An invitation to the Jewish Media Summit is both an honor and an opportunity. The honor part became even more apparent after the fact, when some attendees of the last summit complained at having been left off the guest list this time around. As for opportunity, where else would you meet some 100 Jewish journalists from all over the world, representing Milan, Rome, Paris, Istanbul, Zagreb, Buenos Aires, and so many other faraway places where Jewish journalists are hard at work? Perhaps they were invited to bring home a rosy picture of the state of things in the State of Israel. Instead, the visiting foreign journalists were to hear an oft-repeated refrain: the incoming Israeli government is extremist, nay even corrupt.
The idea that the new government is far right and extremist was first voiced by outgoing Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai, the first speaker at the opening gala. Shai had a brief period of fame as the voice on the radio that soothed Israelis in their safe rooms during the 1991 Gulf War. “Drink water” he would say to us calmly as the world crashed and burned outside our windows and our babies drank milk from bottles through a weird plastic tent.
|Outgoing Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai|
But that was a long time ago. Today Shai is an outgoing MK. And in his speech, as in the speeches of the other outgoing ministers who spoke to us during the four-day summit, one can detect the taste of sour grapes: “Some of the elected officials lack sufficient experience and in any opinion, some of the coalition’s demands contradict and even contravene the democratic character of the state of Israel,” said Shai. “They have been given a playground of powers; they are high on zeal and euphoria. It is alarming, it is dangerous and it will potentially damage our relationship with the global Jewish world and the international entente and the very future of the state of Israel.”
As an Israeli, I objected to Shai’s speech. Not only because of what he said, but because he said it to more than 100 foreign Jewish journalists. This is not the kind of message I personally want these journalists to take home to Hungary, Poland, and Panama. I want to hear the positive stressed. Certainly, the positive in Israel abounds.
Shai, like so many other speakers to come, could have stressed the fact that the new government was democratically elected by the people of Israel. One of whom was yours truly, sitting in the audience. Every demonizing word he spoke maligned me and my choices, as well. “First and foremost, I am concerned that the incoming government will damage the ties between the Jewish global community and Israel,” said Shai. “And not necessarily intentionally, but partly as a result of differences in ideology, partly as a result of political affiliation and partly because of ignorance and unwillingness to understand the situation on the ground.”
Shai had, in my view, just told 100 foreign journalists that I had voted to damage ties between Israel and their countries. He had told them that I had voted for ignorance and intolerance. All this as if there were no other perspective to be heard. And that was only the opening speech.
The next day was better. Sort of. We went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where we had a choice of panels and one lecture to choose from. I chose the lecture “'Iran, Iran, Iran’: Nuclear Deal, Protests and the Regional Effects on Israel” which proved so popular that the summit organizers implemented a sign-up sheet, and I believe I was the last one to squeak in. It was, however, a disappointment. Everyone said so.
The Iran lecture was given by Nevo Barchad, director of the Regional Security & Counter-Terrorism Department (Strategic Affairs Division). At our final session of the summit, where we aired compliments and grievances alike, Barchad (along with Israeli President Isaac Herzog) was described by some as “low energy” and with nothing new to say—nothing we didn’t already know.
It did, however, seem to break the tension surrounding the subject of Iran when I raised my hand and asked Barchad, “Do you sleep at night?”
The audience of journalists laughed and so did Barchad who said, “No. I don’t sleep at night. I have a four-year-old,” and then, in a more serious tone, “Yes. I sleep at night.”
“That’s because you know things I don’t.” I said to him—to me it was no joke. “You sleep because you know things we don’t. I don’t sleep at night.”
|Nevo Barchad's talk on Iran|
After the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we were off to the Knesset. There we heard from four members of Knesset, two from the outgoing and two from the incoming governments. Plus one left-leaning journalist, Jerusalem Post Deputy Managing Editor Tovah Lazaroff.
The two MKs from the outgoing government (Sharren Haskel and Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv) plus Tovah Lazaroff, told us that the incoming government was illiberal, intolerant, and extreme, and that they would undo all the good works of the outgoing government. The MKs representing the winning side, (Yuli Edelstein and Rabbi Yitzchak Pindrus) meanwhile assured us that the new government would be reasonable and do good things for all Israel’s people.
The way this presentation played out did not seem balanced to me. One side attacking the other, the other defending itself (now where have we seen that paradigm before?). And it did not seem a smart strategy, at all.
Smart would be to show a unified face, one that honors Israel’s own electoral process. Outgoing MKs should be good losers when talking to the foreign press from the podium. Speak of your accomplishments if you have any to speak of, but stop with the epithets in regard to the victor—stop tossing out the word “extreme” ad nauseam—and instead be gracious and promise to help your successor.
That is the sporting thing to do.
But sporting is not what this roomful of international Jewish journalists got, and that is sad and even tragic. We didn’t present Israel in its best, true light. Instead, we brought over 100 journalists to Israel to tell them of our no-good horrible government and our continued disunity. It is difficult to understand why we needed to put such a grim face on a popular Israeli decision for all the world to see.
Very cool board at the Knesset. You can see at a glance, who is in the house. The grayed out people are absent. You can click on different people to see how they vote. More stuff. #jmsisrael2022 pic.twitter.com/LTPyhWLxjC— Varda Epstein #JusticeforMalkiRoth (@VardaEpstein) December 20, 2022
As for equal time, it seemed to me that the opposition plus one got way more time than the winning side. When a video of the two-hour event was distributed to us, I was able to time each speaker’s time at the podium: prepared remarks plus in all but one case, a question and answer period. The combined time on the podium of those demonizing the government (Sharren Haskel, Gilad Kariv, and Tovah Lazaroff) was three times that of incoming MKs Pindrus and Edelstein. I overheard two foreign journalists remark that they felt unsatisfied by Pindrus’ answers, and felt their questions had been more fully answered by Kariv. Well, no wonder. Kariv had spoken twice as long as Pindrus.
Perhaps it was the journalist Tovah Lazaroff who tipped the balance so heavily against the side that won. Her talk at the summit had been moved up as a result of a scheduling conflict, necessitating the insertion of her speech somewhere in between those of the MKs. That made it three against two, Lazaroff being virulent about her dislike for the incoming government. Which was no surprise to me. I was already familiar with her work.
Following the Knesset was a tour and dinner at the Friends of Zion Heritage Center. When I had earlier told my husband of this item on the itinerary, he said, “You can’t go in there.”
I said, “I had no intention of going in there. I would NEVER go in there.”
The museum was paean to Christians for how much they love the Jews. The funding came from Mike Evans’ “Jerusalem Prayer Team.” Evans is widely suspected of missionary activity in the Holy Land, which is a particularly galling location for his “work.” Many summit attendees complained about the selection of the museum as an event on our itinerary, some going so far as to call this choice of venue “offensive.”
Well, it was offensive. Perhaps it was a good choice for the Christian Media Summit, held the week before. But it wasn’t the right choice for us as Jewish journalists at a Jerusalem summit.
The next day we had a choice of two tours. I chose to go to the south where we toured the Tze’elim military training base and Kibbutz Nirim. Both places were fabulous, but Brigadier General Bentzi Gruber during his tour and talk, did not neglect to bash Haredim after a prompt from an intolerant audience member. Haredim don’t serve, blah, blah, blah. After the presentation, I told him with what the writer in me thinks of as “visceral anger," “My sons serve. They serve in combat units: Givati, Kfir, Shiryon. . .”
He answered, “Do you know how many Haredim serve? Nine percent,” he said.
“More and more are serving each year. If you want more of them to serve, maybe stop maligning them,” I said.
I went home and looked at the numbers. Not so much the number of Haredim who serve, but the number of Israelis who serve in the army overall. I found this: “Compulsory military enlistment in Israel is but an old myth. In reality, 35% of the Israeli population carries the burden, while the remaining 65% find ways to avoid military service without having to suffer any consequences.”
But hey. Any opportunity to bash the Haredim. Always good for a gripe.
|Brigadier General Bentzi Gruber|
On the final day of summit I finally had a chance to have my say. Rabbi Daniel Tropper founder and president emeritus of Gesher, a nonprofit which is all about forging connections between different sectors of Jews led a session called, “70 Faces of Torah: How do we live together in spite of our disagreements?” Instead of telling us how to live together, Tropper took the opportunity to refer to the new government as “corrupt.”
Well, of course he would. His son Hili is part of the outgoing government as minister of Culture and Sports. Hili Tropper is affiliated with the failed Blue and White Party. The party led by outgoing Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who spoke after Shai at the gala.
Rabbi Tropper also took the opportunity to disparage Haredim, saying that they “won’t even talk to a Reform rabbi.”
|Rabbi Daniel Tropper|
I raised my hand to ask a question. “Rabbi Tropper,” I began. “I have lived in Israel for 43 years. For much of that time, your name has been synonymous with coexistence and tolerance. But here you are, demonizing a government that was voted in by more than half of us. I don’t love Bibi,” I said. “I don’t like many of his policies, but I want him for Iran.
“As a voter, when I go to the polls, my main issue is Iran,” I continued. “And for that I want Bibi. Someone experienced, diplomatic.
"And as for Ben Gvir, I understand he spoke at the Christian Media Summit last week and wowed the crowd. They didn't think he was extreme. Maybe he's not?"
"Finally, in regard to Haredim, I am Haredi and would never refuse to speak with a Reform rabbi and no one in my social circles would refuse to do so either.”
Tropper responded to the first part of my question. The new government, he said, had to pass laws in order to form a coalition. “That has never happened before in an Israeli election. Passing laws to form a government? That’s corrupt. It’s corruption.” he said.
I don’t believe in follow-up questions, really. I say thank you and sit down and receive politely whatever is said to me. But I also don’t believe it was the first time in history that laws were changed in order to form an Israeli government. Later, my husband commented that Meir Kahane’s Kach Party was excluded from a race through a law that was hastily proposed and passed. Laws to include or exclude MKs: on either side of the aisle, it’s the same.
As I sat down, the lovely woman sitting next to me showed me that she had snapped two photos of me asking my question. “It was an important point,” she said.
She was not the only one to say so. It seemed obvious. Coexistence also means coexisting with the winning side and respecting the choices of the Israelis who voted differently than yourself. Tolerance means not saying bad things in public about people who observe their religion in a different way.
Not to mention, look how many of the participants had flocked to the lecture on Iran. I had voted for Bibi for a reasonable, valid reason. We all know of Netanyahu’s famous bomb speech, and the way he stood up to Obama. Even Nitzan Chen, head of the Government Press Office (GPO) and host of the summit, was struck by the point I had made. Because in truth, to paraphrase Gwen Guthrie, there ain’t nothing going on but Iran.
Chen asked me in Hebrew if I were a newspaper reporter and
lifted my name tag to look closer. “Ah,” he said, when he read the name of the
website that hosts this column, remembering me now. I’d been at previous
summits. “That was an important point,” he said. “A very important point.”
|Nitzan Chen, head of the GPO|
In between photo opps with actress Neta Riskin, who plays the part of Gittie in Shtisel; and Tuvia Tenenbom, of “Catch the Jew,” fame, there were more panels.
Me and Netta from Shtisel. Everyone was lining up for photos. When it was my turn, I said, "I love your Gittie, and I'm Haredi," and she put her arm around and leaned in like you see here. Such a lovely moment. #jmsisrael2022 pic.twitter.com/lmcxQ3l2SN— Varda Epstein #JusticeforMalkiRoth (@VardaEpstein) December 22, 2022
|Israeli President Isaac Herzog|
Winding up, Ambassador Michael Oren gave a talk, “2048: A Vision of Israel on its 100th Birthday,” during the course of which he spoke of two different types of sovereignty, self-determination, and sovereignty over territory. Regarding territorial sovereignty, Oren mentioned the Negev and the south and touched on illegal Bedouin construction. This prompted another question from me:
“You spoke of territorial sovereignty and mentioned the south and illegal Bedouin construction. How do you feel about sovereignty in Judea and Samaria, and what do you think of the work of Regavim?”
Oren gave a great answer, in my opinion, because he was unequivocal in stating that he believed in sovereignty over Judea and Samaria, and in every part of Israel. He qualified his remarks, stating that we shouldn’t take over Ramallah or Jaffa, even though these too, belong to us. That was a sensible thing to say and I was good with that. However, Oren did not answer my question regarding Regavim.
|Ambassador Michael Oren|
After this we had lunch. On the way to and during lunch, fully six people came up to me and laughing, repeated my question to Oren—the question that had gone unanswered: “And what do you think of Regavim?”
All in all, I had a wonderful time at the summit. I made so many great friends and contacts and learned so much. I am grateful for the opportunity. I only wish a more optimistic picture of Israel’s democratically elected government had been presented to this large assembly of visiting Jewish journalists. It kind of felt that they had been kept away from a more positive view of the winning team. This is no way to generate support for Israel. And with Iran breathing down our throats, we need all the support we can get.
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