Page last updated at 09:58 GMT, Thursday, 10 June 2010 10:58 UK

Remaining impartial in the Middle East

As Tim Franks finishes his spell as the BBC's Middle East correspondent, he explains how his own background made it inevitable that some people would make certain assumptions.

Tim Franks reporting from the Gaza-Israel border
Tim Franks has been BBC Middle East correspondent since March 2007

First an admission: I am a Jew, and a journalist.

And now an apology: I hate the solipsistic writing I am about to be guilty of, where the journalist puts himself at the centre of the story.

But let me try to explain.

The reason for the admission is that my dual identity - Jew and journalist - has not just been a matter for me these past three-and-a- half years. From the start, it was of apparently burning import for a good number of friends, acquaintances and people whom I had never met.

That it was so, perhaps illuminates one small corner of the cloud of smog that envelops the Middle East.

There were those Jews from the synagogue in my previous posting, Brussels, who heard about my new job, clapped me on the back and said, "Thank goodness, at last you'll be able to put our side of the story."

The Middle East has become occluded by prejudice, prejudice in its literal sense of pre-judgement

There was the non-Jewish classmate from school - someone I had not exchanged a word with for 20 years - who emailed me out of the blue to commiserate over how difficult it would be for me in my new job not to have divided loyalties, to Judaism and to journalism.

And there was the non-Jewish friend of the family who declared, to one of my relatives, that my appointment had come about because of the pressure the previous Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, had applied to the director-general of the BBC.

Refugees

And there are many who believe that, as a journalist, I am also guilty before I have broadcast a word: guilty of being in hock to the all-powerful Jewish lobby, guilty of being in thrall to the Palestinian culture of victimhood, guilty of stirring over-heated controversy out of every spit and whistle in this corner of western Asia.

Balata refugee camp
Balata is the largest refugee camp in the West Bank

The Middle East has become occluded by prejudice, prejudice in its literal sense of pre-judgement.

Too many people have unshakeable views of others. The label does not help identify the person. It becomes the person.

It can be a rather comforting deception.

Take the radioactive issue of refugees.

The West Bank's largest refugee camp is Balata - home to more than 30,000 Palestinians, wedged into concrete apartment blocks barely a shoulder-width apart.

Ask the young boys there - boys who are third, even fourth generation refugees, born in this camp - where they come from and, without missing a beat, they will still say Haifa or Jaffa or other cities deep within Israel, places that certainly they and probably their parents have never visited.

And so it was a shock to me recently when, in a hotel room in Amman, the Palestinians' chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, told me that the Israelis had to understand that part of any final deal involving the establishment of a Palestinian state would have to include the return of some Palestinian refugees to Israel.

Some. Not all, as the usual theology demands.

Jewish settlements

There are Israelis willing to punch holes in the wall of myths.

Jeremy is a British Jew who made aliyah (emigrated to Israel) 20 years ago.

Construction work at a Jewish settlement
More than 430,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank

He, his wife and three daughters live in a small apartment in Jerusalem. It is not an easy or financially cushy life but, as a religiously observant Jew and committed Zionist, there is nowhere he would rather be.

Which is not to say that he is not speaking with ever thicker tones of despair about his new home country.

Take the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Ideologically committed Jewish settlers regard this land, replete as it is with biblical references, as more precious than Tel Aviv or other cities within the Green Line, within what's considered to be Israel proper.

Jeremy says that this veneration of the land has become "idolatry." Few insults, between Jews, over the last 5,000 years, have been more wounding.

'Pogrom'

A more recent word was used in the wake of an eviction of a houseful of Jewish settlers in the West Bank city of Hebron.

Map of Israel and the Occupied Territories

Despite doom-laden predictions, the Israeli police and army managed quite easily to extract the Jews, whom the Israeli Supreme Court had ruled were living illegally in the building.

But then Jewish rioters wreaked their vengeance on Palestinians living in the valley below the house.

I crouched by an outside wall, while rocks and firebombs were thrown at the homes, inside which terrified families had barricaded themselves.

Leaning over the wall, on the far side of the valley, were scores of residents of the adjoining settlement of Kiryat Arba.

They appeared, passively, to be watching the mayhem unfold.

The next day, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz called the previous evening's riot a "pogrom", the word coined in the 19th Century to describe the systematic, blood-soaked, anti-Jewish rioting in Russia.

Psychological barriers

The term was shocking, poignant and appropriate.

I guess, and again forgive the solipsism, but some may want to know my response to the question that I, as a BBC journalist, could never - and never wanted to - answer: namely, what did that, and a million other incidents, make me, a Jew, feel about the Jewish state?

Probably unfairly... I resented the fact that none of them appeared to be approaching each rousing song or traditional prayer in any different way on this specific day

On one level, it was simple.

That night of rioting was ghastly. It reflected a deep reservoir of shamefulness and dysfunction.

My paternal grandparents had, as children, early last century, left Lithuania and Russia for the sanctuary of Britain.

They and their families would have known all about the particular terror of pogroms.

The following evening, I was in my synagogue in Jerusalem for the Friday night service that brings in Shabbat (sabbath).

It is the most determinedly happy point of the Jewish week, and the synagogue to which I have belonged the past three years makes a point of filling the hour and a quarter with - in liturgical terms - some cracking tunes.

By about half-way through, I have usually overcome my British and hazily agnostic reserve and am joining in. But on this Friday, I could not escape feeling flat and depressed.

Probably unfairly - given the unusually high sensitivity among much of this congregation to what is happening on occupied territory - I resented the fact that none of them appeared to be approaching each rousing song or traditional prayer in any different way on this specific day.

In a way, it was almost adolescent: why can't they see the blackness too?

In another, it reflected the psychological barriers Israelis have erected at the same time as the separation barrier along the West Bank: it puts what is happening over there - over the other side of the Green Line - out of mind.

It is, as one Israeli friend acidly put it, "a peace dividend, without the peace".

I do not believe I had covered the story for radio or TV any differently because I was a Jew.

But was I feeling more bleak the following day because this was violence perpetrated by Jews? Well, perhaps.

Ineluctable truths

Against that, and many other similar incidents, there were also countless moments of celebration and nurture, which felt particular because of where they were and the company they kept.

Ploughing on Kibbutz Degania Bet in 1945 in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine
The first kibbutz was founded in 1910

I was never the sort of Jew who went weak-kneed when close to the Western Wall and, indeed, from my first visit to Israel as a teenager, I rather kicked against the assumption that I would be transported on waves of epiphany.

But when I was lucky enough to spend eve of festival meals in the homes of Jewish friends in Jerusalem, were they special because of the people or because of the locale?

It seems futile to try to separate, given that these were Jews who had chosen to live in Jerusalem.

The same goes for the kibbutz, the rural collective farm, where one of my favourite artists had resided for more than 50 years, and where the life remained a deeply unfashionable paean to a socialist idyll, which in turn had been a foundation of the original Zionist dream.

In other words, it is important to contextualise.

Of course it is, it is what we, as journalists, should always aim to do.

But it is what you absolutely cannot do if you trade in apparently ineluctable truths about the nature of Israelis or Jews or Palestinians or Arabs or Muslims: then the circle becomes sterile and self-defeating.

'Another code'

So, to return at long last to what I, as a Jew, feel about the Jewish state. Well, it is what I, as a journalist, feel about the Jewish state: that it's there.

Just as the stateless Palestinians are there.

Yes, this is the Middle East but it is not the Middle Ages

Neither is going to cease being without a blood-soaked cataclysm. No competing narrative is going to vanquish the other. We need to move on.

There are not many - maybe not any - places such as this land.

Places where there have been 4,000 years of conflict. Where it is almost impossible to plant your foot on the historical turf and say "Aha! On this we can agree."

In what city in the world, other than Jerusalem, has control swung 11 times between religions?

So yes, this place is unique.

But does that mean it demands different rules?

One of the most telling comments I heard was uttered on a hilltop settlement by Shoshanna Shilo.

She was a grandmother, with twinkling eyes, whom I had first met as she was carried away, rigid with fury, by four Israeli military policemen, from an impromptu protest in the West Bank.

I met her again, a few weeks later, at her own settlement.

It wasn't, she said, just that this land which the rest of the world wants for a Palestinian state belongs to the Jews. It was also what she saw as the delusion that the other side wants peace.

"This is the Middle East," she told me. "It's not Europe. We live," she said, "by another code."

Well, yes, it is the Middle East but, no, it is not the Middle Ages.

These days, we should all try to live by a different code. Shouldn't we?

How to listen to: From Our Own Correspondent

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SEE ALSO
Country profile: Israel and Palestinian territories
09 Mar 11 |  Country profiles

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