by Michele Rosenthal
On March 18 Avri Gilead, an announcer on Israeli armed forces radio,
remarked on the air, “I say that…if the image of the Jew is Amnon Yitzchak,
then I can understand what anti-Semitism is about. To kill him? Heaven
forbid! To injure him? Heaven forbid! But to harbor sentiments against
him—absolutely I can!”
The comment was made during a discussion of “Herzl and
Zionism,” a CD-Rom that Yitzhak, Israel’s most media-savvy rabbi, produced
and distributed free of charge in mailboxes throughout the country. The
CD-Rom had provoked an outcry from many Israelis because it attacked Theodor
Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, as an anti-Semite.
Gilead’s comments gave Yitzhak’s “outreach”
organization, Shofar, ammunition for a police report on racial
incitement, a libel suit against Gilead and IDF radio, and outraged columns
in synagogue pamphlets and on its website
On June 25, while Yitzhak was on a lecture tour in the
United States, lawyers representing Shofar appeared before the
Knesset committee that deals with “Expressions of Social Stigmas in the
Media.” Members of the committee suggested that Gilead be asked to broadcast
an apology. As for the no less provocative Herzl CD-Rom, it is still
available for the token sum of 10 shekels on the Shofar website.
Yitzhak, it seems, had won his latest round with the secular media (a.k.a.
the secular Zionist establishment).
As a religious lecturer, aspiring tele-rabbi, and
all-round media provocateur, Yitzhak is unrivalled in Israel. Draped in the
ceremonial robes of his Yemenite forebears, he fills football stadiums and
auditoriums across the country, preaching a message of repentance and return
to Judaism. The elaborate Shofar website offers him lecturing on 316
audiocassettes, 95 videos, and 86 CDs—all available (in Hebrew with English,
Russian, and French translations) via Amazon.com-type shopping cart or
eBay-like auction. The lecture topics range from the practical and political
to the theological and existential.
Most of Yitzhak’s audience is composed of Israeli Jews
who define themselves as Sephardic or Mizrahi—belonging to the “Eastern”
Jewry that immigrated to Israel from Morroco, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, and
Syria in the 1950s. Although Yitzhak does not target them by name, both his
rhetoric and his loose association with the Sephardic political party Shas
(whose spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, attends Shofar events) indicate
that they are the people he wants to reach.
Religiously, this population is largely “masorti” or
traditional—which is to say flexible when it comes to observance. For
example, at the beginning of the Sabbath Friday night they may go to
synagogue, light candles, and eat dinner together, but then proceed to
violate religious law by watching television or driving to a soccer match.
Yitzhak’s lectures aim to encourage them to live a more devout life. His
lectures usually end with a call for a (re)commitment to Judaism and Jewish
Shofar has yet to gain regular access to Israel’s
mainstream media—not surprisingly, since the mainstream media generally
represent secular Zionist, usually Ashkenazi (Eastern European) interests
and regularly disregard those on the geographical, social, and cultural
periphery. For his part, Yitzhak has turned mainstream media bias into an
integral part of his popular religious performance.
Take, for example, a video and audiocassette that
Shofar produced at the end of 1996 entitled “The Conspiracy of the Lying
Media.” The local Jerusalem daily Kol Hair, Channel One’s Mabat news
program, and the national newspaper Yediot Ahronot had done stories
on a lecture given by Yitzhak to border patrol soldiers. All three suggested
that the soldiers might have been required to attend the lecture and
questioned whether the army should be sponsoring such events. Yediot’s
headline also suggested that Yitzhak had condemned secular Jews to
Shofar’s video begins with a clip from Channel One
anchor Haim Yavin (the Walter Cronkite of Israel) reporting the story. Yavin
is immediately interrupted with a comment by Yitzhak, claiming the headlines
to be a lie: “Soldiers were not forced to go, but were requested, not forced
at all, not at all.”
The narrative then continues with Yavin moderating a
televised debate between two Knesset members, the left-wing secularist Yossi
Sarid and Shas’s Rabbi Ben Izri. As reframed by the editors at Shofar, Sarid
(who is generally known as an eloquent speaker) comes across as almost
comical, and most certainly as biased against Yitzhak and his people: “It is
impossible to admit these brainwashers, people that…they are really
Throughout the 90-minute video Yitzhak regularly
returns to the televised debate and uses it as a launching pad for various
theological disquisitions on life after death, body and soul, creationism
(anti-evolution), multi-cultural education, etc.
Much of the mainstream coverage of Yitzhak has focused
on his “outreach” to children in spite of their parents’ objections and
misgivings. “Brainwashing” is a term that appears more than once—usually in
the mouths of the parents. The Israeli media are not less inclined than the
America media to be hostile to a charismatic religious leader who inspires
children not only to believe in things that their parents don’t but also to
act contrary to the parents’ wishes.
For instance, in 1999 the news show “Fact” featured an
“éxpose” of Yitzhak and Shofar that focused on a teenaged boy who committed
suicide, and his family’s contention that it was the dissonance between
their masorti home and his Yitzhak-inspired religiosity that caused him to
feel an increased sense of alienation. The proof: a tape of the boy calling
into a show on a pirate radio station asking what to do when you are more
observant than your family.
Also in 1999, the television program “Politics” aired a
similar story, which included an interview in which a father talks about how
his newly observant son is embarrassed to have him get out of the car
because he has long hair, and describes a process of alienation from the
child. The interview is intercut with segments from a Shofar video in which
Yitzhak suggests that if children do not need to listen to their parents if
they forbid them from becoming more observant.
True to form, the day the “Fact” exposé was to air,
Shofar released and distributed “The Facts?”—an audiotape that disputed much
of what was to be broadcast that evening. And in a video entitled “The
Cookbook for Governmental Television,” Shofar singles out each interview and
commentator in the “Politics” program, explaining why each “recipe” was
required—for instance, that the then education minister, Yitzhak Levy of the
National Religious Party, was interviewed because as a rabbi his critique of
Shofar would be more effective.
It is clear that Shofar’s staff of 50 keep a constant
watch on all media coverage of Yitzhak, who has committed himself to
exposing the media’s secular bias, and in doing so to expose the corrupt
nature of secular society. Currently Shofar has at least six libel lawsuits
pending against some of the leading media organizations in Israel, including
Yediot Ahronot and that beacon of Israeli liberalism, Haaretz.
At the same time, if mainstream accounts can be made to
look like an endorsement of Yitzhak and his organization they will be
co-opted and recycled.
Several years ago, I reluctantly appeared, along with
several of my colleagues, on an educational television program concerning
religion and the media. Although I was extremely anxious about appearing on
television, I managed to stutter out a few sentences about the ways Rabbi
Amnon Yitzhak resembles an American televangelist.
Segments of the program are now featured in a Shofar
video called “Logos, Ethos and Pathos: A Look at the Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak
from an Academic Perspective.” The video’s jacket promises to answer to this
“Why has Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak achieved such amazing
success in the repentance revolution that he is leading? Research conducted
by Dr. Michele Rosenthal, Dr. Jonathan Cohen, Tzvi Beckerman and Yair
Neumann and results are presented for you here on this videocassette.”
“In addition, you can enjoy the fascinating
lecture by the Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak in Rananna, and his deep and fascinating
answers to such questions as:
Why won’t the child who repented drink water at his
mother’s house? How is it that everything is preordained—but there is still
free will? Existence of the Goyim—what for? And more...
By re-editing the coverage of himself and commenting
continually on it, Yitzhak has made the media narratives his own. Or, as an
article posted on the English-language version of the Shofar website claims:
“The idols of society indict themselves with their own words.”
For their part, Israel’s mainstream media may be
underestimating Yitzhak. In the “brainwashing” stories, they assume that the
only question worth exploring is the spiritual exploitation of youth, not
why young Israelis might be so attracted to recommitting themselves to
Judaism, or why Yitzhak’s anti-establishment rhetoric is so popular as a
form of entertainment. The media leave little room for understanding the
challenge to the cultural status quo that the rabbi represents.