For the last five months, I have been running a journalism training program in the West Bank and Jerusalem. We started out with the best intentions, a four-person team and 40 cameras strapped to our backs.
Within three months, political activists had run us out of the West Bank, half our team was deported from Israel, and three out of the five people I brought to the region had to drop trou for Israeli soldiers. My time in the West Bank and Jerusalem easily presented some of the most interesting and difficult challenges of my professional career.
As a result, our whole team went on radio silence for the duration of our work in the field. Now, back in L.A. for two weeks, we are excited to share our adventures from the last five months.
For an idea of where this story takes place, check out this video produced by The Tiziano Project’s video mentor, “David Freid”:ttp://www.davidfreid.com, while we were working between Ramallah and Bethlehem.
Headed to the West Bank
Our story begins with a contract to teach representatives from Palestinian activist organizations in the West Bank how to better communicate with the media. For The Tiziano Project, this presented an interesting opportunity. As an organization, we work with local community members in conflict and post-conflict regions to help people tell their stories. The thought of going to the West Bank was exciting for our team and seemed like a natural followup to our work in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Tiziano Project has a strong organizational focus on journalism, and we had one stipulation before accepting the training contract in an active conflict zone: that we retain the right to complete a separate program with Israelis to look at both sides of the conflict. During a friendly meeting with our contractee over breakfast in The Tiziano Project conference room (a.k.a. my kitchen), this seemed agreeable to all involved.
Fast-forward several months. We had already completed a one-month remote training program on social media with our participants in the West Bank and were meeting them in person for the first time. Our initial class included the usual meet-and-greet activities. I presented on The Tiziano Project, what we do, and our future plans with our soon-to-launch platform, StoriesFrom.
Now, we have faced some tough situations before in dealing with sensitive regions, but we have always found that the best way to deal with concerns is to confront them head on and with complete honesty.
So on the first day of class, I outlined StoriesFrom and our plan to complete a program in Israel after our work in the West Bank.
While our contractee understood our plans, our team naively did not anticipate the response that a room full of activists would have toward our desire to work with the enemy.
During the following weeks, a series of awkward and tense negotiations ensued between myself and a man who had previously served as a negotiator on behalf of Palestine against Israel — a position I never expected to be in. Unfortunately, these negotiations remained for the most part, between either The Tiziano Project and our contractee or our contractee and the students. We attempted twice to bring the concerns up in class to confront the issues head on, but the crux of the problem was that we actually had no idea who we were going to work with once we crossed the barriers into Jerusalem. We had no partners lined up, no students, and no committed funding. We just believed that we had a journalistic obligation to show more than just one view of this conflict.
This desire reached beyond the journalistic integrity of our organization. It went straight to the heart of the curious nature of every member of my team. We kept circling back to the fact that we, ourselves, wanted to hear the other side — we wanted to talk to an Israeli, interview a settler, have some experiences that could help us fully understand and draw a conclusion about the conflict on our own.
These journalism fundamentals were the very thing that we were brought to Palestine to teach.
In the meantime, our program participants drafted a letter calling for the cancellation of our plans to work in Israel, stating that if we did not, we would face the boycott of our class. In draft form, this letter was addressed to “Tom, Victoria, X, and X” where I think Tom was meant to be me (Jon) and the two Xs represented the third and fourth mentors on my team (both coincidentally named Dave). After three weeks, while they had yet to even learn our names, our students felt comfortable pre-emptively categorizing our program as a normalization project and demanding its closure.
As a journalism organization that works regularly in tumultuous regions, we cannot let any individual, organization or government dictate who we can or cannot work with or talk to. This direct threat from our participants forced us to draw our line in the sand.
Three weeks into the eight-week program, I got the phone call. Our contractee was terminating the program before the situation with the participants escalated any further.
We went to the West Bank to help teach activist organizations how to better communicate with mainstream media. Instead, we learned that activism itself can breed resistance to journalistic freedom.
Packing Up Shop
The following night, my team went out to a bar, and a random woman approached one of us. She wasn’t there to flirt. Instead she asked: “Why are you trying to normalize the situation between Israel and Palestine?” Ramallah is a small city, and it became quickly apparent that we had overstayed our welcome.
We packed up shop and moved to Jerusalem to start from scratch on a community journalism effort that showed both sides.
But this goal continued to prove difficult.
Even the area we chose to live in, Abu Tor, which sits on the seam between East and West Jerusalem, proved controversial. One Israeli organization that we met with claimed that our project was too political simply because we chose to base ourselves in Jerusalem. And while they wanted to work with us, and supported our goal of working on both sides of the conflict, we were not able to work through any scenario where it would not be “too political” for them to be involved.
In the end, we found a great partner in Machshava Tova, an organization that sets up computer centers throughout Israel and the West Bank. The founder quickly helped us establish programs in both East and West Jerusalem, and we thought we had finally turned the corner in our work in the region.
It was at about this point in our story that our team had to travel outside of the country on a visa run. Upon re-entry, two out of my four-member team got deported to Istanbul while trying to enter Israel through Ben Gurion Airport. After initially claiming tourism as the reason for their visit, their interrogation led to their roles with The Tiziano Project, and they were flagged as anarchists. Thus began a week of absurdity trying to convince various governmental officials to let them back in — which failed miserably.
After a slew of bureaucratic dead ends, we decided to throw a Hail Mary. The customs officials at Ben Gurion gave no definitive date as to when our colleagues would be able to re-enter the country. We had also heard rumors that the tracking systems at each border do not communicate well, so we flew one mentor to Jordan to attempt re-entry overland using a second passport. Amazingly enough, it worked.
We were finally ready to get going with our classes. Awesome.
First day of class in East Jerusalem and more than 20 students showed up excited for the possibilities that awaited them in a new media class. The next day, we headed to West Jerusalem — four students.
We continued on for another week or so. The East Jerusalem program continued to gain steam and interest, while the West Jerusalem program continued to dwindle. The day that one student showed up in West Jerusalem, we canceled the program.
So in the end, the big question surrounding what we planned to do in Jerusalem — the question that got us run out of Ramallah, the question that we continually responded with “we’re not sure yet” to our program participants — turned out to be a training program in East Jerusalem working solely with Palestinians.
We completed our program with 11 amazing students ranging in age from 15 to 56. Together they told 44 individual stories covering everything from a local slum to a Palestinian ballerina.
The New Activism
In the last five months, we learned one lesson loud and clear. The Tiziano Project walks a fine line between activism and journalism. This is something I’ve discussed in a previous post, and we even won SXSW Interactive in 2011 for Activism.
What sets us apart is that we don’t overtly push activist causes. That is not our mission. We simply enable everyday community members to share their stories — whatever those may be — in a high-quality, journalistic manner, while connecting those local perspectives with global audiences.
Connecting individuals around the world with local community members in at-risk regions allows people to understand conflicts in new ways. It personalizes regions that are generally over-sensationalized by mainstream media. I strongly believe that promoting efforts that continue to make the world a smaller place will engage and empower communities that would never be reached through traditional activism.
Through StoriesFrom, The Tiziano Project will continue our mission to promote quality journalism, while at the same time connecting global audiences with local communities to help effect change worldwide.