Thursday, April 26, 2007

Al-Jazeerza Confab Draws a Minyan of Jews

It's a shame that no Israeli journalists were invited, or chose to attend, the Al-Jazeera forum. (Though imagine the fun for an Israeli to try to get a visa to Doha.) Still, the presence of Jewish journalists is at least a start towards ending the anti-Jewish diatribes that fill, say, much of the official Palestinian media. I did not know that Al-Jazeera's English version had so many subscribers in English!--Wendy in Washington

Doha, Qatar - Some participants at the third-annual forum of the Arab satellite network Al Jazeera were sorry they didn't bring matzo with them — had they known how many fellow Jews were attending the media conference, they would have made a Passover Seder.

Ethan Zuckerman, whose wife is a Reform rabbi, said that he had originally planned to hold a Seder in Doha. "I told my wife, and she wrote me a two-page Haggadah," he said, shortly after speaking on a panel on Internet and the media. "But I didn't bring the matzo."

The Jewish participants were by no means relegated to the sidelines.


The relatively high number of Jewish academics, journalists and media experts who attended the event stood in stark contrast to the view in some circles that the network is anti-Jewish and anti-Western. Some critics have gone so far to brand it "Osama Bin-Laden's TV Network," a name which Al Jazeera executives say comes from the Bush administration and conservative American television commentators.

The general atmosphere at the event was open and friendly among Arab and Western participants. "If there is any antisemitism lurking around here, it hasn't been directed at me," said Danny Schechter in a heavy New York accent. "They make a distinction between U.S. or Israeli policy and religion."

Schechter, vice president of Globalvision, a documentary film production company, said that he attended the event because "in the post-9/11 world it is imperative to understand what people think and this forum provides the opportunity to mingle, discuss and even to get into arguments."

Like many other participants, his main criticisms were that few women participated and panel discussions were not engaging enough. Indeed, whether dressed in sharp suits and ties or starched white floor-length dishdashas and white head coverings, the well-heeled forum panelists mostly agreed with each other. If anything, it appeared that some of the Al Jazeera moderators were avoiding conflict.

Several of the top employees at the network's English operation are Jewish: [David] Marash and his wife Amy work in the Washington bureau with an Israeli-American producer, and former BBC journalist Tim Sebastian moderates the televised monthly Doha Debates.

Al Jazeera has been harshly criticized in the West for providing airtime to terrorists like Osama bin Laden, but it notes that American networks borrowed that material. It was also the first Arabic network to give Israelis air time. "Al Jazeera was seriously attacked by Arabs — Islamist, nationalist, and even governments like Saudi Arabia — for inviting Israeli journalists and government officials to present their point of view," Atwan said.

Despite the network's declared dedication to openness, not one member of the Israeli media was present at the forum, even though the Israeli YES satellite carrier pushed BBC Prime off air to make room for Al Jazeera English, which already boasts of having 500,000 homes viewing in Israel. The absence of Israelis was particularly noticeable given the theme of this year's event: "Media and the Middle East, Beyond the Headlines."

"I don't know the reasons no Israeli journalists attended, but I think there is a general attitude of talking about peace with Israel but not talking to Israel," said Yoav Stern, the Arab Affairs correspondent of the Israeli daily Ha'aretz.

"I think it's a pity," said Stern, who is frequently interviewed in Arabic on Al Jazeera. "I know that Al Jazeera specifically can make pioneering decisions in this regard, because it has credibility and trust from its viewers."

Full text in the Forward, at:

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