An ‘unholy book’

Ariel University Center’s Yoel Cohen’s new tome examines the interplay of media and religion in Israel.

Man inspects etrog 370 (photo credit: Reuters Photographer / Reuters)
Man inspects etrog 370
(photo credit: Reuters Photographer / Reuters)
Writing about religion in this country can sometimes be dangerous, it seems.
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 Media.
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.”
With the 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 of news.
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 research.
Anyone interested in understanding the various outlets and opinions within ultra- Orthodoxy, for example, would benefit from this work.
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 reader.
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 identity.”
“Non-strictly religious Israeli Jews,” he contends, “draw much of their religious identity today from the mass media.”
Other topics 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 nominally religious.
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.
One such quote, by Shahar Ilan during his tenure at Haaretz, is particularly enlightening.
“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.