Michael Matza finishes his five-year stint this month as The Philadelphia Inquirer's Jerusalem-based correspondent and returns home. The Arab war against Israel has to be one of the more difficult beats for any journalist to cover.
Israel and the disputed territories attract interest and media coverage far out of proportion to their small size and population. Most Americans are shocked to learn that Bethlehem is effectively a suburb of Jerusalem, virtually no more removed in distance than Bala Cynwyd is from Center City, without the natural barrier of the Schuylkill River.
Middle East correspondents know every word they write is subjected to scrutiny. They also know that while Israel's supporters may deluge them with barbed correspondence, journalists who cross the Palestinians have ended up badly beaten or worse.
It is in this environment that Matza has functioned for the last several years.
He had a distinguished career before he headed to Jerusalem. In 1999, he won the Roy W. Howard Award from the Scripps Howard Foundation for the investigative series "Downgrading the Offense," which, according to the announcement, "examined how the Philadelphia police department for years had downgraded major crimes or excluded them from their official tally."
This series also earned him the distinction of being a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
At times, Matza's coverage of the Middle East has been insightful, even praiseworthy.
This past June, he wrote an analysis of a Palestinian agreement being touted as a breakthrough, saying, "Before anyone gets too excited about the Palestinian agreement initialed yesterday but not yet a done deal, consider what it does not do … . Recognizing Israel's physical existence is different from recognizing its legitimacy. Furthermore, the document does not renounce violence as a political tool, as demanded by the international community. Instead, the document says it will 'focus resistance' on the occupied territories."
In a nutshell, he captured what much of the world was missing.
In October 2004, Matza had a similar moment of insight. In a story titled, "In desperation, Palestinians spin tales to rally support," he recognized repeated fabrications emanating from the Arab side.
Arabs have been creating tales to spin the news as long as Israel has existed. In 2002, newspapers around the world blared bogus Palestinian claims of a massacre at the Jenin refugee camp, including an eight-column headline in the Inquirer. The massacre never occurred, nor did claimed attacks on the Jenin hospital.
Matza's insight about the Palestinians manufacturing facts should have been obvious, hardly worth a comment. But with the bar set so low for Mideast correspondents, even observing the Palestinians lack of regard for truth is notable.
But, of course, Matza then flip flops when it comes to other fallacies — small fabrications and larger ones. Earlier this month, he wrote of Gaza's recent troubles: "After 38 years of occupation that began with Israel's conquest of Gaza in the 1967 Six-Day War … "
That's the ultimate Palestinian myth, ignoring that before Israel "occupied" Gaza in 1967, it was occupied by the Egyptians, and before that the British, and before that by the Ottomans, going back many centuries. There never was a country named "Palestine." But there was an Israel.
The popularly elected Hamas government now rules Gaza. Late last year, Matza interviewed a major Hamas leader in Gaza. He never even asked the question of whether Hamas could live side by side in permanent peace with Israel — a rather salient point.
It's ironic how a reporter who won notoriety for exposing the Philadelphia police in charges of "downgrading the offense" did just that year after year when confronting unremitting Arab hatred, incitement, lies and violence directed against the State of Israel.
Welcome back to Philly, Mr. Matza.
This column was written for the Israel Advocacy Task Force of the Israel Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.