Israel Journal: The Holy Land has an image problem

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Wikinews reporter David Shankbone is currently, courtesy of the Israeli government and friends, visiting Israel. This is a first-hand account of his experiences and may — as a result — not fully comply with Wikinews' neutrality policy. Please note this is a journalism experiment for Wikinews and put constructive criticism on the collaboration page.

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Ben-Gurion Airport; people waiting outside customs for international arrivals.
An Israeli first aid sign at the airport.

At 70 miles per hour halfway to Kennedy Airport the scent of alcohol filled the back of the cab when the driver turned around and said, “There is no traffic. It is good. Quick.” It was fitting. Up to that point I sat staring out the window thinking about all the warnings my family and friends gave me about taking care of my safety in Israel. Although I have traveled a good deal and never found a place I visited to be as it was depicted in the American media--Cuba is nothing like it is portrayed--the intonations to steer clear of pizza parlors and buses weighed on me. “Whatever you do, David, don’t go to Gaza or take a bus! Don't. Go. To. Gaza,” my mother said several times, “Just, you know, there’s a war going on over there. If you see anyone praying to Allah and sweating, run!”

Until the cab driver turned around and smiled through his boozy breath, my mind had raced with thoughts of my life ending head bowed on Al-Jazeera, surrounded by gunmen forcing me to denounce my country. I thought about Gay Talese, desperate to go to Iraq, who told me he would tell “the bastards” to “go ahead, make my day” because he would die doing what he loved: working on a story. Strangely, I found solace in my drunken driver to distract me from these thoughts, and instead I thought about Carolyn Doran, the former Wikimedia COO who has caused a firestorm for the foundation when they hired her unaware that not only is she a quadruple-convicted drunk driver, but that she also shot a boyfriend.

My flight from Kennedy to Tel Aviv had the hallmarks of a caricatured bad flight: Despite my request for an aisle, I found myself in a center seat. To my right was a morbidly obese woman in a purple beret breast-feeding her baby. In the seat to my left was another infant in a baby seat, and to his left was his mother holding yet a third baby in her lap. When I woke two of the babies were suspended from the wall in what looked like airplane baby crib trampolines. Surprisingly, it was one of the better 11 hour flights I have had. All three babies slept through the entire trip and when I woke from one nap I found myself lying against what felt like memory foam, but turned out to be the obese woman, whose largess had spilled over our hapless arm rest and into my seat. It was...not unpleasant.

Upon arrival at our hotel in Tel Aviv we were given exactly ten minutes to shower and change before we had to leave to have dinner with Dr. Yossi Vardi--the father of Israeli invention, as he is known. Jimmy Wales had introduced me to him over e-mail, and I had done my research on the man who funded and sold the ICQ network. On the bus over there Stacy Perman and David Saranga spoke about how Israel is trying to brand itself today. In particular, Perman, who writes for Businessweek, mentioned a spread in Maxim Magazine that Saranga, who is in charge of media relations for the Israeli consulate in New York, was responsible for arranging. Its theme was “The Women of the Israeli Army” and featured buxom, beautiful scantily-clad Israeli girls from the armed forces. It rubbed Perman the wrong way. “The spread seemed so Lowest Common Denominator to me. What was the thinking behind that?” asked Stacy.

Saranga had no apologies for appealing to the male libido in his never-ending drive to sell Israel. “Look, I would love for Maxim’s 2.5 million readers to pick up that magazine and read about Israeli technology and our wonderful culture here. But in truth, they are not so interested in that. When we approached Maxim they asked why they should do it; after all, there are beautiful women every where. Why Israeli beautiful women? We said, ‘But Israel is the only army where women are actually fighting alongside the men.’ So they did it. Not with guns and ammunition, but just the…beautiful women of the Israeli army. When we tested how that piece worked, we found it was very, very successful.”

But what is success? The issue, Saranga explained, is Israel has an image problem. Saranga is one of the key people in the Israeli Foreign Ministry working to create a new brand name for the holy land. Indeed, one scheduled dinner for the journalists on this trip is hosted by Ido Aharoni, whose title is Head of Israel Brand Management Team. A country's brand name is what this trip is all about. More accurately, about rebranding.

When people think of Israel, Saranga explained, they think the same things my friends and family think: it is dangerous, it is a place where you may be blown up. It is difficult to find in the American media stories that travel outside of Israeli-Palestinian-Lebanese conflict narrative. The effect, according to Saranga, has been that people do not want to come to Israel. It is too dangerous and even if safety is not an issue, it does not look like a fun place to go. According to the test research the Israeli government has conducted, people see Israel as a place that is deeply religious--it is, after all, a Jewish state--and besides holy sites such as the Temple Mount and retracing the steps of Jesus Christ, most secular American thrill seekers think there is little for them to do.

In reality, Israel is a multi-dimensional and pluralistic society with a large Arab—the majority of whom identify themselves as Palestinian—population in one of the most stable democracies in the Middle East. This trip, however, is mostly modeled to show the technology journalists what is by any measure one of the most thriving centers of innovation in the world. What we won't see is Israel's Arab side. When I suggested to Saranga that I would like to venture to the Jaffa Market, Tel Aviv’s thriving Arab bazaar, he looked at me perplexed, “Why would you want to go there?!” When I replied that it would be a good place to look for things to buy people back home, he still did not see why I would choose to go there. It was only when I mentioned it would also be good for photography--another purpose for this trip--did he say, "Well, that's true. I suppose it has color."

At dinner Dr. Yossi Vardi discussed the future of Israeli technology and pointed out that after California and Boston, Israel attracts the highest amount of venture capital incubator dollars in the world. After his speech, he turned to me with what the standard complaints I hear about Wikipedia; namely, that it is not always accurate and it is arbitrary in how it decides what is notable (in particular, the article on a product he is financing, Fring, has been deleted five times, he said, despite being a market leader). “How do you decide what is right and what is notable?” asked Vardi.

David Shankbone and David Saranga of the Israeli Foreign Ministry New York consulate.

It was the same question raised by the Haaretz reporter when he interviewed me later that night for an article about my trip. With both Vardi and Haaretz I brought up the on-going Santa Claus battle on Wikipedia, in which I was heavily involved. Several editors do not want us to point out that Santa Claus is not real (think of the children!) or, absent outright supporting the myth, that we should hide he is made up. The problem is that Wikipedia is not responsible for supporting cultural myths, but to explain them.

“But I believe in Santa Claus” replied Vardi. “Who are you to say he is not real?” It is a question that was raised in the Santa talk page discussion, and a difficult challenge to answer. And like the pro-Santa editors on the Santa Claus discussion, Vardi asked “What about God? Can you say that God does not exist?” But are Santa and God really the same beyond an academic philosophical discussion, I replied. God is typically taught to explain aspects of the world around us that we can not explain ourselves through our knowledge and technology. Santa, on the other hand, is a story parents know to be false. They tell their children to believe in something and then make an elaborate effort to support something they know is not true (milk and cookies consumed; gifts given by Santa; Father Christmas tracked on the Air Force website). Eventually, the time comes when parents reveal to their children that he never existed; it was them all along eating those cookies.

“But perception," Dr. Vardi responded, "is reality. So who are you to say? It is the question of the tree falling in the woods and whether anyone hears it." I responded that to take knowledge to such academic and philosophical realms is fine for spirited dinner conversation, but useless when trying to engage in practical pursuits. "After all, Dr. Vardi, how would you ever solve an engineering problem if all it takes for reality to be formed is to believe something to be true? You must come across many people who believe fervently that products they are developing will be successful; do you invest based upon their beliefs? The question is always whether a tree falling makes a sound. The question is never framed as, 'Has the tree fallen?' It's a given."

Cnaan Liphshiz, the Haaretz reporter, relayed similar concerns about Wikipedia as Vardi, although less philosophical. Are we a reliable source of information? "The short answer is no," I said. He looked at me surprised "The problem with such a question is not whether Wikipedia is reliable, but is any one source of information reliable? Studies continually show that Wikipedia is reliable at redacting information and presenting what others say to be true. But are our sources right? No person should rely upon one source for anything. They should seek several sources to form an opinion. Does Wikipedia do a better job of presenting several opinions than The New York Times or Fox News? Yes, I believe they do."

The technology journalists eating dinner with Dr. Yossi Vardi (on the right).

My presence on this trip, I offered Haaretz, raised the interesting question that Web 2.0 presents: how did the Israeli foreign ministry decide on David Shankbone to report for Wikinews and Wikipedia on this trip? 25% of the answer lies in my accreditation with Wikinews and that I am able to be an original source of reporting. But 75% of the reason rests upon my contributions to Wikimedia projects, which made me stand out over other contributors. Between my photography and my interviews, I have done high profile projects on Wikipedia and its sister projects. So can other commoners like me take off to Israel when we make worthwhile contributions to high-profile Web 2.0 sites like Wikipedia? Maybe. The challenge for firms, governments and organizations today is to figure out who amongst a morass of disparate and sometimes bizarre user names can actually produce substantive work. The answer is that those who want to contribute information to the public sphere need to expend time to find who out there in Web 2.0 is worth contacting, and whether people in Web 2.0 can even do anything for them. This is the same advice I gave the Rubenstein Public Relations company (who manages PR for the Tribeca Film Festival), which is how the Israelis found me.

On a trip like this, what are the Israelis' goals for Wikimedia? For David Saranga, it goes back to the rebranding of Israel. They simply want people to highlight aspects of their country that do not involve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hence, we are here to look at Israel's technology sector in a head-spinning array of meetings. This made Wikipedia and Wikinews, influential sources of information that attempt to present the world as it is, an attractive option. "The fact is, there is so much going on in Israel today that nobody knows about because the media does not write stories about Israel outside of the conflict," said Saranga. The opportunity to have someone from the Internet's major encyclopedia visit the Weizmann Institute, the Technion and some of the holy sites was golden for them. Just don't go to the Arab parts and whatever you do, don't go to Gaza.

Wikinews
This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.
Wikinews
This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.



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