A conversation with Ruth Margalit, in Tel Aviv

In Friday’s newsletter, we reported on the crisis unfolding in Israel and Palestine, how it’s been covered in the US, and how it has affected reporters on the ground; last week, Israeli forces bombed two buildings housing media groups in Gaza City, and targeted a number of journalists covering unrest in Jerusalem. Over the weekend, the media continued to be a big part of the story. On Friday, an Israeli military spokesperson told reporters for international outlets that ground forces had entered Gaza, but they hadn’t; the spokesperson said he made a mistake, but Israeli media reported that officials intentionally deceived journalists as part of a ploy to lure Hamas fighters into exposed positions. Then, on Saturday, Israel bombed another building in Gaza City, this one housing the local offices of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera. (As with the other buildings it destroyed, Israel said that Hamas was operating out of the building, though it has not publicly offered any evidence for this.) Those inside were given an hour to evacuate. “I looked back at this place that had been my second home for years. I realized this was the last time I might ever see it,” Fares Akram, of the AP, wrote. “I put on my helmet. And I ran.”

Late last week, Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, spoke with Ruth Margalit, a journalist who writes for the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and CJR, and is based in Tel Aviv. They discussed the situation there, and the local and international media’s role in it. In this edition of The Media Today, we’re bringing you their conversation. It’s been edited for length and clarity; you can hear the whole thing as a podcast here. (Jon Allsop is off sick but will be back later in the week.)

KP: We’re speaking on Thursday night, your time. Earlier this week, on Twitter, you were writing about what it felt like to be living in a place where you were hearing air raid sirens, and where you were huddled for safety. What is the situation right now for you? 

RM: I think it’s sort of similar. It’s quiet right now. My kids are asleep, both of them. But we are expecting that there may be nighttime sirens coming sometime soon, or at least that’s what the rumors say. That’s what’s been happening in the past two nights—we’ve had these nighttime air raid sirens and had to sort of dash outside and kind of huddle in the stairwell with the children and just wait for the Iron Dome missile defense system to start working. And we would hear these intersections and booms. For the kids, it was very scary, and for us, it’s just an ordeal. But you also think about other parts of the country that are closer to where the rockets are being fired, and also, of course, Gaza, where they have no interceptors and often no places to seek cover. So it just kind of throws everything into proportion.

You’ve grown up with this conflict in the background of your life, or in the foreground of your life. How does this rank for you in terms of the feeling of it, living through it in the moment? 

I was talking to my sister and we were saying how, when we were children in Jerusalem, there was the first Gulf War in 1991. And there was this idea that, oh, we’re sort of safe in Jerusalem; that rockets would never strike Jerusalem because it’s so holy, the holiest place for all three religions. We sort of felt safe even as we were seeking cover and gas masks. And then this round of escalation really started in Jerusalem. There were different, kind of diffuse reasons for why it started, and it’s kind of hard to pinpoint just one. But it suddenly it felt very different: there was this sense that the rationale has changed.

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Ironically, even though everything started in Jerusalem—there were these protests in East Jerusalem and the threat of imminent expulsion of these six Arab families living in Sheikh Jarrah, and then there were these protests and these marches in the Old City, and police rounds of live ammunition going into the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and things started flaring up, and then the rockets, of course—now, strangely enough, Jerusalem is sort of quiet and things are shifting locations. And so Tel Aviv is now under attack, but all these disparate cities as well. I think the saddest thing to come out of this recent round is just to see the state of the mixed cities here in Israel—the Jewish and Arab cities kind of unraveling, really, and deteriorating to a state of anarchy.

How do you consume news at a time like this? Do you find yourself glued to the television and social media, or do you find yourself trying to kind of put some distance around it? 

Totally glued, I’m afraid. Television here, it didn’t used to be a twenty-four-hour news cycle, the way it is in the States. But it is now, especially when something like this is going on. It’s constant. Not a lot of it is useful for thinking about, but it’s hard to turn away. There are these actual sort of lynchings that we’ve seen occur in mixed cities. I was watching TV and suddenly we saw this really shocking footage just being screened live on TV. And the reporters didn’t really know what was happening or where this was coming from.

All of this is rather new. In 2014—during what’s known in Israel as the last Gaza offensive—this was the first time you really saw social media rearing its head. And what happened then was the real fraying of the omnipresent military censor in Israel. Up until that point, all the news trickling out within Israel, but also from foreign news outlets, they all had to pass through the military censor. And suddenly, because of social media, and because of internet journalism and all of that, the military censor has kind of lost its place. The Israeli army, the Israeli government, they’re still grappling with that. How do you control the narrative and also keep certain stories from being aired? The truth is now they really can’t. Things have changed.

A couple of years ago, you wrote a piece for CJR called “A Ruinous Obsession,” which was about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s obsession with the press. [He is facing a trial on charges linked to his dealings with media companies.] I know there’s been a lot of commentary there, as well as here, about what the political effects of this may be for him. How much of the coverage of what’s going on is centered around him? 

It very much is. I think Israelis are the first to start with the analysis. So even as this escalation is taking place, there are just constant takes on: Is Netanyahu up or down? What does it do to his chances of survival? I think, for him, it is a story of personal survival. Which brings us back to the media, because, ironically enough, the chances for his downfall could very well have been, and could very well still be, related to his obsession with the media. The most damning of his cases in these prosecution trials has to do with him allegedly seeking favorable coverage from a leading news website, called Walla, in exchange for giving the Walla owners favorable regulatory benefits. So it all kind of ties back.

Have you had much chance to read the US press and its coverage of what’s going on? 

I have, yeah.

There’s been a lot of debate and commentary here about the language, and the objectivity question, for lack of a better term: what do you focus on, and how do you make sure that you don’t legitimize one side versus the other? What do you make of that debate here? 

It’s something I think about constantly. Because I’m able to write for more magazine-y publications, I think there’s an assumption that. as a writer, you’re bringing more of your own biography and who you are into them. And for me, that’s a really good thing. Obviously, I’m Israeli. I’m Jewish. I served in the army. I’m also, if you read my pieces, liberal, I’m left-leaning—I have a whole worldview that I sort of bring with me, and that I always try to also put aside, and not have these biases. But of course, it affects who I am and how I approach pieces. And I don’t try to pretend otherwise. I think for some of these newspaper reporters, that’s a much trickier thing, because I think readers expect a real neutrality or objectivity, and of course, that’s really just an impossible standard. And I think a much better one is always to strive for accuracy and to strive to be correct rather than to be objective.

Some of this has to do with vocabulary, and that’s something I kind of catch myself as well. I don’t think I’ve written this, but I could see how a reporter writes about East Jerusalem, calling them “evictions” of these Palestinian families. People rightly said that maybe eviction is not the right word, because it implies a landlord-tenant relationship, and that maybe “expulsion” is the better word. I’m learning this as well, and I think these are important conversations to have. But I also think, with newspaper reporters, the fact that they’re on the ground covering this is so important. And sometimes we get bogged down in the language or a sentence that sounds kind of tricky, or not a hundred percent fair to all sides, where what gets lost is the fact that the reporter is there reporting on this story. Change happens slowly, and that’s how we all learn.

From the Existential Issue: The aesthetics of conspiracy

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.