The Jewish Journalists Who Interview Jihadists

Working as a journalist during the second intifada compelled me both to acknowledge my Jewish identity and to obliterate it - a disguise mechanism with which Steven Sotloff would have been all too familiar.

Joanna Chen
Joanna Chen
An image grab taken from a propaganda video released on July 5, 2014 by al-Furqan Media allegedly shows the leader of the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
An image grab taken from a propaganda video released on July 5, 2014 by al-Furqan Media allegedly shows the leader of the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.Credit: AFP
Joanna Chen
Joanna Chen

I was in the middle of a leisurely breakfast with a colleague when I heard about the beheading of U.S. journalist Steven Sotloff in Syria. According to reports published this week, Sotloff was of Jewish origin and held Israeli citizenship. The news of his death stunned and sobered me. It took me back to the years I worked as a foreign journalist with Newsweek, based at what was then the Middle East bureau in Jerusalem. I was a local hire and all my work was concerned with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I traveled often to Jewish settlements in contested areas of the West Bank and also to Palestinian areas such as the Gaza Strip, Ramallah and Tul Karem, working mostly on what we fondly termed human interest stories. For me, this was less about politics and more about people.

Working in this capacity opened doors to intimate lives on both sides of the conflict. I became passionate about revealing the delicate human underpinnings of the political turmoil that surrounded me. I felt it essential to broadcast the feelings of real people who were suffering in this troubled corner of the Middle East. My connections on both sides enabled me to develop empathy both for the Jewish and the Palestinian people I encountered. There is, I discovered, a human side to everything. Over the years I told myself that I was objective, that I could tread the delicate line between the two worlds I was reporting in, that I could cross over borders into people’s hearts. I’m British, I would tell myself, I work for an American publication, I am not a part of this, just an observer, just a witness. But I was much more than that.

I am Jewish. Moreover, I am married to an Israeli. My two eldest daughters completed Israeli military service. I live in Israel, brought here by my parents after a family tragedy more than 30 years ago. These facts I was forced to bury in order to continue my job. I needed to constantly submerge my real identity, wherever I was.

I became adept at doing so. I would check my bag carefully before leaving my house in central Israel, yanking out anything that might indicate who I really was, depending on where I was headed: if it was to a Palestinian area, I would remove my magnetic health fund card, my Israeli ID card, a photo of one of my daughters in army uniform, smiling for the camera. If I was going to a Jewish settlement, I would make sure to remove receipts from purchases in Ramallah, my foreign press card from Palestine, my Arabic phrase book.

In Palestinian areas, I introduced myself as British, working for an American publication. At the time, this seemed to go down quite well. I remember interviewing a young woman incarcerated in an Israeli prison for an attempted suicide bombing. She showed no remorse. On the contrary, she professed her wish, even now, to kill Israelis. “Even women? Even children?” I asked her. “Yes,” she said. “If I were Israeli, would you kill me?” I asked, looking her straight in the eye. Yes, she said without hesitation, and I tried not to flinch.

I was sent to Bethlehem in early 2000, the beginning of the second intifada, to interview a Hamas family who had recently lost a son, shot dead by the Israeli army. I went there accompanied by a driver and a translator. Those were tough times and there was a lot of mistrust on both sides. The interview began: me, the translator and a room full of family members. As I began to ask my first question, the patriarch of the family, a blind man, stopped me. “Give me your passport,” he said. “I want to see where you’re really from.” He took my EU passport in his wizened hands and ran his fingers over the first few pages. The silence was stifling. I held my breath, sure that this blind man would somehow be able to see through me to who I really was. He did not, of course, and the interview proceeded.

Another time, I went to interview the family of Amneh Muna, the young Palestinian journalist who lured an Israeli teenager to his death in 2001. I arrived at her house in Bir Naballah just hours after her arrest. There was a heaviness in the air and I kept thinking of my driver, Mustapha, who was waiting outside for me in a sleek Mercedes. “I know who you are,” the brother pointed a finger at me as we sat in their living room. “You are Jewish. Your father works in Jerusalem.”

He had done his homework. This was completely true. My father has worked as an upholsterer for years and has many connections with Arab workers in East Jerusalem, connections of work but also friendship. “I’m British,” I said, sidestepping his accusation in my best British accent. “I’m a journalist working for an American publication. You must believe that.” “Listen to her accent,” the sister said, and the brother relaxed. I did not relax until I was again seated in the car that took me back to Jerusalem and my own safe house. I literally felt as if I could have been killed.

Interviewing Jewish settlers was just as harrowing. On a visit with two senior journalists to a settlement in the West Bank, we were met by a solid wall of hostility. No one would talk to us because we were, as they said, Americans. When we walked back to our car, we discovered its four tires slashed. “Walk down the wadi to your friends the Palestinians,” one of the inhabitants shouted out to us from the other side of the road. “They will help you.”

Just before Israelis were forbidden to enter the Gaza Strip, I accompanied a diplomatic correspondent who had flown in from New York to interview President Mahmoud Abbas. There was no way of hiding my Israeli citizenship in that office; they already knew who I was. At the DCO situated at the Erez crossing, I was asked to sign a waiver declaring that I was aware of the danger in entering Gaza and was responsible for my own actions. I had been told to bring my blue Israeli ID card along with me and I asked if I could leave it in their office until my return. No, the laconic soldier told me, we are not a public library. With no choice left to me, I stuffed the ID card into the very bottom of my bag. It sat there that whole day in Gaza. I did not let the bag out of my sight.

Experiences like these forced me to grapple with my own identity. I am secular and had never really thought about being Jewish, had never regarded it as an issue. Working as a foreign journalist compelled me both to acknowledge it and at the same time to obliterate it, hide it, wipe it out. And these are tiny moments that cannot possibly compare to the experience of working in Syria, Afghanistan or other war-torn countries where Israel and the Jewish people are hated.

Sotloff hid his religious identity but never forgot it. According to a recent report, he fasted on Yom Kippur, telling his captors that he was sick and could not eat. Like other journalists, Sotloff showed incredible tenacity and bravery reporting in such places. He lost his own life trying to understand the lives of people involved in conflict zones.

I have met many foreign reporters and photographers in Israel, en route to war zones, all aware of the dangers that most certainly lie ahead for them. We would sit together in the dimly lit bar of the American Colony Hotel, a favourite haunt of the foreign press, and we would laugh a lot and drink too much. At the end of the evening we would part and I would drive home, wondering if I would ever see them again.

I would never be able to write like this if I were still a journalist. I left the profession three years ago and am happy for it. I no longer need to hide who I am, either from myself or from other people. Three years on, this is a relief. My current work as a writer is safe, far removed from the worlds I used to walk through and the borders I used to cross. I miss the camaraderie, but not the fear.

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