We were speaking a mix of English, Arabic and Hebrew, all trying to say as much as we could as clearly as we could, and also as quickly as we could because we knew so many people wanted to weigh in. Israel’s minister for regional cooperation was halfway through a brief, warm welcoming statement when his internet went down. One of the participants sounded like he was joining us from the world’s noisiest internet cafe, another as though he were under water.
Nobody said anything hugely dramatic. Nobody made hugely extravagant claims. But Monday’s webinar on the role of media in advancing peace in our region was quietly historic nonetheless. Organized by the Arab Council for Regional Integration, it brought together editors, journalists, academics and officials from Israel, our new Emirati and Bahraini peace partners, and several other countries in the region who haven’t yet joined the normalization process but may be about to do so.
** This Editor’s Note was originally sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.
Among its central themes were that we know far too little about each other, that there are lots of nefarious forces striving to ensure that hostility and misinformation continue to hold sway, and that we journalists should be visiting each other’s countries and reporting on them — telling our readers, listeners and viewers about our diverse worlds, hitherto off-limits. The more nuance and depth journalists can bring to our relations, and thus the better we understand each other, I asserted in my brief contribution, the more likely this radical, laudable new normal will prove stable and sustainable.
I was at my desk in central Jerusalem for our two-hour regional conversation, and I wanted to grab my desktop webcam and point it out the window — to where the YMCA building just across from our office rises into the cobalt blue sky. Designed by the American architect Arthur Loomis Harmon, who was also responsible for the Empire State Building, this “sermon in stone,” as one of its former CEOs described it, was built in the 1920s and 1930s by Muslims, Christians and Jews, and its design carefully highlights Jewish, Christian and Muslim themes and sensitivities. At its entrance, a stone inscription, taken from the speech Lord Allenby delivered at the inauguration of the building in 1933, proclaims: “Here is a place whose atmosphere is peace, where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten and international unity be fostered and developed.”
I wanted to show my new interlocutors this glorious building in the capital of our revived, historic Jewish state, and to briefly explain what it stands for. But I wasn’t sure how well they’d be able to see what I was trying to show them (and whether I’d be able to clip the camera back onto my screen efficiently), and so I didn’t risk it.
Instead, I’ve just walked over to the YMCA to photograph that stone inscription — a small testament to the possibilities of interfaith tolerance and harmony.
In a letter read out on his behalf, President Reuven Rivlin invited all the participants in our online session to visit Israel “to get to know us better.” He urged us all to “dream big dreams — of exchange programs, joint productions and education programs for young journalists.” Said the president: “I hope you send correspondents here to cover the State of Israel and its society, as I hope our media will send to your countries.”
As the editor of the Times of Israel, which publishes in French, in Hebrew, in Farsi and in Arabic precisely so that readers around the world can “get to know us better” via a fair-minded narrative of what’s playing out in Israel, I felt privileged and proud to participate in Monday’s webinar. And let me restate here what I said online (at about 1 hour, 26 minutes in): that The Times of Israel would be delighted to host visiting journalists, and to be part of the training of young journalists from around the region.
Unlike for some of the other participants, there was no courage whatsoever required in my being on the call. We are free in Israel to produce independent journalism, and to report on and openly discuss our country far and wide — its achievements, controversies, its democratic battles and all. Hopefully, warming ties with Israel will gradually help extend the media freedoms we enjoy and insist upon more widely across the region as well. Hopefully, Monday’s quietly historic webinar was a first step, and such openness, too, can gradually become part of the new Middle East normal.
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