Getting the news from Reel Israel

YouTube news show tells it how it really is

Freelance journalist and Jerusalem Report contributor Judith Sudilovsky and Eric Narrow, Israel Communications Officer at the Jewish National Fund USA, on What The Israeli Papers Say (photo credit: Courtesy)
Freelance journalist and Jerusalem Report contributor Judith Sudilovsky and Eric Narrow, Israel Communications Officer at the Jewish National Fund USA, on What The Israeli Papers Say
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Have you ever watched an Israeli news show or current affairs debate? If you have, you’ll know what I’m about to say. But if you haven’t, here’s a summary of how it goes:
The presenter introduces his or her guests. They smile benignly and look as though butter wouldn’t melt... and then it kicks off. Not a debate on the merits or otherwise of the opposing point of view, or a rapier-like takedown of a dodgy statistic or claim made by a rival. Israeli, Hebrew-language political “debate” – and I use that word advisedly – is about shouting to the point of screaming over one another, never giving way, and ignoring the protestations of the host while continuing to hurl vicious claim and counter-claim back and forth. Then come the personal insults, often bordering on the libelous, scattered around like confetti.
The host is there to keep order and help tease meaningful answers out of his or her guests, the intended point of the show being to better inform the watching Israeli public. But this rarely happens. Like politicians the world over, our lawmakers and talking heads are skilled in the art of avoiding the question and stick to a prepared script of points they wish to make. For them, it’s all about the tasty 10-20 second sound bite that will boost their following on social media, mostly channels that unquestioningly lap up crass, unchallenged, and often uncorroborated statements.
Not so very long ago, I was asked to appear on an Israeli early-evening show. I said I would, as long as it was a one-on-one conversation with the host. I wasn’t interested in a slanging match with someone used to hurling insults, almost certainly with a bellowing voice and command of Hebrew that surpasses mine. The producer insisted it was the potential shouting match or nothing. I informed him that given such options “nothing” would do nicely. Thanks, but no thanks.
Whether it’s politicians, pundits, journalists or even members of the great Israeli public, as you flick through our talk and news shows, the scenario illustrated above is not just a daily occurrence, it’s an overwhelming minute-by-minute tidal wave of disorder and disrespect. It doesn’t reflect well on us, but maybe is a fair reflection of what we have become in recent years.
COVID-19 has few redeeming features. This has been an awful time for just about everyone, everywhere. With so much time on my hands this summer I decided to call a few old acquaintances – a chance to chat at leisure now the merry-go-round had stopped turning. Among them was London-based Robert Waterman. I knew Waterman a few decades ago when I was involved as a boxing correspondent in Britain and he was building a career as a boxing promoter. He went on to expand into online sports media and his Knockout Entertainment Ltd has been a big success story.
A committed Zionist, Waterman was for a number of years director of Britain’s Community Security Trust, helping ensure the safety and security of the Jewish community. He has also been involved in a number of charitable projects here in Israel.
We discussed our shared view of the genuine need for Israel to be presented realistically and honestly. That means giving proper credit to the many great things happening here, but also shining a light and not covering up those troubling aspects that need to be highlighted and explained.
When I began my aliyah process in 1996, the pitch from the Jewish Agency was of an almost utopian society. The only thing missing from the promotional video was people dancing the hora while clutching baskets of immaculate Jaffa oranges! Of course, some of us understood this was part of the pitch, but others from across the world really believed they were coming to a place where it was simply enough to be a Jew and everyone would welcome you with open arms and everything would be fine.
Sadly, the reality check that followed resulted in more than one hundred of the 120 people from my intake at Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem eventually returning from whence they came, dreams shattered. Fast forward to a few years ago when I accompanied a friend on his initial visit to the Ministry of Absorption after moving here. I was astounded to see a poster in the reception area that showed a sandy background on which lay a wilted flower. The headline was “We Never Promised You a Rose Garden.” Times have changed.
There are many admirable online Israel advocacy groups and organizations that do tremendous work countering the anti-Israel, anti-Zionist and often antisemitic social and mainstream media but, with the greatest of respect, the patting-ourselves-on-the-back, telling everyone how wonderful we all are, all the time, arguably loses its impact due to a lack of balance and a perception that it is little more than one-sided propaganda.
Israel is a developing project, a relatively new democracy facing a mountain of challenges on many fronts. If we really want people to understand us and what we stand for, we need to look in the mirror and speak honestly about what we see; a Jewish nation that has miraculously overcome the odds in a tough neighborhood to become a regional powerhouse; the Start-Up Nation that punches well above its weight on the international economic and business scene; a country that is, for the most part, a shining light in the Middle East for religious tolerance of minorities; a place where the long-persecuted Jewish people now have a home to call their own.
On the other hand, Israel is a country riven by strife in so many quarters. Its political system is failing; there is endemic corruption; tensions between religious and secular Jews are on the rise; one-third of the nation lives on or below the poverty line; average wages bear no comparison to house prices and the crippling cost of living has left many citizens facing barely manageable personal debt.
The latter issue has been driven home by the pandemic in which so many have lost their jobs, but unlike developed nations they have received a pittance in compensation from the government for closing their business and losing their income. The cracks are there, and to paper over them does a disservice to the Israeli people and to those that genuinely want to understand and overcome the issues we are facing.
Reel Israel, a YouTube channel presented by yours truly, was the idea Robert Waterman and I came up with. Enabled by Internet technology, his London-based studios, led by Joseph Smith, work alongside me here in Israel. A slow burner, we both accepted. Without the philanthropic backing so many pro-Israel organizations enjoy it will take time to find its audience. But then again, it will have total independence in the subjects and the guest speakers and interviewees invited to offer in-depth analysis.
The first regular show on the channel is What The Israeli Papers Say. Two guests, usually from opposite sides of the political spectrum, join me to review a selection of stories that have caught their eye in the Israeli media over the previous week or so. Respected journalists such as Benjamin Weinthal, Judith Sudilovsky, Boaz Korpel, and The Jerusalem Report’s very own Steve Linde have been among the first guest reviewers. Former Bank Hapoalim senior executive Rami Lador, (now active in the citizens campaign against corruption in government) was on one of the early shows, as too were Eric Narrow, of the JNF USA, and Lt. Col.(ret.) Peter Lerner, former IDF spokesperson and now director-general of the International Relations Division at the Histadrut labor federation.
The only guideline for my guests is that at Reel Israel we are the antidote to the usually combative Israeli talk shows. No shouting, no name-calling, no unsubstantiated accusations. Let’s talk, let’s hear the other side out.
In one of the most fascinating discussions, modern Orthodox Rabbi Seth Farber, of the progressive ITIM organization, shared the screen with Rabbi Yishai Fleisher, international spokesperson of the right-wing Jewish community of Hebron in Judea and Samaria (or, if you prefer, the West Bank). This was an episode in which two religious people with very different perspectives found some points they agreed on – and when they didn’t, agreed to differ, respectfully.
And unlike those news correspondents often parachuted into Israel with just a scant understanding of the many nuances and undercurrents of our politics, society, and the complicated regional alliances and battle lines, my guests and I live here and have to live with the consequences that ill-informed comment and opinion can cause.
It’s been encouraging to have people say of “What The Israeli Papers Say” that they are surprised to hear aspects of issues rarely, if ever highlighted in the mainstream. They like the fact that we offer more than sound bites, and that guests are given time to lay out their case.
The next phase of content at Reel Israel will include one-on-one interviews with fascinating Israelis from across the religious, social, political and arts worlds. Some will be household names; others you may never have heard of – and believe me, you’ll wonder why not after hearing their remarkable life stories and achievements.
The writer is a broadcast news and sports journalist who has worked for a number of major international media organizations over the last three decades. His first novel, Kin or Country, a political thriller set in Israel, was recently published