The Forward sits down with a Hamas official

It's a first for the 115-year-old Jewish newspaper, but audiences are slow to respond

Late Thursday night, the Jewish Forward, a 115-year-old paper that was published entirely in Yiddish until 1983, posted online a 5,000-word piece about Hamas’s second-in-command, Mousa Abu Marzook.

Touting it as “the first-ever in-depth exchange between a senior Hamas leader and a Jewish publication,” the story, based off a two-day interview conducted in Cairo, sought to understand how Hamas, which the US labels a terrorist organization, thinks today about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and whether its outlook is shifting with the Arab spring. The story, a solid, detailed piece of reportage that succeeds in humanizing its subject but remains ensconced in a pro-Israel paradigm, is netting wide coverage in the Israeli press, but has so far barely registered here despite a social media push and outreach by a publicist.

The piece—mailed to the Forward’s 30,000 print subscribers on Friday—is a vast departure from the paper’s normal coverage, both because of the expense of sending the reporter, assistant managing editor Larry Cohler-Esses, to Egypt and because giving voice to a Hamas official who fundraised for the group from US soil in the 1980s and ‘90s could be viewed as an affront by the paper’s Jewish (and generally pro-Israel) readership.

Editor Jane Eisner said staffers had that conversation at length before green-lighting the assignment.

“We talked about the propriety of it,” she said. “We talked about safety, we talked about, ‘how do we insure that this interview was really going to be substantive.’ It’s a big deal. We’re a tiny organization. I don’t normally send people off to Cairo.” But she said she found it important, as both a journalist and a Jew, to understand what Hamas is thinking in order to discern what the future holds for the peace process.

Cohler-Esses embarked on the outlier trip thanks to Abu Marzook’s attorney, Stanley Cohen, a source from the reporter’s days at the New York Daily News. Cohler-Esses asked the attorney back in February about setting up an interview. Cohen was able to schedule it in early April. After initial uncertainty about whether logistics would work, since the week before Passover is short-staffed at the Jewish newspaper, Cohen, Cohler-Esses, and a local freelance photographer were in a car in Cairo by April 3.

“We hopped in a car that we rented for the day, and the driver was instructed to call a particular number,” Cohler-Esses said. “We didn’t have an address, and over the cell phone he received driving instructions, and off we went.”

The resulting story takes up most of the real estate above the fold on A1, along with two inside pages. It mostly succeeds as a work of classically ‘objective’ journalism, quoting Abu Marzook’s words and dispassionately sketching his biography, though the whole is framed from an old-school Jewish-American view: Cohler-Esses described Abu Marzook’s statements as “dovish” or “hawkish,” in terms of their approach to dealing with Israel, and when Abu Marzook says he agreed to speak to the Forward because:

We don’t have originally something against the Jew as a religion or against the Jew as a human being … The problem is the Israelis kicked out my family … I have to differentiate between the Jew who did this problem to my people and [American] Jews like you, who never did anything bad to my people.

Cohler-Esses responds that “most American Jews strongly support Israel as a Jewish state … and sympathize with their fellow Jews there.” This is primarily true of older American Jews, but not younger ones [PDF], and this disconnect with the digital natives could be why the story has yet to go viral beyond the realm of Israeli newspapers. Also, while the story flirts with the forefront of the news cycle—Abu Marzook lives in Egypt because Hamas deserted Damascus, unwilling to support the violent Syrian regime—the peace process lacks a timely peg.

The work is accompanied by a digital push. On the paper’s website, a landing page solicits reader responses; its Facebook page features multiple timeline entries seeking feedback. Each of these had fewer than 10 comments as of this writing.

The site also has a link explaining how the interview came about, along with some audio clips of Abu Marzook embedded on the main story page. The paper is planning a follow-up opinion package for next week’s issue, Eisner said.

“We want this to start a conversation,” she said. “What [Abu Marzook] says ought to encourage us to think, ‘OK, what should our policies be? What should our attitudes be?’”

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Kira Goldenberg was an associate editor at CJR from 2012-2015. Follow her on Twitter at @kiragoldenberg. Tags: