Earlier today we published two responses from the New York Times‘s Jodi Rudoren to Phil Weiss’s piece on her comments regarding Palestinian culture. I found her second response to be impressive and self-critical, we could have only hoped for such a response from Ethan Bronner. It points to the accountability role social media can play, and I think it’s admirable how Rudoren explained herself and faced her critics.
I certainly understand how things can be written, and misconstrued, in the heat of the moment in realtime publishing, and everyone is allowed some confused words from time to time. But the issue here wasn’t a slip of the tongue. Rudoren had already expressed similar ideas to those she shared over Facebook, and they were much more troubling.
The story begins with Rudoren’s November 19th New York Times article “Hoisting Dead Children, Gazans Mourn Family Killed by Israeli Strike.” The article covers the funeral for the al Dalu family which lost 12 members to an Israeli missile strike. This was the same story that Rudoren was evidently referring to in her Facebook comments. She writes in the Times:
There were few if any visible tears at the intense, chaotic, lengthy funeral on Monday of Jamal and seven relatives, among 12 people killed the day before in the single deadliest attack since the latest hostilities between Israel and the Gaza Strip began Wednesday after months of Palestinian militant rocket fire into Israel. Instead, there were fingers jabbing the air to signal “Allah is the only one,” defiant chants about resistance and calls for revenge, flags in the signature green of Hamas and the white of its Al Qassam Brigades.
At the destroyed Dalu family home, a man climbed atop the pile of rubble where a dozen photographers had positioned themselves and hoisted the body of one of the four dead children into the air several times, as though a totem. At the mosque, the eulogy was disrupted by the sound of missiles launched toward Israel from nearby. And at the cemetery, a Qassam commander addressed himself not to the mourners but to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, warning, “We still have so much in our pockets, and we will show you if we have to.”
Much of the militant pageantry most likely was meant as a message for the news media, and thus the world, given how the Dalus had instantly become the face of the Palestinian cause. But the tone, far more fundamentalist than funereal, was also a potent sign of the culture of martyrdom that pervades this place, and the numbness that many here have developed to death and destruction after years of cross-border conflict.
Later on Monday, Rudoren was interviewed by Warren Olney on KCRW’s To the Point. His first question dealt with this report and specifically Rudoren’s description of the funeral as “far more fundamentalist than funereal.”
Here is Rudoren’s answer:
When I heard about this loss for this family, I’ve been to lots of funerals in lots of places and I expected a gut wrenching, emotional kind of experience. And what I was found was, just as I said, really intense, but not very focused on the people, really much more focused on the kind of national struggle, resistance and the issue of martyrdom. And also there were just a lot of rituals that I found surprising, maybe the most, the funeral procession goes from the morgue to the home then to the mosque and then to the cemetery, so at the home, which of course has been totally destroyed, this man took one of the dead children, there are four dead children, and climbed up on this rubble pile and lifted, hoisted, the child into the air several times, the whole time he was wrapped in a shroud, a flag, and there was another child being hoisted whose head was not covered. And so it was just surprising to me to see that, so graphic, and maybe they were holding up the children so the world would see children have been slaughtered in the conflict, but it didn’t feel incredibly human to me.
The fact that Rudoren didn’t find the funeral procession “incredibly human” certainly factored into her reporting where Palestinians are represented as indifferent to death. Rudoren’s perception also raises questions about her role as a reporter covering the conflict. People look to the New York Times for explanation and context, to help understand a world and conflicts they will most likely never experience firsthand. In both her written news report and in this interview Rudoren comes off as tourist. Her reflex to dehumanize people whose lives and practices are unfamiliar to her reflects her limited experience and knowledge of the region, and results in her failure to fulfill what should be her primary purpose — to illuminate a human tragedy at the center of an important news story.
Olney asked if in Rudoren’s experience this seemingly impersonal funeral represented a change in Palestinian society, and to her credit Rudoren was up front about her limited background on the issue:
I don’t want to overstate my own experience because it’s the first mass funeral I’ve been to during wartime in Gaza so I don’t have that much to compare to but I talked to people who’ve been to lots more and they said they’ve never seen the bodies of children hoisted like that.
Yet, having conceded that, she proceeded to make broad generalizations about Islam and Palestinians:
I found talking to people both at the funeral and throughout the last six days that the level of tolerance here for death and destruction is quite high. They’ve been through this before. They all know people who’ve been killed. Also, there is a very powerful culture of martyrdom in Islam in general and here in particular. So many people talk about aspiring to martyrdom in what they see as their national struggle against Israel. And then thirdly, life here is rather grim and in some ways, and it’s just very hard to understand this or say it, but in some ways people don’t feel like they have that much to lose.
Here, Rudoren slips from tourist to intrepid orientalist. “There is a very powerful culture of martyrdom in Islam in general and [in Gaza] in particular.” She adopts this well worn “clash of civilizations” shorthand and stops just short at calling Islam and Palestinian culture a “death cult.” While this may also be the result of her limited experience in the region, and lack of familiarity with the diversity of the Palestinian or Muslim experience, this reveals a much deeper-seated bias which puts the credibility of any future reporting from the region in serious jeopardy.