Writer addresses Middle East issues

Last Wednesday, students, faculty, and members of the local Pittsburgh media gathered in the Adamson Wing of Baker Hall to hear Khaled Abu Toameh give his unique perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Toameh, a writer and editor for the Israeli Jerusalem Post, is a renowned journalist who covers the crisis in the Middle East for the Post as well as numerous international news organizations, including the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

Toameh described himself as an “Israeli-Palestinian-Muslim-Arab” with an “identity crisis.”

In his lecture, Toameh spoke about his life as a journalist working for news organizations under both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government. As a writer for the PLO, Toameh faced extreme restrictions on what he and his fellow journalists could report; they were essentially confined to writing articles praising Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian president at the time. After five years, Toameh made the decision to try his luck in the international media circuit because writing for the PLO, in his words, “just wasn’t journalism.” He has found his experience working in the Israeli and international press to be much more pleasant and satisfying.

Despite the continued poor levels of transparency and objectivity in the Palestinian media, Toameh did point out a few things to be hopeful about. He explained that rising competition among Arab news stations like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya have been banned from many Middle Eastern countries (with the exception of Israel), which has begun to stir a debate in the Arab world about the need for reform in government control of the media.

“The only country in the Middle East that Al Jazeera is free to act in is Israel,” Toameh said. “I find it ironic and sad that Arab journalists have to go to a Jewish newspaper to work.”

Despite those discouraging facts, Toameh didn’t hesitate to mention his desire for a freer Palestinian media.

“Once we [Palestinians] have free media, I will be the first person to go back,” he said.

Toameh faced a number of questions from the crowd of about 75, some of whom were bewildered that a Palestinian journalist was able to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from such an objective perspective. Toameh told the audience that he had written articles about both the suffering of Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza strip as well as the massive amounts of corruption within the Palestinian government.

“Why is it that when an Arab criticizes an Arab regime, he is accused of working for the CIA?” Toameh responded. “I’m not here to defend Israel. I’m not here to defend anyone. Do I have to apologize that I work for a Jewish newspaper? I’m proud.”

When audience members criticized him for not accurately representing the conflict, Toameh emphasized his obligation as a news journalist to present the facts in the most objective way possible, but also admitted that “you’ll never get a completely fair and balanced view.”

Audience members were enthusiastic about Toameh’s presentation.

“What I really enjoyed about his presentation was that Toameh seemed to be displaced from emotion and could see things objectively,” said Elliot Onn, a sophomore social and decision sciences major and member of Tartans for Israel. “He wasn’t defensive about his beliefs, and the knowledge and objectivity that he brought to the discussion elevates the understanding of the issues.”

The event was organized by Sahar Oz, Carnegie Mellon’s assistant dean of student affairs and assistant director of the Hillel Jewish University Center.

“It seemed to me that the program’s most surprising element for many students was Khaled’s approach, as formed by him not being a publicist or opinion columnist but rather a field reporter,” said Oz. “It was refreshing to engage in conversation with someone from that dying breed of reporter — the kind that reports on other people and events rather than making himself/herself the story.”

Audience members hoped that Toameh’s lecture would lead to increased support for bringing in more speakers to address the conflict in the Middle East.

“I think we set a good precedent by bringing in Khaled,” Onn said. “We need more speakers who can address the issues of the Middle East from an objective point of view, allowing us to understand the complexity of the region.”

The event was sponsored by Tartans for Israel, the University Lecture Series, the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh, Hasbara Fellowships, and the College Republicans.