Interview: Jodi Rudoren
Jodi Rudoren’s education at Yale University prepared her for two decades at two of the world’s most influential newspapers, The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. Rudoren, 42, moved to Jerusalem less than two years ago to serve as The New York Times bureau chief, accompanied by her husband and young twins.
Q. How does The New York Times cover Israel?
A. In a very aggressive way as a mainstay of its daily news diet. In this digital age…we strive to have an analytical edge. We have a growing global audience and serve many different audiences at the same time. We have people who are extremely engaged in Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s conundrum over Iran and the Arab Spring and the Middle East. Many are passionate and deeply knowledgeable advocates. These are a core part of our readership in New York and throughout America. We have 30 million readers internationally. The flip side of that is that the advocacy community has become relatively obsessed with criticizing the newspaper.
Q. What is your assignment?
A. My job is to cover Israel, the Palestinian territories and…Jordan. I arrived intending to write as much as I could about what it is like to live in as many different places as possible. I expected to write about food and culture and religion and technology and medicine. I have done far fewer of these stories because the news flow is relentless. Not just the conflict, but Iran and the Arab Spring. We’ve done many, many stories about Syria, Egypt and Iran and how they affect this place. This region is at the center of world debate. It is my limited amount of hours in the day that holds me back from covering the wider picture. Good examples are Bedouin resettlement, haredi men’s changing role in the workforce, internal Israeli struggles over religious pluralism and identity, public policy regarding migrant workers.
Q. I understand you are critcized by pro-Palestinian or left-wing activists as well as by nationalist Zionists?
A. I think the fact that I am equally lambasted by activists with totally different viewpoints—in many cases about the same articles!—suggests that the lambasting is less about me and my work and more about their predispositions. People have deep, entrenched, impassioned opinions. And they should. But this prevents them from seeing mainstream, balanced, neutral, detached news coverage as mainstream, balanced, neutral and detached. Because this conflict is…about dueling narratives, people with a strong point of view see neutrality as supporting the other view.
Q. How has social media changed reader responses?
A. The scrutiny of our work is intense. Social media have magnified this. It is now easier to send a letter or post a comment directly to The New York Times, not to mention placing a critique quickly on any number of websites or Facebook. At the same time, I get e-mails filled with profanities. Bloggers make all kinds of suppositions about my background, my personal life, my friends and associates, how I spend my free time, without any basis in fact.
Q. Why did The New York Times assign a censor to monitor your early use of social media?
A. It was not a censor. It was an editor. During the Gaza war, I was very active on Facebook. At first, this was fantastic [and] led to lots of reader engagement. As the week wore on, I said a couple of things on Facebook I should not have, the main one being that many Gazans seemed almost “ho-hum” about the attacks after all they had endured. I should have said “resilient.” In any case, afterward, my bosses asked me to work with an editor on social media. They pointed out that because of the complexity and passion on this beat, we have always been super careful to get many eyes on every word we publish…to make sure we are being accurate, fair, sensitive and clear and to avoid code words that can be minefields. They were concerned it could undermine my credibility and the credibility of The New York Times.
This was the wrong solution…for the right reasons. It was problematic to try to work with an editor in New York, seven hours behind Jerusalem, in a medium that thrives on immediacy. I have since waded back into Facebook and Twitter solo…but on a much smaller scale, mostly to just post articles or news items. Even so, many of my posts are hijacked by extremists who post comments that regurgitate their entrenched positions. I regret that I have not found a way to use social media on this beat the way so many of my colleagues elsewhere have—to illuminate stories, explore readers’ questions, test out ideas and exchange experiences.
Q. Are there political doors in Israel not open to you?
A. I have never spoken with Yaakov Amidror, Israel’s outgoing national security adviser. Amos Gilad [director of policy and political military affairs at the Defense Ministry]—can’t get an interview with him. There are Knesset members and Cabinet ministers who have been elusive. I have managed only one or two conversations with Ehud Barak. I haven’t spoken with Defense Minister [Moshe] Ya’alon in a long time. I’ve had two meetings with Netanyahu, but it took more than a year to get the first one. I have yet to have a sit-down with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Q. Was it hard to move to Israel?
A. We moved when my kids were just under 5. We have a bigger apartment here and the weather is nicer, they get to see their dad all the time. They go to the pool a lot, and they are in a great school. In many ways, their quality of life has improved.
Q. Your husband, Gary, an architect, followed you halfway around the world. How is he doing?
A. My husband’s approach to life and marriage has always been to ‘hold hands on the roller coaster ride.’ He was very supportive of what this opportunity meant for me. Even more, he thought of it as an opportunity for our family. Many years from now, which would be more fun to look back on: four more years in Brooklyn or a crazy, exciting and special place called Jerusalem?
Q. Tell us about the name Rudoren.
A. I couldn’t imagine taking my husband’s name [Ruderman], although I also didn’t like the idea of not having the same last name as my kids…[so] we decided to combine names. I felt that if we each kept part of our old names—mine is Wilgoren—and took part of the other’s name, that was a real metaphor for how we wanted to run our family—on equal footing. When we googled it, the only thing for Rudoren was an island off Finland that we intend to claim as our ancestral homeland someday.
Q. How does your Jewishness impact your job?
A. I came to Israel as a teen with United Synagogue Youth and the memory of that, particularly of Jerusalem…and the layered history that you see in the Old City and elsewhere, were things that as a journalist I found incredibly compelling. I wanted to come here to cover this fascinating beat. Being Jewish certainly is central to that. I know a decent amount about Judaism, I speak Hebrew pretty well. I come knowledgeable about the Jewish American or Jewish Israeli side of this beat.
Q. What about the non-Jewish angle?
A. One of my biggest regrets is not studying Arabic before coming over because I find working in a language that I really don’t know to be very difficult.
Q. Why does the left wing criticize you?
A. Some pro-Palestinians attack me based on the idea that I am kind of entrenched in the Israeli-Zionist-Jewish-American perspective. They complain that I live in West Jerusalem [and] spend quite a bit of time in my office there. I wish I spent much more time in the West Bank than I do, both reporting and living, because that impacts how you develop your sensibility about things.
Q. How does your perspective differ from reporters from, say, Portugal?
A. I have an American world view…[which] takes Israel’s existence as a given. There are some places in the world that do not. The argument that Israel is an amoral, ahistorical experiment that will fall like apartheid and the Soviet Union is outside the American mainstream way of seeing things. America and the United Nations have embraced Israel as a modern state and I operate from this same assumption.