When I first started out as a journalist, fresh from graduate school, I thought of my profession as that of the perennial outsider, a stranger who would pack up and leave the next day. “Objectivity” was my watchword. I had a friend who did not take a cup of coffee at a press conference, lest she be accused of being beholden to someone or some group. Her self-discipline I felt was exemplary.
Perhaps I have become corrupted by time, or softened by age. But reading Marjorie Miller’s article “To Be a Jew” on the front page of the Jan. 23 Los Angeles Times, I couldn’t help but see that, for better or ill, I had strayed. I now belong to the very people whom I cover on a daily basis, taking not only their coffee, but their ideals and desires to heart.
Miller is a self-described assimilated Jew, just as I had been not so long ago. She comes from a Midwestern home Zionist enough to cheer Israel in the 1967 war and celebrate the major holidays. Like many of us baby boomers after a bad experience in Hebrew school — being asked to role-play a Holocaust victim– she walked out and never looked back. Until Miller was assigned to the Jerusalem bureau, where she has just completed a three-year stint, visiting Israel was not important to her.
“I am married to a Roman Catholic and might never have visited Israel if I had not been sent on assignment for the Times,” she writes in her goodbye piece.
But what happens to a self-described objective journalist when she gets to Israel, a place where objectivity is the enemy, since every one argument has 100 sides? In my experience, the “objective” journalist gets lost.
When I visited Israel the first time, I was a reporter working for legal newspapers and my husband was a First Amendment lawyer. We saw Israel as any neutral observer would, and it was a hard land to take. My husband, in particular, could not tolerate the merging of church and state, especially the closing down of the country on the Sabbath and the endless High Holiday season. We saw all that was missing, and little that was there.
How long could I have gone on like that? Miller’s piece demonstrates that unless you come to terms with angers and fears rooted in the past, all objectivity is suspect. Miller, like my husband and I, sees a hard land mired in fundamentalism, still squandering its power on racism. But every wrong she sees in Israel refers her back to unfinished business better resolved at home. Her piece is thus a case study in her problems with both of her identities, as both a Jew in America and in Israel.
“I’m not an insider,” Miller writes. But is this by choice? She seems reassured when noting that other Jews consider themselves outsiders too.
And, yet, on one level, that “outsider status” is a façade. We experience our community and our faith from the “inside,” speaking of living “inside” our calendar, “inside” our text, “inside” our cynical brand of humor, finding that only by such immersion does Judaism make sense.
Miller attempts immersion, but her habitual objectivity defeats her.
How does one celebrate Passover if you don’t know the power of myth? The answer is you can’t. Miller asks a rabbi for “archaeological proof” that Jews were slaves in Egypt and comes up empty-handed.
How does one report on the conflict between Palestinian and Jew without reference to the story of Ishmael and Isaac, the sons of Abraham? Answer: You reduce it to diplomatic “facts on the ground.” Miller, like numerous other journalists, gets lost in the tendentious and unverifiable question of who got there first.
How does one understand the tug of “homeland” if you don’t connect to one yourself? Miller reverts to the only struggle she does understand, the death of the Six Million, regarding Israel as the compensation for tragic modern history.
How does one keep sane amid the downward spiral of the Mideast in crisis? Miller stays cool by keeping her distance. By the time she leaves Israel, she’s made a tentative connection to Jewish history but remains “no more wedded to the country than I had been when I arrived.”
“Next year in London,” she tells her father, with knowing irony. Tomorrow she’ll be reporting on the problems in Glasgow.
So this is the life of the foreign correspondent, the one I’d imagined myself living while taking my reporting classes. I would have loved it; but it would not have been good for me.
When I got home from Israel, I fled objectivity. I immersed myself in Jewish community, text and history, discovered Jewish feminism, and Hebrew Bible. I stopped being an outsider, and came in.
But here’s the irony: Now that I’m immersed in community, I am, in some respects, a more “objective” observer of our goals and progress than I was before when outside.
As an insider, I’m able to make harsh judgments about my community, but as a stakeholder, not a critic.
Miller is correct about one thing: The American Jewish experience, for better or ill, shapes how many of us view the Jewish state today. I wish she’d join me on the inside.
Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist at The Jewish Journal.