Last week I left the JC after ten years on the job, including six years as foreign editor.
It’s no exaggeration to say that it has been a profoundly enriching decade of my life, and I hope those who have been reading the world news section have – at least at times – felt rewarded for dipping in.
The JC is a Janus-like creature – it faces outwards, a national title to which governments pay attention; and inwards, to the community – and its fascination as a place to work lies in the tension between those poles.
Of course, a mother whose barmitzvah son appeared in the paper usually gets slightly better access to editors than government ministers – but no-one is pretending we can achieve total impartiality. The clue is in the name.
While we hardly ever discuss reflexive, journalism-school questions such as “who determines your agenda?” in the paper, it’s clearly of keen interest to readers. In fact, it’s one of the questions Jews and non-Jews have most asked me over the years.
There can be underlying assumption: am I brow-beaten into taking a certain line – perhaps by “one of those Zionists”?
My first response is: read the paper! Because if they did, they would see many examples of the JC both holding the Jewish world to account, whether on Israel, dirty diaspora politics or sex abuse; and celebrating its many delights.
My second response is usually that the decision on how to angle a story sometimes emerges through discussion, sometimes it is one person’s view, sometimes it is a collective view. It can be a very random process.
My third response is longer, and regards my own personal journey at the JC.
I began my life at the paper as an Israel naif. Having spent very little time focusing on the issue, I had always assumed that a majority of Westerners understood the Jewish state as I do: an essential, remarkable, if troubled state.
My discovery was to find that right across the world, there is an educated class wedded to an understanding of Israel based not on knowledge of the history and the facts but on their need for the country to play bogeyman in their own grand narratives about themselves.
If you are with the oppressed, you cannot be for Israel; if you are against the empire, you cannot be for Israel; if you are with the poor, you cannot be for Israel. And so on.
The answer to simple-mindedness is to seek to explain the complexities. Yes, the occupation is wrong, but so is the Palestinians’ consistent rejection of Israeli peace deals – or in Hamas’s case, ceasefires. Could the occupation end tomorrow without visiting even greater hell on Israelis and Palestinians? Hard to say.
All those are pieces of a puzzle which is not yet complete. Now, back to my discovery.
A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting across the table from the Middle East editor of a major British news outlet. He told me that he found himself chastened on a regular basis by the fact that the underlying assumption at work among many of his writers was that when it came to stories on Israel, the headline had to reflect a wrongdoing by the Jewish state. This is the narrative context in which the JC operates – and it’s a global one.
So the second part to my answer to “Who sets your agenda?” is therefore, “you, the world”. Israel has done and is doing many things wrong. It is also true that it is one of the most - if not the most - widely misunderstood stories of our time. Telling that story was never going to be easy. As Hamlet said: “The time is out of joint — O cursèd spite, That ever I was born to set it right.”