By their role models shall ye know them

A major Arab media conference  took place this past weekend in the Jordanian capital, Amman. A published opinion piece authored by a senior member of the organizing group opens with these words:

“The lights of free speech are being steadily extinguished across the Arab world, heralding a new era of ignorance, intolerance and repression… “

Plainly, the op ed writer decries the situation and wants it changed for the better. But knowing what we know (we explain below), the problems are more profoundly disturbing than she and her professional colleagues seem to realize.

Jordan, like the rest of the Arab world, lacks a free press. The respected human rights watchdog organization Freedom House in its 2014 report calls the Hashemite Kingdom “Not Free” and gives it a score of 6 on a scale of 7 for freedom of the press. (7 is the worst score.) It notes “a marked increase in the number of incidents of intimidation and physical attacks” on members of the media during 2013. Reporters Without Frontiers monitors freedom of the press too, and says Jordan’s authorities further tightened their grip on its media during the past year.

Princess Rym Ali is a former CNN reporter who married King Abdullah II’s half-brother. She is the prime mover behind the establishment of an Arabic language graduate school of journalism in Amman, the Jordan Media Institute, operating since 2010. Her vision is to “raise professional standards and become a regional beacon” on the model of her own alma mater, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. The JMI board of directors includes prominent individuals from journalism, law, publishing, Jordan’s royal family and the long-time head of Agence France Press’ bureau in Amman.

To judge from its website, JMI’s arrival on the scene heralds something uplifting and positive. Its professed values and mission statement echo those of the best global journalism schools. It stands for “media freedom and human rights”, an “unparalleled centre of excellence in the Middle East”, “innovative curricula”, “world-class facilities”, “highest international standards”, “emphasizing accuracy and ethical journalistic procedures” in order to “provide the public with increased access to fair and balanced news”, all while acknowledging (a key term) “the distinctiveness of Arab culture and philosophy”.

An impressive list of funders and strategic partners provide “in-kind, financial or technical assistance” to make it happen: Among them: The United Kingdom government; Sweden’s Anna Lindh Foundation; UNESCO; Reporters Without Borders; Journalists for Human Rights; the EU via the European Commission Delegation in Jordan; The Swedish Institute; the London-based advertising powerhouse Saatchi & Saatchi; the Netherlands Embassy in Amman; the International Development Aid agencies of Canada and of Australia; the Embassy of Germany in Jordan; the Norwegian Institute of Journalism, and others.

Seems to be going the right way. But wait.

A button on the homepage of the JMI website links to a related website where the work-product of JMI’s own cadre of young journalists is published. Naturally, it’s in Arabic only; these contents are not meant for the Western sponsors and international partners. But intentionally or not, it is these pages – along with the invaluable help of Google Translate’s Arabic-to-English service – that shine a revealing light for non-Arabic speakers like us on what all that NGO money and European inspiration is enabling for this “unparalleled centre of excellence in the Middle East”.

If you visit it today, as we did, you will notice that on every page of the site, under the headline “Success Models”, a journalist called Tamimi is profiled. She is the murderer of my daughter Malki.

The JMI journalists’ homepage features a large photograph of Tamimi and certain biographical details concerning her journalistic background. But there are important things about its “success model” that this new centre of journalistic “excellence” omits:

  • Tamimi brought a human bomb to the center of Jerusalem on August 9, 2001 to blow up a busy Sbarro pizzeria. She was instrumental in planning this major terrorist attack.
  • Fifteen people were blown to pieces and 130 injured, many of them children and infants.
  • The sixteenth victim – a young mother with a two year-old daughter – has never regained consciousness.
  • The people traveling on the bus with Tamimi from Jerusalem to Ramallah in the hour after the explosion beamed with delight as the scale of the carnage was reported on the radio.
  • Tamimi was barely able to contain the happiness [video] that came from secretly being the one responsible for the massacre and no one on the bus knew.

Tamimi is a convicted killer, a psychopath who boasts on YouTube that she selected the site of her massacre so that the dead would include as many young religious Jews as possible. She smiled broadly with perverse pleasure [video] when informed of how many children’s lives were extinguished in the attack she masterminded.

JMI tells its English-speaking sponsors what it wants them to hear – that JMI embraces the “highest international standards” and “ethical journalistic procedures” – and the financial support flows. Yet in Arabic, the language of its Jordanian audience, JMI embraces a much darker narrative, one in which it glorifies a mass murderer. Do the Western funders understand this?

If we are wrong about JMI’s embrace of Tamimi, we would expect an urgent outburst of Arab rage at the affront to the honor of their society. But bitter experience tells us not to hold our breaths.

The JMI outrage does not exist in isolation. Consider the distinctive way Jordan’s legal system views terror. It might not be what most people think:

The Lower House [of Jordan’s parliament] on Wednesday endorsed draft amendments to the State Security Court (SSC) Law following extensive discussions over its provisions. The deputies excluded “resistance actions” against Israel from the court’s jurisdiction, following a proposal to do so by Deputy Tareq Khoury (Zarqa, 1st District). The deputies agreed that any actions against Israel cannot be “terrorism” at all; hence, they approved a provision that excludes actions against Israel from terrorism crimes. [Jordan Times, December 11, 2013]

The repugnant manner in which they have adjusted their laws is something to keep in mind when the Jordanians next stand shoulder to shoulder with Europe and the US in the battle against the jihadists. The State Department still calls them “a strong ally in combating terrorism and violent extremist ideology”.

Malki Roth in June 2001, six weeks before her death in the bombing of the Sbarro pizzeria
Malki Roth in June 2001, six weeks before her death in the bombing of the Sbarro pizzeria

Princess Rym, interviewed before JMI opened its doors, saidEverybody talks about the media explosion in the Middle East“. She probably was not thinking of Tamimi, the budding young media student in the final year of journalism studies at Birzeit University who moonlighted as a news-reader at a West Bank television station. When Tamimi joined Hamas in 2001 as its first female jihadist, an explosion was what Tamimi had in mind. And on August 9, 2001, she made it happen.

The transcript of her subsequent trial on multiple murder charges shows Tamimi confessed it all to the court, and with no remorse.  She told the judges:

“The smile on my face will not be erased. I will not ask forgiveness… I will be smiling always because I won.”

The impact her bloodless words had on the court can be gauged from the way the presiding judge framed the sentence:

“It is our responsibility to distance the defendant from society forever… Let the normal pleasures of life therefore be denied the accused until the time of her death behind bars. We sentence the guilty party, unanimously, to fifteen life sentences and add to them one further life sentence for her other crimes… [and] recommend that the guilty party not be eligible for pardon by the military commander, nor to early parole by any other means.”

Justice unfortunately was not done. Less than eight years later, to our horror, Tamimi walked out of her Israeli prison cell to freedom. She was one of 1,027 undeserving beneficiaries of a successful act of terrorist extortion, the Gilad Shalit transaction that subsequently cost so many innocent Israeli lives and did so much irreversible harm to fundamental principles of justice.

On the day she was freed, Tamimi was transported immediately to Cairo for a photo op with the arch-terrorist who heads Hamas. Then, right after that, a flight to Jordan, her homeland, for a triumphant reception in her honour on the premises of her country’s Family Law Court. Numerous additional gala events followed in Jordan and abroad. Soon she was given a weekly television program of her own on one of the Hamas satellite channels. Via television, cable, the social media and rallies in public places, she leveraged her status as an icon, as the incendiary unchained voice of the murder-minded terrorists still behind Israeli bars.

During Operation Protective Edge this past summer, as hundreds of rockets were being fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel’s towns and homes, Tamimi was the anchor for a series of blood-curdling, morale-boosting prime-time television programs produced by Hamas and beamed far, wide and via YouTube. She has become central to their jihadist war against the hated Jews.

But it’s her status as the poster girl, literally, for JMI, one of the Arab world’s most promising, well-resourced initiatives that ought to be causing deep dismay in the West.

Actually, it goes well beyond dismay. There’s a screaming contradiction at work here. On one hand, a politically-correct pledge to lofty journalistic values; all the right words. On the other, the marketing of Tamimi, a psychopath whose public appearances are replete with the language of religious zealotry, as the embodiment of Arab journalism’s courageous new wave. Lethal journalism personified.

This echoes aspects of the cultural encounter between Western democracies and Arab Muslim societies in which both use the same terminology but mean different things. The scandalous exploitation of video footage claiming to show a Gazan boy, Muhammad al Durah, being shot dead by Israeli soldiers in 2000 illustrates what we mean.

(The Al Durah affair centers on a shocking video clip that went phenomenally viral 14 years ago. The Arab boy is terrified; his father is powerless; the Israeli bullets keep coming, until finally they strike home; the boy is dead. The part not screened at the time, right after the point where he is declared dead by the voice-over, shows the boy peeking out at the camera from under a raised elbow, plainly not dead. The consequences continue to exact innocent lives and are still being litigated in France’s courts.)

A sound-bite [here] from a longer video interview shows a PA official who doctored the Al Durah video footage explaining that the tampering was done to fulfill the journalists’ duty “of relating the truth and nothing but the truth.” He looks satisfied as he says it, convinced he did the right thing. For audiences with a Western outlook, it exemplifies how blood libels, updated from their medieval origins, work in today’s world.

Mass murderers like Tamimi, honored by her peers for putting journalism to effective use for the benefit of their cause, evoke a similar sense of horror. Do these people seriously not understand what she did? Where did we lose each other? If Jordan’s best-educated cohort of emerging influence-builders thinks and does this when they believe no one outside the Arabic-speaking world is looking, what hope is there of a better future?

One answer is: there is hope. There is always hope. The beautiful, tragically short life of my daughter shows that. Malki loved life, loved making people smile, loved doing good. Her devotion to children with severe disabilities, starting with her own youngest sister, was inspirational. The work of the foundation we created in her memory – The Malki Foundation – with families from every part of Israeli society (Christians, Druze, Moslems, the unaffiliated, Jews) who care for a child with severe disabilities is our way of creating a success model.

The 13 years since Malki was killed have been replete with reminders of how differently the people on the other side view things. For us, remembering our tragedy and honoring our child’s stolen life has involved bettering the lives of strangers, trying to affirm what we share. It’s the polar opposite of what the JMI journalists’ success model stands for. Finding a common language with them will take far more than political correctness and mission statements.

About the Author
Arnold Roth, an attorney and technology business manager, serves as honorary chair of the Malki Foundation which he and his wife Frimet established in 2001. Its work honors the memory of their daughter Malki, murdered in a terrorist attack on the Sbarro pizza shop in the center of Jerusalem.
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