“The shit that went down” — see the end of Part One in this multi-part series — was Diaa Hadid’s description to me of the sandstorm of criticism she received after the New York Times published a story of hers on January 3rd.
It was a unique feature about an emerging community of young Arab hipsters who live in the Israeli city of Haifa, where they feel safe to do things that are considered taboo by their traditional, conservative Arabic culture. For example: dancing and drinking in bars, getting tattoos, and adopting gay-friendly, feminist lifestyles. It was refreshing to discover such a story in the Times, and it could have been a truly great piece if it wasn’t flawed by, well, let’s just call it Hadidism.
The kids are part of “the blossoming Palestinian scene in Haifa,” Ms. Hadid informs her readers. These “cool kids are Palestinians,” she affirms. Cool, perhaps. But Palestinian? A more accurate description would have been that these 20-somethings are “Israeli Arab citizens who self-identify as Palestinians,” but Ms. Hadid does not want to make this clear anywhere in her story.
Why is this significant? For one thing, geographic, demographic, religious and ethnic distinctions pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are understandably hard enough for many readers to decipher. Why would Ms. Hadid make it even harder? After all, the best available research on the subject has found that nearly three-fourths of Israel’s Arab citizens choose to define their identity with some Israeli component to it, while only one-quarter define themselves as Palestinians without an Israeli component to it. [More on this later.]
People can certainly self-identify in any way they choose. But after reading Ms. Hadid’s story, it would be understandable if you concluded that all Arabs in Israel self-identity as Palestinians. Or you might conclude that Haifa — an Israeli port city on the Mediterranean Sea — is located somewhere on the Palestinian West Bank.
Ms. Hadid spins this deceptive thread throughout her story. Let’s take the “nut graf.” Every proper newspaper or magazine feature has what’s known in the journalism profession as an “establishment” (or “nut”) paragraph. In short, its purpose is to take a few steps back from the story’s minutiae to tell the reader in a nutshell what the news value of the story is – in other words, what the point of the story is, and why they should care. Ms. Hadid’s nut graf is the fifth paragraph, and it reads as follows:
“Arabs make up a fifth of Israel’s population of eight million, and in recent years, they have grown more assertive in expressing their Palestinian identity, allied with their brethren in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”
In that crucial paragraph, Ms. Hadid still doesn’t let on to her readers that Arab Israelis (the 20% of the country, not just her cool kids in Haifa) have Israeli citizenship – which Palestinians do not have. Worse, what she is really telling readers here in the nut graf is that all Israeli Arabs are Palestinians.
This is surely news to Sammy Smooha, a highly-regarded sociologist at the University of Haifa who has published widely on the internal divisions in Israeli society. Since 1976, Professor Smooha and his team have been examining the attitudes of Arabs and Jews toward one another — through extensive polls that include face-to-face interviews and telephone conversations — and publishing the results in an annual index. Some key findings for 2015 (which Professor Smooha kindly sent to me in English) show the following regarding Israel’s Arabs:
—- 25.8% defined themselves in Palestinian terms without an Israeli component (i.e. Palestinian; Palestinian-Arab)
—- 37.1% of Israel’s adult Arab citizens combined Palestinian and Israeli components in their identity (i.e. Palestinian in Israel; Palestinian-Arab in Israel; Israeli-Palestinian)
—- 36.1% of Israel’s adult Arab citizens chose to define their identity without any Palestinian component (i.e. Arab; Israeli; Israeli Arab, Arab in Israel)
Those in the third bracket above would include 18-year-olds like Mohammad Zoabi, a seemingly-cool kid who defines himself as a “proud Israeli Arab Muslim Zionist.” He plans to voluntarily enlist in the Israel Defense Forces later this year. Similarly, Israeli Arab Anett Haskia, whose two sons and daughter served not long ago in the IDF, strongly refuses to identify herself as a Palestinian. During the 2014 Israel-Hamas war, she encouraged Israeli soldiers to “keep fighting in Gaza until total victory” and she suggested that those Israeli Arabs who don’t accept the state of Israel are “welcome to go to another Arab country.” There are plenty more like them — some extreme in their views, some not — who simply do not think of themselves as Palestinians.
Following publication of Ms. Hadid’s piece, someone at the Manhattan headquarters of the New York Times, perhaps an editor or headline writer, must have sensed a problem with it. The story’s ‘hed’ in the print edition reads [boldface emphasis is ours], “A Liberal Palestinian Culture Blossoms in an Israeli City.” But it was subsequently changed online to “In Israeli City of Haifa, a Liberal Arab Culture Blossoms.” It was an accurate fix, to be sure, but the problematic sentences in the body of the story were left intact.
Ironically, most of the backlash against Ms. Hadid (what she calls “the shit”) came from the cool Haifa kids themselves. While apparently delighted that she labeled them Palestinians and didn’t mention their Israeli citizenship, many of them felt she didn’t go far enough. They were unhappy that she kept their politics (i.e. their loathing for their own country) out of her piece. A social media brouhaha followed, and the newspaper’s public editor weighed in on the topic.
One of Ms. Hadid’s key sources was Ayed Fadel, a hipster who runs a bar in Haifa. “I actually found this piece disturbing,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “It refers to certain aspects and neglects so many others that I personally mentioned during the interview, it portrays the modern Palestinian in a Western image that comforts white readers and make them say, ‘Oh, they’re just like us!’ Well no, we’re nothing like them, in fact, we’re very different and deep into the shit, and having to portray us in this image is insulting.”
Mr. Fayel maintains that 90% of his interview with Ms. Hadid was about “cultural resistance…how the Palestinian underground scene is getting bigger and bigger…a place full of intelligence and rebel agenda.”
He then continued displaying his racism: “…It was another trap by the white media that is always trying to show us as the cool yay hipsters full of tattoos and piercings — far away from the grounded reality that we are facing and fighting every day!…Last chance given to the white media and media in general, next time we’ll be more cautious, and we don’t allow anyone to categorize us…Have a great peaceful day, everyone. Much love from Haifa.”
Why did Ms. Hadid omit this stuff from her story? We can only speculate. Given her history as a journalist and as an advocate at Palestinian NGOs, perhaps it was because she wanted to protect these kids from themselves — in Mr. Fadel’s case, hiding any signs of his hatred or racism so that Times readers might actually like him and what he represents? If so, that clearly backfired on her.
Rather than address all the annoying complaints she received from sources and readers, Ms. Hadid forwarded them to the newspaper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, “to ensure they get a fair hearing.” The result was a column by Ms. Sullivan, who in the past has expressed her dread over analyzing the subject of Times coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In the case of Haifagate, Ms. Sullivan concluded that more context was needed in the story: “…the writer can try to make sure that the main points – the overall thrust of the conversation – is represented. Based on his [Fadel’s] complaints and those of others interviewed, that didn’t seem to happen here. And placing the article within geopolitical context would have helped, too. That might have been done, to a limited degree, even in a few paragraphs of background.”
Indeed, such paragraphs could have greatly benefitted readers if they included just one single sentence to the effect that these kids are actually Israelis who self-identify as Palestinians. But in a response to Ms. Sullivan, Ms. Hadid dug herself even deeper: “I wrote this story really because I wanted to pay tribute to Haifa’s unique culture, and particularly how Palestinian citizens of Israel [boldface ours] had carved their own dynamic, liberal scene in the city.”
Ms. Hadid then tweeted about Ms. Sullivan: “I think she profoundly misread the piece. But that’s just my opinion.”
On January 7th, four days after her Haifa story ran, I wrote to Ms. Hadid and received an auto-reply that she would be on holiday from the 7th until February 5th. Nonetheless, she was kind to respond right away, but I told her that my article could wait until her vacation was over. “I’ve never had, in my decade of reporting, such a negative response from the people I’ve interviewed,” she wrote me, adding that her response to Sullivan was something I should “please feel free to use.”
In late January, I reached out again to Ms. Hadid, following the publication of a new (unrelated to Haifa) story of hers in the Times. She responded that she was still on holiday, and she referred me again to her published response to Ms. Sullivan’s column, adding somewhat tersely, “I can’t keep revisiting this story.”
I quickly pointed out that my question for her was not what Ms. Sullivan had concentrated on. My focus was on why her story didn’t include the fact that the Arab hipsters are actually Israeli citizens who self-identify as Palestinians. “I have a view on it, but it’s not quotable, if only because it’s constantly in flux,” she responded cryptically.
What is “constantly in flux” she didn’t say. But she offered to discuss the subject off-record. “I would prefer not to be quoted on the record, for two reasons… Just because it’s pretty fluid, and I don’t want to be pinned down on ‘Diaa said,’ and I sort of want to focus on reporting. I didn’t get a vacation because of all the shit that went down. And I would just like to start this year with less horribleness than last year.”
I declined Ms. Hadid’s offer to go off-record. She then offered to give me the phone numbers of three people who she felt could enlighten me as to why she did what she did. I accepted this offer, even though I found it a bit bizarre.
One of the three was Diane Buttu, who Ms. Hadid described to me only as a “legal activist, pro-Palestinian.” Putting aside the problem of a news reporter referring to people as pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli (can one not be both?), Ms. Buttu seemed an odd choice as an expert for my particular question. Why? It turns out that she’s a former spokesperson for the Palestine Liberation Organization, who — in a TV appearance in 2014 — declined to criticize Hamas’ harsh policies in Gaza on just the kind of liberal lifestyles that the Haifa kids were enjoying in Israel. “If you want me to renounce [Hamas] because they are anti-woman, anti-everything, then I will also renounce Israel which is also anti-woman, anti-free speech, anti-gay, anti-everything,” she said on air.
It was a ludicrous and very unfair comment, given how tolerant Israeli society is of different lifestyles. (One need only hear Tel Aviv’s mayor expound on the topic, as he did two weeks ago at the Forbes Under 30 Summit, and afterwards in a brief interview with me.)
The second person Ms. Hadid suggested I contact was Reut Mor, who she described only as “media assistant to Ayman Odeh.” Mr. Odeh himself is an Israeli Arab member of the country’s parliament (Knesset), and serves as the head of the “Joint List” — an alliance of four Arab-dominated political parties. Ms. Mor, his press assistant, I later learned, is an Israeli Jewish activist who in 2012 sailed on a ship from Italy (as part of the “Freedom Flotilla” movement) to try and break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza. I couldn’t immediately grasp how someone like Ms. Mor could help me understand Hadid’s decision-making process, but it didn’t matter in the end, as I was unable to reach either Ms. Mor or Ms. Buttu.
That left Ms. Hadid’s third source, a man named Jafar Farah, who she described to me only as “sharp Palestinian-Arab activist in Haifa.” Mr. Farah runs Mossawa Center, a Haifa-based NGO that advocates for Israeli Arab rights. He was easily reachable, and very kind enough to inform me that “the majority of the Palestinian community in Israel today refer to themselves as Palestinians and as Arabs.”
Mr. Farah is clearly starting with the premise that all Arabs in Israel are Palestinian, which is false. Moreover, his statement does not harmonize with Haifa professor Smooha’s research. Finally, his statement doesn’t explain why Ms. Hadid felt her Haifa cool-kids shouldn’t be referred to as Israeli citizens, which they legally are — or why she herself ignored the fact that there are so many Israeli Arabs who don’t refer to themselves as Palestinians.
“When you talk about Palestinian culture,” added Mr. Farah, “it’s part of the Arab culture, but it’s not part of the Israeli culture.” This of course is illogical, as Arabic culture (again, 20% of the country is Arabic) is very much a part of Israeli culture. What Mr. Farah may have meant is that Arab culture is not part of Jewish culture. But even that is debatable, and it would require ignoring the huge number of Arabic-speaking “Arab Jews” who immigrated to Israel over the decades and greatly influenced the society and culture of the country.
For some additional perspective, I reached out to Izhar Shay, an Israeli venture capital investor and founder of Start-Up Stadium, the largest online community for Israeli entrepreneurs. Since its inception four years ago, Mr. Shay’s ‘stadium’ has been promoting the integration of Israeli Arab and Palestinian entrepreneurs on its platform. “It’s a misleading classification of the people in the article as Palestinians, while actually they are Israeli Arab citizens,” said Mr. Shay after reading Ms. Hadid’s feature. “While this may sound like an insignificant difference between ‘Israeli Arab citizens’ and ‘Palestinians’ — by local terms, here in Israel, calling these people ‘Palestinians’ is a political statement with a bias against the legitimacy of the state of Israel.”
So was Diaa Hadid reporting? Or was she campaigning? Given her history, perhaps a little of both?
I reached out as well to Israeli historian Benny Morris, an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev who has scrupulously documented the history of the Palestinian refugee crisis. Professor Morris has been attacked by both the right and the left in Israel at various times in his academic career. That’s because, in my mind at least, he’s the only historian in the region who has the guts to alter his conclusions wherever the documents go that he unearths.
After reading Ms. Hadid’s story, Professor Morris wrote me the following:
“The Arabs of Haifa who live this subculture could self-identify as ‘Palestinian’ if they like. But their subculture, if open-minded and liberal, is overwhelmingly Israeli or Israeli-Arab — not ‘Palestinian.’ A liberal Arab subculture in Israel (Haifa) would necessarily be greatly influenced by the surrounding, Jewish-Israeli majority culture, and, in that sense, ‘Israeli-Arab subculture’ would be more accurate. An openness to homosexuality, equal status for women, more or less open to boozing and drugs — these would not be representative of Palestinian culture.”
Two weeks ago, in Jerusalem, I struck up a conversation with the gracious reception manager of the hotel I was staying in. His name is Rami Zoamot, and he was born and raised in the Israeli city of Nazareth, where his father was a tour guide and his mother was a teacher. Mr. Zoamot, age 42, refers to himself as a “Christian Arab Israeli.” He says he is appreciative of Israel’s Jews. Why? “Because I have health, a job, a place to live, and the right to be wherever I want, and to celebrate my holidays like Christmas and Easter. And I see how much they [Jews] care to secure me inside my church so that nobody will harm me.” He feels that Israel is the only country in the Middle East where he can feel free and not persecuted.
Mr. Zoamet believes that “the Palestinians deserve their country to live beside Israel, in peace of course.” Does he also self-identify as a Palestinian? “No, I can’t. I don’t belong there.”
As mentioned in Part One of this series, Peter Baker of the New York Times is preparing to take the helm of the newspaper’s Jerusalem bureau this summer. By all accounts, he’s a straight shooter when it comes to fair and accurate reporting — and he has earned a stellar reputation in the journalism world as a result. This bodes well for the paper, given the anti-Israel bias and inaccuracies that keep appearing in its pieces. Does Mr. Baker have a Diaa Hadid problem? — by Richard Behar
To be continued in Part 3.
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