Michael Rubin offered a shocking example yesterday of the kind of warped analysis that results when a journalist “goes native” by adopting the biases of the country in which he is stationed. I agree this can be a serious problem when diplomats, journalists and other international officials spend too long in a given country, but I’m no less concerned by the opposite problem: Frequent rotations mean journalists and diplomats have no incentive to develop real expertise in any foreign country. The result is they are often parachuted in with no knowledge of the local languages, history or other information needed to actually understand what’s going on, leaving them dependent on local “fixers” – who may well be pursuing their own agendas.
This point was brought home to me last Friday, when I happened to have dinner at the home of a friend whose eldest son is doing his army service. He had recently returned from a stint in Hebron, and related the following story:
An Israeli soldier at a checkpoint had asked a Palestinian, in Hebrew, to show some identification. An observer from the Temporary International Presence in Hebron was standing nearby, along with a local Palestinian translator, as the observer speaks neither Hebrew nor Arabic. The translator duly explained, in English, that the soldier had asked the Palestinian for his ID – then added the soldier had threatened to beat him up if he didn’t produce it.
The TIPH observer had no way of knowing this “threat” was the product of the translator’s imagination rather than the truth; he was utterly dependent on his translator. Nor would it have made much difference had my friend’s son disputed the translator’s account (which he couldn’t due to army regulations aimed at avoiding confrontations with the observers): In a classic “he said, she said” situation, the overseas visitor would naturally believe his regular translator rather than an unknown Israeli soldier. So the nonexistent threat will doubtless be duly included in the observer’s report, one more in a string of lies promulgated over the years by foreigners who may be genuinely well-meaning, but are irretrievably hampered by their own ignorance.
Nor is linguistic ignorance the only problem: Historical ignorance is equally problematic. This is evident in numerous standard media tropes about Israel –like the claim the current impasse in Israeli-Palestinian talks stems from Israel’s refusal to freeze settlement construction, or that the crisis in Israeli-Turkish relations stems from Israel’s May 2010 raid on a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza. Of course, the Palestinians also refused to talk during the 10 months when Israel did freeze settlement construction, and Turkey turned against Israel long before the flotilla raid, even barring it from NATO drills in which it had participated for years. But all that happened years ago, and given the frequent rotations in media and diplomatic personnel, many genuinely don’t know. So when fed the standard line by Palestinians or Turks, they don’t even know what questions they should be asking.
If we really want our diplomats and journalists to provide useful information, we should insist they know the relevant languages and history. As long as they don’t, they are little better than conduits for whatever propaganda others choose to feed them.