Uri Dromi is founder and director of the Jerusalem Press Club, (JPC), a space that functions as a communal workspace and networking hub for international and local journalists and related professionals in the city’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim neighbourhood. Dromi, who opened the club in 2013, was formerly the spokesperson for the Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres governments, chief education officer of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) and editor-in-chief of the IAF magazine and IDF Publishing House. He was in Toronto and Montreal last month to seek support for JPC, and spoke to The CJN about his inspiration and aspirations for the club.
What motivated you to launch the JPC?
I had this idea for a long time. As the spokesman for the Rabin government in 1992 and the Peres government in 1996, it occurred to me that, with so many foreign journalists based in Israel and so many visiting, we should look at the media attention as an asset rather than a liability. I see the club as something we can do to expose the foreign press corps to Israeli narratives.
A few years ago, it occurred to me that Mishkenot Sha’ananim would be a good place for a press club. We got a nice grant from a trust in New York that gives to causes in Israel, and got money to refurbish and equip the place.
I had managed to visit a couple of top press clubs in the world, like in Hong Kong, London and Washington… I basically took all the best elements from these press clubs and added the great location we have, overlooking the walls of the Old City. I think we’ve blended all the best elements of the press clubs in the world.
What are your main goals for the JPC?
To be a hub for the foreign press based in Israel and those journalists who come here on short visits, to be a place where they can come and enjoy the facilities like Wi-Fi, the restaurant… and can sit and work. Journalists can even carry out live broadcasts from here. We also hold regular briefings, where we bring in experts to talk to journalists about different topics. For example, we had a briefing on the proposed nationality law… We believe that, at the end of the day, journalists write stories based on what they heard, saw, or who they spoke with during the day. So we’re trying to provide foreign journalists with good content and speakers that represent the Israeli narratives.
I say narratives plural because this isn’t propaganda, and not a government thing. We’re totally private, independent, and have no agenda.
But journalists know I’m a patriot and believe the Israeli story is great and should be told with all its nuances and variety of opinions.
If we expose the foreign press to these, I think, in the long run, we can improve the coverage Israeli gets in the media.
It kind of sounds like you do have an agenda.
I’m not evading the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict. I’m dealing with it on a regular basis. I’m saying, ‘Here’s Israel: right, left, Orthodox, non-Orthodox, rich, poor. Let’s deal with it…’ I guess I do have an agenda, but it’s not political or institutional. It’s simple: there’s more to Israel than what we get on breaking news or on television. There’s a richer view of Israel. The main thing lost in today’s coverage of Israel is the warmth, energy, vitality and ingenuity of Israelis. This doesn’t offset issues with the settlements or Gaza, it’s just giving a more complete look at Israel rather than just what’s seen through the narrow prism of war.
I try really hard to be balanced by bringing speakers from the right and the left, both Arabs and Jews… I have a goal to broaden people’s views.
For instance, Al Jazeera is a member, as is Samer Shalabi [the first Palestinian chair of Israel’s Foreign Press Association].
What kinds of special programs does JPC offer?
We’re investing in journalism students. When we first opened, I brought a group of journalism students from the University of Miami, and this year we brought a group of journalism students from Northwestern. They were very impressed and went back to their campuses with a better understanding of how complex it is to cover Israel and the Middle East. We bring them for a week or so and offer rich programming with a journalistic focus. We let them meet different news organizations working here, Israeli and foreign; hear speakers, and have time for assignments.
I’m ready to bring more foreign journalism students, it’s just a question of funds.
Another program we have is we host special missions of journalists who specialize in a certain area in which Israel has something big to say to the world… like the high-tech industry, science, film, literature or education.
In 2013, I brought science journalists from all over the world and exposed them to the richest program that showed the accomplishments of Israeli scientists… there were journalists from Japan, Colombia, Germany.
This year, I brought 20 film critics from around the world to cover the Jerusalem Film Festival. This upgraded the Jerusalem Film Festival to the level of other great international film festivals.
Do your members represent the full political spectrum?
Yes. Some people think we’re too much to the left and some think we’re not leftist enough, so I think we’re somewhat in a good place.
For example, when [New York Times columnist] Thomas Friedman came to town, I invited him to the press club to speak for our members – 200 people wanted to come. But some Israeli journalists who are far to the right wrote complaint letters to the government press office saying, ‘Look at Uri Dromi, bringing the leftist Thomas Friedman, who criticizes Israel.’
Another time, when I invited a diplomat who is far right and against a two-state solution, I got complaints from press club members who are leftists, saying, ‘Why are you inviting a right-wing lunatic here?’
Is it possible for a journalist in Israel to be fairly neutral?
Definitely not. It’s all a matter of interpretation. I write op-ed pieces for the Miami Herald and you can see I’m not neutral. I take sides, I’m critical of the government of Israel. You can’t be neutral about your own destiny. It’s not just an intellectual destiny, but about the future of our children.
How many members are there?
We already have 100-plus foreign press members, 100-plus Israeli journalists, 100 visiting journalists and 100 associates members – people like diplomats, PR professionals, retired journalists, etc. –who want to mingle with the press. Altogether, we have 400 members in just a year and a half of being open – not so bad!
What are club membership and visitor rates?
It’s 200 shekels [about $50 US] a year for foreign and Israeli journalists and 300 shekels [$76] a year for an associate member. For a journalist who’s just visiting, it’s 100 shekels for a year.
Visiting journalists are happy to become members, because, as a member, you can walk into any press club in the world and get all benefits free of charge. We have a reciprocal arrangement with them, because we’re a member of the International Association of Press Clubs and of the European Federation of Press Clubs.
If people come and they’re nice people, we let them in.
And if they’re not nice?
[chuckling] We kick them out.