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Ella Margalit, co-editor of Dugrinet.

Philadelphia Jewish Voice inspires new Israeli community paper.

-- Rabbi Marc Rosenstein

When I first encountered the Philadelphia Jewish Voice, it lit up a light bulb for me. I realized that this model of a volunteer-based community internet newspaper might be just the thing to help us overcome the communications vacuum here in the Galilee. I began to explore the idea, to investigate other examples on different scales around the world, and to talk to local community activists, journalists, internet professionals, and educators, some of whom, from both Jewish and Arab communities, agreed to constitute a steering committee whose meetings increased in frequency in the course of 2008 from monthly to weekly. One thing led to another, and to make a long story short, "Dugri-net" is going online at the start of the new Jewish year with a beta version, hoping to move to a full, open-to-the public version early in 2009. "Dugri" is the Arabic word for straight – it is slang in both Arabic and Hebrew for "straight talk," the unvarnished truth. While Dugri-net is inspired by the PJV, it is different in significant ways, and has a different mission. Here is a more in-depth description of the project:

The region defined as the Galilee (the Acco population district) has a population of about 1,200,000: 52% Arabs, 45% Jews, and 3% "other." Among the constituent groups and communities comprising the Galilean mosaic, each has its own traditions, beliefs, language, cultural landmarks, national consciousness, and historical memories. These differences give each group its unique identity and social and spiritual strength. However, a society in which there is no framework of shared interests, dreams, culture, and social action cannot long survive. Needless to say, the economic development of the region is obstructed by this fragmentation, in terms of efficient marketing of goods and services, the efficient use of professional skills, the exchange of information, and the openness of opportunity.

The Galilee is a microcosm of the state with a distinct geographical identity, a sort of laboratory for trying to create a model of multi-cultural pluralism. At present, each community and sector lives in its own bubble. There are no media which reach all populations – radio and press are "segregated" by language and/or by the communities and topics they cover. And in general there is no place where one may look for serious local news coverage even within the separate communities – nor, of course, is there any place for civil public discourse on issues of concern to the region – political, cultural, environmental, educational, etc. The mainstream media tend to view the "periphery" of the Galilee and the Negev as the exotic and mostly irrelevant equivalent of "darkest Africa," if not Mars.

The internet provides an opportunity to address this need with a relatively small investment of resources. The flexibility, openness, and responsiveness of the internet allow us to plan a "full service" newspaper without the rigidity and publication costs and logistics of the traditional newspaper. It allows multiple languages, active reader participation, and quick response.

Dugri-net is a regional internet newspaper for the Galilee, with equal space given to Hebrew and Arabic text (some articles will be in Hebrew with Arabic summaries, some in Arabic with Hebrew summaries, some translated in full). Since our ambition is to build something more intensive than the Philadelphia Jewish Voice, with daily updates, a large menu of departments and personal blogs, and commercial advertising, we cannot operate totally as a volunteer project. We have engaged a small central editorial and technical staff (working as volunteers through the "beta" phase), but we expect volunteer correspondents, bloggers, and section editors to provide almost all of the content. We plan to involve the various institutions of education in the Galilee, especially the communications departments of the local colleges, to give Jewish and Arab students real-life professional experience in journalism. And of course the site will be a showplace and marketplace for all the NGOs and community organizations operating in the region, from both sectors.

The site includes all the usual features of a newspaper – news, commentary (with edited talkback), culture information and criticism, sports, business, etc., as well as special interest sections such as women's issues, youth, environment, education, and religion. In addition, it will contain a major concentration of links to useful information on every aspect of life in the area – transportation, education, social services, government, tourism, etc. We intend to run a balance of mostly short (300 word) news articles (in the various departments), photos and video, blogs, and a certain number of longer in-depth pieces – both human interest features and investigative reporting. We seek to be the natural homepage of every Galilean, and we seek to cultivate an image as fair, impartial, critical, serious, interesting, and useful.

The site will actively sell advertising to both local and national advertisers. An important function will be exposing the different communities to advertising of goods and services across the Jewish-Arab divide. According to projections prepared for us by an internet advertising consultant, we expect ongoing advertising revenue to begin to cover ongoing operating expenses by the end of two years of operation. However, this is not a business, but a community resource – any "profit" that might accrue would be invested in expanding and improving the site – for example by offering training seminars for volunteer correspondents.

We see Dugri-net as revolutionary, with tremendous potential to be an agent for development of a discourse of shared vision instead of competitive victimhood among the citizens of Israel. The barriers of cultural, residential, educational, and religious separation, the sense of everything being a zero-sum game, the mutual ignorance and resulting fear, the lack, after 60 years, of clear policies regarding the relations between the two cultures – all of these are the "targets" of this project. There are popular national websites in Hebrew and in Arabic. There is nothing regional, and there is certainly nothing bilingual, nothing that projects a vision of inclusiveness, that assumes that we might be interested in each other and in conducting a civil public dialogue and in working together for the economic development of the region. Equally exciting is the prospect of a "social agenda" project with a reasonable chance of becoming self-sustaining!

Of course, as we have progressed through the months of planning, we have learned a thing or two. This is not a simple undertaking, and while most people, upon hearing about it, get excited, there are also many who cannot see how it can possibly work. A few of the obstacles:

  1. It has been hard to maintain symmetry among volunteer activists – the culture of volunteer community involvement is better developed in the Jewish population than it is in the Arab communities.
  2. Some of our goals may not be congruent with each other. On the one hand we want to be a rich source of local news for all the communities in the region. On the other hand we don't want to be the kind of small-town paper dominated by gossip and PR releases from local businesses and institutions. The project, by virtue of its bilingual/bicultural nature, has a "leftist" tinge to it; and yet, we want to make sure that all voices have a place on the site, and that people from all kinds of backgrounds and ideologies will want to read it.
  3. It is difficult to find professionals (editors, translators, web professionals) able to donate the amount of time needed to get a venture like this off the ground.
  4. There is a chicken-and-egg phenomenon in developing the project – we need funding for website development and professional services, from the outset; yet it is hard to recruit funders while the project is still just a theoretical idea. That is why we have pushed hard to get a beta version on line by hook or by crook, with almost no budget.
  5. The same problem holds for attracting writers – and certainly advertisers. We are beginning by offering free ads to local businesses, on the assumption that once the site takes off they will continue as paying advertisers. We are schlepping on everyone we know to write articles for the launch, assuming that once we have something to show, the site will attract community people with news and opinions they want to share.

When I made aliyah with my family 18 years ago (from Philadelphia) we moved directly to the rural Galilee, somewhat surprising in view of our backgrounds. We love the region – for its beauty, for its human mosaic – but perhaps most of all for the feeling we have here that this is the laboratory in which the future of the Jewish state is being developed. For I believe that if this state is indeed to have a future, it must develop a cultural and civic common denominator in which all of its citizens can share. It must figure out how to be both democratic and Jewish. The Galilee is the venue for a number of different experiments in this direction, and even without the deliberate social and educational experiments, there is a less fraught and more open atmosphere here than elsewhere. Dugri-net is a logical step in strengthening the Galilee, in creating a shared identity and a safe virtual public square.

Dugri-net is a project of the Galilee Foundation for Value Education. For further information about this project, or the Galilee Circus, or any other projects of the foundation, contact Rabbi Rosenstein at hmakom@netvision.net.il.

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