Fall 1999, Vol. 2, No. 3

Contents Page,
Vol. 2, No. 3


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: The BVM at the BMA

Why Smash the Falun Gong?

Vouchers Move to Center Stage

Spiritual Victimology

The Kansas Compromise

Those Revolting Greeks

Discriminating Bodies



On the Beat
Covering Israel’s 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 capacity.

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 Israel’s 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 coverage.

The religion beat is likely to be its possessor’s 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 editor’s invitations to move to more "elevated" posts.

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 town’s 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, Israel’s 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 circulation base.

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 religious ones.

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.

Israel’s 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 community’s 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 Party.

These last representatives of the once rich party press of the ‘50s and ‘60s reflect dissatisfaction with the permissiveness and sexploitation of Israel’s 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 don’t listen to radio. Twenty-five percent listen to secular radio, of which 14 percent listen to Israel Radio’s 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 community’s. 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 Israel’s 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 media’s 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.