One of the most contentious issues in Israel’s public arena, perhaps one of the most divisive as well, is the role religion plays in the country’s political, social, cultural and economic life. The methods the media acts as an agent for news about people who are religiously observant, who are adamantly secular or who find personal comfort in a relaxed middle-of-the-way reality are varied.

The most important positive development in this sphere has been the increasing presence of religiously observant journalists in the mainstream media outlets with the parallel increase of the willingness of central media icons to acknowledge the value of religious social, economic and political contributions.

On the downside, there still remain too many impediments for an ethical and fair representation of religious issues. A major stumbling block is that secularists view religious people not only as a simple “other” but as a personal and collective threat to their way of life. In stark contrast, starving or “below-the-poverty-line” children, Holocaust survivors’ economic plight or health-related themes are dealt with factually since they usually don’t personally affect the media personnel.

It is true that former icons of secularism including performers, singers and just plain sons and daughters of famous secularists, for example Didi Manusi’s son or Channel 2’s Noa Yaron-Dayan, who have become “returnees” to Judaism are relatively tolerated and even admired. However, this is not true regarding religion itself. Nor in regard to religious parties or religious deferments from military service. Breslav is the preferred hassidic sect, not Chabad. And Shas is the media-advantaged religious party, not United Torah Judaism.

A recently published academic book takes on the task of investigating, researching and discussing this topic. Dr. Yoel Cohen, a faculty member and former chair of the Communications Department at Ariel University Center and previously of the Lipschitz and Netanya Academic Colleges, comes well prepared to dissect this crucial media issue. He has previously published Media Diplomacy – The Foreign Office in the Mass Communications Age as well as Whistle-blowers and the Bomb: Vanunu, Israel and Nuclear Secrecy. His new book, Routledge’s God, Jews and the Media: Religion and Israel’s Media, deals with many of the topics that cause trepidation and anxiety in the media world.

The book deals with some heavy questions: Is there a different set of media values for religious issues? How much ideology and personal prejudice is permitted in the news room and editorial offices? Does covering religious news demand expertise in the subject matter? The deep ignorance displayed by major news purveyors is exemplified by something noticed by Gonen Ginat, currently at Israel HaYom and formerly the editor of HaTzofe and a Ma’ariv news editor. In a lecture on the media’s difficulty in dealing with religious news, he retells the story of how one year Yediot Aharonot, on the eve of the first day of Succot, ran a large picture of Bnei Brak residents walking through the streets carrying their lulavs and etrogs. It just so happened that that year the first day of Succot was on Shabbat, when the waving of the lulav is prohibited. Evidently, the photo editor had used a picture from the previous year to illustrate the story without paying any attention. Close, but no cigar, one could say.

Cohen does not shy away from themes of kosher advertising, the marketing of the rabbi and the news-based dependency between Israel and the Diaspora. He describes the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) struggles with the Internet and modern digital technologies. The separation of the ultra-Orthodox community from wider society is also reflected in its own media. Notably, the media presence of women is at best constrained, or more likely not there at all.

In this column, we have highlighted the special instance of a state-sponsored radio station, Kol B’Rama, which, for example, did broadcast cooking recipes, but denied women the right to be interviewed even on the subjects for which they were the news.

In haredi newspapers and magazines, women can be Photoshopped out of pictures, such as happened to Hillary Clinton. Female editorial staff will only have the first letter of their names appear.

Cohen, an observant Jew, notes that communication is a central aspect of Judaism. God talking, announcing, instructing whether in his own voice or through prophets (the ancient form of the broadcaster, perhaps) runs throughout the Bible.

The prohibition of libel or, more properly, scandal-mongering, literally “evil speech,” is well treated in rabbinic literature. Theoretically, there exists an ethics code for Jewish media, but has the religious leadership succeeded in adapting those paradigms to modern needs? Even more pertinent, and even disappointing, are the less-than-ethical media wars within the religious camps, from the pashkevilim, or wall posters, to pamphlets and newspapers.

ONE THEME which we found to be lacking in his treatise is reference to religious media review organizations that provide an address for complaints or review of media ethical failures. For example, the Manof group was formed and acted successfully for quite some years in its campaigns to decry the blatant and often cruel discrimination against the haredi population. Unfortunately, it is no longer active.

The Tadmit Center for Strengthening Democracy in the Israeli Media also is a significant religiously-oriented critic, whose work is well worth analyzing. The Arutz 7 news organization is a very successful religious media-oriented group which has played a significant role in establishing the media’s attitude toward the religious population.

Senior members of Israel’s Media Watch have broadcasted a weekly media critique program for over six years at the station.

The University of Colorado’s Center for Media, Religion and Culture notes that “Religion is a dominant force in the 21st century. It is no longer only a private matter, or only about institutions and doctrines. It is changing in ways that have implications for politics, the economy, and for social and cultural life, nationally and globally. Understanding of religion among various ‘publics’ has lagged behind.”

Just over a decade ago a volume of essays by such influential thinkers as Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, Talal Asad and James Siegel addressed the complex relationship between religion and media. It included case studies on Indonesia, India, Japan, South Africa, Venezuela, Iran, Poland, Turkey, Germany, and Australia, but not Israel. Cohen’s book is a welcome contribution to our understanding of the subject in our own country.

The authors are respectively vice-chairman and chairman of Israel’s media Watch (www.imw.org.il).

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