Al Jazeera and the Jews

Even as Al Jazeera America – the new offshoot of the Qatar-based news organization – was making its broadcast debut recently on cable carriers in the United States, its parent organization back on the Arabian peninsula featured a commentary by former Muslim Brotherhood official Gamal Nassar, in which he claimed that the Egyptian military (and currently political) leader Abdel Fattah Al Sisi is a Jew. He didn’t mean it as a compliment.

Mr. Nassar cited an Algerian newspaper (“All the slander that’s fit to sling”?) to the effect that Mr. Al Sisi’s uncle was “a member of the Jewish Haganah organization” and that the nephew “is implementing a Zionist plan to divide Egypt.”

The Al Jazeera commentator helpfully added that “Whoever reads The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the writings of [the Jews], including those who were writing in the U.S., realizes that this plot was premeditated.”

Maybe it’s not fair to visit the sins of the father – Al Jazeera in Arabia – so to speak, onto the son – Al Jazeera America. The latter organization claims to be “a completely different channel from… all of the other channels in the Al Jazeera Media Network” and has its “own board and advisory board.” And the American operation asserts that it will be delivering “unbiased, fact-based and in-depth journalism,” which, if true, will become apparent in time. But, with the baggage of its family name’s reputation, “AJAM”’s battle will be uphill.

As it happens, not long ago, in my capacity as Agudath Israel’s public affairs director, I was contacted by a reporter for Al Jazeera – the original, Qatar operation. He worked for its English-language version, which is now no longer accessible in the United States, and was helping produce a television segment for the network, about the religious-secular divide in Israel.

I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to become involved, even as a mere resource, with an Arab-centered, less-than-sympathetic-to-Israel operation. A good friend of mine who also deals with media advised me to demur. But I decided to interact with the reporter (who turned out to be very friendly, and Jewish, to boot) all the same, and offered him some background information about the topic he wouldn’t likely glean from most Jewish media, and some suggestions for whom he might wish to feature as guests on the segment.

A few weeks later, he sent me a link to a recording of the program, which I watched carefully. The guests included a religious Israeli politician and an American proponent of dismantling the rabbinate and creating a more “democratic” state that didn’t favor Orthodox Judaism.

The segment, I had to admit, was excellent. Both sides made their cases, of course, but the moderator was outstanding, asking informed, probing questions not only of the politician but of the activist too, and letting her guests know when they didn’t address what had been asked. Another journalist on the program was monitoring personal media in real time, and the tweets and postings she shared with the audience were balanced, representing both sides of each issue.

Afterward, I sat back and pondered the contrast between mainstream Jewish media’s reportage of Jewish religious issues and what I had witnessed on Al Jazeera’s program. When it comes to things like the segment’s subject, many media, including some major Jewish media, are transparently biased against Jewish Orthodoxy. That’s not surprising, as most journalists, as a Pew poll several years back revealed, are less than sympathetic to religion. And most Jewish journalists are non-Orthodox Jews with, by their profession, an interest in the Jewish community; hence they bring some personal baggage to their keyboards. Al Jazeera, however, lacks any dog in the race, and so it addressed the subject in a refreshingly objective way.

That it did so recalled to me something I had said before an audience of my own, at the 92nd St. Y a few months ago. In an offhand comment that drew some gasps (and, surprisingly, some applause), I asserted that the reporters most qualified to write for Jewish newspapers are non-Jews. They, I explained, are less likely to be burdened by preconceptions or guided, even subconsciously, by agendas.

I know Al Jazeera – the parent, that is – well enough to not expect it to report objectively on Israel. It doesn’t expend the effort to see beyond the Jewish state’s real or imagined warts, to its human face. Nor would I expect it to feature – although it should – opinion pieces defending Israel against the libels regularly hurled at her by much of the Arab world.

But, optimist that I am, I wonder whether Al Jazeera America, which aims to focus mainly on American news, might prove itself, at least in the realm of reportage on Jewish religious issues, to be a breath of unpolluted air. Time will tell.

How disturbing, though, to have to be looking to an Arab news network for balance in Jewish issues.

(c) 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

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