International Journalists Union Expels Israel After Fight Over Politics and Money

Journalists on The Front Line: The Israeli government’s decision to keep journalists out of Gaza during the conflict earlier this year has become a flash point in a fight between journalist unions.
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Journalists on The Front Line: The Israeli government’s decision to keep journalists out of Gaza during the conflict earlier this year has become a flash point in a fight between journalist unions.

By Alex Weisler and Nathan Jeffay

Published July 08, 2009, issue of July 17, 2009.
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The expulsion of an Israeli journalists’ union from the International Federation of Journalists is mired in a murky cocktail of politics and money.

The Israeli group –— the National Federation of Israel Journalists — was ousted June 7 in a unanimous vote of the international union’s executive committee. The vote immediately raised the specter of another effort by international unions to boycott Israel for political reasons; recently, a number of academic unions around the world have voted to boycott Israeli professors.

In this case, Aidan White, general secretary of the international journalist union, told the Forward that the decision was purely financial, pointing to the fact that the Israeli union has not paid membership dues in four years.

But the dispute has a distinctly political edge to it, because of the international union’s criticism of the Israeli government. After the recent conflict in Gaza, for instance, the international union published a report criticizing the Israeli government for endangering journalists and keeping them out of Gaza. The report pointed to the number of journalists who were injured or killed during the conflict.

Haim Shibi, a member of the Israeli union’s board of directors, said that the report was an unfair attack on the Israeli government.

“I’m not expecting anyone to sing songs of praise, but I expect fairness,” he said. “If I see a precooked report, I recognize this.”

Shibi said that relations between the international union and the 800-member Israeli union have been tense for several years. The “turning point” came, he said, when the international union condemned the Israeli government’s July 2006 attack on Al-Manar, the Lebanon-based TV station of Hezbollah. More recently, Shibi said it had been a problem that the international union had not consulted the Israeli union before publishing its report on Gaza.

“The relationship is getting sour because of politics, not because of money,” Shibi told the Forward.

White said that in his 22 years on the job, the international union has published reports about numerous countries, including Israel, and the Israeli union had never complained. On the Gaza report, White said that input from Israeli journalists was not relevant, because the international union has affiliates in Gaza and the West Bank.

Whatever the politics, both sides agree that the Israeli union has not paid its dues. It has asked to pay the reduced rate offered to unions in neighboring nations such as Jordan, rather than the higher rate paid by unions in European nations. The international union has offered to forgive the Israeli debt and require a slightly reduced rate in the future, but the Israeli union has not agreed to the offer.

“Many of our unions would like to pay less fees,” White said. “If we bow to this intransigent position… it seems to me it would make our position untenable with our other members.”

A June 19 letter to the Israeli organization outlined the international union’s position: After a year of unsuccessfully trying to negotiate a payment plan for the piled-up arrears, the Israelis were being expelled.

Shibi acknowledged that his union was facing financial difficulties, but he said that the financial hesitation from the Israeli side also arose out of a sense that the international union had treated the Israeli government unfairly.

“When we are expected to automatically pay for anti-Israel campaigns, we don’t see why we should pay for this pleasure,” he said.

Though the Israelis have the opportunity to appeal the international union’s decision at the group’s next major meeting, to be held in Spain in May 2010, Shibi said his group will not be pursue that option.

“I don’t think we’re going to act as a guilty party and appeal,” he said. “If they don’t want us, they don’t want us.”

Contact Alex Weisler at weisler@forward.com or Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


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