Israel-Palestinian conflict

Secretary of State Pompeo's invitation-only briefing with 'faith-based media' causes a stir

Secretary of State Pompeo's invitation-only briefing with 'faith-based media' causes a stir

On Monday, I got an email inviting me to join an “on-the-record conference call” with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The message, sent to my Christian Chronicle address, indicated that Pompeo would discuss international religious freedom ahead of his trip to Jerusalem and the Middle East and take questions from call participants.

Ordinarily, I might have RSVP’d and listened to what Pompeo had to say.

But I’m still recovering (read: exhausted and taking a few days off) after my own recent travel to Israel. So I decided I’d rely on other journalists’ news coverage of the call and perhaps check out the transcript later.

Little did I know that the exclusivity of the invitation itself would make headlines.

Then today, I noticed on Twitter that the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press had issued a statement expressing concern about the State Department barring some journalists from the call:

On Monday, the State Department held a briefing call for only faith-based media to discuss international press freedom with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In response to inquiries from journalists who were not permitted to join the briefing, the Department declined to provide a transcript of the call, a list of media outlets who were allowed to participate or the criteria used to determine which media outlets were invited.

“The decision to bar reporters from attending a press briefing held only for ‘faith-based’ media on international religious freedom and to withhold the transcript of the discussion raises serious questions about the State Department’s understanding of — and commitment to — a free press,” said Jenn Topper, spokesperson for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

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Political and religious fallout from Rep. Omar's AIPAC remark won't fade, nor will social media let it

Political and religious fallout from Rep. Omar's AIPAC remark won't fade, nor will social media let it

Let’s start with the political bottom line — or at least how it stands as of this writing.

The furor kicked up in recent days by Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar will not — I repeat, will not — turn the Democratic Party into the American equivalent of the United Kingdom’s Labour Party, which has a clear and significant anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic problem.

At least not for the foreseeable future. Or to be more precise, at least not as I perceive the immediate future unfolding.

For this, the Democrats, the majority of American Jews and Israel can thank President Donald Trump. As long as the Republican Party remains in his firm control and that of his morally and culturally conservative congressional enablers, American Jewish voters are more than likely to stay firmly Democratic.

Too many of them are just too liberal in their social outlook to vote Republican as the party is currently configured. Period.

This, and because of the substantial Christian Zionist support for Israel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s politically expedient bromance with this president.

Both Christian Zionism, which tends to back the most right-wing elements in Israeli political society, and the aforementioned bromance are, again, anathema to the majority of American Jews.

Christian Zionism, regardless of how well it is actually understood by the rank-and-file, is a complete turn off for the preponderance of American Jews because it sounds to them like Christians wanting to control Jews simply to foster their own theological beliefs and yearnings. And when has that ever turned out well for Jews?

As for the bromance, well, need I say anything more than if Trump’s for it most folks on the American center-left, Jewish or not, find it suspicious. Nor do they like Netanyahu, who is viewed as entirely unwilling to give Palestinians any of what they want for the sake of a peace agreement.

(This latter aspect is far too complex to get into here. Suffice it to say that a lot of Israeli Jews believe the Palestinian leadership cannot be trusted to upheld such an agreement, making it too risky to try.)

For those reasons and more — including the not inconsequential staunchly pro-Israel stance of the current Pelosi-Schumer Democratic leadership — large numbers of American Jewish Democratic voters and their representatives are not about to abide a party takeover by anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian activists and politicians, who they are also likely to paint as anti-Semitic.

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Is Israeli TV drama Fauda a harbinger of the news industry's coming iteration?

Is Israeli TV drama Fauda a harbinger of the news industry's coming iteration?

The cable television and online streaming explosion has produced a golden age of visual, fictionalized, but ripped-from-the-headlines story telling. Some religious and political conservatives may disdain the liberal-leaning views that many of the shows unabashedly embrace, but for those who create the programming it's an unprecedented era of opportunities.

It's also an era of unprecedented, and often confusing, crossover between news and entertainment. From shows dramatizing or spoofing Washington politics, to those cherry-picking storylines from current international intrigues, it’s often hard to tell the two apart, where fact takes leave and artful fiction enters.

As traditional news platforms continue to implode -- and loose their ability to devote adequate resources to in-depth, reporting-based investigative journalism -- it’s a trend that, for the foreseeable future, is likely to continue, for better or worse, but more likely the worse for informed civic debate.

Personally, I find great artistic merit in many of these shows. I also appreciate their willingness to highlight some of the social ills that plague our -- and virtually every other -- nation. That and because I relish a well-written and well-acted product. It helps to remember that I'm an ex-Los Angeles reporter who spent time on the Hollywood TV and film beats, and who also briefly worked in the feature film industry.

Still, I limit my watching because, well, because the shows are binge-watching addictive and I don't want to spend too much time watching TV, no matter how good and entertaining it may be. I’m old-fashioned. I’d rather waste time reading non-fiction, which my reactive mind argues is somehow healthier for me. But that may just be my generational snob appeal.

In a sense, all the fictional dramas I’m drawn to are some writer’s fantasy, but I tend to be drawn to the show's based on the possible, meaning that while I have little interest in a “Game of Thrones,” a series such as “Big Love,” the departed HBO show about polygamy-practicing, fringe Mormons, quickly sucked me in because of my interest in religious groups and the show’s artistic mastery (and a fantastic cast).

Likewise, my deep interest in Israel’s fate and that of the Middle East in general, has drawn me to the Netflix (in the U.S., anyway) show “Fauda,” which I have allowed myself to devour in binge-size bites.


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American and Israeli religious infighting: Could it destroy the world's lone Jewish state?

American and Israeli religious infighting: Could it destroy the world's lone Jewish state?

Surveys contrasting the political and religious views of American and Israeli Jews are produced with such frequency as to make them a polling industry staple. In recent years -- meaning the past decade or so -- the surveys have generally shared the same  oy vey iz mir (Yiddish for “woe is me”) attitude toward their findings, which consistently show widening differences between the world’s two largest Jewish communities.

Well, sure, you may be thinking.

Compare, for example, the vast differences on moral and cultural issues between the institutionally liberal American Episcopal Church and the traditionalist Nigerian Anglican church leadership. That, despite both national churches belonging (at this moment in time) to the same worldwide Anglican Communion.

Why should the Jewish world be any different? It's like the old real estate cliche, location -- meaning local history and circumstances -- is everything.

Religion is just not the broad intra-faith connector some would like it to be. Often, if fact, it serves to fuel intra-faith rivalries rooted in strongly held theological differences.

Judaism even has a term for it; sinat chinam, Hebrew for, translating loosely, a “senseless hatred” that divides Jews and can even lead to their self-destruction.

Intra-faith Jewish differences, however, take on an added layer of global importance because of the possible geopolitical consequences they hold for the always percolating Middle East.

The bottom line: Minus American Jewry’s significant political backing, Israel -- a small  nation with no lack of enemies, despite its military prowess -- could conceivably face eventual destruction.

Despite that, Israel’s staunchly traditional Jewish religious and political hierarchy -- believing it alone represents legitimate Judaism -- continues to hold its ground against the sort of liberal policies embraced by the vast majority of American Jews.

Journalists seeking to make sense of the political split between American Orthodox Jews’ general support for President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s domestic policies, and American non-Orthodox Jews’ significant rejection of both men, would do well to keep this intra-faith religious struggle in mind.


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The absolute, very last word on Trump and Jerusalem -- for the moment, at least

The absolute, very last word on Trump and Jerusalem -- for the moment, at least

The copy keeps coming, the pundits keep pontificating and the repercussions -- both serious and superficial, real and imaginary -- continue to pile up since President Donald Trump’s pronouncement that the United States was shifting course and recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s political capital.

None of that is surprising, of course. That’s how media and politics work.

Here’s something I do find surprising, however.

Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson -- is that still his job? -- said it would be at least three years before the American embassy in Israel actually moves from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Get that? At least three years. Thats’s an eternity, given the whirlwind pace of political change these days both in the United States and the Middle East. And yet Tillerson’s statement, delivered during a speech to State Department employees and reported in The New York Times and elsewhere, went decidedly under appreciated.

(To be fair, Tillerson and others in the Trump White House, plus some outside political defenders, noted previously that an embassy move would take some time. But I believe  this was Tillerson’s, and the administration’s, clearest statement to date concerning the time frame.)

Here’s the top of the Times story.

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said Tuesday that it is unlikely that the American Embassy will be moved to Jerusalem before 2020.
“It’s not going to be anything that happens right away,” Mr. Tillerson said, adding, “Probably no earlier than three years out, and that’s pretty ambitious.”
President Trump formally recognized Jerusalem last week as the Israeli capital, but he nevertheless signed a national security waiver, which will allow him to delay the movement of the embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv for an additional six months. Administration officials have said there are functional and logistical reasons the United States cannot open a new embassy any time in the near future.

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Jesus was a Palestinian and similar claims that often cloud Middle East reporting

Jesus was a Palestinian and similar claims that often cloud Middle East reporting

In 2014, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator in talks with Israel, proclaimed himself a direct descendant of the ancient Canaanites, one of the tribes believed to have inhabited what is now Israel and the Palestinian Territories prior to the Israelites’ arrival. Erekat did so while rejecting Israeli government insistence that Israel be recognized as a Jewish nation.

Erekat’s obvious point -- which he's made repeatedly, along with other Palestinian, Arab and Muslim political and religious leaders, as well as some Christian leaders who favor the Palestinian side -- is that Israel has no real claim to call itself a Jewish state. Moreover, goes this line of reasoning, Israel is, in fact, a purely colonial enterprise because the people we call Palestinians are descendants of the land’s true indigenous population.

According to this logic, it's not only today’s Jewish settlers in the West Bank, which Palestinians claim as part of their hoped-for nation state, who are colonizers. Rather it's all Jews, no matter where they live in Israel, because the Canaanite-Palestinian historical connection predates Israelite-Jewish claims on the land.

If you read Arabic, look at this piece from the Palestine Press for clarification of Erekat’s position. If not, here’s an English-language piece refuting Erekat from The Algemeiner, a right-leaning, New York-based Jewish print and web publication.

Western news media reports often pass along the Canaanite-Palestinian linkage claim unchallenged. This happens more often in opinion pieces than hard news stories. However, on occasion the claim makes its way into a bare bones, dueling assertions piece presented without clarifying context or background.

So here’s some context and background that religion-beat writers would do well to keep in mind.

To begin, biblical and archeological claims are difficult if not impossible to unequivocally substantiate historically.

The former is often a matter of interpretation rooted in faith, reason, culture -- or the rejection of all or any of them. This is true no matter whose faith claims are at issue.

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Attack near Jerusalem's Damascus Gate illustrates deepening fog in which journalists now work

Attack near Jerusalem's Damascus Gate illustrates deepening fog in which journalists now work

This is often difficult for those outside the profession to take in, but producing quality journalism isn't easy. It never has been and, given the trends, its likely this work will become even harder as the trade keeps evolving.

The web’s democratization of the news -- the proliferation of outlets, the expansion of the very definition of news, and the industry’s currently dire financial picture -- have made it even harder to produce quality journalism (a subjective concept in any event).

An added level of complexity is doing it where a multitude of players seeks to spin basic facts, which quickly become politicized. Then there’s the needs of a multitude of imperfect news outlets competing for speed and eyeballs.

All of which is to say, welcome to covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

An incident last week in which an Israeli border policewoman was murdered by a Palestinian attacker, and ended with three Palestinian assailants shot dead by Israeli forces, exemplifies this journalistic sausage factory.

Let’s break it down, starting with the top of this story from the online journal, The Times of Israel. It's a pretty standard telling reflecting the mainstream Israeli Jewish perspective.

The Border Police officer killed in a coordinated stabbing and shooting attack in two areas in Jerusalem’s Old City on Friday evening was identified late Friday as Hadas Malka, 23. The three attackers, who were allegedly members of Palestinian terrorist groups, were shot dead in the course of the attacks.
Staff Sergeant Malka was a resident of Moshav Givat Ezer in central Israel. She did her mandatory military service in the Border Police, and then extended her service 15 months ago and became an officer. She leaves behind parents and five siblings, three sisters and two brothers.
Malka was critically injured in a stabbing attack on Sultan Suleiman Street near Damascus Gate on Friday evening.

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