Daniel Pearl’s ‘Litmus Test’ seed of Israel-based institute

This article originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Adam Pearl, now ten-years old, never met his father, Daniel — a heroic journalist who family and friends say gave his life for truth. Pearl was serving as The Wall Street Journal’s South Asia bureau chief in 2002 when he was abducted and murdered by terrorists in Pakistan; a video of the horrific beheading circulating world-wide. A decade later, flanked by his proud mother Marian who was pregnant at the time and grandparents Judea and Ruth Pearl, Adam stood before a crowded room filled with well-wishers on hand to dedicate the Daniel Pearl International Journalism Institute (DPIJI) that is being established at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya (IDC).

“For us, it’s the culmination of Danny’s legacy, life, mission and dream,” Prof. Judea Pearl told The Media Line. “The way the Middle East is covered is a paradox. The whole coverage is one big puzzle: on one hand, there is high-volume and at the same time, the level of coverage doesn’t pass Daniel Pearl’s ‘litmus test’ for journalism: ‘in every country, both sides should be treated with dignity.’”

Pearl, professor of computer science at UCLA, explained what he sees as the imbalance in reporting from the Middle East that fails his son’s test. “Take any television or print media outlet and count how many times it shows pictures of a child or grandparent or empathy from both sides.” Using as an example his perception of Al-Jazeera versus Israeli television, Pearl argued that on the Qatar-based network “you never see Israeli children just planting trees. But on the other hand, you see many stories on Israeli television showing the difficulties in hospitals in Gaza or merchants in Jenin.”

Prof. Pearl underscored an irony of his son’s murder when he told The Media Line how Daniel refused a Wall Street Journal assignment in Afghanistan before being posted in Pakistan because he wasn’t trained for wartime journalism. “Around the same time he became very upset with the Journal because he tried to communicate the whereabouts of his colleague and no one knew where he was.” As a result, Daniel convinced his editors to establish a policy that “someone must know where every journalist is at any given moment.” A further irony was that while Pearl also wrote a manual for journalists covering theaters of conflict, all of his suggestions were implemented “except for training for proper behavior under abduction.”

According to its founders, the goal of The Daniel Pearl International Journalism Institute is to advance the quality of journalism in the Middle East and to promote informed, balanced and insightful reporting from the region.

“The mission of the institute is to bring journalists from all over the world who are sent to cover the region, provide them with information, and be able to introduce them to a balanced view of what’s happening here,” explained Dr. Noam Lemelstrich Latar, Founding Dean of the Sammy Ofer School of Communication at IDC and member of the new institute’s governing board.

Lemelstrich Latar told The Media Line that investigative journalism “is one of the most important guardians of human rights; free expression; and human dignity. We thought it would be a good opportunity for the school of communication to emphasize the role of communication as a guardian to democracy,” Lemelstrich Latar explained.

The core projects of the DPIJI include ten day immersion programs designed to enrich journalists’ understanding about the cultures of the region; a fellowship program in collaboration with Columbia University’s School of Journalism that intends to bring Palestinian and Israeli journalists to study for ten days at IDC in Israel followed by another ten days taking journalism courses and studying techniques at Columbia’s New York campus; and a series of journalism conferences. 

Columbia was represented at the inaugural ceremony by Prof. Josh Friedman, the journalism school’s Director of International Programs, and ironically, a former chairman of The Committee to Protect Journalists. Friedman explained that, “For the moment, DPIJI’s relationship is with the continuing education part of the journalism school, which will entail two-week long courses on things like investigative reporting or classes which focus on investigative journalism.”  As for fulfilling its mission, Friedman’s expert opinion is that those behind the institute “have to really — in their hearts — be totally committed to sharing what they’re teaching to other players in the Middle East, and that means Palestinians and people in other countries. If they don’t do that, the project cannot be realized; the project cannot work,” surmised Friedman.

Drawing on his experience in directing international programs, Friedman sees the problem as one of trust. “The problem at this point is that there is so much distrust,” he told The Media Line. “I don’t know if I could be optimistic that IDC would be   successful at getting the proper Palestinian partners to carry this off. It’s going to take a lot of work to overcome pessimism and distress,” Friedman warned.

Prof. Uriel Reichman, founder and president of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, emphasized the importance of trying to communicate with Arab journalists from Israel’s neighboring countries and locally, from Israel’s Arab sector. Reichman expressed his hope that the institute will influence journalists on both sides of the conflict to “report objectively as much as possible so that people from both sides will at least understand the story of the other side. Maybe then a compromise can be reached: a better understanding and eventually, cooperation.”

Reichman and Friedman’s concerns reflect the reality of the toxic environment that exists between many sectors of Israeli and Palestinian society such as the strength of the movement opposing “normalization” with the Jewish state.  Most of the institute’s putative local partners are members of the Palestinian Journalist Syndicate, which has threatened Palestinians to shy away from joint activities.

Nibal Thawabteh, a journalist by training and director of The Media Development Center at Birzeit University told The Media Line that she doubts Palestinian journalists would attend institute programs, citing issues of reciprocity. “We, as Palestinians, don’t have the ability to move or the right to cover Israel’s stories.”  To support her point, she used the recent example of Israeli journalists coming to Ramallah to cover the protests over the conditions of Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails. “Palestinians,” she said, “are not allowed to enter Israel to cover similar stories on the other side.”

Seven years ago, during the second Intifada, Thawabteh was one of eight Palestinian journalists who were denied permits to enter Israel in order to attend Ben Gurion University on scholarships they had won. “I was accepted to a Ph D. program which brought Palestinian journalists together with international professors. I hope to continue my doctoral work through Bard College [which runs programs in conjunction with Al-Quds University] this year.

Judea Pearl believes Israel is under a “communication siege,” but holds out hope that Arab journalists will eventually participate. He told The Media Line that, “The Egyptian Syndicate bans journalists from visiting Israel, but there are more Urdu speakers in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan than Arabic speakers who we can reach out to. And eventually, the Arabs will join because they won’t want to feel left out.”

Daniel Pearl was born on October 10, 1963, to an Israeli-born father and Iraqi-born mother, Ruth, who is CFO of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, which was founded shortly after Daniel was killed while investigating links between shoe bomber Richard Reid and Al-Qa’ida.

Seed money to create the institute was provided equally by the Foundation and IDC, but fundraising efforts are now underway in earnest. The initial idea came from Jacob Dayan, a former Israeli Consul-General in Los Angeles, who told The Media Line it resulted from years of speaking to journalists as a diplomat and reading so many articles about the Middle East “that I concluded there was no lack of information, but rather a lack of understanding, of nuance and of historical perspective about the region.”

Five years ago, Dayan met with Pearl and the vision of an institute in Daniel’s memory came to life. Dayan’s wife, Galit, a teacher at IDC, brought the concept to Reichman in the form of a journalism think-tank that would be a platform for debates. Now, almost at fruition, Dayan said that the first “immersion program” is set for June in cooperation with the University of Miami School of Journalism

Reichman knows the task at hand is difficult.  “It’s not an Israeli Hasbara [ the Hebrew word for “to explain” that colloquially means nationalist public relations] center,” he insists. “It is and should be a place where objectivity should be served.” To that end, Reichman expressed the hope that, “I believe there will be some courageous Arabs [serving] on the board,” along with present advisory board members: Canada’s Tariq Khan, editor of Weekly Press Pakistan; Columbia University’s Prof. Josh Friedman; Rob Eshman, publisher of the Los Angeles-based Tribe Media Corp.; Richard Schneider, Israel bureau chief for ARD German Television; and French author and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Reichman realizes a lot of work remains to be done and some facts on the ground need to change. “Miracles will not be showing up immediately,” he said. “There will be a process. There is no other way but to cooperate.”

Israel finally joins the online arms race

Mere hours after the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) took down their first Hamas official at the start of Operation Pillar of Defense, an army of young Israelis took to the Internet. Not to be out-tweeted by the people of Gaza and their supporters around the world, as has been the case in Israel-Palestinian conflicts past, hundreds of college-aged millenials uploaded the Israeli perspective onto a Facebook page called “Israel Under Fire.”

The account has since racked up an impressive 27,000-plus followers. And although it was founded by the Ministry of Public Diplomacy in Jerusalem with the help of young volunteers, one of its most vital command centers was located an hour north — in a glass-walled classroom at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), a small private college along the Israeli coast.

Armed exclusively with the password to the “Israel Under Fire” Facebook page, the IDC volunteers created a sort of meme factory in this room adjacent their campus library. One row of computers was devoted to quick Photoshop jobs such as slapping captions onto images of Gaza rocket damage, or depicting the world’s other major cities under siege; another row was staffed by international students who translated these perfect little shareables into more than 20 languages; and yet another row funneled all the material into an online dropbox, which could then be accessed by volunteers and their contacts the world over.

By way of this rapidly growing friend network, the “Israel Under Fire” posts — such as an image of rockets flying over Times Square, with the caption: “Would you be willing to live like this for one day? How about 12 years??” — were viewed by millions, according to the site’s administrators.

At the height of the Gaza conflict last week, lead organizer Yarden Ben Yosef was eager to tell his startup story.

He and some close friends initially reached out to the Israeli government, he said, “because we understood that the Palestinian side was so strong in new media. In my opinion, maybe it’s because government [in Gaza] is less organized — because they don’t have a department for advocacy.”

Indeed. Despite the fact that the Israeli government has been hiring lots of new social-media hands, according to Eddie Yair Fraiman, director of new media for the Ministry of Public Diplomacy, these paid PR experts lack, by definition, the air of sincerity and authenticity — street cred, you could call it — that any image or story needs to go viral.

Fraiman stressed over the phone that it was he who first “decided to go viral with the page.”

However, many student organizers said they felt their work had succeeded in large part because of the distance they’d put between themselves and public officials. Ben Yosef, head organizer at IDC, noted that “when we speak with the government, we see that they don’t understand this medium.”

The Prime Minister’s office knew all too well that if Israel was to avoid being painted as a ruthless baby-killer this time around, Operation Pillar of Defense would need to be narrated by real Israeli citizens caught in the crossfire — through a personalized, relatable feed of instant wartime updates.

And it was Israel’s Gen-Y, speaking social media as an innate second language, who had the peer-to-peer legitimacy to make it happen.

Although the Israeli prime minister and president likewise have huge social-media followings, their Facebook and Twitter posts are impeccably starched. And even further biased (for obvious reasons) is the IDF's official Twitter account, which like its Hamas counterpart has achieved global infamy for framing the conflict like a videogame — complete with Dr. Evil sneers. (For example: “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.”)

Government officials claim to have contributed zero funding to the “Israel Under Fire” effort. Instead, they've showered young volunteers in praise and encouragement; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even called them up last week for a face-to-face video chat, thanking them for their “very important work.”

Netanyahu told the volunteers in Hebrew: “What you are doing greatly strengthens us on the public diplomacy front. We must fight for the truth, for the facts, and your help is worth more than gold.”

The private college where students were stationed also gave up space and resources to support the effort.

Last week, IDC’s Vice President for Student Affairs showed up to the command center with boxes of chocolates. “It’s something very extraordinary, what they’re doing there,” she boasted of her students.

A young man named Tal, who didn’t want to give his last name, sat at the row of computers designated for “data collection,” where volunteers watched what was going viral, and filled comment sections on anti-Israel news stories with pro-Israel arguments.  As his eyes flicked down the screen, Tal explained: “I think there was a lack of awareness on our end [during Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and the Gaza flotilla raid in 2010], which is literally a crime. There was a complete misunderstanding that current modern warfare has gone in the direction of social media. The Palestinians understood that.”

It's tough to compete with photos of dead children — a constant stream of which have been uploaded from within the Gaza Strip. But overall, judging by the overwhelming online response to “Israel Under Fire” and photos of support from Los Angeles to Berlin, the Israeli campaign (and other civilian social-media efforts like it) waged a war that the IDF never could.

As one female student, Adi Kadussi, put it: “If we weren't doing this, all the world will see is only the crap about Israel. We want to show the balance.”