Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 19, 1983, Page 8
Ghassan K. Bishara
How well can you cope if you are a Palestinian-born journalist who covers Washington for a militant Palestinian newspaper published in Israeli-occupied territory? Many might guess that this would be an almost impossible, frustrating job—in a capital whose officialdom is not known for its overwhelming sympathy towards Palestinian causes. But they would be wrong.
The only Palestinian-born journalist in Washington who actually has such a job copes exceedingly well. During the five years in which Ghassan Bishara, 41, has been reporting and writing for Al Fajr, an East Jerusalem, Arabic-language daily, he has become a noted, sought-after and highly respected member of the capital's coterie of foreign correspondents. He attends presidential press conferences, gets invited to "backgrounders" by the likes of Vice-President Bush and Secretary of State Shultz, and is a familiar figure at the daily briefings of White House and State Department spokesmen. Off the official circuit, he is a frequent guest on TV panel discussions and lecturer at many a university seminar.
Proud of His Heritage
How did it happen? Mr. Bishara acknowledges that the inherent fairness of the American system has a lot to do with his acceptance. So does the fact that for nearly ten years he has been carrying a U.S. passport—but, Mr. Bishara says, the advantages which U.S. citizenship gives him do not come to him automatically. "Officials know where I come from," he says. "I am very proud of my heritage, and make no secret of the fact that I am a Palestinian. This has meant that I've had to push and struggle to get all the rights that should come to me as an American journalist." For example, he was turned down for a White House press card, on the grounds that there were already too many accreditations for Arab newspapers but after he wrote to the White House to say the turndown was not acceptable, it changed its mind.
"My chief weapon," Mr. Bishara says with a smile, "is that I never take no for an answer." This is just as true when he is interviewing officials as when he is applying for credentials from them. He is not one to sit silently at press conferences. He has a reputation for being more aggressive than most in asking frequent and probing questions—although he is always courteous and knows when it is time to stop.
Mr. Bishara's really serious problems are not with covering Washington but with getting his stories into print in East Jerusalem. Although Israeli authorities consider Al Fajr an Israeli newspaper—since they regard East Jerusalem as an integral part of Israel—they do not treat it as they treat other Israeli newspapers. Considering it to be "pro-PLO" and generally hostile, they censor its pages liberally, often throwing out entire stories or mangling them so much as to make them unprintable. Not knowing if a story will make it into print can be a severe psychological block for reporters.
Mr. Bishara's success in coping with these problems, and particularly his ability to establish himself on the Washington scene, are all the more remarkable in that he has been a journalist for only five years. But his varied and unusual background prepared him well for dealing with frustrations and the substance of Mideast affairs.
Lifetime of Tribulation
For one thing, he is a self-made man if there ever was one—with a lifetime of tribulation behind him. In the weeks prior to the establishment of Israel on May 15, 1948, he (then seven years of age), his mother and four other children of his fatherless family were bombed out of his native village of Tarshiha, in West Galilee, and had to take refuge in a nearby community. "We were too poor to reach the border," he says—"too poor to buy food for the trip, too poor to own a donkey." As a result, unlike hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians who had fled, Mr. Bishara was still on the territory Israel claimed as its own on May 15, and automatically became an Israeli citizen.
For a Palestinian Israeli, however, it was hard going—with relatively few job opportunities except on construction sites. Mr. Bishara did this and other jobs while working his way through his elementary and high school years in Israel, and also supported himself while earning a B.A. from Brooklyn College and an M.A. from George Washington (both in political science).
Before becoming a journalist he spent five years with New York's Citibank dealing with domestic and foreign (including Middle East) bank accounts, and a number of years in Middle East-related work as a businessman, researcher and translator (he speaks, reads and writes not only English and Arabic, but Hebrew as well). But perhaps the most unusual of his prior activities—unusual for a political journalist, that is—was the nearly six years he spent in a Jerusalem hospital as a psychiatric nurse. The work could have been relevant, however. Asked whether the experience has helped him be a better journalist, he laughed, and said: "In analyzing Middle East affairs, anything you know about what can go wrong with the human psyche really helps."