Washington Post story on unhappy Jews in a small Alabama town draws praise — and criticism

A lot of people really enjoyed a recent front-page story in the Washington Post on a New York couple who accepted $50,000 to move to small-town Alabama and help build up the small Jewish community there.

The great religion writer Emma Green of The Atlantic said on Twitter that she “loved” it.

Others have been more critical of the couple’s assertion — given prominent national attention by the Post — that they’ve experienced frequent anti-Semitism in Dothan, Ala., population 65,000, and plan to leave.

Me? It’s taken me a while to write about the piece because I’ve been contemplating it.

On the one hand, I appreciate in-depth narrative journalism by outstanding Godbeat pros such as the Post’s Julie Zauzmer, whose work I have praised a number of times. On the other hand, as a resident of Bible Belt flyover country (Oklahoma City, in my case), I am sensitive to out-of-town journalists painting places such as my home state with broad, overly negative brushes.

To be fair, the Post does reference other Jews besides this couple who offer a different perspective:

Lately, though, they’ve started to feel worn down by the demands of the tiny Reform synagogue with 56 families and to yearn for the vibrant congregation ten times larger that they left behind. While most of the Priddles’ Jewish friends in Dothan say they have never experienced ­anti-Semitism in the town, Lisa and Kenny can quickly recount times when they’ve felt the sting of discrimination. Since 2016, they’ve also watched warily as anti-Semitism has worsened around the country.

Eleven families have moved to Dothan since Blumberg started paying them, and Blumberg says he’ll pay for at least six more who commit to stay at least three years. But almost a decade into the experiment, seven of the 11 families have left.

Now, Lisa and Kenny wonder whether they might make eight.

It’s just that the positive voices never really get a hearing in this story.

Part of that is how storytelling works: The best reporters tell a larger tale by focusing on a specific case study or, as in this instance, a specific couple. The idea is that this couple epitomizes the bigger truth in this Alabama town. For me, the question is: Is this couple truly representative? Or is it possible that they are the problem — and that they should have stayed in New York and not moved to a culture so different from their longtime home?

The fact that seven other couples have left, though, hints at discontent by others. However, unless I missed it, I don’t think the story quotes any of them on their reasons for leaving. In discussing readers’ questions about the story via the Post’s Acts of Faith email newsletter, I don’t think Zauzmer mentioned any claims of anti-Semitism on others’ part:

Q: Why did the other families move out?

A: A variety of reasons, many quite similar to the reasons anyone leaves any place. Better job opportunities elsewhere, or difficulty finding work in Dothan, often were the most important concerns.

Q: Why do you think the Priddles have experienced anti-Semitism in Dothan, when many Jews in the town say they never have?

A: I think there are many answers. Luck? Probably. Attitude? Probably that too — it’s easy for one person to interpret a comment as biased, and another person to see it more charitably as simply uninformed. Also significantly, both Lisa and Kenny work in health care, which brings them in contact every day with a wide variety of patients. Most of the times they’ve experienced anti-Semitism, it has been in a work-related setting. Some Jews in Dothan have jobs where they don’t meet strangers nearly as often.

Greg Garrison, the longtime religion writer for the Birmingham News in Alabama, shared a piece that the local newspaper, the Dothan Eagle, published by a former local rabbi who accused the Post of mischaracterizing the town:

From that column by Lynne Goldsmith:

The week following the massacre of Jews in Pittsburgh last October, the larger Dothan community was invited to attend Sabbath services at Temple Emanu-el. More than 200 people attended to show solidarity and support with the Jewish community at this terrible time for us. The Rev. Lynn Nesbitt spoke that night. I understand the support offered was a great comfort to the Jews in attendance that night. This incident was relayed to the Washington Post reporter, but she chose not to include it. This is not a characteristic of an anti-Semitic community; rather, it is a characteristic of a community where Judaism is accepted and respected.

I emailed Zauzmer a link to that article and asked if she had any response. “No, but thank you for reaching out,” said Shani George, the Post’s director of communications, who replied to my question.

More recently, the Alabama Media Group — a major news organization in that state published a piece claiming that the “Washington Post story ignored context in quest to show anti-Semitism in Dothan.”

Stephanie Butler, executive director of Blumberg Family Jewish Community Services of Dothan “The Family Relocation Project” and Temple Emanu-El board member, wrote:

Some words are just...big. Anti-Semite, for example. That’s an awfully big word, with a lot of weight to it. It grabs the reader’s attention. So, we understand why nearly every journalist who has sought out a story about Dothan, Alabama’s Jewish community has tried to dig out that word. If a reporter asks enough people enough leading questions, maybe they can get someone to say it. And this time, it worked. Out of hours and hours of deep conversation with rich context, someone provided the fodder. And a reporter can’t be faulted for simply quoting a source, can she? Or might context matter? Might it matter that within our community, by and large, hatred of Jews does not exist? Or that the relationships Dothanites have with our neighbors are enriched by our differences? Or that the vibrancy of the interfaith community in Dothan rivals that of any other community?

Please don’t misunderstand my point: Just because people complained about the story doesn’t mean the Post got it wrong. “Shooting the messenger” is an age-old tradition that, believe it or not, predates Donald Trump.

But I do think it’s legitimate to ask if — in this age of click-bait headlines (“A millionaire paid Jews to move to a small town in Alabama. Now, a couple struggle with their choice.”) — this particular Post story didn’t get it completely right, that it skipped over points of view that didn’t fit its narrative.

Thoughts? I’d love to hear them, pro and con. Please remember to focus on the journalism-related issues.

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