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Becoming a Political Columnist (having never studied Journalism)

Looking back on how he became a columnist for well-established Israeli and American Jewish newspapers, Rafael Castro offers some advice and insights on the journey ahead

By Rafael Castro
Political Consultant and Columnist, Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies

Looking back on how he became a columnist for well-established Israeli and American Jewish newspapers, Rafael Castro offers some advice and insights on the journey ahead.
You are ambitious. You are bright. You have ideas that deserve an audience. “How can I be heard?” is the question that gets you worked up as you despair about all the silly ideas with traction in our times.
Don’t think that forking out $100,000 USD to attend a graduate school of journalism will help. If you play your cards right, you can save this expense and time to travel, learn, and grow.
Since the age of 16, I have been passionately interested in the Middle East, Judaism, Islam, and Global Politics. However, very little of what I learned at universities in the United States and Israel has inspired my journalistic work.
The reason is simple: universities teach academic research – not necessarily how the real world works.

universities teach academic research – not Necessarily how the real world works.

When I lived in Jerusalem, the most rewarding learning experiences did not come from listening to professors, but from talking to ordinary people. For instance, by engaging East Jerusalem taxi drivers in conversation, I learned that they felt Muslim (or Christian) first, then Arab, and only in a third layer of identity, Palestinian. Why didn’t I learn this in college? Perhaps because such a simple yet crucial realization would demand confirmation by a yet-to-be-undertaken survey or research method in order to be academically valid.
This one anecdote taught me that a great deal of knowledge breathes and throbs outside of university campuses. This is the knowledge you must explore and capture in order to write good newspaper articles. Remember, you will be competing with tenured academics for op-ed space – so you need to set yourself apart, by being more vivid, more real and more human with your words.

Learn languages

Nowadays all you really need to learn a language is an internet connection and time.
Take advantage of the opportunity. People will often express ideas in their native language that they would not utter in foreign tongues. To know the language of the culture and country you write about is crucial to unlocking its secrets.
Since I am not Jewish, it wasn’t my religion, or my passport that helped me. I had to teach myself Hebrew, study Arabic and read Israeli and Arab newspapers during many years in order to reap the knowledge needed for journalism.

Engage on different platforms

Visit blogs and participate in online chats. Intellectual epiphanies are often sparked by an offhand remark or an unexpected silence. These remarks and silences are rarely verbalized in academic books and mainstream newspapers. Yet they are valuable – very valuable.
Never look down on the opinions and ideas of uneducated or unsophisticated people. The average taxi driver or stall vendor has no college degree, but plenty of life experience which is just as valuable. Secondly, these groups are numerically more representative of society than the professors or students you tend to hang out with. In addition, uncouth sentences can reveal insights and common sense completely absent in abstract theories. Finally, never forget that unsophisticated people often say things that sophisticated people think, but do not disclose!

Network and serendipity

By luck, I found out in 2012 that a former high-school classmate of mine in Tel Aviv worked for Yediot Achronot, Israel’s then main newspaper. I sent her an email with a draft article I had carefully polished…and it was published! Once I opened my first door through serendipity and commitment, other doors have opened in turn. In the last six years, my columns have been run by Ynetnews, The Times of Israel, Israel National News, and Algemeiner in America among others.
These newspapers are not The New York Times or The Guardian, but they are real outlets. The difference in terms of time and effort between writing a blog column that a few of your friends read and a newspaper article is not that big. But what counts is that the latter can reach tens of thousands of people around the world. From my experience, blogs and social media do not open doors; being a newspaper columnist does. It paves the way for contacts in LinkedIn and invitations to conferences where additional knowledge is gleaned and valuable networking takes place.
Writing op-eds in 2018 will not make you rich, not at all. But it can be your own and very personal contribution to making the world a better place. Just remember: always be original, always be fresh, and always be confident with care.

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