OJPCR: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution

Issue 4.1 | Summer 2001

ISSN 1522-211X


Culture and Conflict in the Middle East: Western Correspondents' Perceptions of the Egyptian and Israeli Cultures

By Mohammed el-Nawawy

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In the last half century, the Arab-Israeli conflict has led the Middle East into six major wars and cost thousands of lives. It has also left the Palestinian people stateless and dispersed, creating frustration and anger that exacerbate regional tension. Moreover, this conflict has diverted billions of dollars from productive investments to the purchase of armaments and has blocked regional cooperation for economic development that would have permitted a more rational and effective use of national resources (Granham & Tessler, 1995, xiv). The world remains concerned about the future of the Arab-Israeli conflict, with finding a solution, and with helping peace prevail in the Middle East.

This study investigates how access to information about the Middle East conflict by Western correspondents in both Egypt and Israel is affected by the correspondents' familiarity with the cultural environments in which they work. A cultural environment, as used in this study, is limited to language and religion.

The importance of this study emanates from the argument that decision makers rely on information available to them via the news media to formulate state policies. This information, reflecting the concerns, capabilities, and orientations of their adversaries, is a key factor that influences government negotiation strategies in periods of conflict.

At the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict is a recurrent pattern of cultural misunderstanding and failed communication between the Middle Eastern governments (Cohen, 1990). Western correspondents in two major Middle Eastern countries (Egypt and Israel) can enhance the information flow between the Egyptian and the Israeli governments in a way that can reduce cultural misunderstanding between the two countries. Consequently, information exchange between government and the news media in Egypt and Israel can affect the decision-making process in both countries.

Egypt and Israel were chosen for this study because they lead the two sides in the Middle East peace process. Moreover, most of the Western correspondents operating in the Middle East are stationed in these two countries. A Western correspondent, as defined in this study, is a citizen of the democratic industrial nations of Central and Western Europe, North America, and Australia (Safire's New Political Dictionary, 1993, 868). A Western correspondent would have been stationed in the Middle East and was reporting to an international audience. This is a cross-cultural study, in which the researcher observes the cultural differences between Egypt and Israel and how these differences affect the Western correspondents' access to information. Edelstein (1989) lamented that too many studies have been done on a country-by-country basis in single cultural contexts. He held that it is necessary to adopt a multicultural, comparative perspective to cope with the complicated events on international agendas.

Review of the Literature

The term "foreign correspondents" was defined as "media personnel who report and interpret the actions and events of different societies for a selected audience of readers not native to the country" (Starck & Villaneuva, 1992, 2). As important gatekeepers in the flow and formation of international news, foreign correspondents contribute to the way people perceive other cultures and societies. The foreign correspondent plays a vital role in the process of cultures communicating with and across other cultures and may be an important factor in the sensitivity and understanding of people of other cultures. As the desire for peace among peoples grows, the role of the foreign correspondent becomes increasingly important and requires a closer examination (Starck & Villaneuva, 1992).

The conflict between Israel and the Arab countries is not limited to the political and military areas, but it extends to include the cultural differences between the Arabs and Israel. In fact, it might be assumed that these cultural differences have contributed to the further complication of the political conflict in the Middle East. These cultural differences are very clear between the two key countries in this conflict: Egypt and Israel.

To the outsider, Egypt and Israel might seem to have more cultural features in common than in opposition. "They are ancient 'Semitic' peoples worshipping sister religions, Islam and Judaism. Their faiths share many common features: the one God reveals his word to his prophet as recounted in a sacred text -- in the one case the Koran, in the other the five books of Moses"(Cohen, 1990, 19). "Early Judaic and Islamic communities were politically organized as nations of believers invoking special divine protection and in pursuit of earthly as well as spiritual salvation"(Kerr, 1973, 29).

Despite these points of similarity, profound differences exist between the Egyptian and Israeli cultures. On the one hand, Egypt, one of the world's oldest nation-states, is a relatively homogeneous society with a long history, self-sufficient culture, and large mass of people deeply rooted in the village life flourishing along the Nile banks. On the other hand, Israel is a modern nation-state with a relatively short history and a population of immigrants from many lands who live in largely Western settings (Cohen, 1990).

Religion and language in the two countries perform opposing national functions. Whereas Judaism and Hebrew have perpetuated Jewish separateness and its sense of nationhood, Islam and Arabic direct Egypt outward first to the wider Arab nation and then to the vast community of faithful, "the umma" (Cohen, 1990, 19).

Egypt and Israel suffer from a very high degree of cultural incompatibility. Each culture is virtually a closed book to the other. "Imprisoned in mutually exclusive conceptual worlds and complex ecologies of assumption and habit, neither society is able to bridge the gap dividing it from the way of life of its neighbor"(Cohen, 161).

In many respects, the Egyptian-Israeli conflict is a paradigm of a relationship that "became hopelessly entangled in the snares of cross-cultural dissonance" (Cohen, 9).

The Egyptian Culture

Egypt has always been described as "an age-old hydraulic society," with a highly centralized government and an army ready to resolve conflicts among political, economic, and ideological forces (Wilber, 1969, 1).

"The cradle of Egypt's collectivist culture is the village community"(Cohen, 19). For over four thousand years of uninterrupted settlement, the vast majority of the Egyptian people have lived in the thousands of villages of the Nile Valley and Delta. Today, much has changed. Millions of Egyptians are still tied to the soil, but up to 40 percent of the population now lives in cities and migration from countryside to town continues. Since the 1870s, the Egyptian society has undergone a transformation with the emergence of working and middle classes. For many, modern education has eroded the traditional village characteristics (Cohen, 1990).

Although the majority of Egyptians lived in villages as recently as the late 1980s, cities, which have been important in Egypt for more than 2,000 years, continued to be important. Traditional urban society was more heterogeneous than in most other areas of the Middle East. Quarters, segregated along religious and occupational lines, were self-governing in their internal affairs (Metz, 1991, 114). "Although the physical hold of the village may have weakened, Egyptian culture still retains the indelible mark of its origins." Anwar Sadat, like his successor Hosni Mubarak, was village born and bred; President Gamal Abdal Nasser also came from a village background. Thus, "there is no unbridgeable cultural gap between ruler and ruled; both draw on a common fund of symbols and experiences"(Metz, 20).

Although Egypt is commonly identified by its own people and others as an "Arab" country, its unique village culture distinguishes it from other Arab nations. "There is a specific quality about Egyptian life, a distinctiveness which has its roots in a pattern of existence in the Nile Valley long antedating the rise of Arab Islam. While Egypt shares much with its Middle Eastern neighbors, it remains uniquely Egyptian"(Wilber, 2). "Islam, with its 'capacity for accepting Nature,' had no radical impact on a culture which promoted the continuity of village life and fused successive and heterogeneous systems in a syncretic whole, where the group was both agent and beneficiary" (Cohen, 21).

The need for irrigation and unified water control along the Nile banks has led to group solidarity in the Egyptian villages. The notion of group solidarity was initiated by Nasser, who called for family, village, and ethnic unity and idealized the role of the Egyptian peasant (fellah) as an "embodiment of the new Egypt"(Wilber, 7). Egypt is a collective society that rests on group solidarity, and the Egyptian people adhere to a set of social norms and cultural values that govern their personal and social relationships. These values, most of which come from Islam, might make it harder for an outsider, especially one coming from the West, to have an in depth understanding of the Egyptian society and its people (Metz, 1991).

The Israeli Culture

The Israeli society is "a human improvisation patched together from amidst the debris of the shattered empires of the twentieth century with immigrants from as many countries as had Jewish communities"(Cohen, 28). Like the United States, Israel was founded by immigrants from many ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Israel has encouraged this "ingathering" of Jews to help develop the Israeli society. "This drawing-together is the essence of Zionism, which might be called 'the founding religion' of Israel"(Diller, 1994, 20).

Powerful mechanisms of socialization were established to absorb the new immigrants in the Israeli society and make them adjust to the prevailing cultural patterns. First among these mechanisms was an educational system that aimed at socializing the new immigrants to the dominant values. There is popular agreement in Israel that schools should instill in the youth sufficient knowledge of the Jewish people and commitment to the Jewish traditions. Among the major educational goals set by the government are "deepening one's civil responsibilities toward the state, preparing young generations for pioneering tasks, implanting a love for the national tradition and enhancing the recognition of the mutual and ultimate interdependence of the State of Israel and the Jewish people of the Diaspora"(Liebman & Yehiya, 1983, 172).

The Israeli army has also contributed to the socialization of the new immigrants. The army devotes much time to strengthening the future officers' emotional and national commitment to the Israeli state (Liebman & Yehiya, 179). Reserve duty until the age of 55 maintains the link between the armed forces and the citizens throughout the latter's working life (Cohen, 1990). The most important factor in the consolidation of the Israeli society has been the history of the state. Throughout their short history of less than 50 years, Israeli citizens have shared more collective experiences and challenges than other states face in generations. "As a small country, in which any event of note will impinge directly on either one's own life or that of someone of one's acquaintance, every war, border incident, or reprisal raid has strengthened that sense of joint purpose and destiny which underpins any viable national community" (Cohen, 30).

The solidarity of the Jewish community is different from that of the Egyptian village. The Jewish community was not divided along clan lines. "Jews were not, therefore, pitted against each other in the defense of tribal interests and honor - that source of so much discord in the Arab World -- but were united as a minority against an alien and often hostile majority"(Cohen, 31).

The status of the individual Jew within the community is very different from that of the Egyptian fellah. Most of the collectivist cultures, including that of Egypt, achieve group cohesion at the expense of individual rights. The Israeli society, however, has a deep respect for the uniqueness of the individual and the promotion of personal autonomy. Individualism is encouraged from an early age. Israeli children are taught to express their moral responses independent of their parents and friends. "Individual discrimination and responsibility -- conscience, not shame -- is the guide to moral conduct." The spirit of self-assertion in the face of pressure to conform is a popular pattern of Israeli behavior (Cohen, 1990).

One of the basic concepts governing the Israeli culture is the redemption of the "Zionist" land or the "Land of Israel." This concept has governed most of the Israeli government's policies and plans. For example, the land use and land rights policies had the effect of "stripping land away from the Arab population," especially in those areas that were placed under strict Israeli control (Andersen, et al, 113).

"Zionism was a messianic movement that clothed the traditional religious goal of a restoration of the Jewish people to their historic homeland in the garb of secular nationalism" (Cohen, 34). At a practical level, the Zionist movement was, to a large extent, successful in establishing all the constituents of an autonomous national community. It built factories, reclaimed the soil, organized representative institutions, mobilized for self-defense, introduced the Hebrew language and developed a national literature. However, most of these social changes were negative. Religious beliefs and the halakha -- the code of behavior that used to govern the life of the traditional Jew -- was rejected and socially neglected. Traditional morality was abandoned and replaced by Western social forms. So, the Israeli society started witnessing a period of informality accompanied by a neglect of the traditional Jewish values. "When the new immigrants arrived in the country, they were encouraged to turn their backs on traditional beliefs and ways" (Cohen, 35). The continued decline in the number of pupils enrolled in religious elementary schools suggests that the number of Israelis who define themselves as religious is declining. "The importance of the Jewish tradition is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the new civil religion, unlike Zionist-socialism, lacks a coherent ideological formulation. It lacks, as it were, a theory" (Liebman & Yehiya, 1983, 135).

Western Stereotypes about Arabs and Israelis

Many journalists in the West are unaware of the subtle cultural differences between Egypt and Israel. This has contributed to the stereotypes many of them hold about the Arabs and the Israelis (Emery, 1995). For those journalists, "Israel is a gleaming pool and a patch of green in a baking desert inhabited by hostile elements…An Israeli is a sturdy, tenacious pioneer, as well as a victim of oppression and atrocity, rightly entitled to a homeland of his own"(Emery, 224). "If American news media are any test, Israelis are also bronzed, industrious, and strong. They smile, and ride off to war singing songs with a pretty girl in fetching uniform" (Emery, 224). According to Steve Bell, a former anchor for ABC-TV's "Good Morning America," many American journalists have an automatic sympathy toward the Jews of Israel because of the Holocaust. According to Bell, "one could even say Americans share guilt feelings on the subject. The human interest and potential for conflict are abundant, and the history of Israel is widely seen as the story of an 'underdog' surviving by hard work and heroism" (Bell, 1980, 56). The Arab and Islamic culture has always been misinterpreted by the West. This misinterpretation has led to bias, misunderstanding, stereotyping, and sometimes hostility toward Islamic culture (Wiegand & Malek, 1995). Many Western journalists view the Arab World as "downright savage" trying to destroy the dynamic, democratic modern nation of Israel (Emery, 224). The image of Islam in the West tends to be "totally foreign, almost sinister"(Diller, 170). This negative image of Islam has resulted from ignorance about that religion, which is considered by many Westerners to be "exotic" and "strange"(Diller, 171). Western hostility to Islam has historical roots. Islamic peoples conquered and ruled parts of Europe and threatened the West for several centuries in the beginning of the second millennium. "The legacy of alienation germinated by the Islamic conquests and counter-conquests by the West was perpetuated in folk culture…Later, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Western industrialization and military strength spearheaded Western hegemony in much of the Islamic Middle East"(Diller, 1994, 171). In the Western news media, Moslems have been labeled as militants, terrorists, or fundamentalists. "With abundant negative reporting and opinion in the Western media about Moslem fundamentalism, it is no wonder that Western society has come to believe that Islamic revivalism -- and in a more general sense, Islamic culture -- is a genuine threat to the survival of democracy"(Wiegnad & Malek, 204). Throughout the course of their conflict, both the Arabs and the Israelis have themselves brought their own prejudices and negative stereotypes to bear upon each other. For the Israelis, the most prevalent stereotype of Arabs is "the fearsome violent figure of immense strength and duplicity...Capable of great cruelty, given to fanatical disregard for human life, he murders easily, either out of a crazed lust for blood or as an emotional animal easily incited and manipulated by murderous leaders." Arabs also hold negative stereotypes of Jews. "Arabs regard Jews as violent aliens, as outsiders, as interlopers who do not belong" (Bickerton & Klausner, 1998, 5).

Research Design and Method

Both a cross-sectional survey (a quantitative tool) and a series of personal interviews (a qualitative tool) were used to collect data. The researcher traveled to both Egypt and Israel to administer the survey and to conduct the interviews with all Western correspondents in the two countries. A self-administered paper questionnaire given to correspondents included close-ended questions using mainly Likert-type scales to assess the correspondents' familiarity with the Egyptian and Israeli cultures (language and religion). Correspondents were also asked a series of predetermined questions derived from the literature during a face-to-face interview. One of the main advantages of surveys is that large amounts of data can be collected with relative ease from a variety of people (Wimmer & Dominick, 1997). However, a survey might not yield the quantity of details needed for a ground-breaking study of this kind and so the structured interviews were done. They allowed correspondents to raise issues regarding their perceptions of the Egyptian and Israeli cultures whether they were mentioned in the close-ended questionnaire or not.

These qualitative interviews had several advantages over the survey. They allowed for more flexibility in asking questions and they gave the respondents the opportunity to express their views in a more comprehensive way. Moreover, they enabled the researcher to establish rapport with the respondents and gain their trust. All Western correspondents who operated on a permanent basis in Egypt and Israel at the time the study was conducted (the last week of September to the end of October, 1998, in Israel; and the first week of November to the end of December, 1998, in Egypt) were included in the study. The population lists were provided by the Foreign Press Association bureaus in Egypt and Israel. Only foreign nationals on the lists were interviewed. Egyptian and Israeli nationals working for foreign agencies were excluded. This is because the cultural differences between Egypt and Israel are more obvious to foreign correspondents from the West than to the national correspondents of both countries. The researcher interviewed 94 of the 106 correspondents in Israel (88.7 percent) and 74 of the 85 correspondents in Egypt (87.1 percent).


The following hypotheses were addressed in this study:

  1. Western correspondents in Israel are more familiar with the Israeli culture than their counterparts in Egypt are with the Egyptian culture.
  2. Language is perceived by Western correspondents in Egypt as more of a barrier to their access to information than it is to their counterparts in Israel.
  3. Religion is perceived by Western correspondents in Egypt as more of a barrier to their access to information than it is to their counterparts in Israel.


Though there is no such thing as an "average" correspondent, a statistical profile provides some insight into the demographic backgrounds of the journalists interviewed. More than two thirds were male (67.9 percent) with a median age of 42 years (65.5 percent were between 35 to 54). The average time working in the Middle East was 8.24 years. A third of the correspondents were from the United States (33.9 percent) and nearly all the rest were from Western Europe with Germans (14.9 percent), French (9.5 percent), and British (8.3 percent) making up the largest contingent. Though there were more Jewish correspondents in Israel than there were Moslem correspondents in Egypt, the majority in both countries practiced no religion. Arabic was more widely spoken by correspondents in both countries than Hebrew. Virtually all correspondents interviewed had college degrees (94.6 percent).

Correspondents' Familiarity with Egyptian and Israeli Cultures

The first hypothesis addressed the correspondents' familiarity with culture as represented by their understanding of the local languages and religions in Egypt and Israel. The culture index included three items: one measured correspondents' familiarity with Islam/Judaism (the official religions of Egypt and Israel respectively) on a scale of one to seven where one meant familiar and seven meant unfamiliar, and the other two measured correspondents' ability to read/speak Arabic/Hebrew (the official languages of Egypt and Israel successively) on a seven-point scale where one meant native ability and seven meant no ability. A t-test showed that there is no significant difference in means at the .05 probability level between the correspondents in both countries when it comes to cultural familiarity. Therefore, the first hypothesis was not supported by the data (see Table 1).

Table 1: Differences in Western Correspondents' Familiarity with the Local Culture in Egypt and Israel (Range: 1=familiar to 7=unfamiliar)

Country Number of Cases Mean Standard Deviation
Israel 93 3.94 1.74
Egypt 74 3.84 1.40
t-value = .41
df = 164.97
Not Significant

Correspondents' Ability to Speak/Read Arabic and Hebrew

"Language" in this hypothesis is an index combining two items: speaking Arabic/Hebrew and reading Arabic/Hebrew. A t-test showed no significant difference at the .05 probability level between correspondents in the two countries with regard to their ability to speak/read Arabic/Hebrew (see Table 2).

Table 2: Differences in Western Correspondents' Ability to Speak/ReadArabic/Hebrew in Egypt and Israel (Range: 1=native ability to 7=no ability)

Country Number of Cases Mean Standard Deviation
Israel 93 4.53 2.15
Egypt 74 4.58 1.79
t-value = -.16
df = 164.53
Not Significant

Therefore, the second hypothesis was not supported. Consequently, there was no reason to conduct a correlation test on language ability (independent variable) and correspondents' access to information (dependent variable). Most correspondents in Israel said language was not an important factor in their access to information about the conflict because all Israeli officials speak English. As for correspondents in Egypt, they also said that most Egyptian officials can speak English and, in cases where the officials cannot speak English, correspondents said they rely on translators. So language was not a barrier in either country, according to correspondents. But a few correspondents in both countries said there is no substitute for being able to talk to people directly in their own languages. According to those correspondents, speaking the native language of the country where they were stationed allowed correspondents to gain greater insight into how local people think and it enabled them to gain people's trust more easily. Moreover, those correspondents said translators, in many cases, may not be very reliable in translating every word.

Correspondents' Familiarity with Islam/Judaism

Religion in this study was represented by a statement asking correspondents to rate their familiarity with Islam/Judaism using a range of one to seven where one meant familiar and seven meant unfamiliar. A t-test showed that there was no significant difference at the .05 probability level in the means of correspondents in both countries when it came to familiarity with the predominant local religion in either Egypt or Israel (see Table 3).

Table 3: Differences in Western Correspondents' Familiarity with Islam/Judaism in Egypt and Israel (Range: 1=familiar to 7=unfamiliar)

Country Number of Cases Mean Standard Deviation
Israel 93 2.76 1.33
Egypt 74 2.36 1.05
t-value = 2.16
df = 165
Not Significant

Therefore, the third hypothesis was not supported and there was no need to conduct a correlation test between religion and access to information. To get a better understanding of this statistical result, the correspondents' interview responses were examined. The majority of the correspondents interviewed in Egypt and Israel said neither their own religions nor the religions practiced in Egypt and Israel (Islam/Judaism) affected their coverage of the conflict. An overwhelming majority of the correspondents said they practiced no religion. Many correspondents, however, said nationality was more important than religion in their coverage of the conflict in the sense that a correspondent's country of origin may partly determine how he/she was viewed by officials, and this consequently determined his/her access to information. For example, several U.S. correspondents said they have more access to official sources in both countries than the other correspondents. This was especially true in Israel where U.S. correspondents are held in high regard by Israeli officials. Max Rodenbeck, Cairo bureau chief of The Economist, said, "Religion may change people's attitudes, but not necessarily what they say; it has not been a problem in my experience." Similarly, Christophe Ayad, a Cairo-based correspondent for Liberation (the daily French newspaper), said, "I do not think my religion affects my coverage of the conflict because I do not practice it. Of course my religious background as a Christian is supposed to make me close to Christian/Jewish culture. But I feel I made an effort to understand Islam as a religion and a culture." A U.S. correspondent in Cairo said, "People here assume that almost any Westerner is Christian, but this does not affect the way they deal with us. Because we are Americans, people here think we are pro-Israel and we are Zionist supporters."

Barbara Plett, a Cairo-based correspondent for the BBC, said, "Egyptians generally prefer believers over non-believers, but this does not prohibit access to information." In Israel, as in Egypt, most correspondents thought religion was not a major factor in accessing information. In this context, Lisa Beyer, the Jerusalem-based bureau chief for Time magazine, said, "There is a curiosity in Israel about one's religious affiliation. Many people here ask me about my religion, which is a 'taboo' question in the U.S. But I do not think it has a bearing on my job here." Another U.S. correspondent in Israel said, "I am a secular Jew and I basically go out of my way to not allow religion to play a role in my coverage, which I feel is my professional duty and obligation." But some correspondents said religion did play a role in covering the Arab-Israeli conflict. A few correspondents said religion was a major factor. Among those correspondents was Jeff Abramowitz, a Tel Aviv correspondent for the German News Agency, who said, "Religion is definitely important in dealing with the current Israeli government, which is a conservative, right-wing, religious government. This government regards me as not really part of the 'Jewish family' because I am working for the foreign press. Although I am Jewish, this government considers me an outsider, and some people told me outright that I am betraying Israel because I work for the foreign press." Another German correspondent in Israel, Astrid Frohloff, bureau chief of SAT.1, German TV, said, "Everything in Israel is based on religion, and this is hard for us to understand because we come from different cultural and religious backgrounds. As a woman, I always have a great difficulty in approaching the ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel, who refuse to talk to women as part of their religious beliefs."

Renee-Anne Gutter, a Belgian correspondent in Jerusalem, said Israeli officials have more trust for Jewish correspondents, and therefore, they might release more information to Jews than to non-Jews. "It does not, however, affect the quantity of information as much as it affects the attitudes. Israelis are more friendly to Jewish correspondents than they are to non-Jewish ones," Gutter said. "If you share the religion with a party or a politician in Israel," said Inge Gunther, a Jerusalem-based German correspondent, "your job becomes easier. Sometimes there is the impression that you, as a non-Jewish person, will be treated as an 'outsider' and will get only part of the official side of the story."

Some correspondents in Israel even said that religion had a direct effect on their lives and on how the Israelis regarded them. "I do not feel accepted by the Israeli society because I am not Jewish; after all, this is a Jewish state," said Maureen Meehan, a U.S. correspondent in Israel. A few correspondents in Egypt also believed that religion played a role in their access to information. Among those correspondents was Jacqueline Burrell, a British freelance journalist in Cairo, who said people in the Islamic World assume that Western correspondents have not learned enough about Islam and, therefore, they mistrust those correspondents. Some correspondents stationed in Egypt said Jewish correspondents might have a problem in dealing with the people. "Religion here is not really important except when I am asked if I am a Jew," said a Cairo-based U.S. correspondent. "I usually reply that I am Catholic, and this makes people feel more at ease. If I were Jewish, people would be more reserved with me." Most correspondents in both countries agreed that regardless of one's own religious affiliation, a good understanding of the official religion of the country where a correspondent is stationed helps a lot in getting a better idea of what is going on in that country. Steffen Jensen, a Danish correspondent in Jerusalem, said: "The fact that I am Jewish, though not orthodox, and that I do take religion seriously makes it easier for me to understand how religion can play such a strong role in shaping the policies of the day in Israel. In a region like the Middle East, even secular people often react in ways that are based on religious traditions. This requires a good understanding of the local official religions."

Discrepancy between Correspondents' Answers to Close-Ended and Open-Ended Questions

Although the results of the statistical tests showed no significant differences between correspondents in Israel and their counterparts in Egypt with regard to their familiarity with the Israeli/Egyptian languages and religions, still correspondents' answers to the open-ended questions showed that correspondents in Israel related more to the Israeli culture than the ones in Egypt did to the Egyptian culture. In this context, a Jerusalem-based U.S. correspondent said Israel is a very "Westernized" society that is very approachable to Western journalists. Echoing this argument, Lisa Beyer, Jerusalem bureau chief of Time magazine, said:

Israel is an open democratic society politically and culturally, and the Israelis feel very comfortable in releasing information. It is easy for us to work here because it is a Westernized society where you can always get all the opinions you are after. There is a pretty natural fit between foreign correspondents and Israeli official and non-official sources. Being an American reporter and working for a major American magazine makes Israelis friendly to me because they are familiar with the U.S. culture and because there is no huge cultural gap between Israel and the U.S.

Nicholas Goldberg, Jerusalem-based bureau chief of Newsday, said Israel is a very open and democratic society that has a tradition of providing a lot of information in a very sophisticated manner. He continued:

Israelis know that if they provide information and become friends with journalists, it will be easier for them to make their point and to have their side of the story told in the foreign press; however, in many Arab countries, people do not understand that, and they think that the easiest thing to do is to block information.

Hanson Hosein, a chief producer for NBC in Tel Aviv, said, "When you are working in Israel, you know you have certain rights and that there is a certain amount of openness. You certainly feel like you are in the U.S. and like you have the right to interview any government member about any issue and that you are guaranteed that right and access." According to Hosein, Israel is the most over-covered part of the world, and Israeli officials are aware that Israel is a high-profile country. Dan Mogulof, CBS bureau chief in Tel Aviv, said, "Israelis have been used to the idea of a free press for over 50 years, and the local Israeli press establishes and protects the tradition of a free flow of information by having a critical view of the government." The Western correspondents' level of comfort and closeness with the Israeli society was not felt by their counterparts in Egypt. A Cairo-based German correspondent, Birgit Tofall, said there were many prejudices, especially among officials, against Western journalists, who the officials think do bad reporting. In general, officials were against the idea of a free press as adopted by the West, Tofall said.

Christine Hauser, a Cairo-based Reuters correspondent, said, "As an American, I am viewed by many people here with a lot of suspicion; they think I am working for the CIA or the American Embassy." Similarly, Drusilla Menaker, Cairo-based correspondent of the Dallas Morning News, said, "There is a general distrust of Westerners, non-Arabs, and non-Moslems by opinion makers and a sense that the foreign media are conspiring against the Arab World. People here have no understanding of what a free press is like, and they expect us to write in their favor. They do not facilitate interaction." A Cairo-based Swedish journalist said:

We do try to understand the Egyptian society, But people here are very suspicious of Western correspondents and feel we want to destroy the image of the country. They feel we are part of a big Zionist conspiracy against Egypt. Even very high up in the official hierarchy, there is a lack of understanding of how the Western media operate.

Christophe Ayad, a Cairo-based French correspondent, said, "There is a general feeling of defiance towards everybody who is a foreigner here. Among officials, there is still a very high degree of anti-colonialist feelings which prevent relaxed relationships and discussions with foreign, and specifically Western correspondents." For some correspondents, the lack of familiarity with the domestic cultures did not impede their professional jobs as correspondents. "While it is completely fair to criticize journalists who lack cultural familiarity, it would be equally unfair to assume that this unfamiliarity would make their work less valid. It depends almost exclusively on the correspondents' skills as reporters," an ABC correspondent in Jerusalem said. According to that correspondent:

Although the inability to speak the language(s) and the lack of familiarity with both Islamic and Israeli cultures might be a problem or hindrance, being 'an outsider' can sometimes help in reporting here, as one sometimes sees events more clearly than when viewed through a prism of cultural bias. One's lack of intimate knowledge of a culture does not preclude good coverage. A good reporter admits what he/she does not know and then exerts an effort to find out. It just means, perhaps, that you have to work harder, especially in this part of the world where cultural bias is a problem and where people are not able to see or admit the valid points of the 'other' side.

Discussion and Conclusions

Within the cultural context, the study sought to show how access to information about the Arab-Israeli conflict by Western correspondents in Egypt and Israel is affected by the correspondents' level of familiarity with the culture of both countries. Language and religion were the two variables used to represent culture in that study. The data did not support the hypothesis that Western correspondents in Israel were more familiar with the culture (language and religion) than their counterparts in Egypt. But this does not mean cultural differences between Israel and Egypt do not have an impact on Western correspondents' coverage of the two countries. As was shown in the findings, correspondents' answers to the open-ended question on culture strongly suggested that there are major differences in the way Western correspondents viewed the domestic cultures of Egypt and Israel. These differences are more subtle than simple familiarity with language and religion. Many correspondents in Israel said they are familiar with Judaism (the official religion of Israel) and Hebrew (Israel's official language) and many correspondents in Egypt said they are familiar with Islam (Egypt's official religion) and Arabic (Egypt's official language). But, it seems familiarity with language and religion does not fully capture how the correspondents cope with a specific culture. Correspondents' answers to the open-ended question on culture showed that there is more to culture than just language and religion. Correspondents in Israel said they felt comfortable operating in the Israeli society, which they said is "Westernized" and politically and culturally open in a way that allows for a continuous flow of information in a free and unrestricted manner. Correspondents in Israel also said the Israeli society cherishes the Western news values of democracy, openness, and freedom of speech in a way that increases its cultural affinity to the West. Western correspondents in Egypt said the Egyptian officials do not support the idea of a free press, and they are always suspicious of Western correspondents' motives. Moreover, correspondents in Egypt said the Egyptian officials are not tolerant of any criticism on the correspondents' part, and they expect those correspondents to write in their favor all the time.

The comments by Western correspondents in Israel and Egypt suggest they perceive major differences between Israeli culture and Egyptian culture. Correspondents in Israel identify with the Israeli culture, which is Western in nature. However, in Egypt, there is a mutual cultural mistrust between officials and correspondents. The suspicion many Egyptians (officials and nonofficials) have of foreigners, especially Westerners, results from the fact that the "West" is associated in their minds with colonialism and foreign conspiracies to destroy the country's image. This widens the gap between the two sides. The cultural differences between Egypt and Israel are best expressed in the words of Walter Rodgers, CNN bureau chief in Jerusalem, who said, "For a journalist, Israel is the best country in the world to work in because it is far more open than what you would find in many Third World countries. On the Palestinian side, as it is the case in the rest of the Arab World, there is always that deep divide between Islam and the West." Based on the correspondents' answers to the close-ended and open-ended questions on culture, it becomes clear that the cultural aspects as defined in the literature (language and religion) are not significant factors, and they have little bearing on the correspondents' work in Egypt and Israel. Therefore, it can be concluded that the literature review failed to offer the proper direction on the cultural aspect when the researcher was constructing the survey questions. Fortunately, the novelty of the approach used in this study (the very intense research in two countries) and the newness of doing quantitative research on international correspondents have revealed this deficit. Hardly any studies go beyond correspondents' personal impressions, memoirs, recollections, and autobiographies. So, this project, which is the first to study correspondents in Israel and Egypt on a systematic basis, can serve as a guide for future researchers who are interested in studying the impact of culture on foreign correspondents.


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Although the researcher conducted a census, and therefore all observed differences are real, only those that generated statistical difference at the p is equal to or less than .05 level were considered reliable. This conservative approach is taken to reduce the danger of making a type-one error on the sensitive cultural issues dealt with in the study.

Mohammed el-Nawawy has a doctorate degree in journalism from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Currently an assistant professor and director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Communication Arts, University of West Florida. His research interests are international and intercultural communications and media coverage of the Middle East.

OJPCR: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution is published by the Tabula Rasa Institute, www.trinstitute.org.