The Column | From somewhere in the Mediterranean, this is the voice of 972by sue fishkoff, j. staff
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I had coffee with Tel Aviv journalist Noam Sheizaf recently at Four Barrel, the über-hip café in the Mission District.
It was an appropriate setting for a sit-down with the CEO of +972, the blog-based Web magazine he co-founded 18 months ago with six other Israeli blogger-journalists.
The online publication is dedicated, according to its website, to “on-the-ground reporting and analysis of events in Israel and Palestine.” Hence the name — 972 is the international dialing code shared by Israel and much of the Palestinian territories.
Although Sheizaf is the project’s public face — he was in the Bay Area to raise money for the site, on his way to Austin to present at the South by Southwest tech conference — he’s quick to emphasize that 972mag.com is a group endeavor.
“We’re a collective,” he pronounced. Decisions are made jointly by the bloggers, who control their own content. Editors don’t assign stories; even Sheizaf was “appointed [CEO and website manager] by the collective,” he says.
The collective? Who says that any more? Sheizaf’s aesthetic may be full-blown tech geek — sneakers, jeans, rectangular glasses — but his politics are pure ’70s communitarian.
While a blog-based online publication might seem pretty yesterday to Bay Area readers, it’s still new for Israel, said Sheizaf, who was born in Ramat Gan 38 years ago.
“Blogging came late to Israel,” he told me between sips of coffee, eyeing the doughnut that my questions kept him from munching. A former reporter for Ynet.co.il, the website of Yediot Ahronoth, and for the daily newspaper Maariv, Sheizaf was sent to Denver and St. Louis to cover the 2008 U.S. elections. He was “amazed” to see the American reporters “were all blogging.”
So Sheizaf, a native Hebrew speaker, went home and started his own blog — in English.
“There was no English-language progressive voice from Israel, not in my generation,” he said. Today there’s “an explosion” of news from Israel in English, he says, both in print and on blogs. “But in August 2010, when we launched, there was nothing.”
The site’s political slant is leftist — the 15 regular contributors, who now include two Palestinians, share a commitment to “human rights and freedom” and are opposed to the occupation of the West Bank. But the site is not affiliated with any political party. And last year, they ran a prison interview with right-wing extremist Hagai Amir, brother of Rabin assassin Yigal Amir — the only media outlet to do so.
The site has received a lot of buzz, including favorable coverage in the New York Times and the Nation. It’s also been criticized, notably by NGO Monitor, which considers its positions — and its coziness with the New Israel Fund, of which it is a grantee — to be anti-Israel.
There’s a lot to like about +972, not the least of which is Sheizaf himself, an Israel Defense Forces officer serving in the reserves, a new father and an astute observer of the Israeli political scene.
But heck, that’s a dime a metric dozen in Israel. What’s most interesting, and potentially significant, about +972 is its reach.
Sheizaf says the site gets more than 100,000 readers each month. About 40 percent are in the U.S., but it also gets readers from throughout the Arab world. “They promote our work on social media, they congratulate us — privately,” he said. “That’s pretty interesting.” Yes, it is.
So +972 is more than a news site. It serves as a platform for Israel’s activist sector, and it’s creating a community of like-minded young folks affected by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict who want to talk to each other.
That, too, is significant, given that so many Israelis — including Sheizaf — have given up on the peace process, at least for now. It barely registered with voters in the latest Israeli elections, despite American Jewish concern.
That’s just part of what distinguishes Jews in Israel from those abroad. “There’s a strong Hebrew Israeli identity that is very different from the American Jewish identity,” Sheizaf told me. That’s what’s emerging from his writing, and that of his colleagues. Good luck to them.