Israeli Sites Sate Thirst For Middle East News

By Noah Shachtman

Published July 25, 2003, issue of July 25, 2003.
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Nothing happens in Israel but suicide bombings and bulldozers leveling homes in retaliation. At least that’s the impression the mainstream American press often gives.

Although American interest in Israel continues to be high, domestic media coverage has been monotonic, focusing only on the bloodiest details of the latest, stomach-churning outrage. And when these horror stories are reported, they’re often hopelessly slanted, many American readers feel. That’s why Americans — and not just American Jews — have been looking for alternative sources for news about the Middle East. And they’ve been finding such coverage, in increasing numbers, on Web sites originating in Israel.

“I’ve grown less enchanted with the U.S. media, and I’m relying more on the Israeli media,” said Brett Cohen, a New York City hedge fund manager and hawkish pro-Israel activist. “There’s more breadth — about the Israeli budget, about what’s going on in the Knesset. And the stories are more in-depth and less biased than what’s in the [New York] Times.”

“We’ve got more reporters here than non-Israel-based news sources,” said Alan Abbey, executive editor of The Jerusalem Post’s Internet edition, which each month receives roughly a million unique visitors and 20 million page views. “And we offer something other than just terror or tragedy stories,” Abbey said.

Since the September 2001 attacks, American interest in foreign media of all sorts has ballooned. Overseas outlets from Britain’s BBC to the Qatar-based Arabic-language Al-Jazeera — which plans to launch an English-language site next year — have all benefited from the trend. But made-in-Israel news sites have done particularly well, with some pulling 70% or more of their readership from North America, their editors say. Several of the Israeli electronic publications have seen enormous increases in traffic.

Three sites in particular have benefited from American interest: Ha’aretz online (haaretzdaily.com), which generally has a more liberal perspective; the Web version of the Jerusalem Post (jpost.com), considered more conservative, and DEBKAfile (debka.com), a free-wheeling, Jerusalem-based collection of rumors and genuine scoops that can be off-the-wall. The Israeli paper Ma’ariv, long absent from the English-language fray, launched a Web site for American readers six months ago. Some 35,000 to 40,000 visitors are already checking in each day.

Peter Hirschberg, editor of Ha’aretz’s English Internet edition, said his audience has tripled since the beginning of 2002. Hirschberg said he tells his writers “to specifically keep the American reader in mind.”

“Maybe we’ll add more context to a story that runs on the Hebrew Web site,” he added. “And we’ll give greater prominence to stories related to American Jewry.”

Constant updates also draw in American readers, Hirschberg said. Like The Jerusalem Post and Debka, the Ha’aretz site is updated several times a day.

“We are very quick with breaking news and updating our news. We’ve got a ticker at the top of the site with three, four, five, six news flashes an hour,” he said. “We get a lot of our visitors there.”

That’s a far cry from the mainstream American media’s coverage of Israel. Take July 11, for example. Not a single article about Israel made it into The New York Times. The Washington Post briefly mentioned Israel, in a piece about President Truman’s newly discovered diaries from 1947.

But there was plenty for interested Americans to read on Israeli Web sites. The Jerusalem Post site covered the police’s questioning of Likud Knesset member Michael Gorlovsky over alleged double-voting and tracked the Jerusalem City Council’s fight over new Sabbath regulations.

Ha’aretz online featured stories about the Histadrut labor federation failing to pay staff salaries and about Hamas threatening to kidnap Israeli soldiers if the Sharon government doesn’t release more Palestinian prisoners. Debka discussed a battle between Iranian police and student protesters. The story was fairly tame, by Debka standards. Often the site is filled with anonymously sourced innuendo about political maneuvers, impending terrorist attacks and military counterstrikes.

“I read it just for the rumors. It’s not reliable, but even a broken clock is right twice a day,” said Meryl Yourish, a writer and religious-school teacher in Richmond, Va.

On July 8, a suicide bomber walked into an elderly Israeli woman’s house, killing her. The American press barely made mention of the incident, notes Charles Johnson, who runs Little Green Footballs (littlegreenfootballs.com), a widely read American Internet journal that often examines Middle Eastern affairs. But the Israeli sites like The Jerusalem Post’s, he noted, were all over the story.

Like Johnson, 70% of the Post’s Internet readers are from North America, according to Abbey, the Post online editor. And, like Johnson, many of these readers aren’t Jewish. For example, 15% of the Post’s online audience identified themselves as Christian in a recent survey, Abbey said. Another 10% declined to declare their religious affiliation.

“I’m not Jewish,” Johnson said. “But what happens over there is a microcosm of what we’re all facing with Islamic militancy.”

Johnson, like many American readers of online Israeli news sources, is a strong supporter of the Sharon government. But the sites’ appeal is by no means limited to hawks. Pro-Palestinian activists like Nigel Parry — who runs the Electronic Intifada Web site (electronicintifada.net) — have become regular readers.

Ha’aretz columnists Gideon Levy and Amira Hass “both hit a regular anti-occupation theme and draw attention to things that Israelis and others need to know about,” Parry wrote in an e-mail.

He added: “It’s far freer coverage than you’ll find in almost any American newspaper.”

Noah Shachtman writes about technology, defense and geek culture for The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice and others.






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