There is no role in journalism that is more mentally and physically punishing than that of a war correspondent.
Reporters and writers who cover wars are, in my experience, a special breed. Insofar as generalizations are possible, they tend to be individuals with an extraordinary mastery of detail, possessed by a mission to shine a light upon the human suffering that wars necessarily entail, as well as the shadowy geopolitics that underlie them. They are ruthless in pursuit of a story, highly skilled at developing off-the-record sources, and astute when it comes to getting face-time with the key actors—from vicious warlords to smooth-talking diplomats. They stoically cope with all the hardships of being in the field, like contaminated food (or no food at all); lack of washing facilities; and exposure to the extremes of heat and cold. The mental stresses are no less torturous—they risk their lives much of the time and scarcely sleep—but again, they cope.
The best war correspondents of all are those whose writings are forged from their expertise and their quiet dedication to the task at hand, rather than those who push their personal experiences of war to the front of a story. A good example of the former is Jonathan Spyer, a British-Israeli journalist and author who has spent at least a decade reporting from the killing fields of Iraq and Syria. His dispatches—in publications like Foreign Policy and The Wall Street Journal, as well as Israeli media outlets—have invariably been first-rate, packed with color, a command of critical facts, and concise analysis.
Up until this week, the most critical adjective I’d heard applied to Spyer (whom I know personally) was “crazy”—and that was the affectionate observation of someone who spoke admiringly of his writing and incredulously of his willingness to travel in the heart of the Arab world, despite being an Israeli citizen. If you ask Spyer about this, as The Times of Israel did, he responds, “Who wants to think that because of your citizenship, you can’t cover what you regard as the most important story of the 21st century?”
But I never conceived that Jonathan Spyer would be labeled as a “terrorist”—and by the U.S. State Department to boot. I can’t imagine that anyone else familiar with his work dreamed that such a thing was possible either.
Yet here we are.
Last Tuesday, Spyer published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal under the headline, “U.S. Bans Me for Committing Journalism.”
“I am banned for life from entering America,” he wrote. “According to the document I received in August 2019 at the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, the State Department made this decision based on a provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act that ‘prohibits issuance of a visa to a person who at any time engaged in terrorist activities or was associated with a terrorist organization. This is a permanent ineligibility.’ ”
Spyer kept the news private for more than a year as he embarked on efforts to rescind the ban that were, unfortunately, fruitless. Now he is going public.
How on earth did a journalist like Spyer—a citizen of two close American allies and a resident of Israel who has frequently traveled to this country for professional and family reasons—end up on the same blacklist as members of Hezbollah, the Population Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Russian Imperial Movement? In his Journal article, Spyer noted that his work had brought him into close contact with a range of Middle Eastern terrorist organizations, including Hamas and ISIS. But he suspects that his contact with one group, in particular, caused the problem: the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, which has waged war against Turkey since the 1970s.
“Although the specific basis of my exclusion from the U.S. … hasn’t been revealed to me, I suspect it may be my acquaintance with senior PKK officials, and that Turkish influence may be behind it,” Spyer wrote. “This is speculation, but Ankara’s mistreatment of journalists and hostility to free media are well documented.”
The PKK is proscribed as a terrorist organization by both the United States and the European Union, though it is worth recalling that the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria, which retains links with the PKK, has been an important American ally during that country’s horrendous civil war. In any case, Spyer stated that while he sympathizes with Kurdish national aspirations, he is “not a partisan” of the PKK. He is a journalist first of all.
At a time when the craft of journalism is widely pilloried as an exercise in muck-raking and rumor-mongering, there is something particularly bitter about Spyer’s predicament. A ban on traveling to the United States can’t prevent him from continuing to report on these conflict zones, but it will increase the level of risk he faces should he return to the field. Nor will the impact of this decision be confined to Spyer alone; there is a dangerous precedent here that could be applied to other reporters whose work furrows official eyebrows in Turkey (or Saudi Arabia, or Qatar, or Egypt—or any other autocratic U.S. ally in the Middle East.)
Over many decades, American Jews have expressed concern about bias in media coverage of the Middle East, along with the skewed picture of the region that presents the Palestinian question as being at the core of its conflicts. For that reason, ours is a community that should be especially disturbed by the State Department’s decision to ban Spyer, and especially resolved in seeking to overturn it immediately.
Let us hope as well that his case is quickly brought to the attention of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who knows a thing or two about the Middle East, and will therefore grasp why Spyer’s punishment is so profoundly absurd and unjust. In the meantime, Spyer has the minor consolation of a growing audience for his work.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.