Truth is in the eye of the beholder

IN TIMES of trouble journalists are called on to recognise that they have a higher calling than merely reporting the news.

IN TIMES of trouble journalists are called on to recognise that they have a higher calling than merely reporting the news.

I experienced it as a young reporter chronicling the last kicks of the dying apartheid horse in the 1990s.

Then, worried readers would urge the media to ignore stories they considered inimical to political negotiations they feared would derail the advent of democracy.

Similar murmurs can be heard that negative reporting about the World Cup might spoil the party, with dire economic consequences for South Africa.

I'm in Israel now, wrestling with something similar.

Eliyahu McLean, an initiated Jewish "peace pursuer", wants our help in "closing the gap between the Jerusalem of the Bible and today's Jerusalem".

McLean, who expects to be a rabbi in the near future, says the media, besides reporting on the daily grind of life in Jerusalem with its modern city problems such as traffic jams, can promote harmony and coexistence among Jews and Arabs, and among all the peoples of the world.

McLean co-directs Jerusalem Peacemakers with Sheik Abdul Aziz Bukhari, a muslim cleric. The odd pair promotes harmony and coexistence among Arabs and Jews in Israel.

Several other people the delegation met made similar pleas.

One such person is Felicia Yakoel, a tour guide at the Independence Hall Museum in Tel Aviv. She lamented the loss of life in the wake of Sunday's doomed attempt to break the siege of Gaza on Sunday.

"My blood was frozen to my veins," she said, wondering when it will all end.

She was not surprised about Israel getting a bad press for having stormed the flotilla of ships making its way to Gaza, which Israel has blockaded for security reasons.

Nevertheless, she still believes the media have it in their power to make a difference. "You as journalists, you have the bucket of water. Help us throw the water on the fire."

How should the media respond to McClean and Yakoel?

The most cynical among us might argue that the media are not the fire department of the world and carry on as if what they publish has no consequences.

But, in the same vein, it is not our job to inadvertently fuel raging fires. To this end we need to appreciate the complexity of the Middle East, where people define themselves in terms of their religious beliefs and where difference over interpretation of scriptures has led to deadly enmity.

We've been here for nine days trying to understand Israel itself and its relationship with its Arab neighbours. Each day has been as much an eye-opener as it has been a puzzle. The truth remains as elusive as ever. I'm now even more wary of the dangers of oversimplifying complex issues.

As Zel Lederman, our tour guide with an encyclopaedic knowledge, reminded us: this is a country about which Mark Twain remarked that every two kilometers travelled requires 200 pages of history to understand.

For me, the visit has brought home what journalist and multi-Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas Lauren Friedman said 20 years ago in his book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, about there being no truth but only versions in the Middle East. All sides have their own narrative.

The only thing common to the Israeli and Palestinian narratives we've heard so far is that the narrators are paragons of virtue and the others are inherently evil and untrustworthy.

The least touring journalists can do is to avoid having their naïveté exploited in a way that they become tools in the perpetuation of either narrative or version.

Pronouncing on who's right or wrong is better left to those able and willing to invest time, effort and money in the pursuit of truth.

lThe writer was a guest of the South African Zionist Federation