Aerial view of the old city of Jerusalem

#54: Emma Green 2018

A Reporter's Notebook, May 27, 2022

In Rewrite Radio Episode #54, journalist Emma Green opens up her reporter’s notebook from her time spent living in Jerusalem, looking at the broader themes that animate global religion.




[00:00:05] Today on Rewrite Radio, Emma Green talks about her experiences as a journalist living in Jerusalem, where she adopted a posture of humility by asking the biggest but simplest questions about the complexities of history.

My name is Jennifer Holberg, and I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.

Emma Green is a staff writer for The New Yorker. She previously was a staff writer for The Atlantic, covering politics, policy, and religion. In 2018, Green won the Religion News Association's first-place award in religion-news analysis, and she spent that year reporting from Israel and Palestine. Her work has also appeared in outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR. 

And now, from the 2018 Festival of Faith & Writing, Emma Green.

[theme music]


Emma Green: It is so good to be with you all here in Grand Rapids. A secret about me is that I'm obsessed with Grand Rapids, and I think it's the most interesting city. So it's really my pleasure to be able to come here and share with you all as we talk about faith and writing and literature and all of the wonderful topics here at the Festival.

So I should start out by telling you a little bit about me and why specifically I'm talking about the Holy Land and give you some caveats before we dive in to my notebook, so to speak. So I've been living in Jerusalem since the middle of last summer for about eight months now. And I'm there on assignment in part because The Atlantic has a grant to expand our global religion coverage. The idea was to be able to go beyond the shores of America, both to keep our home situation domestically in the back of my mind, but also to sort of look more broadly at these bigger questions and bigger themes that animate global religion. 

And as I've been there, I am not a few things. And I, and I want to bring those caveats into this conversation with you. The first thing that I am not is a foreign affairs, foreign policy, hard-hitting Israel, Palestine reporter. And I make that distinction for a few reasons. The first is that there are veteran reporters who have been in Israel, Palestine for a long time, and know the ins and outs of the place, have done technical reporting on the domestic political issues, and the conflict and the two-state solution that I just have not touched in my reporting in Jerusalem. So I want to make it clear that that has not been what I've been up to. 

And the second thing, which I am almost trembling to say before you because it sort of negates the premise of the talk, but not entirely, hopefully, is that I'm not an expert, and the reason why I say that will hopefully become clear over the course of my talk. But one of the biggest takeaways that I've had from my time in the holy land is how complex it is. You know, it's my theory as a reporter, generally, that the more you get to know a topic, the more you realize that you're never going to learn anything about it, and it's impossible to master it.

But in particular, when it comes to Jerusalem, when it comes to Israel, when it comes to Palestine, there's so much history, so much complexity, so many different stakeholders and constituencies that to be truly an expert takes an enormous amount of experience and time and detail and richness. And I just want to be here. Hopefully you'll, you'll walk with me in this, in a posture of humility. Which is to say, I've gone with questions, I've gone to learn, I've gone to observe. I've gone to be a reporter in the best way that I can. And often being a reporter means starting from zero, asking the dumbest questions and the questions that are sort of the biggest and the looming and the most conceptual. And that's yielded some gains for me that I want to share with you, but that's sort of the posture that I'm operating from. 

The other caveat that I want to bring into this conversation, which is not going to be possible, but I'll try is, as much as possible, I would like to talk about this topic in a politically neutral way. And the reason why I said it's not possible is that, neutrality or journalistic objectivity in general is a total myth and a total lie. There's no such thing as being completely objective or neutral. You know, I want to try to talk about this from the perspective of an analytical observer, a person who's living there for a time, but is not of there, is not an owner of that place. And not being too invested on one side or another, in sort of a political framework, which we'll talk about a little bit, later on. 

So that those are my goals and those are my postures. And I'm hopeful that you'll be willing to walk along with me as we go through the challenges of reporting from the Holy Land.

[00:05:07] So as I have gone to Israel, been in Jerusalem for the past eight months, filling my notebooks, taking notes, talking to people, visiting sites, trying to just suck in everything that is there, which there's a lot. There have been three major challenges and themes that have, have merged to me, that set apart report in Israel from reporting in America. And I think specifically reporting in Jerusalem is actually its own sort of realm and world. 

The first major challenge is the challenge of narrative. Anytime someone's writing a story and particularly when you're operating in the space between long-form magazine journalism and news reporting, which is what I tend to do, you always have to grapple with the challenge of competing narratives. People who say one thing and people who say another thing, people who have this claim to this thing, people have this claim to this thing. That's just part of the process of writing. 

But in Jerusalem, that is very, very complicated. Historically, this is a land where many peoples have many claims to holy, to pieces of territory, to historical lineage. And not only are there are these conflicting claims and census of ownership, but the stakes are very, very high. These are some of the conflicts and sort of senses of self narrative that matter to more people in the world than just about any other tiny bit of land, the size of New Jersey anywhere else. So having to reconcile with that has been really challenging. 

Particularly one of the narrative challenges that I've found is trying to bridge the gap between how we talk about Israel-Palestine in the United States, and how we talk about it in Israel or how people talk about it in Israel. And I'll share a story with you along these lines. So as you all are probably familiar, President Trump announced in December that he would officially be moving the embassy of the United States from Tel-Aviv, where it's typically been located, to Jerusalem. And he would officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

This is controversial because this is a matter of final status for a potential future two-state solution between Israel and Palestine. And so it was widely perceived as sort of jumping ahead of any negotiation that might happen and just giving Jerusalem to Israel, rather than recognizing it as potentially a split capital of two states in the future.

So I tell you this, not to sort of get into the technicalities of negotiating the two-state solution and various diplomatic efforts. But because what I was hearing on TV, reading on Twitter, reading on by-lines coming out of America from the PERMA pundit class, that occupies Washington was that it was going to be crazy, like things were going to get crazy and Jerusalem. There were going to be insane protests. It was going to blow up. Everything was going to dissolve. It was going to be the most catastrophic event that we had seen in years in Israel. 

This was grounded, I think in some good reason for speculation, there was, there was some basis for this. But what I found as I was reporting in the weeks after this announcement was actually that there were a lot more factors locally that were operating underneath the surface about how people were invested in this and what they were thinking about this decision. 

In particular, I went to the Damascus gate, which is the big gate that goes into the old city of Jerusalem that's on the side of east Jerusalem, which is the Palestinian-held part of Jerusalem. And this is typically an area of conflict and protest and can be sort of a site of clashes between police and protestors. And I went, and you know, there, there were protests. There were people there, there was some kerfuffles, there were a few minor injuries. But for the most part, people seem not to want to engage. 

I talked to shop owners who were tired of having to shut down because they were afraid that things were going to happen. I talked to a young man who said he came out, he had energy to get out. He wanted to demonstrate that he objected to this decision, but mostly he wanted to just keep his job fixing air conditioners and Be’er Sheva and didn't really want to sort of have this embattled conflict characterize his life.

So seeing these things happening in Jerusalem and seeing how much they contrasted with what I was hearing from America about what was supposed to be happening in Jerusalem was a red flag for me about the difference between how we predict things, how we conceptualize things, and what's actually happening on the ground–a sort of difference in narrative. 

Another narrative challenge for me has been the prevalence of foreign policy framework and thinking about Israel-Palestine, and you'll even hear it in the way that I'm talking about this. That whole story was kind of about foreign policy. But one of the things that's so remarkable about Israel and Palestine being places that are the historical holy sites for so many different peoples, is that there isn't actually a ton of religion reporting that goes on there. A lot of times people's stories are talked about in terms of where they sit on one side of the geopolitical conflict or another, what kinds of claims they have in terms of legal status or legal rights, often in terms of violence and protests.

[00:10:20] And that story can get in the way of reporting all sorts of other stories. This one narrative framework of foreign policy and geopolitics always is dominating how we think about this space can sometimes obscure the fact that, for example, the Holy Fire Ceremony, which I missed, and I'm so broken hearted that I missed, during Orthodox Easter. When Orthodox Christians will come into the church of the Holy Sepulchre bringing candles and there's a big ceremony of fire. I'm telling you a broken hearted as a religion reporter that I wasn't there for it because I had to come back to the States. Not, not that that's your fault or anything. You know, stories like this, these everyday aspects of life in Jerusalem and Israel-Palestine that are illuminated by people's cultures and traditions and religiosity often get obscured and sort of stamped out. So that's another challenge of narrative. 

And finally the diversity of Israel-Palestine often doesn't get captured in news reports from America and in general, in stories about what Israel is, a narrative that. I hear about Israel, especially from the left in the United States. They talk a lot about Israel being conceived as a white state which is a really complicated topic.But this is something that I've thought about a lot while I've been there. The history of Israel is actually one of immense racial diversity within a certain frame. The kinds of racial profiles that are in Israel and the kinds racial conceptions don't map neatly onto the racial conceptions that we have in the United States.

So there are all kinds of diversity in religious traditions of racial and ethnic backgrounds that often gets smoothed out when we just reduce Israel, Palestine to being two sides that are Jews versus Muslims and Christians and not really thinking about all of the many diversions of people who are within that category.

So that's one challenge is narrative. All of these competing stories are about why Israel, Palestine is suffering. Another challenge is just getting the right framework, getting into the mindset of how people think about things and talk about things which is remarkably different than it is here in the United States.

So, one major aspect of this that's really resonated with me is the hard distinction here in the States between secular and religious. This idea that you can believe in something like you believe in a religious tradition. You're a Christian. You're a Jew. You're a Muslim. And you believe that, or you don't. You're an atheist. You're secular. It’s sort of two separate things based on a creed that you believe.

In Israel, I'm especially talking about the majority Jewish population. There is that distinction too, between secular Jews, Orthodox Jews, and religious Jews. But the framework is different because everyone there is Jewish and a lot are secular Jews.TheyI do all sorts of things that wouldn't look very secular to us here in the United States. They might light candles on Shabbat. They might have certain things that they won't eat. They might have certain superstitions that they still keep in their house because they were handed down to them from their parents and grandparents. The way that I've thought about it is sort of basing our understanding of faith and religion, not just on creed and belief in something that you opt into, but who and in Israel, Palestine, who you are is a religion. That's what defines people. That's how they orient themselves. That's their community. That's their basis. And you can't really separate that easily based on someone not believing in God, thinking that keeping kosher is stupid, not really going to mosque, or not really going to church.

There are all sorts of Palestinians again. We in the United States might call secular, atheist or agnostic people but who identify firmly as being Christian or Muslim, even if they don't really attend religious services. Often religion is who you are. And that's sort of a paradigm breaker for me. That's been really interesting to try to grapple with and deal with. 

Also, the political paradigm of Israel is different. We're so used to in the United States, this default assumption that church and state are separate things and there's some sort of magical wall that divides them. And if that wall gets breached, then we go to war at the Supreme court and things will shake out over time. In Israel, religion dominates everything.

One really strong example for me is the system of marriage. So this is something the state of Israel adapted from the Ottomans during the formation of the state in 1948. And the system that had been in place is that the Ottomans essentially didn't want to deal with all of the different groups who had different systems for understanding what marriage was and Israel, as it turned out, really didn't want to deal with it either. So it's kept the same system of rules which says anyone who gets married in the state of Israel has to be married under the religious court or religious authority of their particular religious tradition. It's true for Christians. It's true for Muslims. It's true for Jews. And what this means is that secular Israelis who don't want to get married under an Orthodox rabbinical court really don't have much luck. A lot of people fly to Cyprus, which is just across the water, a hop, skip, and a jump to get married and then come back and get their marriages sort of domestically recognized in Israel.

[00:15:44] Or for example, if people want to marry across ethnic lines or religious lines, there's no way for them to do that. So in Israeli, a Palestinian getting married to someone else has to get married somewhere else, and then come back and get their religion recognized. To me this kind of fact is old news for anyone who's occupied this space for a long time and knows about the ins and outs of the Israeli Jewish rabbinical authority called the revenue. Just sort of stepping back and thinking from the perspective of an American it’s wild that there are only religious authorities. We're able to marry people. But, anyone who doesn't want to be married under that authority has no option in the state of Israel. It's wild. It's a different political paradigm. 

And finally, just from a technical point of view, the reporting paradigm in Israel is so wildly different than the US. I lived in Washington, DC for almost a decade before I left to go to Jerusalem. Everyone in DC is all about their calendars. I mean, I had date books for day appointments scheduled by the 15 minutes. Everyone is very nailed down in terms of what they're up to and what they're doing.

In Israel, you call up a mom or you call up a Palestinian pastor and say, “Hey, I'm hoping to talk with you. You know, I'm a journalist.” And they'll say, “okay, great, come here in 30 minutes. We'll see you.” And they put down the phone and say, okay, all right, we're doing this. Let's go. This is great. It's sort of an adjustment to the sort of hustle and flow style of the Middle East for me as a reporter to be going into these communities and having to figure out on the fly what their norms are and how to talk to them. What kinds of things might trigger some sensibilities? What are the issues that are hovering in the back of their mind?And finally, I think just in terms of those paradigms, there is sort of a different reporting paradigm in Israel as well for just the media environment.

I'm using the language of Israel just to sort of go back to that point of neutrality because I do live in Jerusalem and I spend most of my time in west Jerusalem which is the Israeli side of Jerusalem. And I spend most of my time in Israel proper, although I do travel into the territories as well.

So, in that context the Israeli government is very different in the way that it interacts with the press than the way that the U S government interacts with the press. On my phone, I get WhatsApp updates that are press releases from the Israelis. Probably around three, five times a day that have different statements.

They tend to really kind of hand stories to reporters in certain directions. And because of that, there can sometimes be a lack of aggressiveness in certain parts of the press Corps. And in other parts of the press Corps, there is more aggressiveness. But the interaction with the government is really quite different.

When I went to go get my GPO card, which is the press certification card, I found out that they have a whole tracking office of people who are sort of tracking the media coming in and out of the country. And there's just a lot of sort of surveillance and interaction and management of media which at least in my experience as a US reporter is a little bit more hands-on than what I had experienced here. But finally, since I'm getting through talking about all of these challenges and differences, I wanted to talk about a third challenge, which isn't really a challenge at all. It's more a statement of hope, a statement of what I hope can be taken out of all of this.

Even with the difficulties of reporting in Israel, Palestine, and reconciling all of these things. And the fact that Israel and Jerusalem in particular is the most intense place in the world and I say that with a little bit of fondness, a little bit of an eye roll, but mostly admiration. The amount of intensity that people feel about this place, this land, these buildings, these blocks, these rocks, these places. The amount of intensity that they feel about their religious traditions, their communities, their history is extraordinary. 

And we have some resonance with that here in the United States. This is a very religious country. It has a lot of very religiously dedicated people, but also a sense of rootedness in history and ancientness. It's just unlike anything that I've ever experienced and has been very moving to me, especially as a reporter. 

[00:20:10] I've had a lot of experiences that have driven this home for me. The first was when I arrived in Israel and realized that my apartment was right outside of a synagogue that is Sephardi, meaning that it's a Middle Eastern or Southern European extraction, sort of non Eastern European, Northern European extraction.

There are traditions of sobriety shuls in a period that leads up to the high holy days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippor, to do prayers really early in the morning and blow the shofar which is the Ram's horn. And when I say early in the morning, I mean really early in the morning. So my wake-up call for about the first month when I was in Jerusalem was a very dedicated group of men next door in the synagogue, blowing the shofar around 5:30 in the morning and ready to go with their prayers.

This was a great scene setter because the noise of Jerusalem has been arresting to me. The fact that in different neighborhoods at different times, depending on how the timing lines up, you could hear the call to prayer in one side of your ear and then at the other side of your ear. You could hear people praying in a Jewish synagogue and hear them be equally vigorous and equally loud.

One thing I love is that on Fridays, before the sundown, before Shabbat begins, which basically overtakes the entire Jewish portion of Jerusalem, there's a I'll generously call it an ice cream truck. I mean, I know it's not an ice cream truck, but it really sounds like an ice cream truck of a song that gets played as sundown is coming and people have to prepare to bring in Shabbat to praise the, excuse me, ice cream truck not ice cream truck that plays a traditional Kabbalistic sort of spiritual song. That's part of the liturgy for the evening. The Shabbat service Kabbalistid song is about bringing the bride of the Sabbath in, and the fact that somebody is rolling through the neighborhood, playing this on a giant loudspeaker, trying to tell everybody and alert everybody that it's time to go is pretty, pretty radical to me. 

There have been other big moments that have stayed with me. In the fall I got to report on an event called the Feast of the Tabernacles, which is a gathering every year of roughly 6,000 Christian pilgrims from all over the world coming to Israel to mark the Jewish holiday of Sukkot which is a feast of Tabernacles, but mostly to celebrate Israel. And I spent a night in the desert with them, right by the dead sea, having a huge revival kind of concert, singing songs in Hebrew, even though there was probably no one in the audience. I spoke Hebrew and just heard the songs wave over and over across the dead sea nights. I remember standing in front of the Western wall in the days leading up to those holy days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. The night before Yom Kippur, all of Jerusalem converges on this big Plaza before the Western wall, which is thought in the Jewish tradition to be the retaining wall of the ancient temple, literally packed with thousands and thousands of people praying at all points of the old city just packed in together. And the sound of everyone praying together is just overwhelming. These kinds of stories really stick with me because they show me what Jerusalem is really about, the streams of men going to pray at Al-Aqsa on Friday afternoons.

This is a big moment when everyone comes together on the streets of the old city of Jerusalem. It’s just crowded with people going to pray. That's really, to me, what brings true Islam alive and what makes it so special, especially as someone who cares about religion, who reports about religion, who tries to write about the concerns of religion to.

So I tell you all of those things in part, because those are just the stories and the memories that I really cherish from my time being in Jerusalem. But also because I think that weightiness is significant in its own way about thinking how to frame Jerusalem, how do I approach it as an observer, a temporary passer by someone who's just sort of moving through.

That ultimately animates these other challenges and these other conflicts. People have these different narrative claims to Israel because of this intensity that they feel about its importance. There's sort of a paradigm shift around what Israel is because there is this weightiness around defining Israel as a religious place, defining Jerusalem as a religious place, defining the west bank as a religious place.

And ultimately that's what I'm hoping to take away is a sense of reverence and awe and understanding a little bit of how much people care and how much weight there is invested in those rocks, those paths, those places, and to also leave understanding that I am just another visitor, like so many visitors through the holy land. And then I'll get to take away something, hopefully to bring back here to America, to have as context for my reporting. But then ultimately I won't leave an expert and I won't leave someone who owns that place. But at least I will have been able to see it for a short time and in a limited way.

[00:25:30] That's my notebook.


Heidi Groenboom: Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, located on the campus of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI. You can find more information about the Center, our initiatives, and our signature event, the Festival of Faith & Writing, online at and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @CCFWgr. You can also subscribe to Rewrite Radio on iTunes, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Thanks so much for listening, and stay tuned for more from our archives.