USC Journalism Students Look at Religion, Ethnicity, and Coexistence in Israel’s Villages, Towns and Cities
by Diane Winston, special contributor
I teach at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Among my course offerings is religion coverage, an increasingly marginalized beat within a progressively problem-ridden industry.
Although religion is a key element in reporting on politics, culture, and society, cash-strapped news outlets are cutting back specialty beats to save money. Even more troublesome, legacy news jobs are fewer than ever, the news hole is shrinking, and the favored style of story telling is sensational, simplistic, and conflict-driven. Nevertheless, my goals remain the same: helping students to write clearly, think critically, and probe religion’s role in social and political trends and events.
For the last two years, I’ve pursued those goals by focusing on the fault-lines in the coverage of global religion. Using the Israel-Palestinian conflict as a starting point, I’ve asked students to find alternative frames for the conflict along with new voices to lift up and unsung stories to tell.
In 2010, students explored the nexus of religion, politics and gender in Israel and the West Bank. In 2011, the class will look at religion, ethnicity, and coexistence In Israel’s Arab villages, mixed towns and Jewish-majority cities. Students report across multimedia platforms with the goal of seeing their work in outlets ranging from the Washington Post to Global Post.
This class’ 13 graduate students represent a cross-section of races, religions, regions, and ethnicities. Some are in their 20s; others in their 30s. Many have traveled widely, but only one has visited Israel. They’re all interested in politics and international relations and see religion as an integral part of coverage.
Diane Winston holds the the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. A national authority on religion and the media, her expertise includes religion, politics, and the news media as well as religion and the entertainment media. A journalist and a scholar, Winston’s current research interests are media coverage of Islam, religion and new media, and the place of religion in American identity. She writes a smart blog called the SCOOP and tweets too.
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Focusing on the Peace Rather Than the Process in the Middle East
by Eboo Patel, special contributor
Here’s what struck me about this special panel on Middle East peace that Bill Clinton moderated: it actually focused on the peace, and not the process. The President joked that somebody else in his family was trying to figure out where on the land to draw the line, he wanted us to talk about what needed to happen with the people after that line was drawn.
There were a lot of pursed lips and furrowed brows when he said that. It made me realize just how much attention is paid to the details of the process, and how little we think about the actual peace. Which is to say, how people from different faiths, nationalities, and narratives are going to live together on a pretty small parcel of land.
“In Israel, 20 percent of our citizens are Arabs. And it’s not simple — for them for us, but for one place. There is no hospital in Israel where you don’t have Arab doctors and Arab patients. And, nobody knows — not of the patients and not of the doctors who is operating them — I mean, if a Druze would see an Arab with a knife coming close to him, he would be alarmed. But in the hospital, please. And I ask myself, ‘If we can live in peace in the hospitals, why can’t we live in peace out of the hospitals.’”
We hear frequently the stories of the suicide bombers and the settlers. We read about the squabbles of the diplomats. We get bogged down in the details and made cynical by the seemingly endless failures. But with a single example, Peres illuminated just how much Jews, Christians, and Muslims have in common, pointed out just how well Israelis and Palestinians already work together. It’s enough to keep me thinking past the process, and into the peace.
Eboo Patel is founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core. He’s the author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation and writes regularly for The Faith Divide blog on The Washington Post. He’s also served on President Obama’s Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Gaza’s Steadfast Faces of Survival
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
“This, I realized, was what I could add. Not the familiar scenes of destruction in Gaza but the steadfast faces of survival. To capture each intimate portrait required that I spend just a little more time with people, that I hear a bit more about their lives, look more deeply at them. And find the story of Gaza in their faces.”
—Asim Rafiqui, photojournalist
The Virginia Quarterly Review has published Rafiqui’s stunning set of black-and-white portraits of Palestinians living through the ongoing struggle for Gaza. The photojournalist’s introduction to “Portraits of Survival” with its brief captions give the viewer an intimate glimpse into his subjects’ lives.
A point emphasized that resonated with me in several stories: stripping a person of the ability to offer hospitality to a guest is to strip one of his or her dignity.
Approaches to the Question “Is Religion Potentially Dangerous?”
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
In “No More Taking Sides” Krista describes her conversation with Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad, who both have lost a loved one in the conflict:
“…this is not another version of the tragic Israeli-Palestinian story to which we’ve all become accustomed from the news. Neither is it a touchy-feely story of isolated good will. This story is fiercely human, admitting grief while also yielding to joy, and it is all the more hopeful for its origins in the hard ground of reality.”
Updating the site for rebroadcast, we’ve also been editing our video footage from Krista’s live conversation with Robert Wright earlier this month. His answer to the audience question, “Is religion potentially dangerous?” is one that’s often asked in the context of the seemingly intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
As we produce this interview for air, the most recent script characterizes Wright as “relentlessly logical” — and you might say that Wright’s assessment of religion’s role in this conflict is relentlessly logical in the best sense. But, while logic can be extremely helpful in understanding the forces behind human conflict, it says very little about the experience of those conflicts.
That’s where Robi and Ali come in. When Wright tells us that “human life is potentially dangerous,” their stories show us this on a gut level. Their partnership is a living example of why we’re all in this together is an idea really worth considering.
Ali Abu Awwad, from the transcript:
“When I get to the library that [Robi’s son] David was preparing for the student, a good library, and I saw Robi start crying there, I don’t know, it’s strange, that feeling that I got at that moment. I have that feeling that David is telling me, ‘Take care of my mother.’ This is the first time I’m telling that. I never told Robi that.
And I think [my brother] Yousef was so happy that Robi was taking care of me and I really don’t feel this identity when I feel about David, when I feel about Yousef. I don’t feel that.
They just put us — by passing away, they put us in this deeply feeling with our humanity. And if people appreciate and if politicians appreciate the life as they appreciate the death, peace will be possible.”
A New Dialogue?
Colleen Scheck, senior producer
In preparation for this week’s program, “No More Taking Sides,” we’ve been following the recent developments in Robi Damelin’s life. Our show includes this film clip from the documentary Encounter Point of Robi reading the letter she wrote to the family of her son’s killer.
In 2005, just a few months after Ta’er Hamad had been arrested, she wrote:
After your son was captured, I spent many sleepless nights thinking about what to do, should I ignore the whole thing, or will I be true to my integrity and to the work that I am doing and try to find a way for closure and reconciliation…
…I understand that your son is considered a hero by many of the Palestinian people, he is considered to be a freedom fighter, fighting for justice and for an independent viable Palestinian state, but I also feel that if he understood that taking the life of another may not be the way and that if he understood the consequences of his act, he could see that a non-violent solution is the only way for both nations to live together in peace.
Over three years later, Robi indirectly received a defiant, militant reply from Mr. Hamad via its publication by a Palestinian news agency:
“Just as I refused to directly address the soldier’s mother, I cannot wish to meet her. I cannot meet with the occupier of our land on the same land. I carried out the operation as part of the struggle for freedom, justice and the establishment of an independent state, not out of a lust or love for killing. Acts of violence are a necessity imposed upon us by the occupation and I shall not abandon this path for as long as the occupation continues.”
“Ta’er, how ironic, the people who most wanted to protect me from the words in your letter were my Palestinian friends and other bereaved parents in our group. They of all people have the right to talk about my actions and who I am for we have worked together for more than 6 years to try to end this terrible conflict and to give both sides a chance to live with a sense of dignity free from the terrible fear which engulfs us and gives us all the excuse for violence. The tears I saw in the eyes of my Palestinian partners in the Parents Circle when they met me after you chose to publish the letter were tears of understanding and yes friendship and love…”
“… The wisest reaction I had to the words of your letter came from my wonderful son Eran, who I thought would be terribly angry. Well he said, listen mum, perhaps this is the beginning of a dialog.”
In the audio embedded up top, Trent recently spoke with Robi from her home in Tel Aviv to learn more about how she’s reflecting on this exchange, and what it means for her work with the Parents Circle - Families Forum. It’s worth a listen to hear her ongoing tenacity.
Leaving No Factions Untouched
Trent Gilliss, online editor
“Palestinian member of the Forum, Ali Abu-Awad met with more than 60 members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, Palestinian fighters most of who are on Israel’s most wanted list. He spoke about non-violent resistance and the work of the Parents Circle - Families Forum and gave them an alternative framework to function. After six hours these hardened fighters wanted to know more and there will be ongoing meetings. Many in the meantime have given up their arms and are looking for another way.”
We were aware that the organization Robi and Ali participate in as bereaved family members, and now work for, reach out to many people as part of a process of dialogue and understanding. But, reading this, was a stark reminder that their efforts extend beyond the peace-loving middle to even the most militant, radical coalitions.
The Daily Show, Heckling, and Hope
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
There was a bit of stir a few weeks ago when Jon Stewart welcomed Ann Baltzar and Dr. Mustafa Barghouti onto The Daily Show. Baltzar is author of Witness in Palestine: A Jewish American Woman in the Occupied Territories, and Barghouti is “a leading figure in the Palestinian democratic and nonviolent movement for peace.” The stir resulted from having two guests that approach the issue from a “Palestinian point of view.”
At one point in the interview a member of the audience yells “liar” to Barghouti (apparently the first heckler in the show’s 11 years), and Stewart quickly turns it into fodder for discussion asking Barghouti how he maintains hope when people “can’t even agree to begin the conversation.”
Trent had a look at the video of this exchange last Friday, and clued me in on something I completely missed — a close connection to a story Karen Armstrong tells in this week’s program. Both of these situations involve someone in the audience disrupting the discussion, and a consideration of how best to handle it. From the transcript, a story that took place at the “God 2000” conference at Oregon State University:
And then when we were on the final panel, suddenly erupted in the hall a fundamentalist who started to shriek at us incoherently. What I could make out was that he was saying that Jews and Muslims denied Jesus and therefore they were going to hell, and all of those of us who sided with Jews and Muslims were also going to hell, and this was evil. And you couldn’t hear much, because he was so incoherent with rage and despair. What I could hear, however, was the note of pain in his voice. This was not just some loony. This was somebody who was suffering and in pain, and felt profoundly threatened by what we were saying.
And the point is that we, seven of us on this panel — we’re all articulate people, we’d all been talking nonstop to each other and to the audience for the last two days. We were utterly struck dumb. None of us could say a word. We felt utterly winded by this assault. Even me, and I should have known better, because I’d just finished my book on fundamentalism. I couldn’t think of anything to say. Eventually this man was hustled out, and the moderator said, ‘Well, I wish we could have talked to him, because he is part of the conference of God, “Where Is God at 2000?” He’s part of this conversation.’ But somehow we couldn’t talk with one another. He was incoherent, we were struck dumb and useless, and this is the problem that we’re facing.
With that in mind, there’s something in Barghouti’s response that he would “very much like to meet” the man who raised his voice and heckled. Perhaps simply a willingness to start the conversation is hopeful enough.
La Convivencia and the West-Eastern Divan
» download [mp3, 2:57]
Marc Sanchez, associate producer
The audio above comes from one of our “Revealing Ramadan” participants, Ibrahim Al-Marashi, who appeared in our podcast and radio program. He’s an Iraqi-American who currently lives and teaches in Spain, and has lived in California (Los Angeles and Monterey) and Turkey. During his interview, he talked about one of the things that attracted him to Spain: La Convivencia. This idea, which translates as “the coexistence,” describes a cultural harmony between Muslims, Jews, and Christians and was first coined when Spain came under Muslim rule beginning in the 8th century. Al-Marashi goes on to talk about his Lebanese-Christian grandmother and his interests in shared Muslim-Jewish-Christian ideas.
Al-Marashi’s interview was fresh in my mind when I happened to catch an airing of the documentary, Knowledge Is the Beginning. The movie follows a season of the West-Eastern Divan, an orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim.
The orchestra is made up of young Israelis and Arabs, and Barenboim’s hope is to show how music can bring people together. The idea for the group was born out of Barenboim’s friendship with Edward Said.
Barenboim was first raised in Buenos Aires, the son of Russian Jews, and he began studying piano and giving performances at an early age. His family relocated to Israel 10 years after Barenboim was born, and he was on the conductor’s track before his thirteenth birthday.
Said was born in Palestine before the founding of Israel. His family moved to Egypt after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. He went on to study at Princeton and Harvard and to teach English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He was a prolific writer, and staunch advocate for Palestinian rights. He passed away in 2003.
In addition to his political writing and cultural criticism, Said was a passionate fan of classical music. So much so that he was the classical music critic for The Nation. It was through music that he and Barenboim first bonded. And, it was music that opened a dialogue to their differences. Said and Barenboim knew that coming together — just bringing your ideas to the table to talk — can open a lot of doors. From the orchestra’s Web site:
“Music by itself can, of course, not resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Music grants the individual the right and obligation to express himself fully while listening to his neighbour. Based on this notion of equality, cooperation and justice for all, the Orchestra represents an alternative model to the current situation in the Middle East.”
(Top photo: Ibrahim Al-Marashi.
Middle photo: Edward Said, left, and Daniel Barenboim, right, chat during an awards ceremony in Oviedo, Spain in 2002. Photo by Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images.
Bottom photo: The West-Eastern Divan rehearses at Royal Albert Hall in London for the BBC Proms in 2009. Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images.)