Doha, Qatar - Some participants at the third-annual forum of the Arab satellite network Al Jazeera were sorry they didn’t bring matzo with them — had they known how many fellow Jews were attending the media conference, they would have made a Passover Seder.
“We could have used the hotel wine to fill our cups,” Mark LeVine said only half-jokingly. A professor of Middle East studies at University of California in Irvine, LeVine was one of several Jewish participants who attended the invitation-only conference in Doha, organized by Al Jazeera.
Ethan Zuckerman, whose wife is a Reform rabbi, said that he had originally planned to hold a Seder in Doha. “I told my wife, and she wrote me a two-page Haggadah,” he said, shortly after speaking on a panel on Internet and the media. “But I didn’t bring the matzo.”
The Jewish participants were by no means relegated to the sidelines.
New Yorker correspondent Seymour Hersh gave the keynote address; LeVine and International Herald Tribune executive editor Michael Oreskes were panelists, and David Marash, the Washington bureau anchor of Al Jazeera English, logged a stint as a moderator.
The relatively high number of Jewish academics, journalists and media experts who attended the event stood in stark contrast to the view in some circles that the network is anti-Jewish and anti-Western. Some critics have gone so far to brand it “Osama Bin-Laden’s TV Network,” a name which Al Jazeera executives say comes from the Bush administration and conservative American television commentators.
The general atmosphere at the event was open and friendly among Arab and Western participants. “If there is any antisemitism lurking around here, it hasn’t been directed at me,” said Danny Schechter in a heavy New York accent. “They make a distinction between U.S. or Israeli policy and religion.”
Schechter, vice president of Globalvision, a documentary film production company, said that he attended the event because “in the post-9/11 world it is imperative to understand what people think and this forum provides the opportunity to mingle, discuss and even to get into arguments.”
Like many other participants, his main criticisms were that few women participated and panel discussions were not engaging enough. Indeed, whether dressed in sharp suits and ties or starched white floor-length dishdashas and white head coverings, the well-heeled forum panelists mostly agreed with each other. If anything, it appeared that some of the Al Jazeera moderators were avoiding conflict.
During breaks between panels, however, there was plenty of chatter in the elegantly appointed lobby outside the conference hall, where participants shmoozed over hors d’oeuvres, and journalists and academics feverishly networked.
“To be here with the media makers and icons of the Western world as they converge with those of the Arab world is really inspiring,” said Nora Friedman, as she sat around a round table where she shared a buffet lunch with a number of American and Arab journalists. A 28-year-old producer at Pacifica Radio in Berkeley, Calif., a left-wing radio network that tends to be fiercely critical of American foreign policy, Friedman said that the forum was “building a bridge between the Western and Arab media and confronting the prejudices in the so-called ‘War on Terror.’”
“There is no problem with Jews here,” said Abdel Bari Atwan, editor-in-chief of the London-based Arabic-daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, a regular commentator on Middle East affairs who opposes American support for Israel as long as it occupies Palestinian territory.
In general, Al Jazeera officials took the same line, insisting that the network does not make distinctions based on race, religion or gender. When asked by e-mail to provide contact details for Jewish employees to be interviewed for this story, Lana Khachan, the senior spokesperson at Al Jazeera English refused. “We are not interested in pursuing a story based on our staff’s religion,” Khachan wrote back. “We have over 900 highly experienced staff based [around the world]. We have qualified people on board of all nationalities and religions each employed for their merit. The staff comprises of more than 30 different nationalities 45 ethnicities, enabling Al Jazeera English to provide a unique grassroots perspective on important world events and report on the untold stories from the under-reported regions of the world.”
Several of the top employees at the network’s English operation are Jewish: Marash and his wife Amy work in the Washington bureau with an Israeli-American producer, and former BBC journalist Tim Sebastian moderates the televised monthly Doha Debates.
Al Jazeera has been harshly criticized in the West for providing airtime to terrorists like Osama bin Laden, but it notes that American networks borrowed that material. It was also the first Arabic network to give Israelis air time. “Al Jazeera was seriously attacked by Arabs — Islamist, nationalist, and even governments like Saudi Arabia — for inviting Israeli journalists and government officials to present their point of view,” Atwan said.
Despite the network’s declared dedication to openness, not one member of the Israeli media was present at the forum, even though the Israeli YES satellite carrier pushed BBC Prime off air to make room for Al Jazeera English, which already boasts of having 500,000 homes viewing in Israel. The absence of Israelis was particularly noticeable given the theme of this year’s event: “Media and the Middle East, Beyond the Headlines.”
“I don’t know the reasons no Israeli journalists attended, but I think there is a general attitude of talking about peace with Israel but not talking to Israel,” said Yoav Stern, the Arab Affairs correspondent of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.
“I think it’s a pity,” said Stern, who is frequently interviewed in Arabic on Al Jazeera. “I know that Al Jazeera specifically can make pioneering decisions in this regard, because it has credibility and trust from its viewers.”