It seems we Jews are always worrying about what the world thinks of us. It’s not an unreasonable preoccupation, considering the centuries of persecution we have suffered. Today we may have more sophisticated tools to measure hostility and anti-Semitism, but we’ve always kept track of our friends and our enemies — call it a natural response to the human need for self-preservation.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised by a recent request I received from the organizers of a Jewish media conference in Jerusalem at the end of the month.
Here’s what they asked invited participants to respond to in a 60-second video: “Is Israel an asset or a burden to your work as a journalist?”
There are many ways to parse this question. How about starting with the basic premise, that it’s an either-or situation. That, I dare say, reflects the mid-20th-century Zionist (and Cold War) mindset: If you’re not for us, you’re against us. And if you’re for us, you’d better be really for us, or else how can we trust you?
Then there’s the issue of the conference organizers — the Israeli government — asking this of journalists in Jewish media around the world. The government’s implication is that what Israel does, and how those actions are portrayed, are not only our business as journalists to report on, but also our responsibility as Jews to defend or excoriate.
Is it our job as the American Jewish media to promote the interests of the State of Israel? Perhaps. It depends. When the country is under attack, sure. I think. It’s messy.
My main issue with this assignment is being asked to characterize Israel as an asset or a burden in the first place, and in a mere 60 seconds. As a longtime journalist working for Jewish publications, and now as the editor of a Jewish community newspaper, I can tell you that Israel is not simply one more aspect of my job description. Israel is fundamental to my identity as a Jew. It is family. We can fight, we can disagree, we can kiss and make up — we are together for the long haul. Asking me whether the country is an asset or a burden is like asking whether Shakespeare is a good writer. It’s completely beside the point.
OK, I’ve gotten that off my chest. And in all honesty, the fact that the organizers asked the question about Israel gave me a chance to consider, yet again, one of the ongoing dilemmas in Jewish journalism: To what extent are we cheerleaders for Israel and our local Jewish community?
That point has particular resonance in the Bay Area, where the Jewish community is so diverse and where achieving anything close to a consensus is an ongoing challenge. We have Jabotinsky Zionists and Jewish Voice for Peace, we have Jews who don’t care about Israel and others who never stop caring. We have every denomination and a robust postdenominational community. We have Israelis and Russians and New Yorkers, a strong LGBT presence, transgender rabbis, African American Orthodox converts, and more Renewal congregations than exist in some countries.
What’s different in the Bay Area is not simply that we have all these people and groups, but that they choose to identify as part of the Jewish community, widening the tent and enriching — some might say complicating — the communal conversation. The reason the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation created guidelines to restrict funding for organizations that support the BDS movement is in fact because those groups consider themselves part of the Bay Area Jewish conversation, not outside it as they do in many other Jewish communities. Like I said, it’s messy.
I’m looking forward to the Jerusalem conference and to meeting my colleagues from all over the world. How are Russian Jewish media outlets reacting to the Ukraine crisis, and how are Ukrainian Jewish journalists weathering what might be the breakup of their country? What are the challenges facing the Jewish communities of South America and South Africa? Do editors of Jewish papers in Europe struggle as I do with trying to decide whether a film is “Jewish enough” to review? How do they handle controversial stories that local Jewish leaders ask them not to cover?
Israel? Turns out, that’s the easy part.
Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. and can be reached at email@example.com.