But Kershner, 41, who moved to Israel from her native England, points out her lack of equal access to Israeli intelligence sources as compared to her male colleagues. “I am not part of that network; I don’t know if it’s because I haven’t been in the army, or because I am a woman.”

“Israeli society has a way to go to accept a woman as equal to a man,” asserts Sharon Ashley, editor of The Jerusalem Report. Ashley, 48, an American who has lived in Israel for the last quarter century, worked her way up at the magazine to become its editor in chief Yet, although no woman today heads a mainstream Hebrew-language publication, women have achieved prominent positions in the media, and Ashley maintains that the Israeli public respects equally the reports of top women and men correspondents. But Israeli society is still in flux, “and hasn’t yet been put to the test as to its perception of women,” Ashley says.

Of the women reporting from Israel in English, a well-known voice to Americans is the one that signs off her National Public Radio dispatches with “Linda Gradstein, from Jerusalem.” Gradstein says, “I have always had access to the men I needed to cover, including Hamas leaders such as Sheikh Ahmed Yassin (assassinated by Israel last year), but I have also had access to women, often access that my male counterparts don’t have because traditional women—especially in Gaza—won’t speak to men who are not part of their families.. .The only real problems I’ve experienced as a woman have been in the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel….However. I’ve usually been able to work it out.”

For Gradstein, since 1990 an NPR correspondent in Jerusalem, where she lives with her husband and four children, being a woman has “for the most part” been an advantage. “Women tend to focus on the human story more than some of our male colleagues. I sometimes think the human story is the best way to get people who don’t know much about the Middle East to understand this complicated crazy place.”

Helen Schary Motro is a columnist and lawyer teaching at Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law and author of Maneuvering between the Headlines: An American Lives through the Intifada (Other Press 2005). Metro’s compelling book, her personal narrative of daily life amidst violence and tragedy, has been called an American Jewish woman’s contemporary exploration of Zionism.


New books about “The Situation” in Israel

by Helen Schary Motro

The matsav—”the situation,” Israelis’ shorthand term that covers any and all aspects Israeli/Palestinian conflict—refers to the existential problem pervading almost every sector of life in Israel: friction, hope, violence, fighting, attacks, retaliations, agreements, cease fires, programs, crises, and even historical analysis and political philosophy. Maneuvering between the Headlines: An American Lives through the Intifada (Other Press, 2005), is my  own response to the matsav, a personal narrative of daily life amidst violence and tragedy, while at the same time documenting Israelis’ continued hopes for coexistence. My identity as a Jewish woman who has made Israel her second home has forced me to make my peace with the hated gun my husband keeps for self-defense; to suppress my fears for my law students’ physical safety—and their souls—when they are called up to army reserve duty in the occupied territories; and to struggle to give my teenage daughter a normal life while protecting her against dangers that have cut short so many young lives in the Middle East. Here is a sampling of other recent writing by women on the period since the outbreak of the second Intifada five years ago:

• Stephanie Gutmann, an American journalist with Israeli roots, writes forcefully, unabashedly and cynically from the point of view of the right. The powerful cover of her book The Other War: Israelis Palestinians and the Struggle for Media Supremacy (Encounter Books, 2005) shows a Palestinian youth in the act of hurling a stone, targeted not by Israelis, but by the numerous camera lenses of a tightly packed semi-circle of journalists. “I wrote this book because apparently people need to be reminded that pictures do lie,” declares Gutmann. “It is impossible to separate the second Intifada from its coverage…[which] propelled events, was used to justify events, and amplified events. The second Intifada was intended for and could not have happened without an international audience.”

With chapter titles like “If it bleeds, it leads,” Gutmann exposes Palestinian media manipulation and the willingness of the liberal press to cast Israel in the role of criminal oppressor. Gutmann documents her travel through the West Bank driven by a engaging young Palestinian cleaner at her Jerusalem hotel whom she enlisted for the purpose. Unusual for an Arab, he had the “gaze of a man used to interacting with women as equals.”

During her travels she met no harassment by Israeli soldiers, possibly because they “saw my purple T-shirts and floppy sun hats and dismissed me as one of a perennial but harmless fixture of the Mideast landscape, the female Arabist.”

 Next Year in Jerusalem (New Press, 2005) by Israeli feminist, peace activist, and human rights professor Daphna Golan-Agnon stands in ideological contrast to Gutmann’s book. This memoir of the “situation” includes her struggles to balance her political activities with the demands her family makes upon her, and the cold shoulder she sometimes has to tolerate from Palestinian women on whose behalf she works and writes.

Even more left-leaning is the mordant polemic The Question of Zion by Jacqueline Rose (Princeton University Press, 2005), a British literature professor who argues that Zionism “gives us the unique opportunity to watch the militarization of suffering. “The “historical injustice” perpetrated against the Jews turned into “a narcissistic wound,” leading Zionism to cause a two-pronged evil: becoming a “bearer of injustice toward an indigenous people” and inflicting a cost to “Israel’s soul.”

As a Jewish American teenager, Jennifer Miller was moved by her participation at the Palestinian/Jewish summer camp Seeds of Peace. Returning to the Middle East years later. Miller, now 24, daughter of a senior American diplomat, found doors open to her at the highest places; along with her visits with other “Seeds,” she was granted interviews with Shimon Peres, Colin Powell, and Ehud Barak. In Ramallah she interviewed Yassir Arafat; joining him for lunch afterwards, he cajoled her to eat. In Inheriting the Holy Land: An American’s Search for Hope in the Middle East. (Ballantine Books, 2005), Miller tells of meeting young Jews and Palestinians in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Daring to go to Gaza, Miller spent a fearful day in the rubble of refugee camps confronted with hatred, despair, and anti-Americanism, allowing her defenses down only after she crossed the Erez checkpoint back into Israel: “…the second I turned from the car, I erupted into tears. I knew it was best to shove back down whatever I was feeling, have my shower, and go to sleep, but once I felt the water over me, no amount of scrubbing seemed good enough. The grime of Gaza had sunk through my skin.”

At the other end of the age spectrum is Lois Bar- Yaacov, retired lecturer in literature at the Hebrew University, who wrote in a series of letters exchanged with American poet Adrienne Rich in 2003, quoted in the journal Bridges: “The stage is already strewn with corpses— ours and theirs—and will be strewn with far more while Jews from afar scold us from the safe room of their moral righteousness…I have been living in Israel for 54 years. I have seen history with my own eyes… what will come of this strange, fateful decision that the Jews will once more become a nation like all the nations, in a land which is defined by borders in real time?…My appeal to you and to other Jews who are naturally pursuing justice is not to see Israel in black and white.”