B’Ivrit | Haredim, Gaza Coverage, Eurovision

By | Mar 12, 2024
Israel’s Chief Sephardi Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef

Welcome to B’Ivrit, Moment’s monthly look at what news the Israeli public is reading, watching and hearing in Hebrew. B’Ivrit is written by Moment Institute Fellow Nathan Guttman. To see more from Nathan, subscribe to his biweekly newsletter Jewish Politics and Power.

  1. Sharing the burden

It’s a debate as old as the State of Israel.

Ever since David Ben-Gurion, the nation’s founding father, decided back in 1948 to exempt members of the ultra-Orthodox community from military service, the issue has fueled feelings of resentment and anger at what is seen by most non-Haredi Israelis as unequal sharing of the heaviest of burdens: willingness to give your life for your country by serving in the military.

The recent war in Gaza has moved this debate to the front burner.

While covering the war and reporting on the Israeli casualties, the Israeli media has been occupied with this debate, which is among several tearing Israeli society apart.

Its most recent iteration came about Sunday, when Israel’s Chief Sephardi Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, stated that, “if they force us to serve in the military, we will all leave and move abroad.” Rabbi Yosef, the most influential figure in the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox world, was referring to a recent call by Israel’s minister of defense Yoav Gallant to conscript all Haredi youth of service age into the military, just like any other Israeli who is compelled to fulfill a three-year period of service starting at the age of 18. This call had become more urgent in recent weeks due to both the pressing need for soldiers to participate in Israel’s all-consuming military campaign and the approaching March 31st expiration of a legal provision that codified the Haredi exemption.

At the liberal-leaning Haaretz, writer Anshel Pfeffer, in a news analysis piece leading the paper’s website, stated that “Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef’s comments buried any chance for a future compromise.”

This was the tone in most Israeli publications. Commentary on the the chief rabbi’s statement expressed a deep sense of insult felt by Israelis who serve in the military and send their sons and daughters to fill their duty, especially at a time of war when soldiers are in harm’s way. “Rabbi Yosef dealt a deep moral blow to those serving in the military,” wrote Yair Ettinger, a religious affairs commentator, in an article published in Ynet, Israel’s most popular news website.

The issue of drafting members of the Haredi community to the military crosses political boundaries. Israel Hayom, a popular right-wing tabloid funded by conservative billionaire Miriam Adelson, called Rabbi Yosef’s comments “outrageous” and quoted political leaders from a variety of parties condemning Yosef’s threat to leave Israel if young Haredim are forced to serve in the army.

  1. What it looks like on the other side

The Haredi community has its own vast array of media outlets, both print and online, many of them affiliated with specific groups within the community.

And in the Haredi press, the uproar surrounding Rabbi Yosef’s recent comments looked very different.

Charedi10, a popular ultra-Orthodox website, chose to report only on politicians praising Rabbi Yosef, under the headline: “The Rabbi is right.”

Kikar Hashabat, considered to be a leading website in the Haredi world, ignored the debate altogether. A couple of days earlier the website ran an interview with a leader of one of Israel’s large Haredi yeshivas, who was not identified by name. The interview provides the clearest representation of the Haredi anti-draft argument. “We are living now thanks to miracles,” said the unnamed yeshiva head, “and these miracles happen only thanks to the yeshiva students who study Torah.”

Srugim, an online media outlet primarily geared toward the National Religious community, members of which do serve in the military, chose to exhibit a measure of understanding, writing that Rabbi Yosef’s approach is a true representation of the Haredi worldview and defending the community’s decision not to share the burden. “Without the hard core of Torah scholars, the entire spirituality of the nation of Israel might diminish,” argued writer Daniel Sagron, who went on to say that secular Israelis don’t really want Haredis to enlist, they want them to cease being Haredi.

  1. The Gaza you see on Israeli TV

Israelis still consume much of their daily news from evening TV news shows, which have expanded during the war to take over much of  prime time. These extended programs include detailed stories of grief and recovery, battlefield analysis (provided in many cases by former IDF generals who have made TV studios their second home) and reports discussing the civilian aspects of the war —from the economic downturn Israel is experiencing to the hardship of families evacuated from danger zones in the border areas.

But one component of the war is glaringly missing.

Israelis get little to no insight into the Gazan side of the war. Viewers in America and across the world are well acquainted by now with the images of destruction, stories of bereft families, of hospitals struggling to provide healthcare with no supplies and under recurring attacks, refugees crowding in makeshift tent cities near Rafah and  widespread hunger.

Israelis, on the other hand, see very few of these images and hardly hear these stories firsthand. In part, this may be because there are no Israeli reporters on the ground in Gaza, but it is also due to the self-censorship much of the Israeli media has adopted since October 7, which has made reporting on the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza akin to identifying with the enemy.

On February 29, more than 100 Palestinians were killed while waiting for food delivered by a truck convoy. The international media, as in this Reuters report, described an incident of hunger-stricken Palestinians trying to get food supplies from the trucks, before being trampled, run over by the aid trucks and shot by Israeli soldiers standing nearby.

The Israeli press took a different approach. The focus in news reporting was on how the IDF explained the event, with headlines reporting the Israeli military’s claim that only half a dozen Palestinians were shot by Israeli troops.

Ynet, in a headline, wrote that “Palestinians are claiming there was ‘a massacre’; IDF: most were run over or trampled.” N12, the news website of Channel 12, Israel’s most influencial TV outlet, reported on a “Palestinian mob surrounding aid trucks.” Channel 12—which is politically mainstream and privately owned—before moving on to providing aerial videos filmed by the IDF which allegedly showed hundreds of Palestinians circling the trucks. Channel 13 also chose to put the term massacre in quotation marks, stating that, “Palestinians decry ‘a massacre,’ while the IDF analysis found that some Palestinians endangered the troops and were therefore shot.” The IDF aerial video was shown repeatedly on all news shows. Visuals from the ground and testimonies of Palestinians did not make it to Israel’s evening news—although a few Israeli commentators take umbrage with the idea that Israelis aren’t seeing everything, noting that Israelis are on the internet, use social media and read international news.

  1. When Gaza voices make it to Israeli press

It’s rare to hear voices of Gazans on Israeli TV or to read their stories in the press.

This is why a report last week by Channel 12’s Palestinian affairs reporter Ohad Hemo stood out. The lengthy piece was made up of Gaza residents telling their story to the camera of an Israeli network. (The report was purposely vague about whether the Palestinians on screen were speaking to an Israeli or to a local resident working with the network.)

“If [the Israelis] enter Rafah we will have nowhere left to go. All we have is this tent made of wood and nylon sheets,” a person named Mohammad tells the camera. The story, presented as an exclusive report from inside Gaza, provided first-person testimonies of the hardship facing Gazans these days. But it still differed from the reports flooding media outlets in the West and in the Arab world: Almost all Palestinians shown on the Israeli TV report were critical of Hamas. 

“The one responsible for this is Hamas,” Mohammad says. “They attacked, but we were defeated. As much as the Jews got hit, we got hit harder.”

There is no doubt about the authenticity of this voice, as of that of others featured in the report speaking out boldly against the Hamas regime. But that is all most Israeli viewers will learn about Gaza. For now, testimonies from Gaza only make it to Israel’s prime-time news if they’re coupled with criticism of Hamas.

  1. Much more than a silly song contest

Americans don’t get Eurovision. Even after Will Ferrell’s 2020 comedy film Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, it’s hard to explain to a North American audience why this trash-pop music event is such a big deal. But it is.

And for the past weeks, the Israeli media is obsessed with the upcoming competition and with the battle over the song that will represent Israel in this year’s contest.

On Sunday, the Israeli entry, “Hurricane,” performed by Eden Golan, was officially unveiled.

But this moment was reached only after weeks of back and forth between Israel and the Eurovision Commission. The original version of the song was called “October Rain” and carried some very general references to the Hamas terror attack of October 7. The commission’s decision to disapprove the song, claiming it was “too political,” set off a firestorm in Israel. “Eurovision’s in danger,” cried a Ynet headline. “Is Israel drifting away from participation in Eurovision?” asked Arutz 7, a pro-settler news outlet. An opinion piece by Ofra Lax in the same outlet adopted a belligerent tone toward the European song contest authorities who dare ban the Israeli song: “It is time to choose the patriotic option and say: Enough is enough. We won’t be silenced.”

Israel, however, chose to negotiate with the ruling powers of Eurovision (even President Isaac Herzog was involved in the negotiations) and came up with a compromise that dropped references to October events. After days of intense reporting on the negotiations (“Israeli sources expressed pessimism,” Ynet reported in the most serious of tones on February 28), the new version got the nod and was presented to the public.

Crisis averted. Now expect the Israeli press to return to the normal course of Eurovision coverage: unveiling the singer’s outfit, filing exclusive reports from the team on the ground (“it’s really cold in Malmo”) and of course reporting the daily updates from Eurovision betting markets. Yes, that’s a real thing.

Opening Image: Israel’s Chief Sephardi Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef.

3 thoughts on “B’Ivrit | Haredim, Gaza Coverage, Eurovision

  1. hag says:

    As an American Jew, and veteran, the present Israel government has distanced itself from us ….JEWS….we are not Jewish enough..no matter what flavor we are.. Tooooooo Bad… and although I hope and believe Israel MUST win this war… I am completely disconnected… In America, I had been hoping for a resurgence of American Judaism… but Synagogs, Temples, and what nots are using their Zoom equipment to fool themselves… that they care for their congregations..
    I am serious, about fooling themselves… jews and christians go to synagogue and church, for community, and not for prayer… monotonous repletion of god is great…reading the Bible is another so what… no one understands it…A few words are taken out of context… and a whole speech is created….prayer is a so what… we go to say prayer or two (5 minutes) and then to greet and Talk… even the super orthodox…

    we are a society afraid of each other… regard all the folks seriously studying their PDF… afraid to look out a window, afraid to talk, even to say, pardon me.
    and even crossing streets…. do YOU actually think that they are that busy ???

    congratulations ZOOM

  2. JF says:

    Hag: You might want to check into Humanistic Judaism. No God. Lots of community. Varied opinions on Israel.

    1. hag says:

      Actually, I had…. several years ago, my wife and I attended Kol Nidre (?) (one of the services )at the Westport temple … Frank, the Unitarian Minister.gave the sermon, more of a talk, about his journey…. BUT… always the but … at that time we were too tied up with our Conservative Temole …

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