Third Rail of “Progressive” Journalism: Covering apolitical and ordinary events in Jerusalem without ideological blinders

I was invited, along with a group of journalists, to take a test run on Jerusalem’s Light Rail Project, which was preceded by a presentation by officials from the Jerusalem Transportation Authority responsible for its implementation. 

While, as most Israelis know, the project is well behind schedule and over budget (another indication that Jerusalem is a normal municipality with all the requisite bureaucratic and administrative red tape and inefficiencies), when the first phase of the Light Rail is completed (maybe by late August), as well as subsequent phases which are to expand service to additional parts of the city, it will likely solve many of Jerusalem’s traffic issues, and offer a much more efficient way to travel around the city.  

Dubbed the ‘Red Line’, it will initially have 23 stations and is planned to run from Pisgat Ze’ev in the northeast, south along Road 1 (intercity) to Jaffa Road (Rehov Yaffo). From there, it is planned to run along Jaffa Road westward to the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, and continue to the southwest, crossing the Chords Bridge along Herzl Boulevard to the Beit HaKerem neighborhood, and finishing just beyond Mount Herzl next to Bayit VeGan.

As you can see by the map below, it the first line will run through the East part of the city, and serve Arab neighborhoods, such as Shu’afat, and the Project planners noted that they consulted with, and gained the approval of, resident associations there – many of which will benefit by the increased ease of access to the center of town, and a rise in property values – which, according to Rail planners, has already occurred.

As media events in Israel go, this was, for most journalists covering the story, quite non-controversial, and the smooth, quiet ride we took on the modern rail car, on a small section of the route which runs through the center from Yaffo to the road along the Arab section of the Old City, was a quite pleasant experience.

However, during the Q&A session after the presentation, both by transportation officials, and then later, in our group’s meeting with Jerusalem’s Mayor, Nir Barkat, two American journalists – one from National Public Radio (NPR) and the other from the New York Times – noted Mahmoud Abbas’s opposition to the project (Abbas actually tried to initiate a boycott of the European companies involved with its construction) and asked whether the fact that the route runs though the East part of the city (serving Arab neighborhoods) was an impediment to peace.

Indeed, anti-Israel NGOs have gone even further than Abbas – with the Swedish NGO Diakonia characterizing the Light Rail Project as a “Violation of Humanitarian International Law.”

What they were parroting, of course, was the specious argument that any Jewish presence in “East” Jerusalem was illegal, the myth of “historically Arab” East Jerusalem, and the belief that only the only possible way peace could be achieved would be to divide the city – with Israel retaining the West part, and the Palestinian State including the East.

As we noted earlier, polls indicate that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem DO NOT want to divide the city as part of a peace agreement.

More broadly, while listening the NYT and NPR correspondents question Mayor Barkat on the political implications of the Light Rail Project, I began wondering what the reaction would be if the Arab neighborhoods were excluded from the Rail’s route.  Is there any question that the narrative would have been one of racism and discrimination against Jerusalem’s Arabs?

Further, would it be preferable if the city were to delay addressing such major municipal problems until a peace agreement is one day achieved?

I’d challenge reporters (such as Harriet Sherwood and the Americans I encountered on the Light Rail tour) who insist on inserting politics into every aspect of life in Jerusalem to move beyond their comfortable ideological boundaries, and challenge their preconceived conclusions, by talking to average Arab, Jewish, and Christian residents of this incredibly diverse, vibrant, and largely successful city – as I suspect they’d learn that (despite the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict) the daily concerns of Jerusalemites are not much different than those who live in New York or London.

A familiar narrative of the mainstream media about Palestinians who voted for Hamas in 2006 was that their decision to vote for the Palestinian Branch of the Muslim Brotherhood was not based on ideology, nor did it represent an embrace of the terrorist group’s anti-Semitic charter but, rather, was merely a rejection of the corrupt Fatah, and motivated by a simple desire, as all people in the world have, to improve their quality of lives.

Interestingly, the assumption of the universality of Western progressive values (which Richard Landes refers to as cognitive egocentrism) by such journalists is often strangely absent when reporting on, and imputing values to, Israelis.

As Jonathan Spyer noted, those who are obsessively critical of Israel see the country not as it is, but often as “a [mythical] place of uninterrupted darkness and horror, in which every human interaction is ugly, crude, racist, brutal.”

As a resident of the city, I can attest to the fact that the mythical Jerusalem which the Guardian, NYT, and NPR often conjure has almost no resemblance to the real, complex, layered and unimaginably dynamic reality of everyday life here.

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