The new Israeli

Groundbreaking journalist Bambi Sheleg, who died of cancer at 58, defied Israel’s social and ideological divisions and willed the country’s reinvention.

Bambi Sheleg (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bambi Sheleg
(photo credit: Courtesy)
GLANCING AT the “Stop the retreat from Sinai!” flyers she was handing out at the Hebrew University’s entrance in the spring of 1981, none in the multitude about her could suspect that the smallish, stout, redhead, Bambi Ehrlich, would later emerge as a journalistic pathbreaker, major social critic and harbinger of an evolving new Israeli.
Yet, Bambi, as the woman born Beatrice Ehrlich was known since her infancy, managed all these despite dying prematurely in Jerusalem last month at 58, following a battle with cancer.
Having arrived in Israel at age 12 from Santiago, Chile, where her observant grandparents landed after fleeing Nazi Germany, Bambi proceeded, naturally, to Israel’s modern-Orthodox milieu, attending a religious high school in Netanya, where she also went to Bnei Akiva before serving in the IDF.
Having emerged from the army several months after Likud’s historic defeat of Labor in 1977, Bambi’s modern-Orthodoxy soon led to greater Israel activism – first as a co-founder of Atzmona, a settlement in the Gaza Strip, then as a journalist in the settlers’ magazine Nekuda, where she also met her future husband, journalist Yair Sheleg.
This background, along with her campus activism when she was single, and her editing of the religious children’s weekly Otiyot after she married, added up to a run-of-th-emill right-wing idealist – until November 4,1995.
On that fateful night, Sheleg was packing for a delegation’s trip to the US the next morning. Instead, she ended up at home following the slain Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral together with the rest of a dumbfounded Jewish state.
The delegation in which she was participating, a deliberately diverse collection of Israelis, left for its destination a day late, and then toured assorted Jewish communities across North America.
Appearing there as she always did, wearing dresses and hats that visibly identified her with religious Zionism, Sheleg found herself in question-and-answer sessions expected to represent the part of Israeli society with which Rabin’s assassin was identified.
It was a role she refused to play, and an attitude she resolved to undo.
After some 15 years of crusading for the settlement cause, Sheleg abandoned it, insisting Israeli society had more urgent concerns.
Eager to reach a broad audience, she sought a stage that would break all traditional affiliations and stereotypes. The best way to achieve such a goal, she figured, would be to build a stage herself.
By then a mother of three, Sheleg resigned from the children’s weekly and started from scratch a magazine she named Eretz Aheret, which means “another country” and alludes to a poem the late songster Ehud Manor wrote after his brother was killed in the War of Attrition.
“I HAVE no other country,” wrote Manor, “even if my country is ablaze.” It is a song with which thousands of Israelis are familiar, both technically and mentally. Altering the poem’s usage of the term “another land” from the geographic alternatives to Israel that Zionists reject to the social utopias they crave, Sheleg established her mission statement and embarked on what would be her life’s mission.
As the first issue came out in fall 2000, the rest of the media community realized there was no way to classify their youngest sibling.
By publishing in the inaugural issue writers ranging from linguist Zvia Valdan, a Ben-Gurion University professor who also is Shimon Peres’s daughter, to Yosef Ozer, a poet running an ultra-Orthodox Heder (elementary school), and tackling issues such as God’s place in Jewish history, the thought of singer Ehud Banai, and the futility of Holocaust theology, Sheleg made it clear she was creating something novel.
Until that first issue’s appearance, she had been seen as part of the new generation of religiously raised journalists who were beginning to rise elsewhere in the Israeli press.
It was an impression she now dispelled.
The father of that trend was Uri Urbach, who later moved from the media to politics, where he became a cabinet minister before dying of an illness last year at 55, after masterminding Naftali Bennett’s takeover of the Bayit Yehudi party.
Having worked under Urbach at Otiyot, many assumed she was out to march along his path. She wasn’t.
Urbach’s quest, before moving to politics, was to flood the secular media with religious journalists, an aim that in due course was indeed realized, with prominent positions now held by observant journalists such as Channel 2’s political correspondent Amit Segal, Channel 10’s legal correspondent Baruch Kra, and Army Radio talkshow host Erel Segal.
SHELEG’S QUEST, by contrast, was not to move people from one side of the sectarian divide to its other side, but to have people from both sides of any social partition visit its other side, and, while at it, lower the partitions themselves.
Sheleg’s journalistic method to achieve this was to dedicate each issue to a topic, some of which caught readers off guard in their very selection, and all of which demanded collecting about a dozen writers per package, some of whom delivered contemplative, long-form essays, while others produced magazine features and investigative reports.
The themes were dizzying in their range and pretension ‒ from a profile of Israel’s elite to the relevance of Zionist pioneer Haim Nahman Bialik’s poetry; from the degeneration of the Chief Rabbinate to the state of the Ethiopian community; and from the evolution of an Israeli community in Berlin to a discovery of south Tel Aviv’s social decay.
Handsomely designed and featuring quality photography, it all added up to a mixture of the Atlantic Monthly, the New Republic, Commentary, The New York Times Magazine and the New York Review of Books, with one exception: Eretz Aheret avoided the mechanics of politics and diplomacy.
At the same time, Sheleg paid great attention to Israel’s Arabs and to Arab culture, and also enlisted for her editorial board two Arab journalists – poet and translator El-Tayeb a’Naim, and Nazir Majali, a commentator for the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat and a former editor of the Israeli- Arab daily Al-Ittihad.
In Eretz Aheret’s editorial meetings, almost all corners of Israeli society were thus seated around one table ‒ from Majali and a’Naim through Ponevezh Yeshiva-graduate Rabbi Bezalel Cohen, a reformer of ultra- Orthodox education, to Russian-literature critic and translator Dina Markon, Kibbutz movement spiritual leader Shai Zarhi, educational- program writer Tamar Gviniashvili, TV documentary producer Anat Zuria, Sapir College executive Zohar Avitan, a Moroccan- born resident of Sderot, and about a dozen other diverse Israelis.
“We are like a pizza pie,” Sheleg used to say of Israeli society, explaining that the best part of every triangular slice is its tip, and the tips – every individual group’s spearheads – are the ones closest to the center of the pie and, therefore, also to each other.
The resolve to rise above day-to-day political rancor required discipline, most notably leaving out of the magazine Sheleg’s own newly pragmatic views concerning the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Yet, on one front, Sheleg used Eretz Aheret to storm the political system head on: economics.
Preceding by nearly a decade the social protest movement that erupted in 2011, and overruling economically conservative board colleagues including this writer, who feared a return to Israel’s socialist past, as early as 2002, Sheleg dedicated an issue to a scathing assault on the concept of privatization.
Having waged this attack well before Benjamin Netanyahu’s appointment as finance minister the following year, Sheleg, in this case, detected a major economic trend ahead of its dramatic acceleration, when major state assets such as El Al, ZIM, and Oil Refineries Ltd., as well as a controlling share in Bezeq were sold to private owners.
Eretz Aheret’s evolving position as a leading, and increasingly influential, critic of the economic zeitgeist was consolidated in subsequent issues.
Thus, an issue in which 11 articles collectively lampooned the Dovrat Report, which recommended authorizing school principals to hire, fire and pay teachers against the Education Ministry’s policies – helped inspire its shelving by the Olmert government a year after its adoption by the Sharon government.
Similarly, an issue that crusaded against a plan to privatize jails resulted in its cancelation, and a plan to issue biometric IDs was abandoned following an issue in which it was lambasted.
Even so, impact was obviously limited.
The Treasury’s Budget Department, for instance, which one issue depicted as a group of like-minded, unelected neo-liberals out to impose Darwinian economics on Israel – has neither changed its spots nor lost its clout, eight years on.
More ominously, as so often happens with journals of thought, the buzz Eretz Aheret stirred could only yield so much income.
Then again, its business model, a haphazard evolution that unfolded alongside the global crisis of print journalism, may yet prove to be a legacy in its own right.
“IT'S TIME to rethink the central role played by newspapers and websites – socially, culturally and politically,” Sheleg wrote in an issue that mapped and decried the global media crisis.
The mass layoff of correspondents and editors over the past 15 years due to the rise of the Internet resulted, in her view, not only in personal tragedies, but also in serious damage to democracy as business interests increasingly weighed on editorial integrity.
As she did on the social front, on this industrial front, too, Sheleg effectively introduced an alternative by seeking non-profit sponsors. What began as a practicality – Sheleg’s working assumption from the outset was that the quest for financial profit would collide with the quest for journalistic depth – eventually became an ideal.
Having been funded along the years by an assortment of foundations, the dominant of which was American-Israeli philanthropist organization Avi Chai, Sheleg gradually found herself struggling to recruit funders until money ran out, resulting in the print edition’s death as it turned 13. In its best year, recalls Galit Bineth, who was Eretz Aheret’s CEO, the magazine worked on a budget of 2.4 million shekels (640,000 dollars).
It, too, was insufficient, and funding only kept dwindling.
Sheleg’s conclusion was that the media crisis demanded a new type of public funder.
The foundations she was working with had other missions, and the journalism she wanted had to somehow fit into their diverse agendas and share resources with other causes.
According to her vision, future media will be financed by foundations dedicated exclusively to cultivating journalism as an independent social tool for scrutinizing power and bettering society.
That is what Eretz Aheret did, says Bineth to The Jerusalem Report. It portrayed the effort necessary to sustain a media that works in the service of society, never hesitating to tackle weighty issues that are seen as lacking rating.”
Like her social passion, Sheleg’s vision for the media reflected an ingrained rebelliousness, a refusal to accept norms imposed by the powers that be, says her husband Yair to The Report.
A TELLING instance of this was her unique message to the modern-Orthodoxy into which she was born.
Writing on this issue a generation before feminism unsettled Orthodoxy, Sheleg challenged the religious norm whereby male rabbis determined for observant women what constituted modest appearance. When asked by a student after speaking at a religious girls’ school “which rabbi should we listen to?” Sheleg answered, “Listen to yourselves.”
The statement about modesty may well have been Sheleg’s first leap above a social partition ‒ in that case the one that stood between feminism and Orthodoxy.
In hindsight, it can be seen as the motto of a new Israeli, one who, rather than seek the victory of his or her sector over the rest, seeks the company, dialogue and cross-fertilization of the other sectors, all of which is slowly but steadily giving rise to a new Israeli, much the way Zionism gave rise to a new Jew.
Introducing estranged species and divided Israelis was a feat Sheleg would accomplish repeatedly in multiple contexts and improbable settings, as attested by the eclectic congregation of mourners who crowded her funeral and shiva: Leftists and settlers, Jews and Arabs, Shasniks and kibbutzniks, Russians and Ethiopians, and ultra-Orthodox rabbis alongside authors, poets and painters.
Collectively, they were the new Israeli Sheleg tried to shape in her life and embodied in her death.