Ramallah, West Bank
Wedged into a small van, the students in my journalism class jostle and bounce along rutted West Bank roads. Their fatigue is real, but it's no match for their eagerness to discuss the family we'd just visited in Hebron.
The Abu 'Ayesha clan lives inside a chain-link cage. In 1996 family members encircled their two-story house with a metal fence to protect against stones flung by the children of neighboring settlers, Jews reclaiming what they say is their biblical heritage. Soon after the settlers arrived, the entire Arab community fled. Only the Abu 'Ayeshas refused to leave, choosing a path of isolation and adversity.
Does the decision to stay in their home serve their family and the Palestinian cause? Or does it fuel the grim determination of Jewish settlers bent on driving them out? Perhaps there another story to be told? The students argue these and other points with fervid intensity.
Busy in debate, no one notices the scene unfolding at the Qalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Ahead of us, dark plumes of smoke spiral over a clot of traffic.
"Tear gas," says our Palestinian guide, scanning the horizon for the cause. "Over there." She points to a rise beyond the soldiers' station.
We make out a group of boys, from tweens to teens, hurling rocks at Israeli vehicles. Glancing back at the students crammed in the seats behind the driver, our guide calculates the likely effect of the stone throwers on our speedy passage.
"Good—the blondies are in front," she said.
By now we know the drill. Israeli soldiers are more likely to wave us through checkpoint searches when they see fair-haired, light-skinned girls in the front seats.
I teach journalism students how to write about religion, an increasingly marginalized segment in a rapidly shrinking news hole. Although religion is a key element in reporting on politics, culture, and society, cash-strapped news outlets are jettisoning specialty beats to save money. Jobs at mainstream news outlets grow scarcer by the day, attention spans get shorter, and the favored style of storytelling is sensational, simplistic, and conflict-driven.
Still, my work remains—helping students to write clearly, think critically, and probe religion's role in cultural and political trends and events. Religion makes visible the interplay between belief and behavior in various spheres of human activity. Consequent actions may range from mundane—Hindus eschewing Big Macs because they believe cows are sacred—to life-changing—Jews moving to Hebron, believing it's their biblical right to live there. Such everyday affirmations of faith, lived out in what people eat and wear as much as whom they marry and how they raise their children, offer an opportunity to explore the dynamics between personal choices and social forces in individual lives, communities, and nations.
For example, why, in recent years, have many Palestinian women started wearing hijab? Some commentators say the women's decision has more to do with national politics than with personal religiosity. But rather than ascribe political reasons to religious choices, reporters might examine the religious dimensions of Islamic geopolitics. That is part of the Middle East's social and historical context that news outlets often fail to provide.
Such myopia is hardly new. As the 1970s drew to a close, pundits, politicians, and policy makers were blindsided by the activist religion revealed in the lay Catholic backing of the Irish Republican Army, Muslim support for Ayatollah Khomeini, and evangelical outpouring for Jimmy Carter. Central to this resurgence of religious partisanship was the call for the faith-based values that secularism had displaced. More recently, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists domestically and worldwide have made similar calls for their faiths' public recognition and role. Welcome to the 21st century, where multiple religious absolutes are a defining factor of urban life.
And what better place to plumb religious absolutes, and their potentially disastrous consequences, than Israel and the West Bank? Last year I organized a nine-day reporting trip to Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Tel Aviv as the capstone to a graduate course on reporting and writing about religion, politics, and gender. Students first spent eight weeks studying the religious beliefs of Jews and Muslims, as well as the political conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, in preparation for the forced march of immersion journalism: 12-hour days meeting experts; visiting settlements, refugee camps, and historic sites; reporting stories; and writing on deadline. (The University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, where our journalism program is based, has its own online newswire, http://www.neontommy.com, where many students have posted their work.) Even though we were aware of possible dangers, of course, none of us really imagined ourselves driving through acrid smoke amid rock-throwing teenagers—or placing "blondies" in the front seat to smooth our passage through the checkpoints.
During our time in Israel, the class met Hana Barag, a slight, stooped 74-year-old grandmother and fiery human-rights activist. For Barag, whose own children served in the army, religion, politics, and human rights are threads in the same skein. She belongs to Machsom (the Hebrew word for "checkpoint") Watch, which a small group of Israeli women organized in 2001. Today several hundred members, mostly senior citizens, start work at 6 a.m., reporting to checkpoints and military courts, where they monitor human-rights abuses against Palestinians and serve as silent surrogates for the mothers of Israeli soldiers. Their hope is that young men and women on duty will behave better when watched by eemas (mothers) and bubbes (grandmothers).
Doing justice to Barag's story demands a working knowledge of West Bank geography, Israeli history, and Jewish notions of social justice. This kind of engaged journalism requires intellectual as well as emotional wrestling with the issues. Students may be able "feel" the story—that is, empathize with Barag and the Palestinians she watches over—but they also need to understand why and how Machsom Watch came to be and what it represents in Israeli society.
Getting the students to that point was not easy. It entailed extensive prep work and a heavy load of reading, reporting, and writing. Students monitored online Israeli and Arab news sites; met with experts in Judaism, Islam, and the Middle East; and critiqued media coverage of religion and politics. By the time we left Los Angeles for Tel Aviv, they were as engaged as students could be with a topic that was literally and viscerally 7,500 miles away.
Then came the moment when the airport van left us inside the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem's Old City. Punchy after a 14-hour plane ride, we dragged duffel bags and camera equipment through narrow, cobblestone streets and winding pathways until we found our way to the Lutheran Guest House and sleep. Several hours later, jet lag proved no match for religious authority as a muezzin's predawn chant led the call to prayer.
Being there made all the difference. The intensive preparation cohered when students, faced with breaking news, drew on multiple skill sets to report and write stories—to practice journalism for real. Students covered protests and demonstrations that could have been dangerous but were crucial for readers worldwide.
Even bad news was good. Just before we arrived, Vice President Biden's visit to the Middle East was jolted by an announcement that new Israeli settlements would be built in East Jerusalem, calling into question the Netanyahu government's peacemaking intentions. On our second day in the Old City, the Hurva Synagogue, destroyed by Jordan in 1948, was rededicated, prompting some Palestinians to call for a mass protest. Anticipating a riot, Israeli forces blanketed the area. Our guides were nervous, as palpable tension filled the narrow streets.
These reporting opportunities—meeting with Israeli settlers, visiting contested East Jerusalem communities, drinking tea with officials in the Palestinian Authority—enabled students to go deeper into stories, gave gravity and immediacy to their work, and taught them the importance of careful observation and informed judgment. As witnesses to history, students questioned the Hamas spokesman's spin, the Knesset member's efficacy, and the checkpoint soldier's motivation, aware that their assessments as reporters, reflected in their coverage, would matter to readers.
How nice it would be to end here: Students discover there is more to journalism than covering sports and entertainment. But the truth is that traditional news-media outlets are hiring fewer reporters than at any time since the 1960s. Short of foreign-language fluency and an Ivy League degree, students are hard-pressed to snag an international posting.
Accordingly, the trip's takeaway is not only the efficacy of engaged journalism. It's also the cold fact that students need to be entrepreneurial, placing pieces for maximum exposure and remuneration. I urged them to look for outlets besides the Annenberg newswire to extend their readership. Most found promoting their stories even harder than reporting and writing them.
Journalism schools everywhere are reinventing journalism as a discipline and a delivery system. American journalism thrives because it evolves in response to changing mores and markets. Today's reporters, just like their predecessors, are motivated by a desire to make sense of the world. Their reward for professional uncertainty and meager pay is the pure joy of discovering an amazing story and sharing it with readers, viewers, and listeners.
As we neared the Qalandia checkpoint, the students' lively discussion became even more intense. They were honing the narratives and probing the angles that put personal hardship into a larger context, one in which politics and religion are deeply entwined, if not inseparable. As they lifted their cameras to capture the young stone throwers, I hoped that in these fledgling reporters' hands, those all-too-familiar images might yield richer, deeper stories than the ones that had come before.
Students' blogs and photographs of their trip are at http://trans-missions.org/israel-palestine