Israel's Government Press Office head Nitzan Chen reflects on journalism

Nitzan Chen: “In addition to our involvement with the local press, the GPO serves as the home away from home for all the foreign press agencies operating in Israel.”

 RECONCILIATION: WITH Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, 1999. (photo credit: FLASH90)
RECONCILIATION: WITH Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, 1999.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

“While the event was actually happening, I didn’t realize how significant it would turn out to be for me,” recalls Nitzan Chen, who’s been serving as director of the Government Press Office (GPO) for a decade.

The incident Chen was referencing took place in April 1999 when, as the religious affairs correspondent for Israel’s Channel 1 TV station, he was covering a press conference that Aryeh Deri had organized at the home of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef after the former had been sentenced to prison. During the press conference, which was being broadcast live on TV, Yosef looked directly at Chen and shouted angrily, “Get out!” That outburst subsequently became quite well known.

“Get out!”

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef

“All I did was ask Harav Ovadia whether, in his opinion, Aryeh Deri was innocent or guilty, according to Din Torah (Jewish law),” recalls Chen. “‘Who are you to ask such a question?’ Harav Ovadia asked me angrily. Following this incident, I experienced three extremely stressful weeks, during which the entire country was in an uproar. I even received a number of death threats, so the Israel Broadcasting Authority hired a bodyguard for a while to protect me in case someone actually did try to harm me. It became dangerous for me to go anywhere, especially to Shas protest rallies, where I felt like a military correspondent broadcasting from a battlefield. People would throw things at me – tomatoes and other vegetables – as I sat in the IBA van from which I was broadcasting.

“I must admit, it was truly terrifying. In the end, Harav Ovadia invited me to a reconciliation at his home, during which he affectionately gave me a few quick slaps to the face, as is his custom, following which I needed an urgent visit to my dentist. After the reconciliation, I would visit him once a week so that I could gather more material for the biography I was writing about him with journalist Anshel Pfeffer. All in all, I ended up gaining so much from the incident.”

Eli Yishai, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Arye Deri 521 (credit: Marc Israel Sellem)Eli Yishai, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Arye Deri 521 (credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Are you getting antsy now that another election is coming up?

I get restless and excited at the start of every election season. I truly miss the political action, but because I’m involved with these issues on a daily basis at the GPO, I also get over it pretty quickly, too.

Chen, 58, is the second generation of his family to work at the IBA. His father, Moshe Chen (Haba), was a Yakir Yerushalayim and grew up in an established family that had made aliyah from Iraq. He worked for half a century at the Kol Israel radio station as a sound technician and producer of Jewish heritage programs. “Growing up, I spent a lot of time at the radio station. Even as a kid, I was involved in putting together radio programs,” Chen reminisces. “When I first began appearing on TV, it felt like the fulfillment of a long-held dream I’d had since I was a kid.”

Chen’s father played a number of musical instruments, and Chen plays the organ and piano.

Did you ever consider becoming a professional musician?

No, not really. I think if I hadn’t gone into journalism, I probably would have become a college lecturer or an educator. Or if that hadn’t worked out, I could have been a singer, a cantor or perhaps even a rabbi. For me, music is something I enjoy and is extremely important for my well-being.

Chen carried out his IDF military service as a gunner in the First Lebanon War, during which he almost lost his life. “In one of the battles, our artillery battery was hit by a barrage of missiles,” Chen recounts. “I still have the helmet I wore that day, which is punctured all over. Thank goodness I was wearing it, and I only suffered superficial wounds on my head. I still have PTSD symptoms every once in a while, such as insomnia and night terrors.”

After completing his military service, Chen began his university studies in political science and law. During his years of study, he wrote for religious newspapers, worked as a security guard and had a few cleaning jobs. Later, he was sent by the Jewish Agency to the UK as a community rabbi. “That was the first time I came in contact with Jews from non-Orthodox streams of Judaism,” Chen explains. “Congregants would drive to the synagogue on Shabbat, and the heavens did not come crashing down. During the 18 months I spent in the UK, I came to understand how important it was for people in the Diaspora to form a strong bond with their fellow Jews at synagogue, especially in smaller communities, where the rates of assimilation were much higher. In Israel, people take their Judaism for granted. In the Diaspora, it’s challenging to keep your family Jewish. I think it’s extremely important to maintain a strong relationship between Israel and Jewish communities around the world.”

Upon returning to Israel, Chen began his career in the news department at Channel 1, which lasted for 18 years. “I always saw myself as a journalist and not a celebrity,” Chen admits. “Many journalists consider themselves to be the scoop instead of the people they’re interviewing and the stories they’re reporting on. After the incident with Harav Ovadia, I turned down an offer to appear on a TV talk show that kept hounding me to appear on their show to talk about the affair.”

While working as a correspondent covering Jewish settlers, Chen covered the right-wing demonstrations that took place in protest of the Oslo Accords. A series of articles Chen published about Shas earned him an award from the Hartman Institute, and later Chen served as a parliamentary correspondent. The biggest scoop he had was when he exposed a glitch in Mossad activity in Switzerland. In the days leading up to the 1996 election campaign, Chen would often accompany Bibi and Sara Netanyahu as part of his work on Chaim Yavin’s Hanivcharim series.

Chen experienced a turning point in his career in journalism when he became an editor on the Mabat TV news show. “Up until that point, I’d been working as a journalist out in the field,” Chen explains. “Beforehand, I was always hyper-focused on my one story, but once I became an editor and a manager, I needed to change my vantage point from micro to macro. At the same time, I began working as the head of television programming at the Ma’aleh Film School.”

For a short time, Chen also served as chairman of the Israel Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council, “after I understood that despite the influence you can have by working as a journalist, if you really want to make a difference, you need to effect change from above,” Chen explains. “As chairman, I demanded that all the channels must do everything for the benefit of Israeli viewers, while maintaining the highest ethics and professional standards.”

Since 2012, Chen has been serving as the director of the Government Press Office. “In addition to our involvement with the local press, the GPO serves as the home away from home for all the foreign press agencies operating in Israel.”

Chen currently lives in Jerusalem with his wife, Ilana, who works as a lawyer for the Israel Police, with the rank of superintendent. The couple have three daughters.

After all the action you’ve been involved in out in the field, do you still find your current work fascinating?

Well, it’s different, but I feel that this is my mission. As long as I can contribute to improving the image of the State of Israel in the world, then I will derive great professional satisfaction from my work here.

What is it like for you these days when you watch the news on TV?

Unlike how it was in the past, today’s reportage is quite sensationalized and much more populist, with people constantly shooting from the hip. Back in the day, at the Israel Broadcast Authority, we would at least count to 10 before publishing an item that could possibly cause someone harm. All in all, the immediacy and availability of media outlets, including TV programs, come at the expense of quality, reliability and professionalism.

If there’s anything I’m still frustrated about from my time on TV, it is that everything I accomplished during my career was overshadowed by the “Get out!” incident with Harav Ovadia. My biggest mistake was that immediately after the incident, I returned directly to the recording studio, and upon entering, I got lots of pats on the back and congratulations, all of which were broadcast live to the whole country.

That infuriated the rabbi’s followers ,and thus began a dance of demons that I could have done without.■

Translated by Hannah Hochner.