An Israeli Reporter in Lebanon

No good deed goes unpunished

My friend, Lisa Goldman, is a blogger in Tel Aviv. Lisa, who moved to Israel from Canada almost a decade ago, has always put a premium on making connections with bloggers in the Arab world—those who are not scared off by the idea of IMing with an Israeli. In the process she’s been one of the main links in a rare Middle East online community that crosses borders and manages in its way to overcome the many prejudices that exist in the relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors. I wrote about this virtual neighborhood in the pages of CJR a few months ago. During the fighting last summer between Israel and Hezbollah, Lisa maintained contact with a few Lebanese bloggers and I was struck by the transcendent nature (not to mention the good human sense) of such efforts to understand in a time of war.

Last week was a busy one for Lisa. She and a friend, who is also an Israeli journalist, visited Lebanon. They weren’t able to enter with their Israeli passports, so Lisa used her Canadian one and her friend a Brazilian one. Lisa wanted to feed her curiosity and see the place and maybe visit some of the bloggers she had met through the Internet. She was extremely careful about whom she talked to, aware of the danger she might be putting her friends in (it’s actually illegal for any Lebanese citizen to have contact with an Israeli). When she returned home, she was asked by Israel’s Channel 10 to go back to Lebanon as a correspondent and file a report. So she did, interviewing taxi drivers and café owners in Beirut and putting together a reasonably complex and interesting picture of life in the city a year after the war. Lisa never broadcast the fact that she was Israeli to the people she interviewed, but answered honestly that she was born in Canada and wrote for European publications. This was the only way for her to produce a story that could help Israelis understand the country they were at war with a year ago – and understand it in a multifaceted way.

A few days after her piece aired, she discovered that The Daily Star, Beirut’s English-language daily, had written a story exposing her as an Israeli journalist: “Two Israeli Journalists Scrap Ethics for Scoop.” The article, published as a news item, was very much an op-ed. Lisa and her friend, in the eyes of the paper, “not only broke Lebanese law, but also violated codes of ethics in journalism and endangered the lives of those they interviewed.” It’s a damaging allegation, premised entirely on the fact that Lisa—though she never lied—did not announce herself as an Israeli. To many Lebanese, the very presence of a “Jewish reporter,” as she was described in the piece, is threatening. One Lebanese journalism professor in the article even talked about setting up a monitoring system to detect “any and all Israeli incursions of any kind into our country.”

Lisa was trying to give Israelis a better idea of their neighbor to the north. She defended herself here. And the gist is this: “It is not pleasant to be put in a position of having to lie. I tried to avoid doing that as much as possible, which is why I wandered Beirut on my own and did not hire a local translator or driver, who might later be tainted by association with the dreaded Jew. However, accusing me of unethical behaviour is what we in Israel call chutzpah, given that the reporter [who wrote the piece about her] failed to contact me for a comment—which is basic Journalism 101, as I’m sure the esteemed professors of journalism who are quoted in the article will confirm. The bad ethics rap is rather disingenuous, given that I risked abduction and imprisonment by the Hezbollah if I declared that I was an Israeli citizen.”

Lisa described the reaction to the piece as justifying what she had to do to get it: “Given that so many Israelis expressed pleasant surprise at seeing Beirut as a beautiful, cosmopolitan city rather than a war zone, it is obvious that we are not obtaining an accurate picture of life in Lebanon.”

There is also the larger point she makes, that all the major Arab news outlets operate freely in Israel and the Palestinian territories, with correspondents from Al Jazeera, Al Houra, Al Arabiyya, and even Hezbollah’s own channel, Al Manar, reporting on whatever they want.

I defer again to Lisa’s essay defending her reporting, because she nails it pretty well: “Why, then, are Israelis barred from reporting from Lebanon? Why are Arabic-speaking television viewers allowed the privilege of live reporting from Israel, while an Israeli reporter who does a pre-recorded, human interest report from Lebanon is accused of violating ethics and endangering lives? Surely there is only one word to describe this situation: hypocrisy.”

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.