Reporter personalizes life, conflict in Middle East

Christa Case Bryant

By Larry Levin, Publisher/CEO

There is no shortage of material to read about the Middle East in general and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular. Finding a perspective rather different from the usual, however, is not so easy.

The Jewish Light started its Israel Alive! section two years ago to publish stories about Israel that typically sit far behind the relentless front-page headlines about war and geopolitical chess moves.

Another publication taking a similar tack, albeit to a far larger and diverse audience, is The Christian Science Monitor. Christa Case Bryant, its Jerusalem bureau chief, has written a number of poignant stories on her Olive Press blog (bit.ly/csm-blog).

Bryant’s motivation stemmed in part from why readers shied away from reading about Israel and the region.

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“When I was preparing to come over here,” Bryant said, “friends and family said, ‘Oh, that’s so great, but I don’t understand the Middle East.’ ”

She indicated that terminology as basic as knowing why the West Bank is so named when it’s on the east side of Israel could contribute to avoidance. (It’s because the area sits on the west side of the Jordan River.) The Monitor even helps the novice with a quiz on its website that serves as a primer on Israeli history and key facts.

But that’s not the only reason, Bryant said: “Who wants to read about it when all the stories are about violence and fighting?” 

Her response was the Olive Press, a feature that brings broader stories down to a personal level, which she says helps bring more understanding to the real lives behind the front-page stories.

“Some of the things that might seem unreasonable, you have sympathy for when you deal with them on a daily level,” she said. “They’re maybe more approachable on a human level. It brings out some stories about those challenging, longstanding problems. In today’s 24-hour news cycle, no one was finding those stories that highlight aspects of real people.”

Bryant is no stranger to the region. From 2009-2012 she served as Middle East editor for The Monitor based in Boston. The Monitor’s system is somewhat unusual, though, as those serving domestically as editors of international regions don’t typically have prior, first-hand foreign reporting experience in the area. 

That changed when she received the posting to Jerusalem. 

“It was a dream come true,” Bryant said. “I was aware of the challenge, the work was what I expected, but living here is very different than what I expected.”

The personal changes in moving to Israel were many for Bryant, a native New Englander who lived in the greater St. Louis area during her education at Principia College in Elsah, Ill. Not only were she and her husband without her network of family, friends or fellow church members (there are very few Christian Scientists in Israel), but the cultural landscape was vastly different.

Still, the work presents sufficient challenge. 

“The most difficult thing is trying to be fair,” Bryant said. “I’m hardest on myself. I’m very aware this is a very sensitive environment with very real ramifications to presenting” stories.

One goal for Bryant is in encouraging sources to share in a full and meaningful way, especially when their comments stray from the usual us-and-them narrative. 

“Even if people are willing to tell you what they really think, it’s really difficult to find people who will say things publicly, because there can be such pushback from communities for acknowledging some truth in what the other side is saying,” she said. 

It’s apparent, however, that Bryant has accomplished her objective, as the Olive Press serves as a place for individuals to tell their often hidden and mold-breaking stories. 

Take, for instance, her story about Israeli physicians treating Syrian casualties at the Nahariya hospital. Or the Ultra-Orthodox woman who has pioneered vocational education for Haredi women. Or the unusual West Bank meeting earlier this year between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and 300 Israeli students.

These kinds of stories open minds to consider on-the-ground news in ways that might otherwise hide beyond assumptions or biases. They’re particularly powerful appearing in The Monitor, which has the opportunity to provide its readers with different impressions about Israeli-Palestinian happenings than other international media outlets. 

There’s more typical feature fare as well, but even then it’s often laced with explanatory material that other Israeli or world Jewish publications might deem unnecessary for their readers. For example, Bryant’s story about a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s classic opera “La Traviata” at the foot of Masada delved deeply into the historical context for why the location is so significant. 

Bryant gives her readers not only personally captivating stories, but an education that leads to their deeper appreciation of Israel’s history, culture and meaning to its multiple religions and peoples. At the same time, her knowledge base is growing, not only through her coverage but by studying Hebrew, Arabic and geography, along with her explorations. 

“I definitely love the Galilee and the Golan Heights,” said Bryant, an avid outdoors type who was a world-class competitive skier in days past.  She’s spent a number of weekends hiking areas in Israel and the West Bank. 

With her broad reporting, education and personal ventures, Bryant has broadened her horizons about Israelis, Palestinians and the Middle East. Building that wide perspective is likely to provide a rich lode for the Olive Press blog for a good long while.