So You Want to Be Jerusalem Bureau Chief…

How to tackle -- and not tackle -- the most delicate assignment in journalism.

Even before she gets to Israel, Jodi Rudoren, the new New York Times bureau chief, is already explaining why she'd prefer not having "Zionist" attached to her name.

And to a Jewish reporter at a pro-Israel website, no less.

Rudoren, whom I've never met, should know this: It could be worse.

Instead of telling Adam Kredo at the Washington Free Beacon why she's not a Zionist, she could be explaining why she'd prefer not having "Jewish" attached to her name.

It's happened.

Abe Rosenthal, the paper's legendary executive editor, may have favored David Shipler for the post in 1979 not just because of his eye-catching reportage from Saigon and Moscow, but because he also thought he was ending the paper's ban on sending Jewish reporters to the region. As Rosenthal subsequently learned some time after making the assignment, Shipler is not, in fact, Jewish.*

Rosenthal's determination to end the ban finally came to fruition in 1984, when Shipler ended his tour and was replaced with Tom Friedman.

The bizarre circumstances of the Shipler tale -- couldn't Rosenthal have used the typical devices ("So, where are you going for the seder?") that assess Jewdar before he made the decision? -- bespeaks the fraught relationship the Old Gray Lady has with the Old Testament's People.

The Sulzbergers, the longtime owners of the Times, were famously nervous during World War II about reporting the Holocaust, often burying revelations of its horrors on its inside pages.

"Deep down, my father probably would just have soon not have been Jewish," Judith Sulzberger is quoted as saying in The Trust, the authoritative biography of the newspaper by Susan Tifft and Alex Jones, of Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the wartime owner who banned the use of phrases like the "Jewish people."

That reluctance had momentous consequences: Then, as now, what appeared on the Times's front page often determined the news agenda for competitors and wire services.

The late Daniel Schorr, who started out as a writer and then a desk editor with my employer, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, bailed for the mainstream media in part because he could no longer stand to read the horrors coming across the JTA wire, edit, and relay them to subscribers (among them the Times, at the time) -- and then, see nothing make the papers.

The ambivalence persists to this day. Tifft and Jones gleefully chronicle how, depending on who is pissing him off and why, Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., the current chairman, will bark that you know what, he's Jewish, or you know what, he's not. (He's an Episcopalian, albeit one with Jewish ancestry.)

So, following the lead of Arthur O., or "Pinch," here are some rough rules for Times bureau chiefs (and other journalists) for navigating the world's most delicate reporting assignment:

1. Polish that Sunday school Hebrew

It helps. The close 1996 elections, pitting Shimon Peres against Benjamin Netanyahu, were close enough that it took from Tuesday poll closing to Friday afternoon to make the official call. On Friday morning, I was staking out Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv with a bunch of other journalists, waiting for word that could translate into a news alert for my then-employer, the Associated Press.

Netanyahu's spokesman emerged and said, in English, sorry, we still can't call it, and then in Hebrew, for the Israeli press: Come inside, I've got news for you.

The Reuters reporter and I gave each other a quick "Can this guy be this stupid?" look and followed them inside the building.

Netanyahu was by that point sure he would win (he did) and he wanted the Israeli reporters to get the news out before the Jewish Sabbath cut off a significant portion of the country from news broadcasts. Instead, Reuters and AP were the first to have the alerts.

I'm being a little unfair to the spokesman; until around the mid-1980s, it had been a point of honor among most foreign correspondents not to speak Hebrew. The wires were first to wise up and hire locals who could speak the language. Soon the major dailies followed, and then by the 2000s it was no longer unusual for foreign hires to be familiar with the language. (There was never any such reluctance, as far as I can tell, with Arabic.)

2. But don't show it off

There has persisted among foreign correspondents, at least until recent years, a stigma associated with the notion that once in your pre-journalist existence you might have become conversant with the language of the Torah.

I covered Israel's 1993 mini-war against Hezbollah for the AP. After each Katyusha rocket hit, packs of journalists would pile into cars and head for the corners of the Israeli north to get the color and quotes.

The hardest hit town was Kiryat Shemona, a onetime magnet for North African Jews that was not exactly abundant in English speakers. I arrived at the semi-destroyed apartment building at the same time as a couple of foreign correspondents for the majors -- one Jewish, one not.

When it became clear that no one among the families sorting through the rubble could speak English, the non-Jew asked me if I could translate. I looked at the Jewish one and she nodded: Could you please help us out?

This was nutty: I knew the Jewish one had started, like I did, as a local hire valued for her Hebrew fluency. She'd gone back to the States, and had now returned as a Foreign Correspondent, capital F and C. Clearly, she was discomfited by the notion that her buds might find out that she actually knew what was going on. I shrugged and translated.

It's not just a matter of fears of being perceived as going native, which dog FCs wherever they're placed; there is a deeper ambivalence about being a foreign Jew in the Jewish state.

A few years later -- I won't say exactly when to spare the Times correspondent embarrassment -- I was among a gaggle of full-fledged FCs (and I was now one myself) at a stakeout. It was slow; the day was hot. Talk turned to office gossip and then to kids: What were the best schools? One Canadian correspondent said she had opted for the Israeli school system, because the one in her neighborhood was excellent, and she planned on placing her child in a Jewish school in Toronto when she returned.

The Times correspondent, who was Jewish, was appalled: "If that's what you want for him," the correspondent said.

There are times, however, when the Hebrew-school memories creep back, and in poignant ways. On a bitingly cold night in December 1993, a gaggle of reporters huddled in the courtyard of Jerusalem's Great Synagogue, waiting for the funeral cortege of Mordechai Lapid, a settler murdered in a drive-by attack, to leave for Hebron. (Lapid died in the arms of Baruch Goldstein, a physician who months later would massacre 29 Muslim worshippers at the Hebron mosque.)

As the mourner's Kaddish broke over the loudspeakers, I heard a thin voice muttering along with it. I looked to my side; it was a visibly moved Clyde Haberman, then the Times correspondent.

3. Be careful, or folks won't talk to you

Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic and Shmuel Rosner at the Los Angeles Jewish Journal are already wondering whether Rudoren has done herself in with her Twitter-shmoozing with anti-Israel activists Ali Abunimah and Philip Weiss.

"What she will not be able to do is to have good sources at the very top -- at the offices of government in which people are already quite suspicious of the Times and will now be even more suspicious," Rosner writes. "Wouldn't you be? With these people she's probably toast, and without them she can't be as good as a NYT Jerusalem reporter could be."

There may be something to this.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, reportedly regards the state's two top enemies as the New York Times and Haaretz. His top aide, Ron Dermer, took delight recently in leaking to the Jerusalem Post his letter to the Times's management explaining why no, the prime minister would rather not publish op-eds in that paper's sullied pages.

It didn't help that Friedman, now the paper's foreign-policy columnist, recently seemed to veer into Jew-baiting territory when he said applause for Netanyahu in Congress had been "bought and paid for by the Israel lobby."

4. Please, this is the Jewish state

Nobody stops talking.

Laura King, the venerable Los Angeles Times correspondent, likes to tell of the shock of transition when AP moved her from Tokyo to Jerusalem. Vox populi coverage was simply a no-go in Japan, she told me. In Israel, you were barely out of the office before passersby were opining.

Notably, Deborah Sontag, whose critical coverage for the Times often rankled the Israeli establishment, got an exclusive a dinner invitation from Ehud Barak, the prime minister, in 1999. He played the piano for her. It holds true now as it did in the 1940s: The Times still sets the agenda. There are few more efficacious ways of getting out your side of the story.

Rudoren has it right: After the Free Beacon "exposed" her as not being a Zionist, she tweeted: "Folks: What I told @freebeacon re whether I'm a Zionist was simple: the only 'ist' I use to describe self is ‘journalist.'"

She may yet get this Twitter thing down.

*This paragraph has been edited from its earlier version. The original version mistakenly stated that Rosenthal "made it clear" that Shipler was selected for the post because he was Jewish, and that Shipler later explained to him that he was not, in fact, Jewish. In fact, Rosenthal never made an announcement of that sort, and Shipler's religious background became clear during an editorial meeting months later, not in an explanation that he offered Rosenthal.

Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images


Mock Homs at Your Own Risk

The epicenter of Syria's revolt has long been the butt of jokes. But Homs may get the last laugh.

One day, the late Hafez al-Assad was going to visit Homs. His defense minister ordered the Honor Guard to fire 21 shots to welcome the Syrian president as he descended from the plane. A Homsi soldier asked him: "Sir, what if I succeed in killing him with the first shot -- shall we waste 20 more of them for nothing?"

In light of the increasingly bloody crackdown on Homs by President Bashar al-Assad, Hafez's son, that joke is no longer considered funny. The droll image of Syria's third-largest city is fading away as the Assad regime's assault, now in its 11th month, escalates. It is the slow death of an old reputation: For centuries, laughter has filled the cafés of Damascus, Aleppo, and Hama as Syrians exchanged jokes mocking the intelligence of the Homsis.

The typical jibe goes something like this: A Homsi approaches a man on the street. "Where is the other side of the road?" he asks. "There," answered the man, pointing at the other side. "For God's sake," said the Homsi. "When I was there they told me it is here!"

Why the Homsis? Perhaps they have become the butt of Syria's jokes because they are the country's eternal rebels. Throughout history, they have held a unique place in Syria's social and political fabric, prompting amazement, ridicule, and even anger from their neighbors. The Homsi jokes reflect the competing moral values, uncertain social boundaries, and competing power structures of Syrian society, whether in times of peace or war.

It all began two millennia ago. The inhabitants of the ancient city of Emesa, which would become Homs, were known for worshiping Elgabalus -- the God of the Sun -- as well as for keeping pagan traditions, such as the celebration of the "Day of the Fool," alive. On this day any form of bizarre behavior was tolerated, and soon the celebration has become a very popular event in the city. Although Homsis later converted en masse to Christianity and then Islam, celebrating the "Day of the Fool" remained a tradition until the middle of the 20th century, according to French scholar Jean-Yves Gillon.

But this strange holiday is not the only reason Homsis are treated as Syria's iconoclasts. In the 7th century, Homs was conquered by the Muslim army of the famous military commander Khalid ibn al-Walid. Soon, it became the first Syrian city with a significant Muslim population -- a fact that encouraged Caliph Umar, the second caliph following the death of Prophet Muhammad, to assign Homs as regional center. Inhabitants of other historical cities -- such as Hama, Palmyra, and Tartus -- envied their new overlords, as seen by the sharp increase in the number of poems denigrating Homsis.

In the conflicts between what would become the Umayyad dynasty and Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, Ali, the Homsis sided with Ali, with many of them joining his forces in the Battle of Siffin in 657. After the defeat of Ali in 659, Homsis lost their privileged status and then, eight decades later, when one of the tribes in Homs revolted against the last Umayyad caliph, Marwan II, many of them were slaughtered, tortured, and mutilated.

Due to its strategic position, Homs often became a center of intrigue for several rebelling dynasties -- and the scornful narratives continued to flow. "I was walking in Homs and saw a flock of goats followed by a camel," the famous prose writer and poet al-Jahiz wrote in the 9th century. "I heard a man asking, ‘Is this camel from the family of the sheep?' ‘No,' replied the other. ‘It is an orphan so they adopted it.'"

The negative stereotypes about Homsis returned in force during the 11th century, when the Mirdasid dynasty recaptured the city and converted it to Shia Islam. Homsis very soon became victims of the polemical debates between Sunni and Shia clerics. The famous Sunni cleric Ibn al-Jawzi recorded many ironic narratives about the strange habits of Homsi religious officials and the supposed stupidity of their followers.

According to one anecdote, three Homsi religious students were discussing a hadith - a saying of Prophet Muhammad -- about the parts of the human body. "The nose is for smelling, the mouth is for eating, the tongue is for speaking," they concluded. "But what is the ear for?" As the hadith did not give the answer, they decided to ask their sheikh.  On their way to the sheikh's house, however, they saw a tailor patching a cloth. The tailor was cutting pieces of yarn and hanging them on his ear. "God has sent us the answer," the students concluded, and returned to the mosque.

Homs has long been a bastion of resistance -- first as a Muslim stronghold in the efforts to repel European invaders during the Crusades, and then as a base for Mamluk commanders' war against the Mongols. But such heroism did not rid Homsis of their age-old stigma. Rather, many linked Homsis' victories to their alleged simple-mindedness.

According to one anecdote, on the "Day of the Fool," the elders of Homs decided to open the city's gates to the enemy. The Mongols entered and found people wearing their clothes backwards and walking backwards on the streets. The Mongol leader thought the locals were sick, and immediately ordered a retreat to avoid the infection of his soldiers. The real history of Homs, however, does not show such a good sense of humor: After the fall of the Mamluks, the city was ravaged by Arab bedouin raids and began to decline.

Once incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century Homs regained its status as an economic center, becoming a hub for the trade of silk, olive oil and animals linking the northern and southern cities of the empire. Due to its booming economic activity and weaving industry, a British consul labeled Homs "the Manchester of Syria" in the late 19th century.

The city's golden years, however, came to an end with the demise of the Ottomans. Homs was incorporated into the state of Damascus during the French Mandate that followed World War I. Due to their city's declining economic importance, Homsis quickly joined the revolution against the French in 1925, with bandits in the region launching raids against French troops. One of the generals of the revolution, Mazhar al-Sibai, was also of Homsi origin.

By 1932, tensions had ebbed sufficiently that the French moved their military academy from Damascus to Homs, where it remained the sole military academy in Syria until 1967. Hafez al-Assad himself was a graduate of the academy -- but his years in the institute did not make him sentimental toward the city. The Alawite president stabilized his grip on power by cutting deals with the Sunni elite of Damascus and Aleppo -- leaving Homs's majority Sunni community in the lurch.

As a result, Homsis were again consigned to play the role of the fool in coffee-house jokes. During the 1973 war, a typical gag goes, a Homsi soldier was playing with a grenade. His fellow soldier warned him to watch out as it might explode. "Don't worry," replied the Homsi. "I've got other ones!"

Once again in its tumultuous history, Homs finds itself in the eye of the storm. As Bashar al-Assad's regime continues its horrifying assault on the city, gallows humor has become the order of the day. "Why do the Homsis rebel?" a pro-Assad voice asked on Twitter recently. "They are fed up with the Homsi jokes."

This time, however, nobody is laughing.

Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty Images