David Klatzker, Ph.D., is Rabbi of Beth Tikvah-B'nai Jeshurun, Erdenheim, Pennsylvania, and serves as academic liaison in the United States for the America-Holy Land Project of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
When it comes to coverage by the American media, no foreign arena arouses passions as does the Middle East. Whatever the specifics - Israeli actions in Lebanon, the intifada, Yasir Arafat's credibility - partisans of both Israel and the Arabs cry out, saying that their point of view has been slighted or distorted. Accordingly, media coverage of Arab-Israeli issues has not just spawned a whole literature but even rival "media watch" groups (pro-Israel CAMERA, and its pro-Palestinian counterparts FAIR and the Institute for Media Analysis).
Some of the basic media issues in dispute began well before the television era. Indeed, the issues have aroused passionate criticism for nearly a century. By looking at journalism in historical context, it is possible to gain perspective on the demand for objectivity and the difficulty of achieving it. As a case study of how the media cover a complex and controversial situation, we return to the early years of American journalism in the Middle East and examine the portrait of Jerusalem sketched by American correspondents from Field Marshall Lord Allenby's conquest of the city in December 1917 to the end of the British Mandate for Palestine in May 1948.
1920s: GENTEEL TRAVELERS
Until the riots of 1929, the reports of American journalists in Jerusalem bore a closer resemblance to the leisurely, genteel Protestant travelogues of the nineteenth century than to the instant images and social commentary of the twentieth-century press. Three examples demonstrate this theme.
John Finley, the former president of the City College of New York who was soon to become editor of The New York Times, published in 1921 a book called A Pilgrim in Palestine. In addition to being an eyewitness report of events, the traditionally titled book included snatches of Finley's own religious poetry and descriptions of holy places. The news element in his work consisted mainly of reminiscences of serving as Red Cross representative in Jerusalem and a hagiographic portrayal of General Allenby ("Allah-Nebi," a god-prophet, Finley punned in Arabic). Although he was vague on specifics, Finley prophesied a great "municipal transfiguration" - the "cleansing" of the streets and buildings of Jerusalem to make it "the most beautiful city on the planet."
W.D. McCrackan, editor of the short-lived Jerusalem News - the first English-language newspaper in Palestine - also waxed enthusiastic about the British conquerers, despite occasional difficulties with the military censors. With close ties to the American missionary establishment, McCrackan's views reflected its anti-Zionism and its hopes that British trusteeship would advance the missionary agenda. In his 1922 collection of newspaper and periodical pieces, The New Palestine, McCrackan reported on such significant matters as the work of the Pro-Jerusalem Society and the first anti-Zionist demonstrations, in 1920 and 1921. But McCrackan also included material to entertain, such as a description of how the British tried to stop the mistreatment of donkeys as pack animals.
In a 1927 series of articles, The Christian Science Monitor editor Albert Field Gilmore focused mainly on such traditional topics as the story of Jesus' last hours in Gethsemane and the lack of "true Christian spirit" among the feuding sects in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Gilmore had more newsworthy things to say about the Palestinian economy under the Mandate, but his old-fashioned description of Jerusalem was typical of the Monitor, which has always sought to provide balanced and objective reporting while serving a religious function, often at the expense of some dissonance.
Although publishers were certainly aware of popular interest in the Holy Land, the American press was ill-prepared to cover events there. A small clique of reporters controlled journalism in Jerusalem, with competition (and scoops) practically non-existent. Most of them were freelancers, and few of them were knowledgeable or reliable. If "the only real news is bad news," the relatively quiet and happy decade after the British conquest had given press executives little reason to commit their resources to Jerusalem. As a result, the general press sometimes quoted from Jewish publications to explain what was transpiring there. For instance, the Literary Digest, later absorbed by Time, had no reporters of its own in the Middle East. To explain the controversy over the Western Wall, it quoted liberally from the Zionist New Palestine and the Chicago Jewish Sentinel.
1930s: MYTH MAKERS AND BREAKERS
In the 1930s, a new generation of American reporters sought to make names for themselves as foreign correspondents. The eagerness of young journalists to leave home was especially noteworthy in the post-World War I period, when America enjoyed new affluence and freedom. Although America offered many opportunities, these writers sought the sort of intellectual and aesthetic experiences that could only be found overseas - and the opportunities for adventure, and even personal heroism, that were promised by travel in a turbulent era. Of course, they did not complain that they would also be far away from the close editorial supervision of the big-city American newsrooms.
A young man who had originally hoped to make a name as an expatriat novelist, John Gunther found literary poverty not to his liking, and turned to correspondence for a regular paycheck and excitement. He first arrived in Jerusalem in 1926, and returned in 1929 as a "special correspondent" for the Chicago Daily News. (The title meant little; as a junior writer on the foreign staff, he had no permanent post of his own.) Always dependent on what he could glean from local writers who knew the languages and the people, he relied in Jerusalem on the help of American-trained press stringer Gershon Agronsky (later Agron). Agronsky covered Jerusalem (quite competently, Gunther thought) for as many as fifteen newspapers at one time, while also serving as press director for the Palestine Zionist Executive; his home was a popular meeting place for politicians and journalists.
To supplement his meager salary, Gunther also wrote magazine essays giving his views on key issues and events. In 1930, he produced an essay explaining the previous year's events in Palestine to the readers of Harper's. At this point in his career, he was still struggling to find a formula for his journalism; his essay contains none of the emphasis on colorful and charismatic personalities that distinguishes his later work. However, he must have taken copious notes in Jerusalem, for he managed to convey a great deal of information about the history of the Balfour Declaration, the diverse nature of Jewish immigration, and the economic situation.
Yet the flashpoint of the 1929 Wailing Wall riots, he believed, could not be understood on political or economic grounds. Trouble "had been brewing a long time in the hot, fervid atmosphere of old Jerusalem," he declared, with "the whole religious issue [being] absolutely fundamental" to the course of events. Gunther characterized Jerusalem as a vortex of primordial religious passions centering on the Western Wall and Temple Mount. A more helpful analysis would have noted at least the beginnings of an Arab national movement. Nothing in Gunther's own secular background explained this emphasis on religion; the notion that the Palestine problem had little if anything to do with an Arab national revolt probably reflected the views of Agronsky, and Gunther's other Zionist sources - or perhaps Gunther had purposely chosen to cater to a Christian readership in America by adopting the stereotype of Jerusalem as a "cursed" place of religious strife.
In the gossipy style that later made him famous, Gunther described the American coverage of 1929. His narrative is worth repeating at length, for it rings true.
When the riots broke out in Jerusalem my friend there who commanded the press of the world was unfortunately absent on holiday in London. The story was of enormous interest to the United States; the N.Y. Times, for instance, the Tuesday after the outbreak, printed over fifteen solid columns on Palestine, and the N.Y. Herald-Tribune twelve. The Times had a resident staff man on the spot, though his value was diminished because Jewish but not a Zionist, it was hard for him to get about during the first few days. When his dispatches were late his boss in London wired him, 'Hire an Arab messenger!' Where the Herald-Tribune got its twelve columns from heaven only knows. There was no regular Herald-Tribune man in Jerusalem, nor did one arrive. Only two American newspapers (as against seven British) sent out special correspondents from western Europe, the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Tribune. All the agencies, caught sadly dozing, illustrated equally the extreme fortuitousness of news covering in the minor capitals. The A.P. was at first represented by a local correspondent who spent some days in a cellar and then, emerging, immediately took an automobile in Richard Harding Davis fashion to the Syrian frontier, there to smuggle his cables out (although there was no censorship); then - tragi-comic climax! - he was not permitted to re-enter Palestine! The U.P. had no one in Jerusalem at all, but by providential mercy picked up excellent protection from a clerk in one of the consulates. An able and experienced (but occasional) correspondent for a third agency happened to be on the spot, with a great exclusive story under his hat; but when he telegraphed his organization, asking the usual credit privilege for his cables, the reply came - with Jerusalem all but in flames - "Can't You Send It by Mail?" As to the Hearst services, and all the New York papers except the Times, they must have got their Palestine news from Kamchatka or Zanzibar. (The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which links up with the A.P., covered the story, but with natural bias.) In contrast, seven British papers dispatched experienced correspondents to Jerusalem all the way from London.
Vincent Sheean, a classmate of Gunther's at the University of Chicago, was the "able and experienced" journalist for the third agency who had covered the 1929 riots. As a student, Sheean had become disillusioned with American bourgeois society; in search of something better, he spent the 1920s traveling in Italy, France, Spain, Morocco, Persia, and China as a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and the North American Newspaper Alliance (N.A.N.A.), the employer of other partisan journalists, like Ernest Hemingway. He became increasingly critical of the "callous indifference" and cynicism of the commercial press.
Sheean arrived in Jerusalem in time to experience the 1929 crisis first hand, having fortuitously contracted months before with Meir Weisgal to write some articles for the New Palestine, the Zionist Organization of America's official journal. Sheean turned sharply against the Zionists for a variety of reasons: the spell of romantic Arabism; friendship with Arab publicists George and Katy Antonius (to whom he presented a letter of introduction from E. M. Forster); and the flippant attitude of some of the Jews he met.
The New York World, which published Sheean's N.A.N.A. cablegrams from Jerusalem during the riots, received some three thousand letters of protest in a single day after he described Jabotinsky's young followers as "Jewish Fascisti." The paper apologized to its readers and Sheean never again covered events for the daily press. Instead, he devoted himself to essays and books; in his writings, he mixed reportage with highly polemical personal commentary.
Sheean's essays in the elitist travel and current affairs magazine Asia during 1929-30 show how a deep identification with his subjects could lead to potent myth making. "The one great permanent reason why the Arabs can never surrender Palestine is, I believe, the Haram es-Sharif [Temple Mount]," he wrote. (Similarly, "there would have been no Zionist movement without the cult of the Temple.") Esthetics played a large role in Sheean's connection with the holy site: "the exquisite intensity of artistic creation which expressed itself in the Haram has seldom been equalled in the experience of man," he declared. Sheean described Hajj Amin al-Husayni, the notorious mufti of Jerusalem, as a "mild-mannered, dignified person who wears the simple black uniform of a sheikh of the mosque," completely ignoring his rabid anti-Semitism and his manipulation of Islamic symbols for political ends.
The journalistic essay genre favored by Gunther and Sheean fulfilled a need in American journalism. Educated readers wanted to go behind the headlines of the daily press, especially in a period when the world outside was becoming more of a presence and a threat. Some of the most opinionated pieces of the 1930s were published not in the popular press or political journals, but rather in quality periodicals like Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, and Asia; the essay format lent itself more to a focus on the arguments of the Arabs and the Zionists than to a report of events.
Other American journalists also visited or lived in Jerusalem during the 1930s, although none of them attained the renown of either Gunther or Sheean. Joseph M. Levy, an intimate of Judah Magnes's small "B'rit Shalom" circle of pacifists and binationalists, probably gained the post of part-time New York Times correspondent in Jerusalem because of his political views. Albert Viton (a pseudonym) was a news syndicate stringer for Asia, Christian Century, and The Nation, and a staunch foe of British colonialism. H. R. ("Red") Knickerbocker, European correspondent for Hearst's International Press Service, was a noted anti-Nazi. In the highly politicized atmosphere of Jerusalem, it is not surprising that journalists like these found themselves choosing sides in the Arab-Jewish-British tussle, although the number of journalists who were true political activists probably peaked by the late 1930s. Whatever their sympathies, correspondents tried valiantly to cover the outbursts of violence and the visits of delegations and commissions of inquiry.
The relatively small volume of published news about Jerusalem in those years shows that American editors thought their readers were more engaged by other concerns, and not without reason, as the Depression and darkening clouds in Europe absorbed most attention.
Not all Americans writers who disliked provincialism and Puritanism escaped by going abroad. Some stayed home to critique American society and culture. These "debunkers" discovered a market for writing that ridiculed the triviality, sentimentalism, and fraudulent language of the American press. They also, on occasion, took their sharp pens on foreign travel. The most celebrated debunker of them all, H.L. Mencken of the Baltimore Evening Sun newspaper and the New Yorker magazine, sailed to the Mediterranean with his wife Sara in the spring of 1934. Although he traveled mainly for rest and relaxation, Mencken produced a series of articles about the Holy Land on his return home.
Regarding Jerusalem, Mencken enjoyed mocking the romantic exaggerations of travel literature. "Why," he asked, "do all the guide books omit the most salient fact about the Holy City - that the streets and alleys within the walls are as slippery as glass? Almost every visitor, prancing in unwarned, comes down furiously upon his tokus, to the damage of his health and faith." He expressed revulsion at the poverty of the Jerusalem markets - mere "holes in the wall" where merchants offered "sleazy looking rugs, tarnished brass vessels full of dents, crude pottery of the thunder-mug species, and other such gimcrackery." The Holy Sepulchre struck him as a crumbling, noisy ruin and a "small carnival" of ecclesiastical "hocus-pocus."
But Mencken sought to do more than merely debunk the travelogue tradition. He skillfully satirized the violence-driven press coverage of Jerusalem in the 1930s, noting that at the Western Wall, "there's no telling when an Arab may heave a dead rat over the wall, or two Jews may begin to fight for the same place" on which to stand. He also informed his readers that not all of the turbulence in Jerusalem was "theological," reporting that the Mount of Olives and Garden of Gethsemane "swarm at night with Arab torpedoes" who mug unsuspecting tourists. In short, he depicted a city racked by semi-comic gang warfare and petty crime.
Mencken also took on American Protestants who mistakenly thought they could export their Christianity to Palestine. He derided the million-dollar YMCA building recently erected in Jerusalem for "resembling in a way a country-club in Florida and in another way the General Motors building at a world's fair." The YMCA's patrons were all Muslims and Jews, he reported - the Muslims to use the gymnasium, and the Jews to take free classes in business administration. "On the common ground of their dislike of Christians they met amicably" at the YMCA; there was peace within its walls even during the riots, Mencken was informed. Yet, he gleefully related, the Holy City was hardly promising missionary territory, Protestants being "almost as rare there as in South Boston or the Bronx."
For the most part, however, Mencken centered his attention not on the indigenous population but on secular visitors - tourists much like himself - at play in Jerusalem:
No night life. The tourists, save for a few Presbyterians, try jazz at the King David Hotel, but their legs are too stiff after all day on the cobblestones. . . . Two bold fellows go out to see what is what. They stumble home in an hour, reporting that the cops have just sent the last convoy of girls back to Port Said...Good rye in the bar: a highball, since the balonization of the dollar, works out to 27.34562 cents.
Undoubtedly, Jerusalem was not a place for fun lovers. But Jerusalem's rich associations made up for a lot of boredom, and there were moments when Mencken showed an unexpected mildness: "And so to bed, and sweet dreams of Abraham, Jeremiah, Micah, Elijah and company. Jerusalem would be a swell place for sleep if it were not for the church bells." Even a famous debunker could not entirely escape the mythos of Jerusalem.
Mencken's writings about Palestine drew sharp criticism from the Baltimore Jewish community - not for overt anti-Semitism (a prejudice that Mencken generally confined to the privacy of his diary) but because of his pessimism about the future of Zionism. For example, although he claimed to admire the colonists he met in the Galilee, he warned: "Let some catastrophe in world politics take the British cops away and the Jews who now fatten on so many lovely farms will have to fight desperately for their chattels and their lives." Mencken later described his Holy Land writings as "rather superficial." Surprisingly, the usually pugnacious journalist had originally planned to do other pieces, but decided not to out of sensitivity to the Jewish response.
1940s: JOURNALISTS UNDER FIRE
Jerusalem in the 1940s remained a locale where journalistic careers could be launched or enhanced. In the years following the 1936-39 disturbances, many American correspondents invested in Jerusalem as a news source. Although the intricacies of the various proposals for the city's future generally held little interest for the American press, the opportunity to present the fabled "city of peace" as a place of communal warfare was irresistible. Some journalistic visitors were famous or would later become so.
Reporting from Jerusalem became much more difficult in the 1940s. Frank Gervasi of Collier's had to travel to Madrid in 1939 to elude the British security police and transmit his pro-Zionist stories about Palestine without censorship; he typed his notes on onionskin paper and taped them to his chest before flying out.
As local violence intensified, especially in the final three years of British rule, and journalists risked their lives to get the story, they sometimes risked turning the subject of the news into the news itself - its personalities, its eyewitness authoritativeness. Don Burke of Time reported that the Arab driver who took him to Jerusalem in late 1947 protected him from an angry Arab carrying a rifle who thought Burke a "Yahudi." "He's an English newspaper correspondent," said the driver - it being "also open season in Palestine on Americans," Burke noted. Similarly, a few months later, Sam Pope Brewer of The New York Times evoked the personal dangers of journalism through his reporter's "diary"; he likewise managed to find an American angle to the situation in Jerusalem, profiling American students in the Haganah.
Among the newsmen who "parachuted" in for short visits to Jerusalem, Dorothy Thompson and I.F. Stone hold special interest. As much as the barbwired city was itself a central character in their travel memoirs, their style of narration was far from self-effacing. Autobiography and reportage were vividly mixed in their dispatches.
New York Post columnist Dorothy Thompson had been warmly supportive of Zionism and was frequently cited by American Zionists in their publicity - until she made her first visit to Jerusalem in 1945, and began to comment on the dangers of the Jewish "terrorist" underground. While confined to Hadassah Hospital for enteritis, Thompson told her friend Vincent Sheean that Jesus of Nazareth had appeared to her in a vision, holding out his arms to the frightened Palestinian Arabs; skeptics have suggested that Sheean (and probably also George and Katy Antonius) "pounded her" for awhile before her revelation. A year later, in 1946, Thompson was dismissed from the Post, perhaps under Zionist pressure.
Jerusalem was a highlight of I.F. Stone's first trip abroad, in 1943. The politically engaged journalist, himself an irreligious Jew, told the readers of The Nation that he had been "moved to tears" by the "filial memories" that clung to the Western Wall - yet Notre Dame in Paris also made him cry. In truth, he was chiefly impressed by the contrast between the squalor of the markets of Cairo and the cleanliness of the Arab markets of Gaza, Jerusalem, and Haifa. He attributed the dissimilarity to Jewish rather than British influence: "One can see for oneself what is testified to in the Peel Royal Commission report on Palestine - that the coming of the Jews has not degraded the Arab but lifted his living standards." Although he was in Palestine only about a week, Stone gave in to the temptation to wrap up his report by proposing a simple solution to the country's problems: a binational state, which he called "a nobler and politically sounder goal than any narrow Jewish nationalism."
His support for binationalism never faltered, but on later visits during the Mandate period, Stone found himself more and more personally drawn to Zionism. When he traveled with illegal immigrants from Europe to Palestine in 1946, he benefited from special passport assistance and press accreditation from the U.S. State and War Departments. Returning to Palestine in 1947, he was detained by British customs officials, who seem to have suspected him of being a press agent for the Irgun in America (they could not have been more mistaken; he called the Irgun "quasi-Fascists"). When he came back a fourth time, covering the war for PM and The New Republic in 1948, he was once again aided in entering Palestine by friends in the State Department. He proudly claimed to be the first person to enter a Jewish state in two thousand years.
Pictorial reporting from Jerusalem developed similarly to its print counterpart, from a focus on the curious and the picturesque to documentary realism, although the latter approach never completely displaced the former. Three pioneers - Lowell Thomas, The March of Time, and Life magazine - show the evolution of photojournalism in Jerusalem.
Lowell Thomas arrived in Palestine in 1917, to publicize the British conquest for Lord Beaverbrook, and in the process created the inflated but enormously popular persona of T.E. Lawrence. He was also the first American journalist in Jerusalem to understand the potential of news photography. Thomas's 1919 film show in Britain and America, "With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia" and his 1924 book, With Lawrence in Arabia, achieved great success at least in part because of the quality of pictures by his photographer, Harry Chase. Thomas's writing and Chase's photographs are both full of clichés about the "mysterious East" and the British as "Christian crusaders." Jerusalem appears mainly as romantic background to some of Chase's pictures of key personalities.
After the establishment of the mandate, Jerusalem continued to be depicted by stereotyped images rather than by the "objective" photojournalism that was becoming an important part of American newspapers and periodicals in the 1920s and 1930s. For example, the December 1927 issue of the popular National Geographic magazine featured Maynard Owen William's "Color Records From the Changing Life of the Holy City," featuring fifteen pages of photographs of natives in exotic costumes, ranging from the Grand Mufti, the Russian Archbishop, and the Syrian Patriarch to Hungarian and Yemenite Jews. One would not have guessed that Jerusalem had a Jewish majority from such an ethnically mixed assortment of portraits, nor would one have imagined that many Jerusalemites wore Western clothing from William's focus on the picturesque.
Artistic sketches also remained fashionable, as in Ruth Light's drawings of traditional Jewish life for Asia magazine in 1935, including "Bread line - Straus Health Center," "A street in Jerusalem," and "Market place in Jerusalem." Illustrations like these suggested that Jerusalem was a city whose Jewish life was not dramatically different from that of Eastern Europe or North Africa.
With the introduction of talking pictures in 1926-27, the commercial newsreel came into its own in America. Theaters screened newsreels with nearly every Hollywood feature film and, until the arrival of television, the newsreel was a principal source of images and information about the world for millions of Americans.
Henry Luce and Roy Edward Larson's The March of Time (1935-1951) was one of the most famous of these newsreels. It quickly established itself as the most discursive example of film journalism, more akin to today's "point-of-view" documentary films than to the newsreels of its own period. Issue no. 7 of October 1935 concentrated on Palestine. It skillfully portrayed the rising discrimination against Jews in Nazi Germany, their exodus to Palestine, and the building of Haifa and Tel Aviv. However, it gave Jerusalem little attention, probably because of the more exciting footage of Zionist progress in other locations.
The quaint visual images of Jerusalem favored by the press guaranteed instant connection at home, owing to the wide acceptance of postcards, stereographs, and engravings of the Holy City over the previous hundred years. Unfortunately, the persistence of these familiar images made it much harder for Americans to learn of the growth and modernization of the city, and probably helped to reinforce the notion that Jerusalem could not function as a normal capital; for most Americans, as for the British planning the partition or cantonization of Palestine, it remained extraterritorial, the Holy City, a special case.
From the events of 1936-39 until the final British withdrawal from Jerusalem, however, the volume of images of shattered buildings and mutilated bodies increased exponentially in the American media. In most cases, the media used the violence mainly for visual effect. Only occasionally did captions or commentary provide a context for understanding. A typically dialectical press photo showed armed British "Tommies" on guard overlooking a mosque.
Life magazine provides a history in microcosm of the evolving photographic coverage of Jerusalem. Founded in 1937, it was the first American magazine to specialize in picture stories. Life's editors chose to emphasize World War II in Europe and the Pacific, so its pages included little material about Palestine during the magazine's early years. The most notable shots appeared in John Phillips's 1943 photographic essay, "Jewish Homeland," focusing on the dynamism of Tel Aviv and Kibbutz Ain Hashofet; a picture of the Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis walking together was the only scene taken in Jerusalem.
After the war, Life devoted much more space to Jerusalem: not only old-fashioned travelogue photographs of sacred places (as in Dmitri Kessel's "The Holy Land: It Echoes the Bible's Story"), but also a growing number of starkly realistic images of events in the city (for example, pictures of a bomb victim's hand and of a British night raid against terrorists). Such pictures of horror - dramatically different from the earlier "orientalist" views - made Jerusalem part of the worldwide community of suffering in the 1940s. Although Americans were now reading more often about bloodshed in Jerusalem, photographs made the suffering tangible in a way that words could not.
JERUSALEM VS. TEL AVIV
The archetypal tension between "East" and "West" represented by Jerusalem the ancient and Tel Aviv, a city without history, provided journalists with an appealing theme. Many reporters took advantage of the real (but easily exaggerated) differences between the two cities to structure their stories.
Few reporters paid any attention to physical developments in Jerusalem, except to note supposed threats to the sacred character of the city. Newsweek reported in 1939 that the British colonial authorities had declared the Mount of Olives "in peril" because of the spread of the "unwalled section" of the city. According to the magazine, the proposed solution was the establishment of a trust to buy land, replant it, and keep it "a place of pilgrimage, of memories, and of beauty forever." The growing spatial segregation of the city, especially after Jewish inhabitants fled to all-Jewish areas in the wake of the Arab riots of 1936-39, received little notice in the American press.
The press only rarely tried to make up for these lapses by providing the geopolitical data that readers lacked. Notably, local stringer Julian Louis Meltzer prepared a concise survey for The New York Times Magazine - a schematic tale of "two cities," the old and the new Jerusalem. Meltzer even included a map of 1947 riot locales.
Despite the presence in Jerusalem of the Hebrew University, the Jewish Agency, and other institutions, residents and visitors alike thought of it as primarily the center of religious Jewry, the headquarters of the British authorities, and a setting for violent confrontation. Reporters rarely challenged the notion of Jerusalem as a backwards "ghetto." Gerold Frank reported in 1945 that American GIs vacationing in Palestine found the country becoming rapidly "Americanized." Outside the Old City walls, even Jerusalem had "wide avenues and glittering shop windows, parked automobiles and corner newsstands, neon-lighted night-clubs and crowded movies featuring American films . . . reminiscent of [the soldiers'] home cities in the States." This effort to undo the traditional portrayal of Jerusalem's golden stones, valleys, and ancient ruins must have astonished many of Frank's readers.
Many writers viewed Jerusalem as an oriental city and regretted the Jewish presence as a Western intrusion. Vincent Sheean observed that Jerusalem was "an Arab city . . . as Arab as Cairo or Baghdad and the Zionist Jews (that is, the modern Jews) were as foreign to it as I was myself." In his writings, Sheean noted the heterogeneous commercial center west of the ancient walls, the Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus, and middle-class suburbs like the Jewish Rehavia, but gave the impression that those new areas were somehow foreign to the real Jerusalem.
Tel Aviv generated most of the Jewish cultural and political energy of the Mandate period. Not surprisingly, while anti-Zionist journalists found Tel Aviv distasteful, pro-Zionist ones reveled in its spirit. Freelance writer Owen Tweedy, an upper-class British Arabophile, a veteran of Lord Allenby's staff in Cairo, and later press officer in the Palestine government (1936-41), thought Tel Aviv "vulgarly Levantine after the commonplace fashion of Beirut and Alexandria; in comportment, the place might be a seaside resort on the Black Sea." Observing a Hebrew labor troupe perform a biblical play in Tel Aviv, Tweedy commented that "the production was primitive Slavonic, and in Palestine so exotic as to be terrifying - something ominous, something defiant, a challenge to the mentality of the Arabs of the land."** Elite American journals published many of his essays, often without providing any information about his background.
In contrast, Zionist-leaning journalists admired the energy and freshness of the Yishuv beyond Jerusalem, sometimes going so far as to compare it to the futuristic. Travel writer George Brandt of The New York Times wrote in 1938 that "the world's newest city is also its most modern. As I rode through Tel Aviv's well-paved streets, I felt as though I were in the world of [H.G.] Wells's 'Things to Come.'"
REFLECTIONS: THE SELLING OF JERUSALEM
Of course, much has changed in the decades since these reporters filed their stories, yet many of the problems facing American journalism in the Middle East remain the same.
To begin with, the changes: Once a backwater, Jerusalem is now a plum assignment reserved for seasoned and versatile reporters.
In the earlier period, the American public knew little about the political situation in Palestine. Regarding Jerusalem, it is likely that what little most Americans knew about the city was not much different from what they had learned in Sunday school: a collection of symbols, motifs, and iconographic elements. Today, in contrast, Americans say that they pay considerable attention to news from the Middle East.**
In the 1940s, American media sometimes focused more on the political ramifications of Zionism in the United States than on developments in the Middle East. Rallies and petitions often made the headlines, and Zionist public relations luncheons "gave the impression of Presidential press conference[s]."** Today, American Zionism (or pro-Israelism) remains a topic of interest to the media, but news about the "Israel lobby" seldom displaces events in Israel in the headlines.
The coverage of contemporary events in Jerusalem has never been entirely freed from the symbolism of the past, the story of a city at once "golden" and "cursed." Traditional images of the city have always been in the background (and often in the foreground) of news reports.
Just as media consumers have been attracted by the emotional magnetism of Jerusalem, they have also demanded drama, color, and human interest in news stories from the Holy City. Despite a large quantity of news from Israel and the apparent interest of the public, American knowledge about the politics of Jerusalem probably remains low. Journalists generally assume that their audience would be bored by "hard" political, social, and economic data, so they continue to emphasize feature stories.
Few of the journalists assigned to Jerusalem are Middle East or Israel specialists. Their lack of background often permits local informants to manipulate them.
Jerusalem has been a locale where journalistic careers can be launched (John Gunther) or enhanced (Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times). Yet it is also a place where a journalist's shortcomings can be revealed (Joel Brinkley of the Times) or a reputation destroyed (Dorothy Thompson).
Then as now, journalists look for the American angle. From the YMCA building to peace-process diplomacy, this provides the news hook.
Historical case studies such as this offer little optimism about the possibilities for change in journalism. Perhaps what is most needed is a contemporary Mencken to aim barbs at the orthodixies and pretensions of newspeople - especially their conceit that they are helping us to think for ourselves.
Recent New York Times Coverage
Most American reporters continue to cover Jerusalem in the shallow manner established by their earlier colleagues. Reporting by a quartet of New York Times bureau chiefs for Israel in the 1980s and 1990s proves the point.
The Times's copious attention to Israel gives us a sense that we will learn new information, the news behind the news. But it too often ends up covering old ground in its stories about Jerusalem. Its reporters usually succeed at producing animated and well-ordered copy, but seldom challenge readers' basic assumptions (the old story lines), probe deeply into character and doctrine (as in the key figure of Mayor Teddy Kollek), or closely examine the complexities of social relations in Jerusalem (making it hard for their readers to understand that the city's Jews and Palestinians have generally managed to carry out their daily exchanges in peace). The Times's use of visuals over the past two decades emphasizing the enticing, "old-new" nature of the city - for example, a picture of a black-hatted hasid against a backdrop of modernistic Jerusalem architecture. In contrast to the old Times, today's news stories are notably lacking in hard economic or political data, and a magazine flavor is evident even in accounts of serious news.
David K. Shipler
David K. Shipler, 1979-84. Shipler sometimes gave the impression that he was covering not the times, but the eternities. A December 1980 New York Times Magazine cover story on the Holy City began by narrating the lives of a muezzin [Muslim prayer caller], an Orthodox rabbi, and a Franciscan friar. Shipler had some real news to report, observing that both Jewish and Muslim holy places were flourishing under Israeli rule, and that intra-Jewish and intra-Christian conflicts were at that moment far more overt than Jewish-Arab tensions. Some East Jerusalem Arabs, he noted, actually wanted to see more Israeli police on the streets. Nevertheless, he called forth the familiar plotline of eternal Jewish-Arab conflict, writing that "the rhythms of life in Jerusalem have origins more distant and more enduring than the temporal pursuit of shifting political concerns." This emphasis on "origins more distant" made his stories more accessible but prevented Shipler from depicting the complicated social interactions of Jerusalem today.
Thomas L. Friedman
Thomas L. Friedman, 1984-87. Friedman relied on and advanced the reputations of a few left-leaning, English-speaking, Jerusalem-area intellectuals - religious philosopher David Hartman, political scientist Yaron Ezrahi, former Jerusalem deputy mayor and West Bank expert Meron Benvenisti, and Bir Zeit University moderate Sari Nusseibeh. Friedman also included in his journalism a few voices like that of Sasson, his Iraqi-born Jerusalem grocer who "saw himself as an expert on apples, oranges, and Arabs" - but he acknowledged that Likud supporters like Sasson, representing the majority of voters in Israel, were not his "teachers and friends."
About a year after arriving, Friedman published a long article on "Teddy Kollek's Jerusalem" that revealed much about the author's faith in Jerusalem's charismatic mayor. "The fact that [Jerusalem] is not Belfast, Beirut or Berlin, and that it has been, thus far, spared their fate, is largely due to the unique character and leadership of its Mayor." But he made little effort to plumb Kolleck's psychology or political strategy, apart from offering an informant's suggestion that the mayor's Viennese background might help to explain his hopeful notion of Jerusalem as a multicultural mosaic. In a suggestive 1987 article on Tel Aviv's attraction for nonreligious, dovish Jerusalemites, Friedman correctly reported that those leaving Jerusalem felt less threatened by Palestinian animosity than by tensions with Orthodox Jews and limited job opportunities.
The vibrant, first-person storytelling of Friedman's best-selling memoir, From Beirut to Jerusalem, added to the author's reputation but showed the author less than candid about his own errors in judgment. In July 1987, Hanna Siniora, editor of the Palestinian newspaper Al-Fajr, announced his candidacy for the Jerusalem city council, intending to demand an equal share of funding for the Arab population of the city. The PLO successfully pressured Siniora to withdraw (and coincidentally two of his cars were firebombed) but Friedman reported - wrongly, it later became apparent - that "the vast majority of Palestinians quietly accepted [Siniora's] proposal, some enthusiastically." In his book, Friedman neatly side-stepped his faulty assessment, as though he'd never made the wrong call.
Joel Brinkley, 1989-92. The Times's evident desire to keep up with television's graphic coverage of the intifada led Brinkley to file a numbing procession of stories about Palestinian-Israeli violence through 1991, with only a few pauses for news analysis. In his few stories that focused on Jerusalem, Brinkley's treatment of Teddy Kollek was distinctly uneven. A March 1990 report on Israeli reaction to President Bush's statement condemning "settlements" in East Jerusalem offered ironic commentary on efforts to encourage Arabs to recognize Israeli sovereignty; while trailing Kollek on a public relations tour of Arab neighborhoods, Brinkley highlighted the anti-Israel graffiti on the walls and the tiny percentage of East Jerusalemites who had accepted Israeli citizenship. In an interview, Shipler gave the mayor an opportunity to blame the bloody October 1990 Temple Mount riot on the militant rhetoric of the Shamir government but made no attempt to analyze any of Kollek's assertions. None of Kollek's right- or left-wing critics were interviewed - could Brinkley find no one who would suggest that Kollek bore at least partial blame for the state of his city?
Brinkley tried to write authoritatively but usually fell short. Covering the October 1990 riots at Al-Aqsa Mosque, in which twenty-one Palestinians died, he strove for a detached, professional tone. "Actual motivations may never be firmly established," he observed on the day following the riot, since any attempt at interpretation would require speculating about people's intentions. However, in a "special report" a few days later, rather than let the Israelis and Palestinians explain in their own words what happened, he sat in judgment, declaring that both sides were offering "incomplete and partly inaccurate information."
Clyde Haberman, 1992-. In line with the lighter, consumer-oriented tone of the new Times, Haberman has introduced topics like "Jerusalem syndrome," a psychiatric condition in which mostly American pilgrims shout prophecies on street corners. Another article focuses on a small incident - the Sheikh Jarrah mosque's being fined the equivalent of $100 in the wake of complaints that the minaret loudspeaker was too loud. Haberman seemed to take seriously the claims of Muslim imams that the court order was "an unaccetable breach of religious liberty."
Following the September 1993 Israel-PLO accord and the November 1993 municipal election, in which Teddy Kollek was defeated by the Likud's Ehud Olmert, the Times owed its readers a fresh assessment of the future of Jerusalem. But Haberman took a formulaic approach in his February 1994 report, "Israelis Are Rushing to Build a Greater Jerusalem" The article focused on talk of Jewish construction to link the West Bank suburban bedroom community of Maaleh Adumim and Jerusalem's eastern border.