Jewish Vigilante Story Misses the Mark

An American Jewish Committee study nine years ago revealed that American Jews, for the most part, are undisturbed by mixed marriages.

But the same can't be said for Jews in Israel. A 2007 poll found that more than half of Israeli Jews equate intermarriage with "national treason."

NPR ran a story on Morning Edition last month about a Jewish vigilante group in Israel. It centered on a 31-year-old Jew named "David" (not his real name) who along with others patrolled a deserted parking lot in the settlement of Pisgat Ze'ev near Arab-majority East Jerusalem trying to keep young Jewish women away from Arab men. Freelancer reporter, Sheera Frenkel, went along.

Missing from the story, however, was an explanation of the kind of societal racism — on the part of both Jews and Arabs — that might have helped listeners better understand what's behind the vigilantism.

Racism is a daily fact of life in Israel, as it is in any multi-ethnic society. The story told a tale of one small aspect of the seemingly eternal conflict between Jews and Arabs. But it failed to put that tale into the broader context of how Jews and Arabs perceive each other, which is a major factor in why the conflict perpetuates.

"The point of the story was to shed light on a group of self-styled vigilantes who were both racists and sexists and who were trying to prevent normal youthful fraternization that crossed racial lines," said foreign editor Loren Jenkins. "The story wasn't racist but it depicted racists — the settler vigilante groups — and their racist actions in hunting down bi-racial couples."

But many listeners found the story racist, offensive, one-sided and said that it promoted stereotypes and did little to further understanding of the region.

"The story never addressed the racist reasoning behind the vigilantes' efforts, nor did it attempt to elicit the thoughts and feelings of the young couples being harassed by the vigilantes," said Lynn Hirshman, of Black Hawk, CO. "There definitely needs to be some balance here."

Frenkel said the piece addressed the specific — and growing — phenomenon of vigilantes. "I think the listeners were best served by being shown a night on one of the patrols," said Frenkel, who is a freelancer based in Jerusalem. "And I was careful not to cast judgment on this practice so that the listener could reach their own conclusions."

I agree with NPR's news judgment that this was a story about an important topic. But it wasn't well-done and, as a result, invited criticism that makes it hard to defend.

It didn't succeed on several levels, starting with a failure to examine how widespread the vigilante movement is in Israel.

In the introduction, based on Frenkel's script as edited by the foreign desk, Morning Edition host Rene Montagne said these vigilante groups "are walking the streets and towns across Israel." But that isn't backed up in the story, which makes sweeping assertions without an expert or someone independent indicating whether this is common or not.

In researching this topic, I found a few examples but not enough to demonstrate that this is happening "across Israel." The story needed that kind of context.

Then there is the matter of who Frenkel interviewed. Aside from two anonymous vigilantes, the only voice listeners hear is that of a 16-year-old Jewish female who stereotypes Arab boys as "wild. They're bad boys."

Listeners didn't hear from any Arabs or from any inter-racial couples who are dating. Nor did they hear from the police or any other Israeli or Palestinian government officials who, presumably, are aware of this phenomenon. (Frenkel did a similar piece for The Times of London and did quote a Jewish woman who said the vigilantes, not her Arab boyfriend, are the problem.)

"In retrospect," said Jenkins, "we probably should have insisted Sheera talk to an Arab boy about what was going on, though the response would have been a predictable condemnation as both Arabs and Israelis view such vigilante actions by a few as reprehensible."

Edward Wasserman, a journalism ethics professor at Washington and Lee University, said for the story to be effective listeners needed to know the vigilantes' motivations. We can make assumptions, but they were never explained.

"Are they religious zealots? The overall impression is that their concern is fundamentally racial/ethnic, and the 'bad boys' characterization is just an expression of their general conviction that Arabs are degenerates," said Wasserman. "Overall, it's as if somebody cruised small-town Virginia with a small group of half-wits with rebel flag tattoos and a pick-up truck who heckle biracial couples, and made no effort to determine whether the group is a solitary bunch of losers."

Or maybe the vigilantes are part of a bigger and more troubling cultural response to dating between Arabs and Jews. "But we don't know, do we?" said Wasserman.

Then there is the use of anonymity. Frenkel did not use the real names of "David" and his driver, "T.S." This gives them the freedom to not be held accountable for what they say.

Allowing them anonymity violates NPR's policy, which is to use anonymity as a last resort and only if identifying someone would jeopardize their life or livelihood. NPR's policy on anonymous sources is one of the strongest and most impressive in the industry and is a credit to why people can trust NPR. Rarely is anonymity used.

Frankel says that she had to grant anonymity to get the story.

"They claim that there have been threats made against them in the past — both from couples they have attempted to interfere with, and from Arab men in neighboring communities who consider them a nuisance," explained Frenkel, who began freelancing for NPR several months ago.

"The anonymity should have been explained as per NPR rules," said Jenkins. "Sheera says she promised anonymity because 'In this case, he ["David"] said he felt personally threatened and would only agree to let me go on the ride-along if I promised him anonymity. In the future, I will explain NPR's policy and press harder.'"

This story was not so critical to better understanding the Arab-Israeli conflict that it deserved an exception to NPR's policy. Nor was it so urgent that it could not have been held while the reporter did more work to answer questions that NPR editors should have noticed.

I asked over two dozen people to listen to Frenkel's story, and all agreed it had the kernel of a good story. But all said the piece didn't work for various reasons, including that it dehumanized Arab men and didn't give listeners a chance to hear directly from people impacted by the vigilantes.

Kristin Szremski, of the group American Muslims for Palestine, best summed it up. "I think Sheera Frankel did a good job in bringing this topic to the public but there are ways in which the piece could have been put into context and given deeper meaning," she said.

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