The Jerusalem Post
10 Iyar 5762 12:53 Monday April 22, 2002

EYE ON THE MEDIA: Depending on your 'point of view'

By Bret Stephens

(April 14) - "To know the competitiveness, jealousies, chaos and blind chance that prevail in the news business is to realize that an all-media conspiracy is an impossibility.

"Yet it is difficult to find a rational explanation for the almost total uniformity with which the media make decisions on the newsworthiness of Israeli events." - David Bar-Illan, "Eye on the Media" Sept. 1994 The strength of David's writing was its moral clarity. Moral clarity is a term that doesn't get much traction these days, least of all among journalists, who prefer "objectivity" and "balance." Yet good journalism is more than about separating fact from opinion and being fair. Good journalism is about fine analysis and making distinctions, and this applies as much to moral distinctions as to any others. Because too many reporters today refuse to make moral distinctions, we are left with a journalism whose narrative and analytical failings have become ever more glaring.

Take New York Times correspondent Joel Greenberg's April 5 dispatch, "2 Girls, Divided by War, Joined in Carnage." The story, about the parallel lives and entwined fates of supermarket suicide bomber Ayat al-Akhras and suicide bomber victim Rachel Levy, is a model of objectivity and balance. The high school seniors, a year apart in age, looked "strikingly similar." Both had black hair; both wore blue jeans. Akhras was a "top student with superior grades"; Levy had an interest in photography.

The similarities don't end there. Levy "wasn't afraid" of the terror, according to her mother. Akhras "saw the scars left by Israeli shellings and military incursions, but there were never any indications that she was slipping into despair or plotting an act of revenge." The Palestinian girl pursued a diligent routine of school, homework and housework, all with the aim of studying journalism in college. "She was quite normal," according to her father. The Jewish girl, raised in California, was obsessed with fitness, worked out to a Jane Fonda video, "tended to get stressed out." Quite normal, too. Akhras left a farewell video in which she called herself a "living martyr." Levy left behind a notebook of adolescent ruminations on love, and death.

All this is undoubtedly accurate as far as the particulars are concerned: NYT reporters are good at that. Greenberg makes no moral judgements, so the piece is "objective." And it is balanced - mathematically balanced - insofar as there are nine paragraphs devoted to each girl.

But who's kidding whom? There's a hero to this story. She's a quiet, studious, beautiful Palestinian girl, with a rich and mysterious inner life, who one day bids a nonchalant farewell to her classmates, leaves a "grim warren of alleys and tightly packed dwellings," and commits something perfectly abrupt and terrible, in the stylized manner of ritual Japanese suicide or a French art-house film. The Rachel Levy of Greenberg's telling is, by contrast, just another transplanted JAP. More problematic is that Greenberg's evident concern for balance is such that he tells us nothing about Akhras save the details of her life that mirror Levy's. Which is to say, everything about her that's banal. But it is not a banal girl who walks into a supermarket with explosives wrapped to her waist to detonate herself and every other living thing within a 20 meter radius. To limit the profile of Akhras to the fact that she went to school and did the laundry is a little like telling us that Charles Manson likes mustard on his burgers and is a huge fan of the LA Lakers.

Absent from Greenberg's account is some idea of how a young woman can be raised, educated and eventually recruited to become a suicide bomber. What were her family's politics? On what diet of literature was she schooled? How did the suicide squad find her? What sort of training did she get? What kind of society makes murderesses out of its future mothers?

But we get none of it, except that Akhras "was quite normal." Within that artless remark there's a story worth telling about this killer and the world that made her. Too bad Greenberg misses it.

NEWSWEEK'S Joshua Hammer gins up something better. Hammer, recall, was the journalist who got kidnapped by Fatah in Gaza but then saw more to complain about in an IDF roadblock. But he's done his homework on the Akhras-Levy story, so that some of the questions above can be answered.

Begin with the fact that Akhras was not especially poor. She lived in a three-story home; her father earned steady money as a construction supervisor in the settlement of Betar Ilit. Nor, it turns out, was Akhras the introvert of Greenberg's account. She "became infected by politics" at an early age, "dominated conversations," was "fiercely opinionated." She spent "hours glued to news reports on Al-Jazeera and Al Munar, the television network of Lebanon's Hizbullah movement." Family and local influences also had their effect. "Masked militants often marched through the neighborhood after the funerals of suicide bombers... ." "Three cousins, all members of Hamas, were killed in the Gaza Strip." "A close family friend and a member of Fatah was shot dead while planting a roadside bomb." His picture was framed by Akhras's mother and given a place of honor in the family living room. Hammer does an equally creditable job of telling us how the Al Aksa Martyr's Brigades, which unlike Hamas had no religious objections to bringing women into its ranks, set up a suicide squad and recruited members. "'You send out signals at school or mosque, and those in charge of suicide attacks gather information about the candidates,'" one neighborhood teacher is quoted as saying.

With her political furies and restrained manner, Akhras was clearly a natural. She got her instructions, recorded a scripted farewell on videotape, spent a morning in school, slipped across the Green Line, met an accomplice, slipped on her explosive belt. "She was so composed before her act she shooed away two Palestinian women selling herbs and scallions in front of the supermarket."

And then Akhras murdered Rachel Levy and a security guard named Haim Smadar.

Hammer devotes less space to Levy, but this is right: the outlines of her life, after all, are known to us. Still, the portrayal is direct and sympathetic. Just as Akhras was not particularly poor, nor was the Levy family especially rich. The photography exhibit that Greenberg treats with a touch of contempt turns out to have been central for Levy: it won "rave reviews" and "gave her a lot of confidence in herself." Watching scenes from the Netanya massacre on Seder night left Levy "sad, worried." Yet she recovered her spirits the following day. In short, a fairly typical teenager but not the cossetted Miss Neurotic of Greenberg's telling.

ALL THIS rings true, and offers much to chew on. Levy may be a familiar figure, but Akhras is only slightly less so: A little ball of rage kept under lid, with all the political certitudes and lack of self-doubt typical of certain precocious young women. The amateur psychologist in me wonders about her relationship with her father, whom at some level she must have despised for helping build the settlements and who, unlike other parents of suicide bombers, showed no joy in her "martyrdom." And I speculate also about what would have become of Akhras in a more normal society, one in which self-annihilation and the murder of strangers did not enjoy such prestige.

Yet for all this, Hammer's story disappoints. "There was something about staring into the almost-twin faces of the bomber and her victim last week," he writes, "that moved the seemingly unending tale of strife in the region to a deeper and even more unsettling place... Martyrdom - or, depending on your point of view, murder - is becoming mainstream."

Depending on your point of view? The media critic Philip Meyer has observed that "objectivity, as defined by the knee-jerk, absolutist school of media ethics, means standing so far from the community that you see all events and all viewpoints as equally distant and important - or unimportant." And here we have the editors of Newsweek, unable to get beyond the undergraduate cliche about one man's terrorist being another man's freedom fighter. I guess they had to be "objective." The larger failing of Hammer's story, however, lies in the basic narrative choice of playing this as an Akhras versus Levy story. For whatever your view on the vexed subject of martyrdom or murder, the supermarket bombing was not a one-for-one deal. There was a second victim, security guard Haim Smadar. The Israeli press has given him his due, as does Etgar Lefkovits's story in today's Jerusalem Post magazine. But in the West, he doesn't count: his presence interrupts the happy fictive symmetries of its political imagination. So a word about Haim Smadar.

He was a father of five. Two of his children are deaf. He had been married for more than 30 years. He made a security guard's salary. He prided himself on his alertness. He received a commendation last year from Mayor Ehud Olmert for his diligence. His knowledge of Arabic - he was born in Tunisia - may have alerted him to the danger posed by Akhras. Witnesses attest that his last words, as he struggled to stop Akhras from entering the supermarket were, "You are not coming in here. You and I will blow up here." He may have saved 12 or 20 or 30 lives, or more.

SINCE NEITHER Joshua Hammer nor Joel Greenberg saw fit to say this in their published reports, let me say this in mine: God bless Rachel Levy and Haim Smadar. May their memory be a blessing.