“Why are you still alive?” This was one of the first questions put to Khaled Abu Toameh, a Palestinian-Israeli journalist who spoke at my university on a recent evening. I was moderating, at the request of the Hillel director, who feared disruptive speechifying or worse from the audience.
They were mainly students, but our campus has had some nasty confrontations, with pro-Palestinian and Jewish students almost coming to blows–and that was before the Gaza war. Also, controversial speakers on both sides have attracted folks from the off-campus community who have not always behaved well, and on one occasion a pro-Israel speaker was shouted down and unable to finish his remarks—not a distinguished episode for a university.
Khaled and I talked before the event. He is a slight, quiet man in his mid-forties with thinning hair and a modest manner, polite and grateful that anyone is interested in what he has to say. Knowing that he is an outspoken moderate who criticizes all sides, I asked him if he and his family were in danger. He said with a wry smile that the only places he feels threatened are American college campuses.
When he took the podium he remained soft-spoken and matter-of-fact—“matter of fact” could be his watchword–but spoke rapidly and forcefully with a calm and even-handed passion for the truth. He began by summarizing his remarkable career—one that began with excursions into Yasser Arafat’s Ramallah and led to NBC News and U.S. News and World Report.
He began as a stringer reporting on Arafat and his henchmen in Arabic newspapers, but graduated to become the West Bank and Gaza correspondent for The Jerusalem Post and The Jerusalem Report, and finally a respected commentator and columnist for numerous American and European publications and broadcasts. As he has said, “My job is to serve as the eyes and ears of the international media.”
Khaled is a Palestinian Muslim Arab and an Israeli through and through. If you think that’s a contradiction you need to hear and read him. He is an equal-opportunity despiser of bad governments, whether in Israel, Palestine, or the larger Arab world, but he understands perfectly well that Israel is unique in that part of the planet for its freedom of expression.
As he put it, he can walk freely in Jerusalem—his and his family’s lifelong home—without fear, regardless of what he writes about the government, but if he goes to Ramallah today, or if he were allowed to go to Gaza, he might be arrested or killed. He thinks and says that a succession of Israeli governments from three different parties has bungled the conflict and brutalized the Palestinians, but he loves the fact that his speech, his life, and his family are protected–on the Israeli side of the border.
He hates the corruption of the Palestinian Authority, little changed since Arafat’s death. He thinks Israel made a terrible mistake in bringing Arafat back as part of the Oslo process. He hates Hamas but acknowledges their honesty and commitment, and he publicly predicted their landslide victory in the 2006 elections. He hates the web of checkpoints in the West Bank that choke normal Palestinian life and the collusion between Israel, the international community, and a corrupt Palestinian leadership. He says that if Israel’s army withdraws from the West Bank, the leadership there will collapse and Hamas will take over as it did in Gaza.
He loves the truth and says, “I find it ironic that as an Arab Muslim living in this part of the world that I have to work for a Jewish newspaper or for the international media in order to be able to practice any kind of real journalism.”
The question period was civil in the end, partly due to the presence of the campus rabbi, Victoria Armour-Hileman—Rabbi Vicki–and Sgt. Garrison of the university police sitting quietly in the back. I called on people after Khaled rejected the option of making them submit their questions on index cards. He wanted an open exchange.
His view of the Middle East is not encouraging. He does not expect real peace but he thinks the conflict can continue to be managed.
When asked why he is still alive, he told of many death threats but said that you can only die once. “If they kill me, they kill me. I have done what I needed to do, and others will continue it.” I could only marvel at this calm, determined man’s quiet courage and his modest, unassuming passion for the truth.
Biographical information on Khaled Abu Toameh, along with links to many of his articles, can be found here.