Media Matters: Unorthodox Coverage

'Are you going to allow games to continue to be played on Shabbat?" a reporter called out to Betar Jerusalem sponsor Guma Aguiar, during a press conference in the capital on Tuesday to announce the philanthropist's bailout of the financially distressed soccer team.

"Is that really the first question I have to answer?" Aguiar quipped, shaking his head and smiling. "Already?"

It was a cleverly evasive reply, indicating that the kippa-wearing Brazilian-American, who recently relocated to the Holy Land, has been here long enough to understand that, in Israel, even sports can constitute a religious minefield.

For those of us who have lived and worked here as journalists for eons, this is a given - something we take for granted. Until we go abroad, that is.

That's what happened to me this month. As I boarded a plane for the United States on July 2, the local headlines were focusing on haredi riots, spurred by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat's announcement that he was going to provide free parking in the lot near the walls of the Old City on Saturdays, when it is normally closed. This was Barkat's attempt at making life easier for tourists visiting the city and for residents who are out and about on their only day off.

Following this from across the ocean created an element of figurative, as well as literal, distance. Still, I did try to keep up on the events, mainly for the purpose of explaining it to Americans who couldn't quite grasp what all the fuss was about.

"It's not as if parking or a lack thereof will alter the degree to which secular people desecrate the Sabbath," commented one puzzled friend.

Go try to convey that it's slightly more complicated than that. And a great deal more political.

WHEN I landed at Ben-Gurion Airport just over two weeks later, riots from the same sector were leading the papers again. But this particular bout of violence, during which several policemen were injured and protesters arrested, had nothing to do with the community's anger over violations of Jewish law - or even over a breach of the status quo. Instead, it was based on what the haredi establishment perceived to be a secular witch-hunt against its entire population. Haredi dailies even referred to it as a "blood libel."

Pretty harsh words for the case at hand - one involving an individual accused of committing a crime. But the fact that the individual in question belongs to Toldot Aharon - a hassidic sect considered insular to the extreme - served to fan the flames of a fire already raging.

To review the details of the case: A woman whose three-year-old son had been hospitalized on numerous occasions was caught on camera removing her severely undernourished boy's feeding tube. The camera had been installed in the toddler's room at Hadassah-University Medical Center, after staff began to suspect that the reason the child was ill in the first place (weighing 15 pounds) - and was not responding to treatment in the second - was that his mother was starving him to death. Indeed, as soon as the mother was forcibly removed from her son's vicinity, he began to flourish.

Concluding that she was the culprit, doctors speculated that the woman might suffer from Munchausen-by-Proxy Syndrome, a psychiatric disorder characterized by the inflicting of physical harm on a loved one, to gain sympathy from medical personnel.

Now under house arrest, the woman has undergone a court-ordered psych evaluation, perhaps the first of many, to determine whether she is fit to stand trial.

As horrifying as this story may be, it is no more so than many other examples of alleged abuse reported regularly in this country. What makes it distinct is its cultural-political nature. In fact, it has turned into an ideological battle, with spokesmen from the woman's community going after everyone, including Hadassah, the police, social services and the justice system - everyone, that is, except the woman herself. Peculiarly, she is presumed innocent by her clansmen, by mere virtue of her address, Mea She'arim. Still, in a twist of irony, it is the presumption of innocence, until proof of guilt, on which our legal system is based.

It is also a principle to which the press is supposed to adhere.

Well, it certainly hasn't been doing so. Every lead into every Hebrew news story this week has referred to "the starving mother" ("starving" as a verb, not an adjective), with additional features discussing Munchausen Syndrome - as though there has already been a diagnosis, a trial, a guilty verdict and a sentence.

This is only partly due to the fact that child abuse is one of those issues that everyone feels strongly about, and which makes for sensationalist copy. More to the point in this particular case is its connection to a community toward which the bulk of the public, egged on by a largely secular press, feels a sense of schadenfreude whenever something dark emerges from its midst. The logic behind this is obvious. How, we wonder, dare the very same people who throw proverbial fits and literal rocks over our driving on Shabbat, criticize us for being unholy, when their own houses are made of glass?

Still, the knee-jerk presentation of the haredim as hypocrites at best, and evil at worst, should be cause for pause. That such pause came this week from Yediot Aharonot's prime political pundit, Nahum Barnea, is as surprising as it is refreshing.

"It's easy, too easy, to slam the haredim," he writes. "They are the classic candidates for xenophobia. Even liberal Israelis, who are outraged by patronizing remarks made by a judge to a young Ethiopian woman, by the expulsion of [illegal] immigrants or by the abuse of Palestinians, hate haredim with a clear conscience. It's commensurate with the bon-ton. The 'starving mother' affair is a clear example. The first incisive questions about her should have been directed to the hospital: Why did so much time pass before suspicions emerged that the problem had to do with the mother and not with the child? What sort of needless and damaging treatments did he undergo? What did the hospital's social work department do about the case? Was there an effort to handle this grave matter in cooperation with the community?

"A hospitalized child is the responsibility of the hospital, not the mother. Before we turn her into a monster, perhaps we should look at what the hospital did with the responsibility given to it. Hadassah's hospitals make a living from the haredim. They have extensive experience in treating them. Many problems, including mental ones, have been solved there discretely over the years, through dialogue with the rabbis... Many haredim truly believe that secular Israel is plotting to exterminate them, and if not that, then to humiliate them, disparage them and force them to betray their faith. A responsible Israeli establishment needs to disprove these suspicions, rather than reinforce them.

"In no way am I suggesting that we mitigate the punishment of a haredi abuser, that we turn a blind eye to vandalism or that we capitulate in the face of the groundless campaign managed by elements within the Eda Haredit sect against the opening of a parking lot on Shabbat.

"What I am suggesting, however, is that the champions of secular righteousness wipe the drool off their face. We used to have a party, Shinui, which fed off hatred of the haredim. This party disappeared... The haredim, on the other hand, were there before, and will continue to stick around."

Touché, Barnea.