Small Screen, Big Picture: Postcard from Israel

Two big events played out on TV while I was in Israel last month. Many times, our perception of the ongoing conflict in Israel takes on a particular divisive view of how intractable the problem seems to be. Always the observer, television is often accused of fanning the flames. But I learned that sometimes you need to pound the pavement to get a real sense of the street.

A thousand for one. That was the deal Israel struck with Hamas to secure the release of Gilad Shalit, the young IDF soldier captured in a raid almost five years ago. After years of negotiations, Israel agreed to turn over to Hamas more than a thousand convicted prisoners in exchange for one IDF soldier.

I was in Jerusalem when Shalit was released, on Oct. 18, and the drama played out in real time on television around the world and on the street before my eyes. I was there visiting my son, who is studying in Israel this semester, and I found it all too easy to imagine my boy in Shalit’s place for all that time -- interminable for a parent and the rest of a family.



A thousand convicted prisoners for one soldier?  Friends called me from the States asking how it was possible that Israelis could have agreed to such political and military shortsightedness, especially when statistics show that 40% of released prisoners go back to their old ways.

But on the ground in Israel, it made perfect sense. As an astute editorial writer in the Harvard Crimsonput it, “In a state with mandatory military service, every soldier is a symbol for a loved one.” It’s true -- in Israel, every single citizen has served in the military, or will; every Israeli parent has a child who was or will be a soldier.  I heard this from family members in Israel.

That’s how I explained the overwhelming public support of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to negotiate such apparently counter-logical terms for Shalit’s release. All Israelis need to know that the government has their -- and their kids’ -- backs. And Netanyahu needed to keep his government accountable for the life of every single Israeli soldier. Indeed, if you look at prisoner exchanges over the past 40 years, the ratio has been about 800:1.

Interestingly, the media laid low on the Shalit story, having conceded to an informal gag order brokered by his family and the Israeli government. But as Shalit passed through Egyptian custody en route to Israel, Shalit was questioned by journalist Shahira Amin in what many called a harsh -- even “forced” -- interview. 

News junkies got a look at two totally opposite media strategies: Despite enormous public interest, there were no Israeli interviews of Shalit or his family (thanks to that self-imposed “gag,” almost unheard of here in the States), while an Egyptian reporter exploited the opportunity, one surmises to increase ratings.

The same week, another Middle Eastern drama played out in real time on television (CNN international for me): the very public execution in Surt, Libya, of deposed lunatic Muammar Qaddafi. I was in Safed, Israel, at the time (the hometown of the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as it happens), and watched on the small screen as Qaddafi was captured, dragged through the streets, and executed by rebels. Talk about accountability.

But notably, the prisoner exchange was actually the bigger story of the week. The favorite memory of my visit to Jerusalem was the afternoon before we left.  After a nice lunch in an Arab café on the Via Dolorosa to take in the scenery, we joined Korean pilgrims as they walked the Stations of the Cross along the Via, past photos of just-released prisoners hanging in Arab market stalls and right alongside images of Shalit adorning the doors of Jewish stores.

The scene was not at all what you’d expect if, like me, you’re a regular viewer of the conflict-obsessed international news networks. Sometimes TV brings us together, but just as often it forces us apart. Television can be criticized for sensationalism, sure, but it can also rise above the fray to protect reluctant public figures like Shalit. And on a quiet autumn evening, two Jews can walk the Stations of the Cross after lunch in an Arab café.         

At the end of the day television is a business, and even as it grants us access to an unparalleled big-picture view of world events, we must remember to maintain and value the true local perspective. Because you can’t get that on television.

1 comment about "Small Screen, Big Picture: Postcard from Israel".
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  1. Mark Lieberman from TRA, November 8, 2011 at 4:30 p.m.

    Media generally is the culprit. As they say, it sells newspapers. That said, the situation in Israel is of course incredibly complex, which makes it difficult to fairly and accurately represent in any medium.

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