Unravelling the Words of an Unlikely VillainIn seeking purity, do we risk missing the bigger picture?
As global movers and shakers go, she was a markedly unthreatening figure.
Reem Sahwil, a 14-year-old Palestinian refugee in Germany, seized the global imagination in 2015 when she burst into tears on camera, midway through an encounter with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as she begged Merkel to spare her family from deportation. Merkel, visibly startled, tried to comfort her. Analysts later called that moment the catalyst that led Merkel to open her nation’s borders to an eventual 1.3 million refugees, and thus, depending on whom you ask, to social instability, new elections, Merkel’s own political decline, the rise of far-right parties and who knows what else. In person, though, the “world’s most famous refugee girl” was a shy, big-eyed child, with a protective family and a disability that had brought her to seek medical care in Germany. The contrast with the tough-minded chancellor was journalistically irresistible. German reporters sang Sahwil’s praises, followed her, photographed her in her bedroom surrounded by stuffed animals.
Merkel’s empathy for this child, it seemed, had moved mountains; and yet, in today’s information hurricane, no one commands the world’s empathy for long. Or so I discovered two years later, when, working on a long article on Merkel and refugees, I received a fact-checking note from my editor: “Should we say more about this Reem Sahwil? Apparently she called for the destruction of the State of Israel.”
Sure enough, a story in The Times of Israel was headlined “I hope Israel disappears, says Palestinian teen Merkel brought to tears.” It began, “The 14-year-old Palestinian refugee who hit the headlines…has said she hopes that one day Israel will cease to exist.” I followed the trajectory of the short article as it ricocheted around the world. The Times of Israel quoted Sahwil as saying in a German interview that she hoped one day to live in her ancestral homeland and that “the country should not be called Israel, but Palestine.” The Jerusalem Post said she had “called for Israel’s abolishment.”
Viewed one way, this story is a legitimate entry in one of the most vexing debates about the wave of Muslim immigration hitting Europe: Do such refugees bring entrenched anti-Semitic attitudes that could affect mainstream politics? And, if you want to go bigger: Can people with such attitudes, in Europe or elsewhere, be reached and changed? These serious questions should be pursued in all their complexity. But complexity, like empathy, is elusive in today’s Twitter-driven media universe, where some of the Israeli and Jewish world press interest in the Reem Sahwil story seemed to carry a crude subtext: Scratch a Palestinian, no matter how adorable, find a potential terrorist.
In the whirl of today’s journalism, this story has a common plotline: the sympathetic (or, at least, approachable) figure who is found to have once said something unacceptable—be it in an old interview or a social media post—and is therefore promptly deemed ineligible for mainstream discourse. This dynamic has reached such a fever pitch lately that thoughtful figures can be heard putting on the brakes. Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at Israel’s Hartman Institute and author of the new book Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, has engaged in a lot of dialogue with people whose views alarm him. “People are works in progress,” he says, “not to be defined by their worst online moment.” Alas, in an environment where people demand purity from their interlocutors, there are always “internauts” ready to dive into the archives and prove a would-be participant unacceptable, to the point where true disagreement can be bleached out of the dialogue altogether. “In an era without gatekeepers,” wrote The Atlantic commentator Conor Friedersdorf, expressing dismay at a very different controversy that had enveloped a conservative writer, “purity-seekers threaten the relevance of journalistic institutions.”
Purity-seekers have no use for complexity. But when I clicked through to the actual interview with Reem Sahwil in Die Welt—a reputable center-right German paper—it proved firmly on the side of complexity: a long and sensitive meditation on what it means to be an adolescent caught up in national fame. (Without a reading knowledge of German, I would have had no way of knowing this.) The reporter chatted with Sahwil and her family, took note of the antique map of Palestine on the dining room wall (both Sahwil and her parents were born in a refugee camp in Lebanon), described weekly calls to her grandparents still living in that camp, and drew a picture of a sheltered teen, managing her disability in a new land. When he asked if she considered Germany her homeland, she responded, “No, Palestine is my home.” What about Israel? he asked, and she answered—the quote was translated accurately enough—“My hope is that one day it [Israel] won’t be there anymore, but only Palestine.” And then, “My parents tell me that Israel expelled us from Palestine. That’s true, isn’t it?”
In the article, the reporter struggles with what to say. Should he get into the geopolitics of “perhaps the most complicated question in the world” with a 14-year-old, challenging the family narrative? He reflects on German guilt, on “narratives of return” to no-longer-German places such as East Prussia. “The thought comes unwillingly. . .when do these stories end?” He doesn’t answer her question.
Yet one more layer of complexity emerged about Reem Sahwil. A few of the quotations that had outraged the English-language press were missing in the German, though the headline referred to the child’s “harsh views” on Israel. It turned out that when the “anti-Israel” quotes began to ricochet, Sahwil’s parents took the highly Western step of hiring a lawyer, who challenged the quotes’ accuracy and threatened action against Die Welt. The newspaper ended up removing some quotations from its online archive.
So it’s hard even to tell what Sahwil really said, let alone what she really thinks, or whether she will mature into a force for reconciliation. But if there is reconciliation, it will not be through social media profiles or quoted snippets, but with actual people, in all of their complexity. And society—and journalism—will have to reckon with that complexity somehow.
Amy E. Schwartz is the opinion editor of Moment. The Context project explores oversimplifications and distortions arising from today’s media environment.