Covering religion news events in foreign lands? Think location, location, location

Writing about events in a foreign land? Then keep in mind this retailing truism: Location, location, location. In journalese, that might read, what seems an obvious choice in one place can look illogical and even dangerous somewhere else.

When speaking religion journalese, that means Nigerian Anglicans are different from New York City Episcopalians, Baltimore Roman Catholics diverge from their co-religionists in Rio de Janeiro, and American-born Muslims do not think exactly like the Muslims of Saudi Arabia.

Likewise, the politics and beliefs of American Jews do not necessarily equate with the politics and beliefs of Israeli Jews. Assuming they do says more about the journalist than it does the subject.

Which brings me to last week's Israeli election that saw Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reelected, and handily so. Mainstream American media tended overwhelmingly to portray Netanyahu's reelection as a major blow to the (already dormant) Palestinian-Israeli peace process, as well as for just and peaceful communal interactions between Israel's Jewish and Arab populations (about one-fifth of all Israelis are Arab).

Netanyahu's 11th-hour campaign statements, of course, about there being no Palestinian state on his watch and his warning of a massive Arab turnout undermining Jewish Israel's hopes and dreams made that line of reasoning understandable. (Netanyahu has since clarified that he meant no Palestinian state under existing conditions. He also apologized to Israel's Arab citizens.

Major American Jewish leaders -- who tend to trend from centrist to center-left, just as American Jews in general tend to, most obviously on domestic issues -- also criticized Netanyahu and lamented the election's right-wing outcome.

But hold on there, said The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, one of America's premier English-language Jewish newspapers. The Los Angeles metro area, by the way, is home to an estimated 120,000 or so ex-pat Israelis, the second largest such community in the U.S., after the tri-state New York metro region.

"American Jews are disappointed with Israel's election? Tough luck," read the snippy headline that introduced a reaction analysis by Shmuel Rosner, the Journal's Israel-based correspondent (Rosner has considerable experience reporting on American Jews, as well). Here's a chunk of his story:

This happens every time the Israeli electorate decides to elect a government that is right of center.
It happens every time an Israeli Prime Minister does something that does not bode well with the political affiliations of American Jews.
When Ariel Sharon was elected in 2002, The Guardian reported that “Sharon divides world’s Jews”. When PM Ehud Olmert visited President Bush in the White House in 2006, the Jewish Forward editorialized that “for American Jews, this was one visit by an Israeli prime minister that drove home the distance between the two great Jewish communities, not their closeness."
Today, the electoral victory of Binyamin Netanyahu is igniting headlines and editorials with the same tone. Jews dislike the fact that he was elected, and they dislike his statements and actions. Once again, talk of “distance” is the talk of the Jewish town.
It is all a waste of precious time, and contributes nothing to having a fruitful dialogue between Jews.
American Jews and Israeli Jews are indeed different in many things, political affiliation and beliefs included. Both communities will be better off if they understand that, and accept that.
It was condescending and foolish for Israeli Jews to be disappointed with the decision of American Jews to vote for Barack Obama -- twice!
It is no less condescending and foolish for American Jews to be disappointed with the decision of Israeli Jews to vote for Binyamin Netanyahu -- four times!

Summing up, Rob Eshman, Rosner's boss at the Journal, said this in a separate essay on the election:

Jewish life is composed of tribes -- Orthodox, secular, my shul, your country club, Ashkenzai, Ethiopian, etc.  But the two biggest tribes are American and Israeli. Different cultures, different languages, different reality.  Israel and America are the twin study of Jewish life: same birth, same heritage, but vastly different nurturing -- and so very different natures.

Question: If American Jewish leaders react like typical liberal Americans, how are non-Jewish American journalists (or Canadian; pick just about any Western nation), for whom Jews of any nationality may be equally exotic, supposed to understand and communicate these differences? 

Answer: Journalism 101. Don't generalize and don't presume to know. Read widely, travel, watch documentaries. Want to report on a foreign culture? Then really get to know it.

Granted, this is becoming hard to do on the company dime as U.S. journalism spends more and more of its diminishing resources on less financially stressing (and equally important) domestic stories. That pretty much leaves foreign reporting to the deeper-pocketed big guys. But even then, so much of what constitutes foreign reporting is heavy with war and calamity, and, unfortunately for us all, understandably so.

One last thought. How come -- given all the ink, pixels and video being spent on the Israel election and its consequences -- this non-election election story is largely ignored?

Here's a hint: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is in the 11th year of his four-year-term.

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