Many Journalists Ignorant About Life in Israel, Author Says

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Many journalists are ignorant about Israel and the wide array of people who comprise the country, adding to the misperception of Israel around the world, says author Donna Rosenthal.

Smaller than the state of New Jersey, Israel has more journalists per capita than any other country. Yet, Israeli officials frequently complain that the media is biased against them.

There are a number of watchdog groups such as Committee for Accuracy for Middle East reporting in America (CAMERA) and that devote themselves entirely to monitoring media coverage/bias of Israel and the region.

But Rosenthal believes that much of the misreporting comes from a lack of knowledge and understanding about the people and the country itself.

"Although Israel gets more press attention than China, India and all of Africa combined, Americans know very little. One reason [is that] Americans get about 75 percent of their news only from TV. How can a reporter tell a complex story in 30-seconds?" she asked.

"How can you know much about any country when journalists only interview politicians? ... Imagine only interviewing politicians in D.C. and New York to explain America. Most American TV reporters interview Israelis who speak perfect American English so viewers don't have to read subtitles or listen to accents -- yet, these Israelis are not typical," she said.

"Israelis are Jews, Christians, Muslims and Druze who order Big Macs in the language of the Ten Commandments, who believe that waiting in line is for sissies, and who light up Marlboros under 'No Smoking' signs," she said.

Rosenthal, an award-winning journalist who has reported from Iran, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan as well as Israel, is a journalism teacher. She was in Israel recently and told about her book, The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land -- written as a "Bible for journalists," she said.

"It all started when a former journalism student of mine, who got a job [as a producer] at CNN International, was looking at some footage and he said, 'Donna we have footage of Arabs who look like Jews. We have Jews who look like Arabs. We have bearded guys in black hats, sexy girls in tight jeans and black Jews. Who in the world are these people?'" Rosenthal said.

To answer that question, Rosenthal embarked on a five-year quest, interviewing hundreds of ordinary Israelis and letting them tell their own stories in order to "smash stereotypes," she said. She had two rules: everyone in the book had to be an Israeli citizen; and politicians and famous people were excluded.

Many of the people in the book are young and some 50 percent are women, including the third wife of a Bedouin and two Israeli Christian Arab women from Nazareth who publish an Arab woman's magazine that is a cross between Cosmopolitan, People and the National Catholic Reporter.

People are surprised when she tells them "that eighty percent of Israeli Jews are non-Orthodox, that high tech is the engine that drives the Israeli economy, that Israelis invented the Pentium and Centrino chips, major components of the cell phone, new cures for cancer, strokes and revolutionary medical devices like the camera-in-a-capsule and heart stent. Israel has more companies on the New York stock exchanges than any country except the U.S.," she said.

"I'm interviewed on many radio and TV shows and am stunned by the number of ignorant questions. One New York radio reporter asked me, 'Why don't Israelis move to a safer country?' Another journalist ended her interview with: 'What's the final solution for the Jews?'" Rosenthal said.

(The "final solution" was Adolph Hitler's term for the extermination of the Jewish people during World War II.)

"Another asked, 'Why don't Israelis throw all the Arabs out of Israel?' Like him, many journalists don't know one in five Israeli citizens is Arab, that Israeli Arabs are bus drivers, teachers and members of the Knesset - which has a mosque and synagogue inside.... A lot of journalists don't know that along with Hebrew, Arabic also is the national language of Israel," she said. Christian Arabs are the most affluent and highly educated of all Israelis per capita, she added.

"Reporters are stunned when I tell them Arabic-speaking soldiers serve in the Israeli Army," she said.

When Israelis are inducted into the army they swear on one of four Holy Books depending on their religion - the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible, and the Koran, for example.

Rosenthal's book has received excellent reviews from some 60 media outlets from the Los Angeles Times to the Weekly Standard.

Rosenthal said the "good news" is that journalists are "curious" and "hungry" to know about the people of Israel. "So far, I've encountered very little hostility, just enormous curiosity and ignorance."

Even the Israeli Foreign Ministry is interested in using the book to inform its own diplomats about the diversity within their own country.

"I wish TV crews would visit places like the cafeteria in Intel Jerusalem. I just had lunch with an Ethiopian electrical engineer, an ultra-Orthodox woman, a Russian guy with a ponytail, an Arab Christian and a woman in a tight blouse - their boss. They were arguing. Not politics or religion. But the next generation of computer chips. Too bad TV cameras don't capture these pictures," she said.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.