This year, the Jewish Media Summit in Israel, put on jointly by the Government Press Office and the Diaspora and Foreign ministries, reached out to a new group of Jewish journalists, bloggers and social media influencers rather than the traditional group of newspaper and magazine writers. Even the title of the summit, “Israel and the Jewish World Relationship: It’s Complicated,” referred to a well-known Facebook status intended to engage those under 40.
But after the initial foray into the younger demographic apparently failed to garner a full complement of journalists, the GPO announced that the more traditional group of writers and editors would, indeed, be welcome to join them in Jerusalem for the three-day event.
Nothing like being made to feel welcome.
Anxiety aside, I registered and resolved to make the most of it and see what would bear fruit in such a tightly controlled environment.
To be sure, as I learned first-hand at the Knesset, Israel is not like the United States. Yes, it has a parliamentary democracy like England and Canada, but there is no constitution or Bill of Rights that guarantees freedom of the press. With no protection under the law, a journalist works with an implied threat hanging over his head that he could be shut down or detained were the government to see fit to do so. Without the luxury of freedom of the press or a responsibility on the part of journalists to be ethical, there is an opportunity for the public trust to be abused, too.
As a result, the trust factor for the government and the press are both fairly low, 34 percent and 33 percent, respectively, according to a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute.
On Monday night, Nov. 26, a promised video welcome from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to occur. The reason was an official state visit from the president of Chad, the first time the Muslim state had reached out to the Jewish state. The summit attendees understood.
But in his place, he sent Michael Oren, a fiery orator who is a low-level deputy minister and the former ambassador to the United States. Oren was on the bill along with Avi Liberman, a stand-up comic, and a white-faced and white-clad a cappella group called Voca People.
After a daylong conference at historic Mishkenot Sha’namanim on a range of issues confronting Israel, attendees were whisked to Beit Shmuel and the Shimshon Center. Naftali Bennett, the minister of education and Diaspora affairs, was another no-show.
The next day four separate tracks intended to help journalists understand about religious differences, coexistence with the Palestinians, the vibrant arts scene in Jerusalem and Israel’s dominance as a Start-Up Nation and its leadership in the IT world. All of these tracks were engineered by the government to show as little negativity as possible. Even the discussion about the Palestinians featured Israeli Arabs, not Gazans.
By the time the final day of the summit rolled around, I was expecting more fluff. That day, we went to President Reuven Rivlin’s residence. My worst fears were confirmed when there were only two questioners allowed to speak. Of those, the first was a question that was not at all controversial.
The second person was a blogger who writes about kosher food. He used the opportunity to sing the praises of the government for allowing him to attend the event. Nowhere did he feel compelled to ask a question on behalf of the group about any of the bigger issues confronting Israel, such as the influence of Iran, the situation in Syria, the dangerous possibility of an entanglement with the Russians, the lack of progress in peace talks with the Palestinians or any fallout from the charges of corruption that have been leveled at the prime minister and his wife.
At the Knesset, we were slated to see Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and opponent spokesperson Tzipi Livni and we were ushered into a conference room. The GPO spokesman Nitzan Chen told us to be patient. He had a surprise. The prime minister was coming.
We waited for most of the next hour, and then in walked the prime minister, bearing a grin from ear to ear.
“So what do you want?” he asked. Chen directed the first two or three questioners, but their questions were either self-serving about their home countries or were just outright dumb.
It was then I made eye contact with Bibi. I could tell he was going to allow me to ask a question, so I did.
“Mr. Prime Minister, there is a question about the relationship between the Diaspora and Israel. Is there any kind of a disconnect? Or are we all together? Is it Am Yisrael Chai, or what?”
Netanyahu did not address the question of a disconnect at all. “My view is we are all one people. Israel should be the home of every Jew who wants to have Israel as his home. It is, in fact. It doesn’t mean there aren’t any differences. There are disturbing demographic trends. We know that, especially with assimilation, which is chipping away at our numbers.”
According to the analysis by Times of Israel’s Amanda Borschel-Dan, Netanyahu’s answer to my question and the others amounted to “a game of softball.” But it wasn’t for lack of trying on my part. It’s just that Netanyahu, who is a student of television and a former NBC commentator, knows how to deliver sound bites, act charming and is skilled in the art of deflecting.
I will admit he even shook my hand as he was leaving.
There is a reason Bibi has survived the crucible of Israeli politics and still remains at the top of the heap. He is charismatic and he knows what to say and exactly how to wrap it up. It was a fitting Chanukah gift, don’t you think? JN
Alan Smason is the editor of the Crescent City Jewish News, where this article first appeared.