Media Comment: Cultural Autism

Elements within Israel’s media suffer from what we could term “cultural autism.” We observe them limiting their coverage.

The Vizhnitzer Rebbe (photo credit: Reuters)
The Vizhnitzer Rebbe
(photo credit: Reuters)
Autism, according to the United States National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, is a neuro-development disorder characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties and stereotyped patterns of behavior. The hallmark feature of ASD is impaired social interaction. Among its indicators are stereotyped, repetitive, or unusual use of language, restricted patterns of interest, preoccupation with certain objects or subjects and inflexible adherence to specific routines.
Elements within Israel’s media suffer from what we could term “cultural autism.” We observe them too often limiting their coverage to social, political and artistic events which are close to them culturally and with which they easily identify. They do not find interest in happenings which could appeal to audiences coming from different cultural backgrounds. There are too many instances of the “closed circle” phenomenon.
Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg was born in 1910 in Europe. At the age of nine, together with his mother, he joined his father who had emigrated earlier to the United States. The family lived in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was given an Orthodox Jewish education, studying to become a rabbi at the Yitzchak Elchanan Yeshiva at Yeshiva University. He was ordained by the yeshiva’s head, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik, the father of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, the famous 20th-century rabbinical leader of the modern Orthodox Jewish Community in the United States.
He continued his Torah studies in the Mir Yeshiva in Poland, returning to the United States in 1936. He then served as the spiritual head of the Chafetz Chaim Yeshiva in Queens. In the early Sixties he founded the Torah Ohr Yeshiva in New York, but after a year came on aliya to Israel with his yeshiva which he then proceeded to lead for the next 50 years. He was considered one of the most important American Litvak haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbinical leaders. He served as a member of the “Gedolei Hatorah Council” of the Degel Hatorah political party.
He was also the rabbi of the Matersdorf neighborhood of Jerusalem. He was married for 80 years to his wife Masha, who passed away two years ago.
THE RABBI was the author of numerous books, and was considered the Dean of Yeshiva Heads in Israel. The number of his pupils reaches into the tens of thousands.
His educational influence extends to many corners of the world. The respect he garnered within the ultra-Orthodox community may be deduced from the notice uploaded to the Egged website: “disruptions of the bus service due to the funeral procession of 300,000 of his Hassidim.”
Israel’s most popular newspaper, Israel Hayom, did not report the death of Rabbi Scheinberg even once. A haredi reader sent a letter of complaint. He was answered by Mr. Gonen Ginat in the following language: “This is a spiteful, redundant and baseless complaint.”
Israel Hayom was not alone in ignoring Rabbi Sheinberg’s death and funeral.
Consider Channel 1 TV of Israel’s Broadcasting Authority. On the evening after the funeral there wasn’t even a hint of its taking place. No doubt an item on Israel’s youth boxing champion, which did appear, was much more important and could not be set aside. The lack of coverage was not different in the news magazines of Channel 2 and 10 that same evening.
Compare this with the reaction to the death of Amy Winehouse, a Jewish icon, singer and songwriter who tragically died of alcohol poisoning last July. Her death was broadcast and reported on in almost all of Israel’s major media outlets. Video clips of her singing were shown. Many minutes and column lines were devoted to her. No doubt the mysterious circumstances surrounding her death contributed to the media interest. Yet there is also no doubt that the international celebrity status accorded to her was a major factor.
The same may be said about the death of Whitney Houston, which was naturally extensively covered by our media. In fact, it was the media’s duty to report the deaths of both Ms. Winehouse and Ms.
Houston. They were known and meant something to many people, who enjoyed and respected their music and artistic greatness. But it is the glaring lack of reaction to a death of a haredi leader, who meant much to many people, which demonstrates our media’s “autism.”
Rabbi Scheinberg’s life could be considered by many as exemplary. He lived through tumultuous times in the United States. The history of Jews in the USA during the first half of the previous century is not well known or understood here in Israel, especially the difficulty of keeping one’s Jewish way of life in the face of financial and social pressures. Yet none of these issues came to the fore. Our media’s culture is far from that of the haredi world. They don’t understand it and are even fearful of it.
Almost at the same time, the Vishnitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua Hager, also passed away. His funeral too, was massively attended. He was just six years younger than Rabbi Sheinberg, with a very different history. The media coverage of this event was a bit better, but still rather apathetic. Israel Hayom, as well as Channels 2 and 10, did report his death and funeral. Perhaps the fact that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office as well as Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin communicated to the press their sorrow and condolences helped.
Journalist Yedidya Meir, writing on the haredi Kikar Hashabbat website, noted that the item on Channel 2 was: “The Vizhnitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua Hager, the head of the Gur Hassidim, passed away last night at the age of 95.”
This notification was a prepared and written item yet the editors as well as the anchor who read it on air did not realize the glaring error; a striking example of the cultural distance of our media.
Channel 1 TV did broadcast an item this week on Orthodox Rabbi Dovi and Esty Scheiner, who were named among 2012’s most stylish New Yorkers by Stylecaster, a relative exception to the rule. But the question still remains: are too many of our media elements trapped within their own cultural ghetto?
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch.