Friday, April 11, 2003 | return to: international


MTV reporter laid-back about being Jewish in Iraq

by RACHEL POMERANCE, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

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NEW YORK -- It's not just Ted Koppel and Wolf Blitzer blaring news from the war-torn Persian Gulf anymore.

Meet Gideon Yago, the 25-year-old Jew from New York, who was sent to cover America's war in Iraq for MTV.

Yago's assignment underscores the war's draw among a generation otherwise tuned in to sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. The war, in fact, superceded drugs as the chief concern among young people, according to an MTV poll last month. It was the first time a foreign subject ranked top on their radar.

But it also reveals the challenges -- and from Yago's perspective, opportunities -- of being a Jewish reporter in an Arab country.

"I think it behooves American Jews in particular to put themselves out in hairy situations like that, because how else are you going to get a dialogue" and "call people out on their stereotypes," said Yago, whose angelic face glimmers against his drab, camouflaged parka.

"Fundamentally, you're able to make changes by forcing people to confront one another."

Yago said he was picked to cover the war for MTV because he was the only reporter willing to stomach swirling sandstorms and other rough conditions.

Yet attitudes about Jews and Israel in the Arab world have already hindered his work.

Yago, who recently returned here from a stint in Kuwait, where he hosted an MTV special about the lives of young Kuwaitis and the American marines there, was pulled from a different news assignment in Baghdad due to security concerns.

His religion and the fact that his father is an Israeli who heads a fund-raising group for Israel raised "too many red flags," Yago said.

Glenn Yago's Pups for Peace, which began shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, trains and supplies Israel with bomb-sniffing dogs.

An economist, Glenn Yago founded the program hoping to find a cost-efficient measure against suicide bombings.

Even before Yago could enter Kuwait, he needed a fresh passport to eliminate Israel's stamps since Israeli nationals are blocked from the country.

Now that the Americans are in the center of Baghdad, Yago is waiting for clearance to go to Baghdad to do another show, yet to be determined.

Asked if he fears for his security, Yago responded flatly: "No. It's just not anything I think about."

And though he witnessed episodes of anti-Semitism for the first time in his life while in Kuwait, he takes it lightly.

"I'm a Jew from New York," Yago said. "I went through 25 years of life without having an ounce of prejudice weighed on me."

All in all, "I think that's a pretty good run."

And for the most part, Yago said his Jewishness was rarely a problem, with only a few "glaring exceptions."

In those cases, hearing anti-Semitic statements shocked him. "You read about them, and then when you hear them to your face, there's always a little bit of a disconnect."

Yago declined to give details, but cited, for example, "people who are in the Grand Mosque," the central mosque in Kuwait, "who are a little less receptive to Jews and Judaism."

Still, he downplays the virulence of the region, saying conservative religion anywhere promotes slightly extreme views.

And he attributes the area's negative outlook toward Jews to simple misinformation.

"You're going to breed misunderstanding if you have policies at the door that are going to exclude people," he said, referring to Kuwait's policy of excluding Israeli nationals from the country.

As for living as a Jew in such an environment, Yago displays cool defiance: "I make no bones about who I am, and where I come from.''

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