The Hate Mail Dangers Of Middle East Reportage

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The problem of having to please both sides is difficult for reporters. Especially when they are working as foreign correspondents in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Every word they write and every detail is parsed by readers looking for hints of anti-Israel or anti-Palestinian bias. It’s not easy.

Case in point: Tim McGirk, Time‘s Jerusalem Bureau Chief. He maintains a Middle East blog for the mag and wrote what seemed like an innocuous entry about Jerusalem street life for the blog:

An Israeli woman asked me where I lived in Jerusalem. When I replied that it was in Abu Tor, which has a view of the Old City, with its domes and shrines holy to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, she said cuttingly: “You foreign correspondents are all the same. You love the Orientalism of Jerusalem. We Israelis turn our backs on Jerusalem, It’s the source of all our pain.”

She was secular, this Israeli woman –but that’s probably obvious to my readers. Her point was that most Israelis are normal people, leading normal lives, and are far removed from the zealots shouting into TV cameras. Wishing that Jerusalem were less religious is like wishing that Manhattan would revert to pasture for dairy cows.

You can’t avoid religion in Jerusalem. The other day, I was stopped by an odd little man with a white beard. He said he was a Syrian bishop, even though he sounded Canadian. He pointed to an tangle of jasmine vines and whispered: “Look, a rare sight!”

Buzzing around the jasmine were two Palestine Sunbirds, which are small and quick like hummingbirds, with miniature wings of iridescent blue. And then the bishop tells me: “You know, everybody thinks that angels have wings. Maybe sapphire blue wings like those or white or transparent like dragonfly wings.”

I confessed that I hadn’t thought too much about the color of angel wings.Maybe I imagined them tipped with a pale fire.

The Sunbirds flew off but the bishop was still whispering. “Truth is,” he said, “angels don’t have wings.”

“They don’t?”

He shook his head with authority and replied, “No. Angels don’t need to flap wings to fly. They’re not bound by gravity. So why should they have them?”

“Can’t argue with that.”

The bishop smiled enigmatically, and I walked away promising that I’d keep my eyes open for Sunbirds and for angels –with or without wings. Only in Jerusalem.

Poor McGirk got hate mail for that piece calling him a “biased *ss” and was accused as rejecting Jerusalem “as a meaningful part of Israel” and of calling all religious Jews “zealots.”

Feature reporting in the Middle East isn’t easy.

(Imaginary Middle East map via Ralph Peters)