Journalistic Clichés Versus Inter-Cultural Advances, By Ira Rifkin

Posted on January 11th, 2010 | Filed under Faith and Politics, In Print: New Books, InterViews

Back in the day when newspapers had space for such trifles, photos of housecats with pet mice perched on their heads was standard fare. The photos constituted “news” because news was defined as anything out of the ordinary. You know, man bites dog. Under that definition, cuddly photos of those generally thought of as intractable enemies – or hunter and prey, in this example – is news.

Certain stories also fall under this rubric. Not least among them is any yarn in which a Jew and an Arab act outside the usual media construct, which is to say as colleagues or friends rather than enemies. Such stories have value when set in Israel/ Palestine, where the conflict is immediate, visceral, and all consuming, and where both sides desperately need outside-the-box inspiration. Truth is, such stories are easily come by. Israeli hospitals, for example, are a goldmine of stories about cooperation and genuine friendship between Jews and Arabs who work side by side to save lives. These stories serve to remind that personal relationships can transcend political differences, that shared goals can breed understanding, acceptance and respect.

But that value is generally lost when the story is set in an American context. There’s nothing terribly unique about individual American Jews and individual American Muslims or Arabs being colleagues and friends. Moreover, in an American context such stories arguably do more harm than good by inadvertently perpetuating the destructive storyline that holds all Jews and Arabs/Muslims to be natural enemies – even in a pluralistic America.

A recent New York Times story is a case in point. The piece, a sports section offering, detailed the friendship between two Princeton University basketball players; one Palestinian American, the other a Jewish American.

The two, Niveen Rasheed and Lauren Polansky, have been friends since childhood, having bonded over basketball while growing up in California. Polansky committed to Princeton first, prompting Rasheed to follow her east. “On Polansky’s Facebook page, the featured picture is one of her and Rasheed in a friendly embrace,” we are told.

Rasheed’s parents are first-generation immigrants from the West Bank, where they have many relatives. An aunt serves with the Palestinian UN mission, and Rasheed’s parents are quite critical of Israeli policies. Polanksy’s deceased father was a Jew and her mother is a Roman Catholic from South Africa. Reporter Bill Finley says Polansky was “raised as a Jew” – a description that, from a journalistic perspective, begs for amplification in light of the story’s premise, that there is something unique about a Jew and Palestinian being friends. (An aside: such vague characterizations of religious/cultural affiliation abound in the general media. What does it mean when Tiger Woods is called a Buddhist? How many times have you seen someone described solely as a “devout Christian,” leaving it to the reader’s biased imagination to conjure up the subject’s political and social views?) As for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Polansky says, “None of that political stuff that is going on on the other side of the world is that important to me.”

Rasheed and Polansky, are in short, typical of their demographic cohorts (Polansky’s lack of interest in Israel is, in fact, so typical that American Jewish pro-Israel activists frequently lament this lack of connection to Israel among younger American Jews). Nor is it novel in contemporary America for young people from widely varied backgrounds to be brought together by shared interests. The metaphor of the American melting pot may have been strained in recent years – and, yes, uncivil campus strife over the Israel-Palestine conflict is a reality – but it remains an apt description of the manner in which the nation’s diversity broadens thinking, erases stereotypes and promotes the commonweal.

Interfaith and intercultural dialogue has its greatest chance for success among the young who have yet to develop the myriad defenses that can keep adults from opening up and risking genuine human interaction with the “other.” The housecat and mouse photo is a newspaper cliché. So is a story about friendship between two young American basketball players, regardless of their ethnic or religious origins, that inadvertently promotes unhealthy stereotypes.

rifkin-ira-__new2Ira Rifkin is Lead Editorial Consultant for The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue™. An award-winning journalist, author, and book editor, he has been a News Producer for Beliefnet and a Washington-based correspondent for Religion News Service. He has also contributed to a variety of print and Web publications, including MSNBC.com, the Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. He is author of Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval.

2 Responses to “Journalistic Clichés Versus Inter-Cultural Advances, By Ira Rifkin”

  1. […] this article, Ira Rivkin raises an interesting question. The New York Times wants us to see the story of the […]

  2. Mansour says:

    In a nutshell, Heavenly Religions are spacious, flexible and forgiving enough to accommodate people from different walks of Beliefs. For instance there is no hatered in REAL Islam, no malice, no discrimination. Even at the time of Prophet Muhammad people of different Faiths (Jews, Christians & Muslims) used to live together in harmony. Most Muslims of today do not reflect REAL Islam. The same thing could lable Christians, Jews …etc.

    Mansour