Changing Channels to Find New Views on the Diaspora

Consuming media is how we learn about each other.  It can take us across the world or around the corner to tell powerful stories that educate, inflame, embarrass or even inspire.  Being a journalist isn’t easy and often the work is done without recognition.

In Israel, with daily life moving 100 miles per hour, it’s often hard for the media to look outside our borders to tell stories of the Jewish Diaspora. When our media fails to do so, it leads to misunderstanding and bias.  However, when it does it well, it casts new light on what it truly means to be one nation of Israel – a Klal Yisrael.

On Tuesday evening, distinguished guests, American and Israeli leaders and members of the press gathered for the presentation of the B’nai B’rith World-Center-Jerusalem Award for Journalism. Since its establishment in 1992, the award has been presented to outlets and their representative journalists who have excelled in reporting on contemporary Diaspora Jewish communities and on the State of Israel-Diaspora relations. In the Israeli media industry, this is considered an honorable accolade. Beyond its professional prestige, the award is also renowned for its role in encouraging quality reporting as well as strengthening relations between Israel and the Diaspora.

This years winners were no exception.  Three Israeli journalists used their time, intellect and creativity to tell powerful stories of Diaspora Jews in new ways.  First, Yair Sherki, Religious Affairs reporter for the Israel News Company (formerly Channel 2 News) won for his five-part TV series, “Brooklyn – The Holy Borough” on the ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn.  He successfully reflected back without judgment that Charedi life in America looks much different from that in Israel.

Second, Amotz Asa-El of the Jerusalem Report won for his in-depth series on the Jewish experience and life: “Geography, Solidarity, Faith, Hate and Genius.”  Among his pieces, he shared insights that are not often found in Israeli media. He told me, “As a Zionist Israeli, I made the case for the diaspora survival. My view is very pragmatic. It respects the diaspora even as demography says Israel will be where most of the Jews will be living.”

Finally, Jewish World Correspondent at the Israel Broadcasting Corporation (Kan), Benny Teitelbaum, was also recognized, as he was awarded the Certificate of Merit in memory of Luis and Trudi Schydlowsky. Benny challenged his fellow journalists to leave the comfortable bubble and tell stories that challenge viewers and themselves alike.

What these three journalists had in common was a desire to cast a bright light on the Diaspora experience to help provide context to Israelis.  Their work is eye-opening, challenging, and shreds many long-held biases.

The keynote speech at the event was delivered by former U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor and Senior Fellow for middle Eastern Studies at Council of Foreign Relations in Washington D.C., Mr. Elliot Abrams. What really struck me from his speech was the following:

“What then is the balance between the problems of the Diaspora and the interests of the State of Israel? On real security issues, my view is simple: None; don’t balance. If protecting Israel and Israelis from Hamas at the Gaza border, for example, causes discomfort to some Jews overseas, too bad. Your lives and safety outweigh their discomfort. Your first obligation to world Jewry is to survive and to thrive.”

This brings me to the reason that I place so much value on the award that it bestows upon strong, professional, ethical journalists. These are the journalists who do not shy away from the topics that cause “discomfort.”

These are the journalists who delve into uncharted waters, and sail along when the waters are calm, but also when the skies are stormy.  These are the journalists who deal with the good, the bad, and the ugly of Israel and the Jewish world. These are the journalists who seek to expose the truth in all its complexity. And I believe that those who seek the truth are those who do the ultimate work in enabling the Jewish State and the Jewish diaspora to check themselves and improve, to celebrate their achievements, and  to communicate with each other. These are also the journalists who enable the Jewish State to fulfill its obligation, “to survive and to thrive.”

One may ask – why is ethical, balanced journalism so integral to the survival and success of the only Jewish State, and my home, Israel?  Many activists in the Israel advocacy world may cringe at the thought of giving the press so much credit. Instead, they prefer to cling to the idea that all press is inherently biased towards anything Israel or diaspora-related – regardless of  what side of the political or social spectrum this bias leans towards. Others in the media world will argue that there is no such thing as “balanced” journalism. Other voices may point to the idea that “today, anyone can be a journalist” and that “it’s no longer a profession.”

My answer to all these people is to point to this incredible event and the powerful stories and journalists that were honored. In a world of increasing proliferation of media outlets and publishing platforms, the best journalists aim to maintain a level of professionalism and elite storytelling.  They provide readers with well-researched and well-rounded coverage of global events in the most balanced way possible, and must strive to chase “justice” and “truth.” B’nai B’rith International’s Alan Schneider told me, “We started this award to help strengthen the relations between Israel and the Diaspora by encouraging quality reporting on Diaspora communities and Israel-Diaspora relations.  We know each other better when we know each others’ stories.”

In order to encourage such standards, we as a community and as the consumers of media must recognize and award those who provide us with quality journalism. We must acknowledge journalists who dedicate their lives to shining a light over the darkest corners of the world and sparking the fires of debate and discussion on the most taboo of topics.

The importance of quality journalism is obvious to the world. It connects us to each other.  It serves as the government’s “watchdog” and the defender of democracy. However, the importance of quality journalism for Israel is not so obvious to many.

Israel and the Jewish Diaspora can only thrive and survive when they are discussed and covered fairly and accurately. Our relationships, our democracies, our security is very much interconnected with the journalism that is read by our citizens and by our partners around the world.

So all I can do from my humble position, with my laptop and opinion- is to thank B’nai B’rith. I thank you for recognizing those who bring honor to the profession of journalism and who seek to bring the truth to light. And most importantly, than you to Yair, Amotz and Benny. You are integral to the thriving and surviving of our great nation, and to the honor that is associated with the profession of journalism.

L-R:  Winners Teitelbaum, Asa-El, and Sherki
About the Author
Hen Mazzig is a young, energetic, Israeli – a writer, strategic communications expert, international speaker, LGBTQ activist, social media Guru and advocate on behalf of his country. Hen’s family comes from Iraq and North Africa (Berber Jews from Tunisia), giving him a unique background for his talks, in which he shares his family’s story and the story of 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries. As a young Israeli, Hen served in the IDF for almost five years as an openly gay commander. During his service as a lieutenant in the COGAT unit, he worked as an intermediary between the Israeli Defense Forces (the IDF), the Palestinian Authority, the UN, and the many non-governmental organizations that work in the West Bank. Hen has shared his story with thousands of students throughout the USA, Canada and UK for the last six years. His articles were featured in the International Business Times, The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz and many other publications. Hen has a proven track record of creating dialogue where it seems impossible. With more than 18,000 follower on Twitter and with several thousands more on facebook- where he is a voice for Israel that is so needed. He has built relationships, friendships, and changed hearts and minds of so many not simply by sharing the truth about Israel and the history of the region, but by being a voice for justice and peace for diverse groups and peoples. He is a rare voice in this divisive day and age that can unite people for a common cause rather than sewing discord and conflict over conflicting narratives in one of the most complex conflicts on earth.