Summer 2003, Vol. 6, No. 2

Table of Contents
Summer 2003

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor
St. Francis to the Rescue

Keeping the Shi'ites Straight

Masses of Torts

The Trouble with Missionaries

Jihad for Journalists

The Smart Saga

Ghosts of New York

Santorum v. Sodomy

The Irreverent Eagle

The Latest Japanese Cult Panic

Israel's Tele-Rabbi

Letters to the Editor


Israel's Tele-Rabbi
y 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 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 practices. 

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 extinction.

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 heathens.”

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 pressing question:

“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.
























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