Getting Too Close for Comfort

Getting physically close to a story is not as easy as it seems. First of all, most people are not conditioned to think in terms of potential sources of information, getting close enough to take a good photo, or whipping out a video recorder to document something interesting and unique. It takes repetition and practice to get used to always keeping an eye out for the story.

To go from passive observer to engaged observer (by recording what is happening) also takes overcoming blocks that keep us in the passive category. Sometimes it is fear. Sometimes laziness. Sometimes timidity.

Fear covers all of the above. But why is it so powerful? I think the answer is that it’s not.

When I was in Ein Kerem, Israel on the last day of Sukkot (a major Jewish holiday) recently, I came across some orthodox Jewish men dancing and singing in the streets. I knew it was a good opportunity to take some photos and video–just for practice. I am very fearful of photographing people, so I try to do it as often as possible. Maybe in a year or two I won’t be as timid.

In this case, it is understandable that I was a bit fearful. The only time anyone has ever threatened to stone me was a couple of years ago when I was photographing a huge demonstration by orthodox Jewish men in Jerusalem.

A photo from a protest of 10,000 orthodox Jewish men and boys in Jerusalem in 2010 that I covered.

But standing there in the idyllic setting of Ein Kerem, I overcame that bizarre and isolated incident and whipped out my Samsung Galaxy smartphone (basically a miniature computer) to take some photos and video.

Ein Kerem is a small village on the outskirts of Jerusalem that is a huge tourist attraction. The small scale of the dancing street worked to my advantage because there was no through traffic (actually they were blocking any through traffic). The tourists were also an advantage, because there were quite a few people standing around gawking at the men as they danced and sang with their holy book, the Torah. Sukkot is the end of the Jewish calendar year and marks the point when religious followers of Judaism start reading the Torah from the beginning after spending the year reading through it.

A view of the mountains from Ein Kerem, Jerusalem

While I was taking the video, I knew I wasn’t close enough. I took a few small steps forward, measuring my distance against other onlookers. I was very consciously seeking strength in numbers, but why? What did I think these singing, dancing men were going to do to me if I got a bit closer? Yell at me, tell me to get lost, or pick up the nearest rock and chuck it at my head? It seems ridiculous in hindsight, but coming clean about shortcomings as a reporter post-story can be instructive if you make a brutally honest assessment. Well, it doesn’t have to be brutal, but  it should be without permissive trimmings and excuses if you want to do better the next time. And there will be a next time, unless you plan on quitting.

While still mid-story, there are a few things at play when photographing or videoing people on the street. First of all, are you invading their privacy? Second of all, are you interfering with them in any way? Sometimes there are no answers to either question, but they should be asked. Rule number one in journalistic ethics: do no harm.

Sadly, when it comes to certain kinds of public gatherings, a large media presence can serve to embolden even the most timid reporter (and protester, for that matter!). Just take a look at this video of recent protests in Spain. It’s something akin to mob mentality. You can easily see what a large gathering of photographers looks like. It takes a strong journalist to break away from the pack in such a situation and work on the outskirts of the story, away from the mutually-generating vibe of protesters and journalists.

In 2009 I was in Jerusalem covering some tensions between Muslims and Jews outside the walls of the Old City. The situation was electrified, and the gaggle of reporters there didn’t  help.

Police horses form an equine barrier during tensions near the Old City in Jerusalem in 2009.

In that situation, I was extremely bold. Looking back, it doesn’t seem like anything that I believe I am capable of. I got in front of a row of police horses and snapped several shots. I stood alone in front of a huge pack of Muslim men and photographed them as they bent in prayer, not moving until they told me, “Uh, can you move? We don’t want to pray with a woman in front of us.” I also got very good close-up shots of people’s faces while they were yelling at each other, shots from the roof of a building, and several shots of armed border patrol and police.

That experience proves two things. It proves the controlling force I think fear has on me as a reporter actually doesn’t exist. But more importantly, it proves that I am capable of getting as close to the story as I want to.

Roman Cardo in Jerusalem Easy to Miss–but Don’t

If you’re in Jerusalem’s Old City doing the tourist thing, try to pass through the old Roman Cardo. The hours the business area is open are Sun. – Thurs. 8:00-18:00, Fri 8:00-16:00.

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The official website of the Old City describes it as follows:

The street was 22 meters wide with tall, imposing columns lining either side. The Cardo was discovered during archaeological excavations carried out after reunification of Jerusalem in 1967.
Among the shops and galleries we can identify remains from previous periods of the city’s history, including First Temple and Hasmonean fortifications. This section of the street is covered. The pointed archways and domed structures indicate that it was built during the Crusader Period. During restoration work in the 1970s trash and refuse that had accumulated during hundreds of years of neglect was cleared out and removed from the ancient storefronts. Contemporary businesses now sell their merchandise in Crusader shops and offer tourists and visitors a variety of souvenirs and Judaica items.

Let us move along past the shops until we reach the part of the street with the row of columns on the right.

We are standing on the street’s original paving stones, which date back to the Byzantine Period. The center of the street was open to the sky, and animals as well as carriages traveled here. Pedestrians used raised sidewalks located on either side of the street, and above them was a roof supported by columns to protect them from the sun and rain. Stores, some of which were carved into the bedrock, faced out onto the street and their remains can be seen farther along the street. Imagine the gentle clip-clop of the horses’ hooves, the low braying of the mules, the noisy rattling of the carriage wheels and the shouts of the wagoneers; merchandise in every color of the rainbow, the songs and the cries of the vendors; the aromas wafting from the bakeries, the fragrance of the spices and incense…
We move up to the covered alley where we find a mosaic map on the wall. This is a reproduction of a section of the Madaba Map, which was part of a mosaic floor discovered in the 19th century at the Church of St. George in the city of Madaba, (Medba) Jordan. The mosaic depicts all of the Holy Land, and gives us a rare glimpse of Byzantine Jerusalem during the 6th century. From the map we can clearly see the Cardo with its two rows of columns, and the many gates into the city that had been built during that period.

Jerusalem’s Confusing Geography

Tensions at Jerusalem’s Old City’s Damascus Gate

Reporting on any story involves a bit of geography; often a bit of map reading. For those of us not naturally skilled at reading maps and taking directions, this can be….well, tough. But Israel is a particular challenge.

The capital city, Jerusalem, even though technically and officially united, is still mentally and emotionally divided between east and west by an invisible “green line.” There are sometimes disputes about what is on which side, and sometimes disputes about what belongs to which side. The City of David is a perfect example of one of the many controversial points in Jerusalem.

Even inside Jerusalem’s Old City, residents of east Jerusalem can sometimes find it difficult to do something as simple as go to the mosque at Al Aqsa to pray. The Old City has ancient territorial divisions between different religions, and when there are security concerns, the Israeli authorities take control and make it harder for everyone to move about.

The key to understanding, navigating, and enjoying Jerusalem is to navigate around major landmarks. As with many things in Israel, it’s seriously complicated.

An Epiphany about Peace in the Middle East

You can tell a lot about people in a certain locale by the way they drive. In Japan, drivers are super-controlled and maintain a façade of calm almost at all times. In Central America, the general attitude of drivers is like, “Whatever….” In both cases, this parallels with the respective cultures. In LA (the worst possible example in the US that I can think of) you’d better have your last will and testament in order before you get behind the wheel. You know the second Matrix movie—the one where they get on the freeway? That’s LA. Basically, California drivers are known for being “free spirits” (a.k.a. people who disregard rules) on the road. That corresponds well with the whole vibe of California in general.

If you apply my theory to how people drive in Israel, there seems to be a general frustration and desire to be in control among the populace. A typical example was the tiny car I saw recently on the narrow highway into Jerusalem that played chicken with an enormous semi-truck full of hay. The semi tried to switch into the car’s lane, but the little car refused to budge. It was fascinating to watch, because it seemed impossible that any driver could be that outright crazy. But the really crazy part was that the itty-bitty car won.

Another time I saw a woman leave her car in the middle of the road to go yell at the driver in the vehicle behind her. Their only crime seemed to be that they had yelled some criticisms out their window. And more than once I’ve had other cars that do not have the right of way drive straight at me, honking like maniacs.

Roundabouts in Israel are a special problem. They seem to suffer from being treated merely as suggestions. Using them according to the universal rules by which they operate is optional. The option is: If you’re not in the mood to do things according to the rules, no problem.

One day not long ago, I came upon backed-up traffic at a roundabout because of a police car block. The presence of the police car (which I assume contained at least one police officer) was not enough to inspire drivers to be on their best behavior. Instead, everyone got riled up and it turned into a free-for-all. The one lane for cars to merge into the circle became three. Cars managed to wedge themselves into all kinds of odd positions that were generally not facing in the direction that traffic flows. I ended up in the “middle” lane, with a militant-looking bald guy on my right yelling at me as he inched his way past with his right tires on the sidewalk. It was all of about three minutes before the cars started moving again, but it was enough to make mortal enemies out of the drivers.

Pedestrians are not innocent, either. People on foot use crosswalks when they are available, but they also freely jaywalk—with some serious attitude. Jaywalking isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it’s generally a good idea to look and see if there are any cars coming, and then wait. In Jerusalem, where the streets are old and many were built when horses and donkeys were the main mode of transportation, sometimes pedestrians don’t even have a sidewalk to walk on.

But the blatant, amateur jaywalking that abounds here is enough to make your blood pressure shoot up 20 points when you’re behind the wheel. Usually, you feel pretty good after you’ve swerved and just missed hitting some lady with seven kids who jumped out from behind a row of parked cars. But when you come upon the random guy walking lazily in the street, parallel to the sidewalk, pedestrians start to seem like part of the problem.

Not everything about driving in Israel is bad, though. Personally, I love the thing they do with traffic lights going from red to yellow to green. That way, you can have your foot on the gas and start moving before the light actually changes. I’m pretty sure Israeli engineers stole the concept for their traffic lights from those Japanese video games I used to play as a kid at the pizza parlor. It’s exactly the same—all that’s missing is a lady standing on the side waving a checkered flag.

So between people inventing driving rules, lights that change backwards, and pedestrians who seem to think they have more right to the roads than cars, everyone in this country who walks or drives is in danger and under pressure at every second. That brings us to my (unqualified) theory about how to achieve peace in the Middle East: have a society-wide campaign to improve road etiquette. Maybe more civil behavior on the road will lead to more civil behavior between the parties trying to achieve peace. It’s worth a try.

Israel Journal: Culture Shock’s Breaking Point

INTENSITY: Protesters descended on Jerusalem near the city center on June 17.  (Genevieve Long/The Epoch Times)
JERUSALEM—There’s something a bit odd about living in a foreign country. Every day is a struggle to feel like yourself. It’s called culture shock. I like to think of culture shock as something that happens in stages, like a relationship. There’s the honeymoon phase where everything is exotic and interesting, even if a bit weird. This is the stage when you throw caution to the wind and give everything a try. The honeymoon phase is followed by seeing the shortcomings and low points. This can add up and wear you down, and sometimes the bad starts to outweigh the good.

My honeymoon phase with Israel started last summer when I visited twice. Everything had a rosy glow. Tel Aviv was bustling and exciting, Jerusalem charming and old, the West Bank seemed more like the Wild West than the Middle East.

Fast forward to two months ago, and I was back in Israel having just moved to Jerusalem for six months. I live in the city center, moments away from all kinds of action. As the jet lag wore off and the heat slowly sunk in, the Gaza flotilla story broke. I was on the story for days with almost every other reporter in the country. It was the official end of the honeymoon. I realized that maybe this country is a bit beyond my ability of comprehension. I still hadn’t made sense of many cultural rules and norms, and they were magnified when the whole world was focused on Israel.

I knew there was a problem when around the same time I started actively seeking out stores that sell Dr. Pepper. It became some kind of odd connection to America, comforting my frayed nerves with every sip.

Then things started to really go downhill. I saw a small, black kitten dying in the dirt near my house. Israel has stray cats everywhere, and most of them don’t survive, but the sight still broke my heart.

Soon after, I was assigned to get photographs of a major protest. One hundred thousand ultra-orthodox Jews dressed from head to toe in black descended on Jerusalem. While I was on the scene, one man told me in Hebrew to get lost. I know this because two seconds later some other guys came up and translated, and then some. “You need to move away,” one of them said, sneering at me. “Do you want to get crushed?” Something in his tone was sinister. After a few attempts to scare me off, a fourth guy appeared, gesturing at me with a handful of stones the size of chicken’s eggs. Long story short, nobody threw rocks at me, but I left that party early.

That day signaled my full onset of culture shock—it was the last straw.

Having gone through culture shock before, I know it’s a bit like being a recovering alcoholic. There’s denial, anger, depression, and acceptance. Those phases don’t exactly apply to me, but the key thing in common is the breaking point. Things hit rock bottom, then they turn around. Then you either just throw up your hands and laugh at the whole thing, or completely give up, pack your bags, and go home.

Luckily I have figured out how to have a sense of humor about life here. First of all, it’s temporary. Secondly, it’s a learning experience. And thirdly, nobody ever got good stories just by sitting at home. The risk you take when you go far out into the world is that it will be a shock to the system. The cure is to remember that everything passes. And as we say in America, if it doesn’t kill you, it only makes you stronger. That’s a little Yankee wisdom that does translate here.

Read the original posting and more at The Epoch Times

Israel Journal: When Everything is Old

by Genevieve Long for The Epoch Times

JERUSALEM—In the United States when I look around, I know the earth itself is old, but everything around me is new. I see new buildings, new ideas, and people who seem to always be on to the next, newest thing with little regard for the past.

But in Israel, I feel the weight of history everywhere I go—even in the metropolis of Tel Aviv. The people seem to carry it in their bones and on their backs. During a tour of a tunnel beneath the Western Wall in Jerusalem, I saw how this ancient city is actually one ancient city built on top of another, on top of another. And someone is always digging something up, or building on top of something that is incredibly old.

It’s like my Israeli sister-in-law said last Saturday during a family outing in the Jerusalem forest. We were having a big picnic and nearby was an ancient cistern for gathering water (which are everywhere around here). The cistern now makes a perfect swimming hole—if you can handle crawling inside the small opening. The hills around us were full of remains of ancient people. I thought the whole thing was pretty amazing, and told my sister-in-law so, to which she replied, “In Israel, everyone is always digging something old up.”

But even with the frequency of discovering ancient artifacts and buildings, it can still cause a stir. Once in a while, it even causes controversy.


In Search of Blood or News?

by Genevieve Long

JERUSALEM–When journalists go out on the streets to report, it is usually to record a newsworthy story. But what about when reporters search for violence? Look at the recent events in Jerusalem surrounding Al-Aqsa mosque. Rumors that extremist religious Jews were planning to enter Al-Aqsa and pray there sparked widespread calls for Muslims to take action to protect it. That, and other factors, led to a heightened state of security.

There are deep historic grudges over the ground near Al-Aqsa, called Temple Mount, which includes the dome of the rock, where some say the footprint of Adam and the dawn of human history can be found. It is far too complicated to understand in the abstract, let alone explain in a few sentences. Suffice to say that when tensions flare over this part of Jerusalem, it’s truly no laughing matter.

Even so, on the ground this past Friday in Jerusalem, the number of journslists was shocking. Camera crews, photographers, reporters–there was a little bit of everyone. At some points it seemed as though there were more journalists than police.

The question came to mind, while I was in the midst of this gaggle of reporters as one of them–why were we there? A colleague of mine recently said, “People in Israel are news junkies.” So maybe it was a response to demand. Or maybe the competition factor. Everyone else was out and nobody wanted to be left behind, just in case.

It’s the latter thought that started to disturb me as the hours went by. Tensions had been high in recent days (or maybe higher than usual, since Jerusalem is always a bit edgy). As I walked through the streets inside the walls of the old city of Jerusalem–the route to Al-Aqsa mosque and the source of the tension–I looked around every corner for drama worth reporting, worth taking a photo of. There were barricades to the side streets leading to Al-Aqsa, and some barricades in the middle of main walkways (cars don’t seem to drive through the old city). There were scores of police, and a few agitated Arabs. One old Arab woman yelled after going through a barricade that all the Arabs and Jews needed to get out of the city. To say the old lady was the height of the drama I witnessed would be putting it mildly.

As I stood in a side street waiting for a good shot of something, two British women tourists passed, and asked if I spoke English. They wanted directions, but we ended up talking about the events of the day. One of them said they’d heard there were people (which kind, I don’t know) holed up in Al-Aqsa in protest. I told her I’d heard there would be a large protest and prayer outside the walls of the old city later for all those who were denied entry to morning prayers at the mosque.

“There are about 1,000 rumors in this place!” she exclaimed to me, and we all laughed at the irony of it all. In that moment, reporters chasing such news didn’t seem so different from chasing rumors.

“Well, I’m glad you’re here to report the truth!” the woman said after I gave them my Epoch Times card and explained why I was there. Then she hesitated, and added a last thought. “At least one version of the truth, anyway.”

And as it turned out, she was right. The protest outside of the walls did happen about 2 hours later. It was peaceful, with scores of heavily armed Israeli police on one side, and scores of quiet Muslim worshipers on the other. They sat and listed to a slew of rhetoric in a speech made in Arabic that was so mundane my bilingual colleague found it too boring to translate in full. Then they prayed. Then they left. It was a day of good photo ops of interesting characters in a play.

On my way back to my newspaper bureau in Tel Aviv, I ran into another American at the bus stop, a young man from the Jerusalem Post. A brief, loud conversation on his cell phone revealed there was finally some drama happening. As he sprung up and started back in the direction of the old city, I ran after him, “Is something happening?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’m just on my way back there,” he answered excitedly. “You can come if you want.” Suffering from fairly severe dehydration, I didn’t manage to keep up with him, but did see some of his footage later. Violence had erupted in some of the neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem (which is code for largely Arab neighborhoods); there was stone throwing, rubber bullets, some women threw planters and paint from rooftops, and about 12 Israeli soldiers were injured.

When I saw the video footage, I felt like I missed the story. Then I started to search the Internet for other coverage, and found a surprising imbalance in the mainstream media reports. During a day that was marked by large groups of people peacefully protesting not being allowed to go to Al-Aqsa, the media took the most violent slant by honing in on brief violence in a neighborhood in another part of the city. They had sent them out in search of blood, and didn’t stop until they found it.

It is a complicated part of the world, that’s true. And news is news, no matter which way you slice it. But after seeing the chain of events from the inner walls of the old city to the final product on the Jerusalem Post and other media’s websites, it’s questionable whether the news was the brief violence, or a day of mostly calm. In the end, the story I filed had a headline I thought was a more accurate depiction of the day’s events: “Jerusalem Protests Largely Peaceful.”

As media, the least we owe the public is the most complete story possible. Not just the most dramatic version of events.

Click here to read the original blog posting for the Foreign Policy Association