Covering Israels Religion Wars
by Yoel Cohen
This Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Israeli press became the stage for a
well-orchestrated religious advertising campaign. The small Israeli Reform and
Conservative religious movements, which do not enjoy the official recognition accorded
Orthodoxy, promised the reading public a more enlightened and less rigid style of worship.
A similar campaign on Israel Radio and the military radio station Galei Zahal was more
difficult to launch because of pressure brought by the Orthodox religious political
parties on state broadcasting authorities. The advertising spots only went on the air
after their sponsors secured a favorable ruling from the Israeli courts. The campaign
itself paid dividends with the Reform and Conservative services filled to overflow
But this kind of religious PR is something new under the Israeli sun. As a rule, when
religion makes its way into the Israeli news media, it is only because the journalists
find it worth covering. And they often find it so.
Each of Israels three national newspapers has a full-time religion reporter, and
broadcasting organizations have correspondents who cover the beat part time. Much of the
beat involves being a political correspondent covering the religious political parties,
which currently hold 28 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. The other broad coverage area
comprises such conflictual "synagogue-state" issues as government funding of
talmudic institutions of higher learning; army exemptions for boys studying in yeshivot,
or Orthodox religious schools; and the question of the status of the Reform and
Conservative movements -- in particular the legitimacy of the religious conversions their
rabbis conduct. Internal matters within the religious communities are much less a focus of
The religion beat is likely to be its possessors first specialist post -- one
from which he or she, if successful, soon moves to something more prestigious. An
important exception is Shachar Ilan, the veteran religion reporter for the daily newspaper
Haaretz, who has declined his editors invitations to move to more
It should be noted that in Israel, the religion beat is the Jewish religion beat.
Coverage of Muslim and Christian affairs is not considered to come within its purview.
Muslim religion news is covered, if at all, by the correspondents who cover the Arab world
and the Israeli Arab community, even if they lack any religious background knowledge. The
vacuum has been evident in the current clash in Nazareth between the Muslim and Christian
communities over Muslim plans to build a mosque near one of the towns important
churches. When the crisis first broke, few correspondents had good religious contacts
inside the two communities, the Christian in particular.
While religion coverage in the Israeli news media shares many of the features of
religion coverage in the United States -- religion as a regular subject of news, religion
specialists, concern with "church-state" issues -- there are distinctive
features. Some of these reflect special characteristics of the Jewish religion; others,
Israels media structure.
The general, as distinct from the religious, media are broadly secular and Western in
character. There are only three national newspapers today in Israel (down from six as
recently as five years ago): Haaretz, the high quality paper, and two popular
mass circulation newspapers, Yediot Aharanot and Maariv. Twenty years
ago there were a large number of others, many of them affiliated with political parties,
the trade union movement, and the socialist kibbutz movement. The national dailies are all
independently owned and operated. Ideologically, Haaretz is wary of the
encroaching influences of religious interests on the state, and seeks to separate the
state from religion. Yediot Aharonot and Maariv are less committed on
the issue, with the weaker Maariv more circumspect about publishing articles or photos
that could offend the not inconsiderable number of religious people who make up its
Broadcasting -- both the older First Channel of television and Israel radio, financed
by licensing fees and modeled on BBC and PBS, and the new Second Channel (television),
which is financed by advertising -- is run by public broadcasting governing councils,
which include representatives from the various political parties, including the Orthodox
Under their constitutions, the radio and television stations are obligated to produce
programming with religious content. This is broadcast mostly on the eve or following the
close of the Sabbath and other holidays but never on the day itself -- despite the fact
that other programming is broadcast and that this is the peak time of potential interest
in religious themes among the general Israeli population. But the policy operates under
the umbrella of Jewish religious law, which forbids switching on the radio or television
on the Sabbath and (major) holidays.
Religious programming departments in Israeli broadcast stations are in the hands of
journalists affiliated with the religious political parties. Charging discrimination, the
Conservative and Reform movements complain that their rabbis and spokesmen appear less
frequently than they are entitled to.
Israels Jewish population (4.9 million) can be divided religiously among
traditionally observant Jews (30 percent); secularists, who nonetheless fast on Yom
Kippur, attend the Passover Seder, and light Hanukah lights (45 percent); and the
completely nonobservant (25 percent).
Two-thirds of the traditionally observant are ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim. Arguing that
only the Jewish messiah can bring Jewish sovereignty into existence, they lead separate
existences from mainstream Israeli political and social life and do not acknowledge the
legitimacy of the modern Zionist state. The remaining third are the so-called Modern
Orthodox. They see little conflict between Judaism and modern Israeli society, and
participate fully in, for example, the Army and higher education.
Each orthodox community has its own media, which are partly run by the religious
political parties and serve political interests. The two largest Haredi papers, Hamoadia
and Yetad Neeman, are published, respectively, by Agudat Israel and Rabbi Eliezer
Shach, a leading rabbinical influence in the oriental Sephardi community. A 1995 survey of
the Haredi communitys exposure to mass media conducted by the Israel Advertisers
Association -- the only scientific survey of ultra-Orthodox media tastes -- found that 37
percent of the ultra-Orthodox read Hamoadia and 30 percent read Yetad Neeman.
In the Modern Orthodox community, Hatzofe is the organ of the National Religious
These last representatives of the once rich party press of the 50s and 60s
reflect dissatisfaction with the permissiveness and sexploitation of Israels
secular, Western-style media. This is particularly the case for the ultra-Orthodox, whose
media contain no photographs of women whatsoever. Rabbis on staff serve as censors, eyeing
everything before it is published to ensure that the "purity of the Haredi Jewish
home" is not endangered by "unsuitable" content.
The level of exposure of the ultra-Orthodox to the general media is small. Only 13
percent of Haredim read one of the major nonreligious dailies. Thirty-two percent read no
newspapers at all. Fifty-six percent of Haredim surveyed said they dont listen to
radio. Twenty-five percent listen to secular radio, of which 14 percent listen to Israel
Radios news and current affairs channel (Channel 2).
Yet today, the Haredim have alternatives. There is the pirate religious-national
station Arutz 7, which 26 percent of Haredim said they listened to; Radio Kol Chai, a
licensed franchise regional radio station serving the religious communities; and a host of
newer pirate Haredi underground stations. Haredi rabbis maintain the ban they imposed on
Israeli television when it went on the air in 1968, both because of the unsuitable content
and because time would be better spent in religious study.
Not surprisingly, the Modern Orthodox are more exposed to the general media, television
included, than the Haredim. This partly explains why their own media are not as developed
and varied as the Haredi communitys. In addition to providing news, the
ultra-Orthodox media are characterized by their attacks on the secular Zionist
establishment. The Israeli judiciary is often a target of criticism for making decisions
that are seen as conflicting with Orthodox Jewish rulings. Secular Israelis are presented
as lesser, sinning Jews. The ultra-Orthodox media also criticize the secular media as
purveyors of secularism and symbols of an "unJewish" Israel.
For their part, op-ed pieces in the press and discourse on interview programs not
infrequently attack the Orthodox for their attempts to impose their will on the public and
to win government support. As a result, the news media have become one of the major
battlefields in Israels religious-secular culture war.
The general media, and particularly broadcasting, could play a role in mediating among
the different viewpoints. But the potential for this is outweighed by their inclination to
mirror the Haredi medias view of Israeli society as simply a war zone of Haredim
versus Hilonim (secular). The long-term demographic trend towards Orthodoxy -- the
Orthodox have much larger families than the non-Orthodox-is also likely to nullify any
such bridge-building role.