10 from 2017: Times of Israel staff on their most memorable reporting moments

We stood amid parts of the Western Wall hidden for 1,700 years, slogged on foot to a blocked-off West Bank village, rescued snails in the rain. Read what touched us this past year

A woman walks past a New Year's balloon in central Jerusalem on December 15, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A woman walks past a New Year's balloon in central Jerusalem on December 15, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Times of Israel reporters brought you thousands of stories over the course of 2017. Maybe you remember some that touched your heart, or made you howl in frustration.

As reporters, we meet some fascinating people as we crisscross the country and the world, bringing you stories that shine light into dark corners, whether it’s fighting for the victims of binary options or following up on the ripples of the latest Trump tweet.

When we reporters wake up, we never know what the day will hold as we try to make sense of the crazy world we inhabit. We do our best to decipher the flotsam of relentless information that flows across our screens and our lives into coherent stories, sometimes with grace, sometimes with grit.

As we look back over 2017 and prepare to move into the new year, we have gathered some of our own favorite moments from the past 12 months: interviews that broadened our horizons, encounters that touched our souls, moments that made us laugh or cry. Here, our writers describe their most memorable 2017 reporting moments.

Amanda Borschel-Dan, Jewish world and archaeology editor, writes:

Massive section of Western Wall uncovered after 1,700 years

The Israel Antiquity Authority was abuzz over the unveiling of “something spectacular” in Jerusalem’s Old City. I arrived early — the market’s shops were still shuttered — and made my way to the Jewish Quarter to the unusually well-organized press meetup point. I registered and got my press packet and bottle of water (yay, free water).

Descending narrow stairs, I was led into the bowels of the Western Wall Tunnels by a smiling 20-something guide dressed for the occasion in an unironic stewardess outfit — complete with (ridiculous) high heels.

I twisted and turned after her somehow-steady gait in the dank, dark tunnels when, suddenly… stuffy claustrophobia gave way to crisp, fresh air as we entered an enormous, unexpected cavern.

Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists (left to right) Tehillah Lieberman, Dr. Joe Uziel and Dr. Avi Solomon at the site of an ancient Roman theater-like structure, hidden for 1,700 years adjacent to the Western Wall underneath Jerusalem’s Old City, on October 16, 2017 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Looking down from a wooden platform above, we glimpsed a newly uncovered section of the Western Wall. Eight meters deep, the massive stonework was dramatically framed with scaffolding holding up the ceiling above — the floor of Wilson’s Arch, adjacent to the men’s prayer section of the Western Wall.

I was stunned and thrilled to witness this almost forgotten section of Holy Land history, which hadn’t been seen for 1,700 years.

Sounds of men’s prayer above intermingled with the excited archaeologists’ explanations as I trod upon the pavement of the past. Moved by the mix of continuity and antiquity, I felt grateful to be at this historical crossroads.

Dov Lieber, Arab affairs reporter, writes:

Emboldened by Amona evacuation, Palestinian mayor sets sights on Ofra

I caught a ride to the small West Bank village of Silwad on a frigid February day with my colleague Raoul Wootliff, who was driving to the nearby illegal Jewish settlement of Amona. Tensions were still high in the area after Israeli police had emptied the outpost or residents and their supporters.

The people of Silwad said the Amona settlement had been built on their privately owned lands. The Supreme Court agreed, and ordered the settlement evacuated.

I went to Silwad hoping to find a municipality official who’d talk to me about the day’s events, but two military checkpoints blocked my way. If I wanted, the soldier said, I could get out of the car and walk the two miles of dirt road into the village. So I walked to Silwad, a village known to Israelis mainly as the birthplace of Khaled Mashaal, the former leader of the Hamas terror group.

In this January 1, 2017, photo, Maryam Abdel-Kareem, an 82-year-old Palestinian, points to land held by the Jewish settlement of Amona, an unauthorized outpost in the West Bank, near the village of Silwad. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

I wandered through the village for about 10 minutes, admiring some of the beautiful homes. Soon a car containing two mud-covered laborers rolled up and they began to chat with me; eventually they agreed to take me to the municipality offices.

I walked into the nondescript building, ascended the spiral staircase, passed the village “courthouse,” and found the mayor’s office. I knocked on the door. He opened it. I told him I was an Israeli journalist and I wanted to talk about Amona. He agreed. He asked his secretary to get us coffee.

We chatted for about 20 minutes about Silwad, about the lands that became, and then unbecame, Amona, as journalists from two Arab satellite stations waited outside. Shuffling through the old Ottoman and Jordanian land documents he’d used in court, he spoke glowingly about finding justice at the Israeli Supreme Court.

Later, as he drove me around the area meeting other locals, he warned me not to simply walk into Silwad alone anymore. It was dangerous, he said.

Sue Surkes, reporter and breaking news editor, writes:

Tel Aviv vets forge a trail in snail care, slowly

Amid all the obsessing about Trump, Netanyahu, terrorists, and the so-called peace process, there are still people out there taking care of the smaller things in life. Things like snails.

I, too, am riddled with guilt whenever I step on snails, creatures for which I have a huge amount of respect.

The day after writing about scientists who meticulously piece together smashed snail shells, I went out and bought glue. What I hadn’t taken into account was that snails usually come out in the rain. So when I finally stepped on one, I was left outside getting soaked, fumbling with said glue and Scotch tape that wouldn’t stick.

It took a while to mend the shell. But then, snails are probably used to that.

Judah Ari Gross, military reporter, writes:

JCCs, Jewish schools in US hit by fresh wave of bomb threats

On February 27, my mother sent a message to our family WhatsApp group: “My JCC has evacuated after a bomb threat. We are all safe at a nearby church. I can be in touch later.”

She meant the Jewish Community Center in Asheville, North Carolina, where my mother has worked part time for the past few years.

Throughout that month and the month before, there had been numerous bomb threats called in to Jewish Community Centers across the United States, in what turns out to have mostly been the work of a Jewish Israeli teenager with apparent psychological problems.

While now these bomb scares are known to have been a hoax, at the time it was deeply concerning; the threats made against the Asheville JCC, specifically the children who went to pre-school there, were chilling.

Journalists generally try to keep themselves out of the news, but with these bomb threats, family updates from my mom were suddenly international stories.

Signs, flowers and food delivered to the Asheville, North Carolina, JCC by members of local churches on March 2, 2017, after the local community center received a bomb threat earlier in the week. (Courtesy/Tami Gross)

The Asheville JCC got a few more bomb threats over the next few weeks, each of them distressing.

But the story also ended on a positive note, as the Asheville community came out in full force to support the JCC.

And a week later, my mother sent another message to the family WhatsApp group: “Btw folks. We were greeted this morning by 20+ reps from local churches with flowers coffee pastries donuts chocolates signs pins – basically support. It was really something to see.”

Melanie Lidman, environment, religion, and migration reporter, writes:

In Uganda, deported migrants accuse Israel of ‘trafficking in refugees’

It still seems like yesterday that I was sitting in that rundown schoolroom in Uganda with a 16-year-old named Christina, a refugee who was forcibly deported from Israel to South Sudan with her family, in time for the outbreak of the new country’s civil war. Her tone was flat and emotionless as she shared with me the terrible things she witnessed: hiding in the bush with her family for two weeks, eating nothing but leaves. Watching her friend get raped and murdered before her eyes, as she hid behind a tree, her father begging her not to yell out. She was 13.

I sat next to her on the dirt floor and bit my lip so I wouldn’t cry. I went into journalism because I believed, with a passion, that finding these stories and bringing them into the world helps make the world a more enlightened and just place.  That by writing the first draft of history, we journalists help guide the arc of the moral universe to bend toward justice.

Christina, left, organized Come True students to volunteer with orphans in Kampala on September 1, 2017 (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

But sometimes you come up against stories that test that faith, that make you question if any of these stories actually make an impact. I know the issue of refugees is complicated – I live and work in the epicenter of this problem in south Tel Aviv, and there are wounds and injustices on all sides.

I sat there and listened to Christina and worried that she was trusting me with her most precious thing: her story. I feared that it would get lost amid cat videos and listicles in the cacophony of the internet.

I often can’t be sure if the stories that I write make much of a difference. But another journalist made a point that writing articles is kind of like tossing a rock into a deep pool. You never know where the ripples will reach, or what effect they have. Another refugee in Uganda asked me if I thought him telling his story to me would help his situation. I told him the truth: I don’t know. But I thank them for their bravery in sharing.

Zhou Yi Feng, Chinese Edition editor, writes:

Jewish Valentine’s Day Presents: Couples in Israel’s “Love Story”

In China, people generally think Jewish guys are kind of fascinating. The Chinese stereotype Jewish people as being “smart, rich and love reading books.” Mixed marriages are still a fairly rare occurrence in China, especially with Jews or Israelis.

Because of visa limits, most of the Chinese living and working in Israel are women with Israeli partners or husbands. However, Israel is not an easy place for Chinese people to live. The climate is harsh, it’s a small country with a large religious presence, and, obviously, there’s the ever-present conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Three couples featured in a viral Times of Israel Chinese edition article about Chinese-Israeli couples in honor of Tu B’Av, Israeli Valentine’s Day. (Times of Israel)

Due to these reasons, most Israeli-Chinese marriages encounter objections, especially from the Chinese family. But there are determined women who have made it anyway, and their love stories are actually very impressive. That’s what motivated me to write about it.

The story was published on Tu B’Av, the Israeli version of Valentine’s Day. It was the first time we wrote about Israeli-Chinese mixed couples in the Times of Israel Chinese edition.

I don’t write that many articles myself, but this piece is definitely my most popular one. My Chinese social media account exploded because of this article. And there was an unintended result: now, more Chinese women who are studying here are even more determined to find an Israeli boyfriend so they can stay here for as long as possible.

Raoul Wootliff, politics and crime reporter, writes:

Requesting retrial, Yigal Amir to claim he didn’t fire bullets that killed Rabin

Last month Yigal Amir’s wife Larissa Trimbobler-Amir posted on Facebook that her husband would be filing for a retrial  of his conviction for murdering prime  minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, and that she would be providing new “proofs” only to foreign (and not “the deceitful” Israeli) press.

The case against Amir was clear-cut: He was caught on video raising a gun to Rabin. He calmly confessed to the police, re-enacted the crime for them and never recanted his testimony. How could he possibly claim innocence now? Hoping that by explaining The Times of Israel’s position as a different sort of Israeli media outlet given that we are directed at the English-speaking world, I immediately emailed the PR company she said was representing her.  I was told, in an abrupt French response, that under no circumstances would they be speaking with Israeli journalists. I responded simply: “Why not?”

Larissa Amir Trimbobler, Yigal Amir’s wife. (Courtesy)

At 12:08 a.m. that night I received a phone call from Swiss-Israeli PR adviser Michael Achour, who told me that due to my “persistence,” he would consider speaking with me. For the next hour, in a dizzying mix of French, English and Hebrew, he spouted puzzling anecdotes about Rabin’s death, how guns work, and the meaning of life, all while apparently quizzing me on my knowledge of Amir’s trial and what he repeatedly called the “lies” surrounding the case. Apparently satisfied with my answers, he told me that he would be happy to meet me for coffee the next day.

When I arrived at the cafe in Jerusalem, I was greeted by Achour, who was clad in a worn jacket over a Gun N’ Roses T-shirt and what appeared to be an ultra-Orthodox black hat. To my surprise, Larissa Trimbobler-Amir was sitting at the table with him. For someone who had become obsessed with the prime minister’s assassin during his trial, married him while he was in prison and smuggled his semen out of jail so they could have a baby together, Trimbobler-Amir came across as fairly well-adjusted. She spoke of how hard it was to see Amir rarely and only be able to speak to him for a few minutes a day, how her son was desperate to spend real time with his father, and how she genuinely believed the retrial request might see him freed.

The details of that retrial bid, however, were left to Achour who, with bellicose theatrical style — at one point he kicked a chair over to somehow prove that Rabin would have fallen down if Amir’s gun had contained real bullets — presented long-refuted fringe conspiracy theories as truth, positing a number of possibilities other than Amir being the assassin. At the end of the performance, Achour revealed to me the astonishing planned line of defense: Amir did not fire the bullets responsible for Rabin’s death, though he did try to. According to the new evidence Achour claimed to possess, Amir shot Rabin but it was not his bullet that killed the prime minister. Someone else also shot Rabin that night, and that was the real killer, Achour insisted. By this logic, he said, Amir should be tried only for attempted murder and not murder.

The request for retrial is currently pending, as is Achour’s offer of another coffee.

Yaakov Schwartz, Jewish world deputy editor, writes:

After escaping USSR aged 7, cultural director went back to establish Jewish life

The first thing that struck me about David Rozenson was his voice. I was calling him to set up an interview and there was something strikingly sympathetic in his manner and tone. I wasn’t thrilled to be doing the interview, to tell the truth — it appeared to be a standard feel-good piece about Beit Avi Chai, a Jerusalem cultural venue that was already pretty well known, but I wasn’t writing anything else at the moment so I decided to give it a go.

We had a mutual interest in Isaac Babel, which made us members of a small club — Rozenson did his PhD dissertation on the famous Jewish-Russian writer, who also happened to be a primary focus of my master’s thesis — but what I found most incredible was his story.

David Rozenson, CEO of Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem. (Courtesy)

After being locked away in a Soviet gulag for a year with no contact with his wife or children, Rozenson’s father was suddenly freed and the family given three weeks to flee the country. Even after escaping and settling in the US, the experience continued to take its toll and Rozenson lost his father that year.

He grew up in a cash-strapped immigrant family, always the outsider, but pursued a yeshiva education and settled into Orthodox Judaism. As an adult, Rozenson actually returned to Russia, where he helped reestablish Jewish life, built a successful Jewish publishing house, and got his PhD.

It’s funny — at the end of the conversation, Rozenson started asking about me, and I opened up to him about my own experiences a bit. It’s like he had to listen to someone else, to give something back, like the whole thing couldn’t be just about himself. We chatted for a few extra minutes and ended up staying in touch after the piece was published. Now, every once in a while, he reminds me that his wife is an excellent matchmaker.

Luke Tress, video editor, writes:

Revelers throng Tel Aviv for LGBT rights, amid tight security

My favorite event to cover this year was Tel Aviv’s Gay Pride Parade. So many of our stories here are dark and focused on one conflict or another, it’s good to have a day filming people dancing on the beach and celebrating tolerance. The energy, color and sheer number of people in the streets — over 200,000 this year — surprises me every time I cover the parade.

Jessica Steinberg, culture and lifestyle reporter, writes:

Israeli design grad takes 3D pen boldly where it has never gone before

One of my favorite parts of my beat, which encompasses Israeli culture from music, books and dance to food, fashion and art, is interviewing what I call creative entrepreneurs, the people who take the Israeli startup mentality and use it to innovate in a way that’s meaningful to them.

A standout was Eden Saadon, a 24-year-old textile artist who uses a simple 3D pen to create lacy, delicate fabrics that have surprised many, including the inventors of the pen.

The uses of the 3D lace textiles are manifold, and Eden Saadon is exploring different ways to use her skills. (Doron Sieradzki)

I met Saadon at her home studio, in a Air Force base in the south where she lives with her boyfriend, a pilot who is currently training young pilots. Saadon met me at the front gate of the base, ushering me past young soldiers in their khaki uniforms, her new puppy in her arms. The puppy was a present from her boyfriend to keep her company in their new home, remote from Tel Aviv, the fashion world and Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, where she lived and studied for four years.

We sat and spoke in their house, the roar of planes over our heads, as Saadon pulled out her early sketches and later designs. What impressed me was the matter-of-fact manner in which Saadon had set out with her idea, having discovered the pen through YouTube, bought it, mastered it, and then taken it to new heights. She was just a university student at the time, and had to convince her professors that it could work. She then went on to do something entirely new with this simple tool, and eventually won an award, presented her work at the 3D pen headquarters and is now fielding offers for her textiles.

She didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur; but she became one.

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