When inexperienced foreign correspondents arrive in Israel, one of the rites of passage tends to be their being suckered into writing a heartwarming Palestinian story intended to give Israel a black eye. However, the best indication of their mettle as a journalist is not so much whether Palestinians sources/fixers inveigle them into producing one of these atrocities as whether they learn from the experience and try not to get hooked into another obvious piece of pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel puffery. Judged by this standard, New York Times Jerusalem Bureau chief Jodi Rudoren must be considered a dismal failure. Though she has been in the country for two and a half years, Rudoren has just produced a stereotypical holiday piece about the conflict published today in the paper that should embarrass even the most raw rookie scribe.
The article, tabbed as “Letter From the Middle East,” is titled “An Open Door Beckons in the West Bank.” It concerns the experiences of Khadra Zreineh, a Palestinian woman who hosts foreigners and those living temporarily in Israel as part of what Rudoren describes as “off-the-beaten-track tourist experiences often focused on food.” Apparently Zreineh served up some nice stories along with her home made freekeh soup about life in the town of Beit Jala during the second intifada where she lives in what she dubs “the house of the open door,” where both Jews and Arabs have always been welcome.
One in particular entranced Rudoren who made it the centerpiece of her article. It concerned Zreineh’s experience during Easter of 2002 when the area was under curfew as Israeli troops sought to capture Palestinian terrorists who had taken refuge in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. The terrorists held out in the shrine for 39 days secure in the knowledge that Israeli troops would respect the site’s sanctity. In the end, they were allowed to leave unharmed for exile in Gaza or Europe. During the siege, which took place during a time of intense fighting in the West Bank as armed Palestinian cadres waged war against Israel, local residents were given brief periods to leave their homes to get supplies. But after 34 days, Zreineh and some friends decided to defy the curfew and go to church. Instead of stopping them, an Israeli tank crew let them do as they liked and then waited for them to escort them safely home after the service. Zreineh considered this action an “Easter miracle” but then found out that one of the soldiers knew her son from earlier more peaceful times and had been in her home before.
That’s very nice and would, at least on its face, seem to confirm the idea that the only thing that is needed to end the conflict between Jews and Arabs is more contact and understanding with some good food thrown in. But there are some problems with the narrative and the way that Rudoren retold it that tell us more about Rudoren’s poor skills as a journalist than about what’s wrong with the Middle East.
Let’s start with how Rudoren describes what happened to make it less likely that Jews and Arabs would gather in Zreineh’s kitchen:
“We had many Jewish customers,” she said of the days before Israel built a concrete barrier around most of the Bethlehem area and barred its citizens from entering.
That’s true but Rudoren doesn’t note that the separation fence was built after the events that Zreineh describes, not before them. Nor does she mention, even in passing, that the motivation for its construction was not to stop people from having soup in Beit Jala but to stop the wave of suicide bombers that took the lives of over a thousand Israelis during the second intifada.
Just as interestingly, Rudoren tells us nothing about what happened in Beit Jala during the intifada.
Throughout the year before and even after the “miracle” that Zreineh discusses, the town was taken over not by touring foodies like Rudoren but by Palestinian gunmen who forced some of the Christian residents out of their homes and then used them as platforms for shooting at the neighboring Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. During that period, Gilo was under siege as terrorists in Beit Jala fired indiscriminately into homes and apartments as well as passing Israeli cars or pedestrians. The real miracle was that more Jews weren’t slaughtered, though many were killed and wounded and an entire section of the capital (as well as the Christians of Beit Jala who were occupied by Muslim gunmen affiliated with the Fatah group) was terrorized until Israeli troops cleaned out the nests of shooters. In recounting Zreineh’s experiences, it says a lot about Rudoren’s poor command of the facts of the conflict and credulous nature that she included nothing about this in her story. Beit Jala’s role in the conflict is forgotten along with that detail about suicide bombings and the fence.
As for Zreineh’s “miracle,” the assumption underlying the story is that if any other Israeli soldiers had been stationed there and not a couple who knew the soup maker, the Palestinian women breaking curfew to attend mass would have been shot or at least roughed up or harassed. But can Rudoren produce credible stories of peaceful Palestinian women being harmed under similar circumstances? Though the international press has usually swallowed Palestinian propaganda about Israeli beastliness with few efforts to get at the facts (as Rudoren and her Times collaborators demonstrated this past summer during the war with Hamas in Gaza), the truth is that the Jewish state’s military always, as the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey put it, “goes to extraordinary lengths” to spare civilians when fighting Palestinian terrorists. The IDF isn’t perfect and there are instances when it fails to live up to its high standards, but the decision of a tank crew not to fire on six women heading to church is what we’d expect from any Israeli unit, not a “miracle.”
While I’m sure the soup was good, the story that went with it should have struck any journalist worth his or her salt as a crock or at least in need of some heavy seasoning with the facts about Palestinian actions during the intifada if it was going to be written up. But not Jodi Rudoren. She’s as green as the day she arrived in Israel in May 2012 to take up her post. That would be an embarrassment for any foreign correspondent, let alone a Times bureau chief. Readers should keep this in mind whenever they look at her non-food or holiday-related coverage in the paper.