New York – The recent visit of Moroccan journalists to Israel, along with a mixed delegation of various Middle Eastern journalists, sparked controversy on the Moroccan street and drew condemnation from the Minister of Culture.
The journalists visited with various political circles and received support from Israel’s Foreign Ministry, in response to the popular backlash, based in the perception that such visits whitewash and legitimize those of Israel’s policies which are perceived to be anti-Palestinian. There are several things to be noted about this event, which bypassed international attention, and yet, constitute a significant development:
First, Israel is opening up to welcoming press from countries previously considered hostile (including Yemen). This level of transparency is beneficial to everyone, because the journalists can write their critiques as well as any changed perceptions in the aftermath. Under such circumstances, when the journalists are actually on the ground talking to the involved policymakers, their credibility with respect to underscoring any legitimate concerns, human rights issues, or discussions of possibilities of peacebuilding or conflict resolution is significantly greater, not just in Israel, but in the international community than if they write one-sided reviews from their home countries without ever personally experiencing the situation on the ground.
And from Israel’s perspective, this constitutes a movement away from a purely defensive PR stand, reliant primarily on criticisms of unfair coverage in the media, as well as an outreach to the world community that is based on issues that have nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and which, therefore did not in any way change anyone’s understanding or position on that conflict. Confronting criticisms and any misunderstandings directly is the only real way towards changing perspectives and resolving differences.
Second, despite the popular outrage and the rebuke from government officials, the most important point of this story came from the journalists themselves: that they are free to go wherever they please, to write what they think is necessarily, and while both the people and their government may disagree with them, they will suffer no penalties from doing their job. That point about the independence of the press is in itself remarkably good PR for Morocco, in the days where members of the press are regularly killed in conflict zones, or thrown in prison for showcasing any difference in opinion from their governments’ official positions, in countries such as Turkey, which imprisoned journalists en masse and closed down newspapers, and Algeria, which, despite its popularity in the West, has enacted restrictive laws against press freedom and penalizes it for blasphemy.
Ironically, granting freedom to journalists to engage in actions considered politically incorrect and grossly unpopular boosts Morocco’s image significantly more than restricting them from doing so and only publishing reports favorable to popular opinions.
Morocco’s progress on various fronts, particularly in recent times is undeniable. It is participating in UAE’s international food fair, boosting ties with other African countries, such as Kenya, participating as a host to the signing of the UN World Pact on Migration, and in Doha’s interfaith conference, progressing on transforming Sahara into a solar energy oasis, leading Africa in 4G access, training African IT graduates to ensure continuation of success across the board, successfully battling corruption, enjoying a brilliant success in the growth of its annual Digital Access Summit, and in general is fast on the way to fulfilling its vision of being a bridge between Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, while also rising as a hub of modernity and innovation. The theme reverberating throughout these various accomplishments is pluralism and diversity. None of these international events would be possible without the pluralism of cultures and diversity of opinions and approaches, which drive innovation and progress.
The openness that characterizes Morocco’s approaches to cultural integrations, modernity, and outside-the-box approach to collaborations and engagement is already serving it well. However, it will do so even more as it becomes increasingly perceived as a country tolerant of diversity of political opinions regarding the future of the region – and for that reason the Moroccan journalists who traveled to Israel actually enhanced the image of Morocco.
Given that Israel enjoys a number of growing diplomatic relationships with African states, focused primarily on humanitarian aid and training, and green energy-related investments, Morocco’s position in Africa will not suffer as a result of this development, but on the contrary only grow as more and more countries explore approaches to resolving bilateral and multilateral conflicts not through aggression, isolation, and boycotts, but through engagement, discussion, and creative problem solving.
Most interestingly, these journalists are coming back with the perspective that many people may not see: and that is, that Israel’s decision-making and political apparatus is not monolithic, and neither is the attitude towards Palestinians or the conflict. This has been a valuable opportunity for these journalists to learn that the diversity of views on this inside Israeli political and social circles is legendary and subject to constant debate and reevaluation.
Just as importantly, the lesson to learn here is that Israeli government and the Israelis themselves are not one and the same, which is true for any country on the planet. A visit to any foreign country is an opportunity to form relations not just with politicians, analysts, or other journalists, but with the regular people, who do not have the power of political brokerage, but rather deal with the consequences of events often outside their control on a day to day level. Learning that for all the political posturing on various issues, the regular people prefer to find paths to engagement and peaceful coexistence because that is what is in their own best interests is the most valuable lesson towards approaching any sort of conflict that can come out of exchange of such delegations.
Circling back to what provoked such angry reactions to begin with, it can, at first glance, be attributed to two factors. First, the Moroccans are sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians, many of whom indeed suffered various difficulties and indignities as a result of assorted factors. Feeling compassion towards other human beings is wonderful, and the fact that Moroccans overall are warm, engaging, and welcoming people reflects well on them. It is no surprise that they have concern for people who are troubled by assortment of political and social issues, and who have been at the heart of international, and particularly, Middle East media attention for decades. Wanting to show solidarity and support towards the disenfranchised is only natural.
The problem is, of course, is when the information flows only one way, the knowledge of all nuances of a conflict taking place far away is incomplete, and the reaction of anger alienates more than it helps. In particular, showing anger towards journalists for visiting ignores the role of the media in factfinding and uncovering truth, whatever it is, rather than supporting or enabling any particular policy or position. War journalists who travel to conflict zones and embed themselves with assorted groups are not endorsing the conflict, or any position of any party in that conflict. They are informing themselves about the details of what is happening, and educating their audiences about the relevant issues.
Similarly, the visit of the journalists to Israel is not by itself an endorsement of Israel’s policies, but rather an expression of honest interest in understanding what is perceived as a significant issue. Failing to do so would have been a disservice to everyone involved because good journalism means understanding all perspectives on a particular issue, and engaging in direct contact with the involved participants.
Just as importantly, this presents an opening that could be a great opportunity to overcoming the prejudices that not only contributed to the Palestinian issues, but that have stemmed from it. The more Moroccans travel to the region and engage with Israelis and Palestinians on a personal level, the more the issue will be understood, stereotypes of all sides are broken, and honest conversations can be held. The truth is, both sides are likely tired of the endless attention paid to them by Western outlets and agenda-driven NGOs; perhaps seeing the openness of people from other places who are curious, interested, concerned, and involved will be a welcome change from the usual static and repetitive nattering.
Moroccans do not carry the same loaded history as many of the Westerners proliferating through the tiny area that harbors so many sad, but also inspiring stories. And their focus on a personal level is improving their own country and facilitating engagement and connections, rather than winning Nobel Peace Prizes and scoring cheap political points. Their anger at the journalists came out of genuine concern.
However, the better outlet for strong compassion is not the negativity and drawing back, but rather exploration and positive contribution towards building bridges, overcoming bigotry, and humanizing distanced peoples towards each other. In that, the energy of the street reaction towards the reporters can be channeled towards a very positive end; hopefully, the reporting about the meetings will help to break through the beaten down narrative is that the only way to deal with a problem is by striking out at it.
The other issue here is that there is a certain segment of people, that is deliberately fueling populism at the expense of problem solving. In part, it is easier to fuel fear, anger, and criticism at some external situation than deal with internal challenges. And in part, it is a perfect segway for coopting strong energies towards their own nefarious agendas, that ultimately, do not benefit Palestinians, but harm everyone.
Those who are genuinely concerned about the plight of the unfortunate and the destitute would focus on solutions for providing them with jobs, resolving security concerns, and empowering them to overcome bad leadership, bad history, and and counterproductive associations and approaches. The focus would be on building something positive. Whenever all of the sentiment is merely aimed at someone else’s expense, to be sure there is some group that is deliberately preventing a rational conversation about the implications of a particular development, be it a media trip or something more, and aiming to empower only themselves by saying the easy things and by creating waves of resentment.
Resentment-driven populism never works out well; vision of a positive future for everyone who lives in the Middle East and Africa is a much better way of handling conflict resolution, promotion of human rights, and economic development – and the journalists made an important step in that direction.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent any institution or entity.
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