The Middle East: Inside, Outside, and Online

October 26, 2012
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The Middle East Today (BBC News)

Two competing forces shape mass media. On the one hand, there is the creativity of writers, directors, journalists and editors who transform ideas into content. On the other, there is structure. Despite the infinite creative capacity of producers, their work is inevitably circumscribed by the economic imperatives, technological limitations and ideological biases inherent in the business of media. The careful media critic thus aims to give credit (or blame) when due, but also keeps a close eye on the factors that shape authorial control. It is an imperfect science, but it is also what makes the study of media so fascinating.

Thus, this series aims to provide a dual perspective on one of the most controversial areas of new media production. Focusing on blogs about contemporary Middle Eastern politics, The Middle East: Inside, Outside and Online pairs together a blogger with an academic critic. The bloggers have been charged with providing insight into the way they work.  The academics have been asked to analyze the site for which the blogger works, drawing attention to factors beyond the realm of pure authorship. It is not a point/counterpoint and the authors have not read each other’s pieces. Instead the two pieces are meant to provide distinct but intimately related perspectives.

This first pairing is one certain to provoke strong feelings in readers. Emily Hauser blogs for Open Zion on The Daily Beast. Professor Helga Tawil-Souri studies media in the Palestinian territories and Israel. Certainly there is much to say about the politics of each contributor. But, just as importantly, these two essays come together to help paint a deeper and more nuanced picture of Open Zion and online media.

Writing for Open Zion
By Emily Hauser

I’ve been writing commentary about Israel/Palestine since 2002, and while the world of opinion publishing has changed dramatically in the ensuing decade, I believe that the writing itself has not (or at least, not much). I was a reporter out of Israel and the Palestinian territories for a big chunk of the 1990s (having moved to Israel in 1984), and then pursued my masters degree in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago, graduating in 2001. These facts had enormous bearing on the writing I did for the op/ed pages of newspapers, and continue to have enormous bearing on the writing I do for blogs.

There are, after all, a lot of opinions out there about Israel/Palestine, much of it ill-informed or informed entirely by ideology. While my blogging certainly reflects my politics (pro-two-state, anti-occupation, anti-settlement), I try very hard to make sure that I’m building a case and can source it, so that readers come away feeling not just supported in their own opinions (or angered by mine) but having learned something in the process.

I don’t believe, however, that it’s my job to convince my ideological opposite numbers, nor is it my job to prove them wrong to the n-th degree (two things I’ll never be able to do). My job is to advocate for the shared humanity and dignity of Israelis and Palestinians, support political solutions that I believe will promote that humanity and that dignity, and provide readers with a few more tools to reach their own conclusions and do their own advocating. What this means is that it’s not enough to say that occupation is bad – I have to provide facts and figures. It’s not enough to say that Palestinians are people, too – I have to sketch that humanity.

Likewise, it’s not enough to say “Israel is wrong” – Israel is many things (not least, the many Israelis who advocate for a just peace every day) and if I really want to have an impact on policy and behavior, I have to focus on the policies and behaviors that contribute to the conflict. It’s not enough to say “occupation is bad for Israelis, too” – I have to demonstrate why, and why that matters.

All of this largely because the audience I see myself writing for is primarily those American Jews who feel somewhat or mostly uncomfortable with Israeli policy, but don’t know how to articulate that discomfort, or feel unequipped to do so. This is where sourcing comes in, and it points to one of the changes that’s taken place in the actual writing process since 2002: Whereas once I essentially had to say “look, trust me on this, I’ve seen the numbers,” now I can embed links and folks can continue the discovery process on their own.

The other audience for which I imagine myself writing is Palestinians. Palestinians are so infrequently given a platform in the West, particularly in the Jewish community, that to the extent that I can channel their stories, I feel compelled to do so. Indeed, many American readers immediately discount any opinion attached to an Arab name – my hope is that with my by-line, a few more people will read a little more about what conflict and occupation mean for the Palestinian people. (And the fact that I’m Israeli-American who’s an active member of a Conservative synagogue and identifies as a Zionist doesn’t hurt).

Finally, the speed with which information now spreads and with which bloggers have to produce copy must, inevitably, have an impact on the writing itself. The challenge is to write quickly but not in haste, and to trust that the extra five or 30 minutes spent nailing down sources or clarifying language is ultimately more important than posting as quickly as possible. At the end of the day, commentary writers (which is what most bloggers are) are chipping away at the outermost edges of public opinion. If we want to be effective, we have to use best tools we can find. Facts and unabashed humanity are pretty powerful tools.

Open – and close – Zion
By Helga Tawil-Souri

Open Zion seems at first glance a clever play on words: in techno-legal terms it alludes to the shift towards open source software, creative commons, and invitation for non-expert digirati to share opinions. That is not the case however. Content is copyrighted and most conversation is between the blog’s editor, Peter Beinart, his commentators, and scholars who have written reviews or responses to Beinart’s publications. Perhaps the title alludes to an ideological opening of Zion and Zionism? Yet, as the site states, OZ seeks “an open and unafraid conversation” based on a belief “in a two-state solution in accordance with the liberal Zionist principles articulated in Israel’s declaration of independence.” Certainly Zion (i.e., the state of Israel) is not being opened here, and taking a two-state solution and liberal Zionist principles as axiomatic doesn’t strike me as openness either.

One way to understand OZ then is as an attempt on the part of journalism and a journalist to remain significant in a technological-media landscape which renders ‘traditional’ journalism’s future uncertain. OZ is part of The Daily Beast, the companion website to Newsweek, which will cease its print publication in 2013 and become all-digital. OZ underscores the challenges of maintaining profitability in an environment when news no longer follows a daily, let alone a weekly, cycle, and an environment in which news readers are likely to land on an article through a friend’s Facebook post or Twitter feed without necessarily caring where it is being published.

Politically, Open Zion is an echo of Beinart’s own perspectives – even if commentators come in different flavors. OZ does not add complexity to an understanding or a critique of Israel or Zionism or “the Jewish future” but simply – albeit fastidiously – describes their contemporary political landscapes from the perspective of an individual embedded in American Jewish political institutions. Thus OZ fails at an extremely important level: the recognition that neither the US’s, nor Israel’s, nor Palestine’s purposes and futures can be understood or decided through only an American Jewish lens. Yes, Israel as it stands is the state for the world’s Jews – and so American ones too – but that ‘borderlessness’ or openness (for only some) of Zion should itself be opened for discussion.

Beinart is most often labeled a ‘center-left’ American Jew; despite also being called a ‘radical’ by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren after Beinart argued that products from Israeli settlements should be boycotted. The moniker of ‘center-left’ however needs to be problematized and connected to an open and unafraid conversation about ‘liberal Zionism.’ I certainly recognize Zionism and liberal Zionism’s successes and appreciate their ideological borrowings from socialism, Liberalism, the valuing of human rights and freedom. There is nonetheless an inherently colonial and racist core to (liberal) Zionism itself and the creation of the modern state of Zion. The Israeli Declaration of Independence cannot be divorced from historical actualities of what happened to Ashkenazi Jews, Mizrahi Jews, Muslims, Christians, Palestinians, and others – in 1948 as well as before then and thereafter. These realities, histories, narratives and perspectives should be what are opened to conversation. That’s what the notion of open(ing) Zion should suggest – and while we’re at it, we can also drop copyright and trademark notices.

When historical creations are framed as intrinsically liberal, without addressing their illiberal and oppressive aspects, the result is a closing off of new perspectives and futures – Jewish and otherwise. This sleight-of-hand is what allows Beinart, OZ, and others, to make a two-state solution axiomatic: Palestinian statehood is supported only insofar as it permits the sanctity of a Jewish democratic state. Such an equation does not in actuality rest on the belief of human rights and freedoms for all, and certainly does not open a critical conversation to be had of why democracy and Jewishness continue to be framed in sync. As such, OpenZion purports a kind of friendly Zionism, as oxymoronic as ‘compassionate capitalism’ and as self-righteous as ‘civilizing mission.’

If I end up at an OZ story through a Facebook post, so be it. But I won’t purposefully open OZ until real openness takes place. There’s much better analysis on the web already – whether you think the Palestinians never existed, or the threat in the Middle East is Israel, or a new state ‘Isratine’ should be created.



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