What journalism students should know when reporting on Israel

A view of the old city from our neighborhood in Baka, West Jerusalem. Taken June 13, 2016. (Madeline Ackley/Cronkite Mideast).

This summer I had the opportunity to visit a place that had long been the object of fascination for me: Israel and Palestine. I’m a second year journalism student at the Walter Cronkite school in Phoenix. In my first semester at the school I heard an announcement that the Cronkite School was for the first time taking a study abroad trip to the Middle East.

Without regard for cost or the potential risks I signed up immediately. This was my dream, and for a significant fee (plus airfare and a variety of personal items) and after attempting unsuccessfully to convince my family of the unlikelihood of me being killed in a terrorist attack, I was finally able to go.

The first-ever Cronkite Mideast study abroad group in front of Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem. Take June 14, 2016. (Dr. Bill Silcock/ Cronkite Mideast).

I was educated about Israel and it’s longstanding conflict, the contention with it’s neighbors,its basic geography and religious significance. But none of that prepared me for seeing it with my own eyes.

As a first-year American journalism student in a land so newsworthy and volatile it has one of the largest populations of journalists in the world, I felt out of my league.

Part listical, part personal account, here is what I wish I knew before reporting on the nuanced and bewildering land of Israel.

Assume you know nothing

“I am here to confuse you,” our guide, Yuval Ben-Ami, told us the afternoon we traveled from Ben-Gurion Airport to our hotel in Jerusalem, “this land is confusing.” He said this as I took in my first impressions of Israel out the window of the shuttering bus.


“I am here to confuse you…this land is confusing.”

Yuval’s  word were the perfect introduction to the Holy Land, because as I learned if you are not confused, you are missing most of the story.

It’s smaller than you think

In our collective consciousness, Israel is a giant. It is the place where Jesus walked. The holiest of holies for religious people the world over. The source of war and controversy for over 60 years. What we see in the media inflates Israel’s size until it is larger than life. In reality, Israel is tiny, “about the size of New Jersey,” says longtime CNN correspondent  and visiting professor at the Walter Cronkite school, Susan Lisovicz.

“[Israel is] about the size of New Jersey.”

I’m an Arabic Studies minor and I was pretty familiar with the basic geography, but I was not prepared for just how tiny Israel is. In the nine days we spent there we saw almost the entire country.

Everyone has a different perspective

People in the Holy Land love to use the word “narrative.” I heard the phrase: “Well, that’s the Israeli narrative/ Palestinian narrative/ Christian narrative/ Western narrative” more times than I can count.

Screenshot (43).png
Artistic renderings of the Virgin Mary and child from all over the world at the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. From left to right: Thailand, Poland, Nazareth, United States, Mexico, Korea, China, El Salvador and Sri Lanka. Taken  (Madeline Ackley/Cronkite Mideast).

 “It [Israel] definitely cannot be called democracy.”

And it’s true. Everyone has a different perspective. On any given day I heard two or three completely different viewpoints on any given subject.

{insert quote by Ardie}

Always look for what (or who) is missing

No ladies here
Ultra-Orthodox-targeted newspapers on a stand outside a Jerusalem market omit depictions of women entirely. Taken June 13, 2016. (Madeline Ackley/Cronkite Mideast).

On our first day exploring Jerusalem, our wise guide Yuval gave us a tip to help us better understand Israel and the complex divisions that exist there:”Always look for what is missing.”

Taking a closer look at the missing ingredient in any situation in Israel helps reveal a deeper understanding of a broader social issue.

For instance, the newspapers above seemed inconspicuous enough as I breezed past them outside a Jerusalem market. It wasn’t until Yuval pointed out that these Ultra-Orthodox papers and magazines omitted any and all depictions of women, in fear any display of the feminine form might somehow cause men to think or behave immorally.

For me, investigating deeper the strangely absent women uncovered a trove of issues concerning the Ultra-Orthodox and gender inequality.

While only 8 percent of the population, the Ultra-Orthodox are a powerful minority in Israel and influence much of the religious sphere, including one of the holiest spots in Judaism: the Western Wall.

As per Orthodox regulation, the Western Wall, or “Kotel” in Hebrew, is segregated by gender. In addition, women are forbidden from praying aloud and are not permitted to wear a prayer shawl or read from a Torah scroll as men can. When I visited the Wall, women sat or kneeled silently holding their prayer books, only mouthing the words of their sacred text. The only sound was of footsteps and the occasional turn of a page. Women climbed over each other in the crowded space and shuffled positions nearer to to the wall in total silence. I saw one woman with long braids, with tears streaming down her face looking to the sky. I felt as though I was watching a movie with the sound on mute.

A woman prays silently into a Torah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Taken June 14, 2016. Women are not permitted to pray aloud at the wall, an Orthodox policy that has drawn criticism from progressive women in recent years. (Madeline Ackley/Cronkite Mideast).

Progressive Jewish organizations like Women of the Wall have challenged these Orthodox regulations, demanding women be allowed to pray as they please and calling to desegregate the wall.

Efforts by progressive Jews seem to be making some impact in loosening restrictions on women at the Kotel. A deal was signed into law early this year that would create a new, integrated prayer space without Orthodox restrictions.

But for a country that is so heavily influenced by Ultra-Orthodox doctrine, I wouldn’t expect to find a woman on the cover of an Ultra-Orthodox magazine anytime soon.

What language are the street signs in? Hebrew? Arabic? English? All three? Observing the language (or lack thereof) on the signage in a particular area can help determine who is meant to be there and who is not. Its a handy tool in navigating Israel’s “Invisible lines” as Yuval calls them.

This sign in Hebrew, Arabic and English appears at all entry points into land under Palestinian control and warns Israeli citizens that it is illegal for them to enter and “dangerous to your lives.” Taken June, 2016. (Madeline Ackley/ Cronkite Mideast)

As we drove through the West Bank on the way to a town called Efrat, we drive through Palestinian communities so naturally, the signs were mainly in Arabic and English. As we entered Efrat, however, the signs were in Hebrew and English–but no Arabic.

Surrounded by Palestinian villages, Efrat is what residents would call a “community” and what the United Nations calls “illegal settlements,” but in any case it is a Jewish town: by Jews and for Jews.

The town, which looks more like a upscale Los Angeles suburb than it does a settlement in the middle of the West Bank, has long been accused of discrimination against Arab workers.

“They won’t come here.”

Some signage lacks all subtlety and will come right out and tell you who doesn’t belong. When entering all borders to Area A, or land under Palestinian control, red, towering signs read in Hebrew, Arabic and English: “This road leads to Area “A” under Palestinian Authority the entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and against the Israeli law.”

So if you’re ever in doubt, look at the signs. Think: what language(s) are they in? What language is missing?  In many cases they can provide more than just directions.

It’s much more complicated than what we see on the news

As journalism students, most of us are at least somewhat familiar with the term Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Before I visited Israel I saw these two sides as monolithic and viewed the issues as a bloody but uncomplicated dispute over land and resources. Palestinians locked behind a wall, lacking resources and Israelis on the other side living ordinary western lives until the inevitable terrorist attack.

This very broad idea I had about Israel and Palestine is not false, but incomplete.

There is indeed a wall (some choose to call it a fence or the more neutral “barrier”) and Palestinians are stuck in Gaza with minimal resources. But there are also Palestinians who are citizen of Israel with theoretically the same rights as their Jewish neighbors.

Many Israeli Jews do live modern lives, but there are also many Jews whose homes are the streets. Some Jews live in settlements. Some live secluded, peaceful lives on a Kibbutz. Some live in neighborhoods in the West Bank where they might be the only Jewish family just for the sake of claiming Palestinian land as their own.

There is also the added complexity of Israel’s underclass of Mizrahi Jews. The Mizrahim are Jews of Arab decent and comprise of about half of Israel’s population. Our guide told us as we walked through what was nicknamed the “Iraqi Market” that the Mizrahim have long suffered discrimination by other Jews in Israel, and because of their Arab heritage felt the need to prove their Jewishness by adopting aggressively anti-Palestinian viewpoints.


Mizrahi Jews or Mizrahim: Jews descended from North Africa or the Middle East.

Social and economic disparities can be jarring (and confusing)

While Israelis call Jerusalem the “undivided capital,” an economic divide most certainly exists. Its the divide between the upscale, largely Jewish West Jerusalem and the poorer, Palestinian East Jerusalem.

Looking across the city from the Haas Promenade, you can see the beautiful, modern homes of West Jerusalem fade into the dilapidated homes of East Jerusalem stack on top of one another.

These disparities, while economic, have a significant racial aspect.

“You can’t justify injustice by saying there are worse situations elsewhere.”

Screenshot (47)
Right: The hotel we stayed in located in the neighborhood called Baka in West Jerusalem (Jennifer Zhang/Cronkite Mideast). Left: the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem just a few miles from Baka. Taken 14 June, 2016 (Madeline Ackley/Cronkite Mideast). There is a striking economic contrast between the highly modernized West Jerusalem and the  poverty-stricken, largely Palestinian East Jerusalem.


“Its not a forced segregation and that’s what makes it a beautiful apartheid.”

You may not get it right the first time (or the second time…)


The U.S. has serious influence

Supporting Israel seems to always be on the forefront of American politician’s agendas. During presidential elections, a candidate’s stance on the issue becomes an important factor in their elect-ability and sometimes devolves into a who-supports-Israel-the -most contest. Just yesterday in her DNC speech that gave few other nations honorable mentions, Hillary Clinton declared that we must “keep supporting Israel’s security.” While they do have their occasional quarrels over things like illegal settlements and human rights, America and Israel still remain the very best of friends.

Many Israelis and Palestinians are working together for peace

Many people, including myself, were under the impression that the situation in the holy land had become so toxic and bloody that cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians on a day to day basis was a rarity.

But when I got to Israel and I began meeting locals, I realized that there was more of a cooperation than I had expected.

Our own tour guides were examples of how these two people with different histories and separate nations can work closely with one another and develop a bond of mutual respect and even friendship.

Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 4.27.15 PM
Palestinian guide Husam Jubran (front) and Israeli guide Yuval Ben-Ami (back) lead “dual-narrative” tours through Israel. Taken June 14, 2016. (Dr. Bill Silcock/Cronkite Mideast).

Yuval Ben-Ami, is a Jewish-Israeli tour guide, journalist and author.  Husam Jubran is a Palestinian guide and coordinator at Hands of Peace, who told us on the first day that he had been shot and jailed by the Israeli army for his involvement in the first intifada. Ben-Ami and Jubram lead what they call a “dual-narrative” tour through Israel, each offering their unique perspective.

“To blame a group is always a trap. To blame the system means to change the system.”

What shocked me the most was that even though he had suffered bullets and imprisonment, occupation and oppression by the state of Israel, Husam was able to work with a person that others would view as an enemy. “To blame a group is always a trap,” says Husam, “To blame the system means  to change the system.”

It surprised me how often Husam and Yuval would agree with one another. “I only argue with Husam about food,” Yuval said jokingly one day when the guides were debating on where to have lunch.

Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 4.43.37 PM


“What do you do when people you love are doing things you can’t believe?”


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Rabbi Arik Ascherman (foreground) and Mohammad lean on the parked vehicle and remain silent as the Jewish man who lives across the street shouts at them. Taken June, 2016.  (Dr. Bill Silcock/ Cronkite Mideast).

–the jewish-arab band at iftar dinner at the home of Abu’Sarah use 19th

Bonds between Jews and Arabs, seem to me the only way to heal the damage done by governments and armies. I’m not an expert on Israel and I don’t want to pretend to be, but it seems to me that the people must come together to heal the wounds their governments opened and could not mend.

When you leave, you still will know nothing

“Mystery is another part of Jerusalem,” Yuval explained as we made our way through the ancient limestone steps of Old Jerusalem, “the city is bigger than us.”

Nine days in Israel will give you a better clue of whats going on, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that the holy land will reveal all its complexities and mystery in one short visit.

I absorbed all the information I could in my short visit to Israel, but to truly understand the people and the nuances that exist in this confusing whirlwind land, I think must take years of treading through her limestone streets, inhaling her heat and humidity and toeing her invisible lines.

“Mystery is another part of Jerusalem…the city is bigger than us.”

A view of a Jewish cemetery in the outskirts of the Old City of Jerusalem through a hole in the wall. Taken June 14, 2016. (Madeline Ackley/ Cronkite Mideast).

Author: Madeline Ackley

I am a multimedia journalist studying at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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