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Who picks up the tab for manufactured social conflict?

How Israel has one of the most easily manipulated medias in the world and is once again paying a heavy price for media-generated hysteria.

Tel Aviv rally against housing prices
Photo by: REUTERS/Amir Cohen
Israeli journalists are among the most mobilized in the Western world: They view their jobs as a soapbox from which to teach proper thoughts to the hoi polloi. The media’s desire to shape the national agenda also makes it among the most easily manipulated in the world. The European Union and individual European states pour millions into left-wing Israeli NGOs annually to peddle their favorite nostrums for peace in large part because they get such a big bang for the buck from the NGOs and the media working handin- hand.


Blackening Israel’s image abroad is one favorite technique. There is an insatiable thirst for stories on the Talibanization of Israel and front-page headlines like “Israelis facing a seismic rift over role of women” (Sunday’s New York Times). The negative portrayals from every direction reinforce one another. If women in Israel, for instance, have no higher status than they do in Tehran, it is easier to believe claims that Israel is an apartheid society. Negative foreign reports about Israel are intended to convince Israelis of the country’s growing international isolation in order make them more malleable.

One example of how this works: Tanya Rosenblit, who herself works for a media mogul, boards a bus in an exclusively haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhood of Ashdod. The bus stops only in haredi neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Getting to Jerusalem is not Tanya’s goal; there are many faster and more direct buses to Jerusalem. Her goal is to be the star of her own reality show.

To that end, according to the other passengers on the bus (who are not interviewed by the mainstream media), she sits directly behind the driver, singing, making challenging remarks and occasionally leaning into the aisle. Seeing that her goal is to provoke a confrontation, the driver stops the bus and summons the police.

Rosenblit is not asserting her legitimate right to not be dictated to by haredim as to where to sit on a bus. Rather, she is insisting that haredim not be able to sit as they choose on a bus designed to serve only haredi passengers. (Egged deliberately creates all-haredi lines as part of a concerted effort to prevent haredim from setting up their own bus services.) This distinction is crucial.

Incidentally, Rosenblit is associated with the One Voice organization. The Palestinian media described One Voice’s September 2011 campaign as designed to build an international consensus on Israeli apartheid.

Another example of media manipulation: Yair Lapid jump-started his entry into national politics, where he hopes to inherit his father’s mantle as leader of the antiharedi camp, with the Channel 2 documentary on eight-year-old Naama Margolese. Introducing the segment, Lapid asked rhetorically whether Beit Shemesh represents the future of the entire country unless the haredim are brought to heel.

I wonder how many viewers realized that the ugly events at the national-religious Orot Banot school described in the film took place at the beginning of the school year and that there have been only two incidents since. Dr. Hagai Agmon-Snir, director of the Jerusalem Intercultural Center, described in a recent Mishpacha magazine interview efforts to broker an understanding between different communal factions. According to Agmon-Snir, the Sikrikim, or zealots, who represent a “minority within a minority” of the haredi community, have been spit out by the ultra-Orthodox Eda Haredit organization and have largely disappeared from the site of the Orot Banot school. For its part, the Eda has reconciled itself to the school remaining in its current location.

Agmon-Snir lamented that the Israeli public was roused to fury by a documentary that did not reflect current realities and expressed his fear that the delicate fabric of trust built up over months would unravel in the wake of the anti-haredi demonstration in Beit Shemesh that piggy-backed on the Channel 2 report. One local haredi activist told Mishpacha that when he turned to Channel 2 to discuss the compromises worked out, he was told, “Don’t interfere with the [celebration].”

ISRAEL HAS paid a heavy price in the past for media campaigns designed to dictate the national agenda. The cost of the Four Mothers campaign to withdraw from southern Lebanon, for instance, was Hezbollah control of Lebanon and nearly a hundred thousand missiles aimed at every inch of Israel. Had the government caved in to every demand of last summer’s social justice protesters, Israel would be well on the way to Europeanstyle bankruptcy and unemployment to match. The current frenzy over the so-called exclusion of women from the public sphere threatens to take a heavy toll as well.

Last week, Kolech-Religious Women’s Forum and other groups funded by the New Israel Fund waged an intense campaign to pressure male doctors scheduled to speak at the Puah Institute’s annual medicine and Halacha conference to withdraw unless some women were added to the list of speakers. The Israel Medical Association joined the call. Some protesters urged a cutoff of all government funding of Puah as well.

The national-religious heads of the Puah Institute for Fertility and Medicine in Accordance with Halacha do not have a problem with women speaking, and indeed women doctors participate and speak at numerous Puah events throughout the year. But the decision was made by the organization’s then-posek (halachic decisor), Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, 12 years ago, prior to the first Medicine and Halacha Conference, to have only male speakers in order to ensure the widest possible rabbinic participation.

That participation of the rabbis is for the benefit of women, particularly with respect to their reproductive health. The purpose of much of the medical information made available is to provide poskim with new information of potential halachic application. The sessions with doctors and rabbis sensitize all involved to the needs of couples experiencing fertility problems and increase the awareness among leading doctors in the fertility field of the concerns of Torah-observant Jews.

Seven of the nine doctors scheduled to speak – many of them on topics of immediate practical concern to the hundreds of women in attendance – dropped out in the face of the pressure. Others doctors replaced them and the conference was attended by about 1,300 people, about the same number as previous years. But we can be sure that Kolech will redouble its efforts to damage an organization that has created the protocols used in almost every Israeli hospital and clinic, and in approximately 50 clinics in North America, to ensure that the sperm used in IVF is that of the husband. (Interestingly, scientific studies show that the rate of success from IVF increases when such supervision is in place.)

Even on feminist grounds, I wonder whether endangering the entire conference and the Puah Institute, which make major contributions to women’s health, was justified in order that one or two female doctors could speak at the conference.

The current media hysteria about the “exclusion of women” began with the Israel Defense Forces and it is in the IDF that it has had the greatest impact. Four national- religious cadets were expelled from an officers’ training course for refusing orders to attend a women’s singing performance.

Since then, the IDF has acted as if its top priority is making sure no woman ever feel disrespected. (This at a time when five women just earned their pilots’ wings.) It is comforting to know that there are no military threats on the horizon.

The IDF has taken a hard-line position refusing to accommodate the needs of religious soldiers. Maj.-Gen. Orna Barbivai, chief of the IDF Manpower Division, overruled the conclusions of a committee she herself had appointed, insisting that officers retain the power to compel attendance even at performances that are only for entertainment. By forcing religious soldiers to bow to the diktat of the IDF and refusing to make allowances for their religious beliefs, the IDF has greatly alienated the national-religious community, from which it draws a disproportionate share of its combat soldiers and junior officers. And by turning IDF chaplains into the enforcement arm for its diktats, the IDF has removed from them any credibility that they might have had in the eyes of religious soldiers. The actions of the IDF top brass suggest a desire to ensure that the national-religious do not come to dominate the upper echelons of the IDF.

In contrast to its refusal to show any flexibility toward national-religious soldiers, the IDF has always been very accommodating concerning the religious needs of the growing cohort of haredim in the IDF – a tenfold increase over the last six years. No more. Again, avoiding the “exclusion of women” trumps any other societal interest – including national defense and the integration of haredim into the IDF.

The Chief Rabbi of the Air Force, Moshe Raavad, asked to be relieved of his post last week in light of the IDF’s decision not to adhere to its previous commitment to maintain a single-sex environment for the nearly 1,000 haredim enlisted through the air force’s Shahar Kahol program. The IDF decision will deal a major blow not only to the existing program but also to IDF Intelligence’s plan to enlist 1,000 haredi soldiers in the coming years. (MoFeT, a pre-induction program to prepare young haredi men looking for an alternative to full-time yeshiva studies for IDF Intelligence is already up and running.)

Coupled with the general media campaign against haredim (ably abetted by elements of the haredi community), which has resulted in numerous physical attacks on haredim, the IDF decisions have reinforced the most conservative elements in the haredi community and given credence to those within the community who argue that “these sorrows have come upon us because we sought to integrate more into the general population by joining the army, acquiring vocational and academic training and entering the workforce.” Those elements in the haredi community and Yair Lapid need each other and feed off of each other.

Meanwhile, Israel is once again paying a heavy price for media-generated hysteria.

jonathanbrosenblum@gmail.com


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