Good Neighbors Without Virtual Fences

Dr. Yael Katan has established a web site for bloggers throughout the Middle East. Although she doesn't believe it will bring peace, she hopes it will break down stereotypes.

Yael Kaynan was shocked when she received an email from a Lebanese blogger seated in a cafe only 50 meters from the site of a terror attack. Although the events he described took place beyond the border, they sounded so familiar to her that she could easily imagine them having occurred in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. "It's interesting to see how perspectives are altered when similar things happen in different locations," notes Dr. Kaynan, who delivered a lecture at a bloggers' conference held in Herzliya last week, about the "Good Neighbours Blog" ( she founded half a year ago.

Kaynan, a guest instructor at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, opened her address by questioning the belief that "no news is good news." She believes that media reports that attribute saber rattling only to our neighboring countries adversely influence our worldview and present a one-dimensional, negative picture. Assisted by the Burda Center for Innovative Communications at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Kaynan established her blog to create an alternative source of information.

The site's aim was to provide an alternate home for bloggers in Israel and the Arab world, who previously relied on mainstream media to provide them with a forum in which to exchange ideas. Kaynan, who immigrated to Israel from the United States a year and a half ago, says the site was slated to be launched in June last year, but, on that same day, seven members of the Palestinian Ghaliya family were killed on a beach in the Gaza Strip. In order to avoid launching the site in the wake of the incident, Kaynan decided to delay the launch until July 15 - but Israeli soldiers Gilad Shalit, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were kidnapped in the interim. The launch was delayed once again.

The Second Lebanon War aroused a renewed interest in the media's blog sector among the Israeli public. However, Kaynan says, "I felt hopeless during the war. I was uncertain that a site of this type could be operated. The connections that had been formed between Lebanese and Israeli bloggers became very tense. We continued to communicate during the war, but Israelis stopped reading the Lebanese blogs because they included pictures of children killed at Kfar Kana. The Israelis said, 'Children were killed here, too, but we don't show their pictures.'

"The Lebanese did not express sweeping support for Hezbollah until Israel started bombing the infrastructure in Beirut and hurting civilians, as in Kfar Kana. The blog finally opened in mid-November, but the war continued to haunt communication between bloggers. The war did not return us to the starting point but caused us to look at one another in a different way, through the eyes of war."

Despite this development, a core group of regular writers from Israel, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria loyally contributed to the blog and, no less important, readers began to flock to the site as well. While Kaynan admits that initially most of the readers were members of her family, 5,000 readers from 87 nations visited the site last month - 23 percent from the United States, 12 percent from Israel and the Palestinian Authority, 4 percent from Lebanon, 3 percent from Jordan and 1 percent from Egypt and Syria.

Political posts dealing with the Palestinian question arouse the greatest interest and evoke vehement responses. But Kaynan considers everyday issues, which may not appear on the front pages of newspapers, to be highly significant. She believes that exposure to special events, like the jazz festival held in Syria and Shakira's concert in Lebanon dispels prejudice. "These subjects don't spark many responses, but, in the long run, they could change our attitudes toward the residents of neighboring nations and make our stereotypical, negative perceptions of them slightly more human.

"I was shocked by the prejudice and mistaken assumptions characterizing each group's perception of the other," Kaynan says. "Many people have no idea that there are Israeli Arabs. A teacher from the Netherlands claimed that Israel does not permit Israeli Arabs to vote. She believed that they lack any rights. After she visited the site, she changed her study plan. One thing I learned from the experience is that we cannot categorize anyone. We all harbor stereotypes regarding religious, secular, Arab and Israeli members of the population. I am a great supporter of peace, but I am very rightwing when it comes to security matters."

How does she accommodate the fact that Israel Defense Forces soldiers might harm one of the much-loved bloggers that contribute to the site? "I have great sympathy for the Palestinians, who are trapped between us and their own armed militias. While this contributes to my understanding of the other side, it does not lead me to understand extremists - on their side or on our own. I do not believe that this minor blog will bring peace to the Middle East, but, in conjunction with other projects, it may increase understanding and these connections may enable us to break down the barriers of stereotype."