Man inspects etrog 370.
(photo credit: Reuters Photographer / Reuters)
Writing about religion in this country can sometimes be dangerous, it
Years ago, when former reporter Shahar Ilan, at the time a
religious affairs correspondent for Kol Ha’ir, published a piece on tensions
between various groups within “Lithuanian” (non-hassidic) ultra-Orthodoxy in
Israel, retaliation was swift, writes Prof. Yoel Cohen of the Ariel University
Center in his new book God, Jews and the Media: Religion and Israel’s
As a result of his article, Cohen writes, “an advert appeared in
the Lithuanian haredi daily Yated Ne’eman. Under the heading ‘Wanted: a shidduch
[marriage partner] for a widow.” The advertisement contained Ilan’s home phone
number and he was “inundated by potential suitors for his wife.”
Jewish religion playing such a central role in Israeli society and with haredi
parties playing a correspondingly large role in Israeli politics, acting at
times as kingmakers in coalition politics, it is no wonder that there is
sometimes an adversarial relationship between various religious groups and the
reporters who cover them here.
Yoel Cohen is the former chairman of the
school of communications at AUC, the only Israeli institution of higher learning
in the West Bank, located in the Ariel settlement. His new book is aimed
squarely at those who are interested in the interplay between religion and media
in contemporary Israeli society.
At times dense and academic, his book is
also interspersed with amusing anecdotes and revealing explanations of the
expectations of both religious and secular society toward the media. Providing
background on Judaism’s halachic (legal) views on public accountability and the
written word, Cohen notes that “one problem in determining the ‘Jewish law of
mass media’ is that the rabbinic literature does not have all the answers” due
to the rapid pace of technological and social innovation.
As such, he
examines various reactions of religious groups to the press, from the outright
hostility of haredim to the mainstream media to the rise of the Internet as a
harbinger of social change in closed societies.
In his thesis, therefore,
he is scarcely providing any new insights per se. However, by providing readers
with detailed information regarding public figures, various streams within the
national-religious and haredi sectors and Israel’s varied media outlets together
with insights into the role of the religion reporter in Israel, Cohen has
managed to produce a work that will allow its readers to become better consumers
Rather than saying anything particularly new, it seems, Cohen
has merely assembled interesting stories and important ideas into a compendium
format, of worth to anyone with a passing interest in his chosen field of
Anyone interested in understanding the various outlets and
opinions within ultra- Orthodoxy, for example, would benefit from this
However, his dense style and distinctly sub-par copy editing have
detracted from what would otherwise be a pleasant read.
As it stands,
this work is worthwhile but not necessarily recommended for the casual
While not containing the same breadth of subject matter as
Cohen’s book, a better choice for someone seeking to understand media and
religion would be Yoel Finkelman’s Strictly Kosher Reading. A professor at
Bar-Ilan University, Finkelman has authored an examination of American
ultra-Orthodox media, that is narrower in scope and does not deal with important
issues such as Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy and the impact of religion reporting on
the average Israeli. However, while an academic work, it is written in a popular
style that pulls the reader in.
Despite his book’s shortcomings, however,
Cohen’s work is worth reading for its examination of “the impact of mass media
upon Judaism” and other topics of relevance to daily life in Israel that receive
short shrift in the public discourse.
Among the questions Cohen asks are
which factors determine “which religion-related events ‘pass the news
threshold,’” and “whether religion coverage impacts on... Jewish
“Non-strictly religious Israeli Jews,” he contends, “draw much
of their religious identity today from the mass media.”
examined include the intersection of religious symbolism and advertising and the
“marketing” of rabbis.
Of note in a country where many people, even those
who identify as secular, maintain a higher level of religious observance than
their counterparts in Diaspora communities is Cohen’s belief that, to a certain
degree, the media have developed an role as “a framer of religious identity and
agent of spirituality in Israel.”
Certainly, he maintains, the media have
found an important role in that they educate members of one sector regarding the
beliefs and actions of those in other subcultures.
“Television was the
primary source of acquaintance about the haredim for 35 percent of the general
Israeli population,” Cohen writes.
For many without any specific
synagogue affiliation, religion and the coverage of various religious groups
helps provide a sense of religious identity, he contends, although he is careful
to note that the media have not supplanted the synagogue even among the
While admitting that there is a “media preoccupation
with haredim,” he attributes it to their “political influence and... the
visual nature of the haredi style of life.”
Of particular interest to
readers are the quotes and vignettes from religious affairs reporters that are
cited in several places in the text. The value of this work, in many ways, lies
in its exposure of media attitudes toward the topic of religion.
quote, by Shahar Ilan during his tenure at Haaretz, is particularly
“While the media is not hostile to the religious as a
general rule,” he writes, “the media is generally hostile towards halakhah
(Jewish religious law) and its leaders.... It is not coincidental that the
Israeli media is much more tolerant of non-Jewish religions than they [are] of
the Jewish religion.”
Such statements, coming from the horse’s mouth, so
to speak, tell readers a great deal.
As it stands, only those willing to
wade through a lot of chaff would want to read this book. However, those who do
will find that, if they can get through it, it will prove worthwhile.