Israel’s news cycle in 2019 was dominated by the Groundhog Day elections, a political roller coaster that only braked for corruption probes and security flareups. As politics and defense issues blared daily from the headlines, our reporters traveled across the country and around the world over the past 12 months to bring you stories from all sorts of people — leaders and artists and athletes and activists and survivors.
Journalists write to bring you news from a neutral perspective, but as reporters, we’re only human, and many of these stories also touched our souls. We asked Times of Israel reporters to look back over the past year and choose stories that touched them the most. Some chose inspiring interviews, like a 97-year-old Holocaust survivor and heavy metal rock star, or an Olympic runner struggling to get citizenship. Others recalled lighthearted moments, such as a long-hidden impromptu snowball fight between then IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz and a Palestinian family on the side of a highway, or biking furiously to make it to Shabbat services in Portugal. Some reflected on hard-hitting stories, such as investigations into the video surveillance in Arab polling stations dubbed “Operation Moral Standards,” an issue that was relatively under-reported by the Hebrew press.
As 2020 looms on the horizon with yet another election, we took a moment to look back at the past year. Here, reporters reflect on 12 stories that touched our hearts, and, we hope, the hearts of some of our readers as well.
What was your favorite story in 2019? Tell us in a comment below.
Raoul Wootliff, political reporter
I’m usually crouched in a corner by an electricity socket frantically tapping away on my laptop when Hatikva is played at end of a political event. With dewy-eyed Blue and White activists who thought they’d won on the first election night, alongside disappointed Likudniks on the second, at parliament for the swearing-in ceremonies of both the 21st and 22nd Knesset — eager to get the news out to those not there, I rarely let the national anthem penetrate my consciousness.
But days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, at a November pro-Netanyahu/anti-justice system rally billed as an attempt to “Safeguard the country, stop the coup,” after a year of nonstop political events with two elections and a third on the way, it happened against my will.
Deciding to stay until the very end of the rally before writing up a Reporters Notebook on the train home, I found myself amid the thinning crowd of angry demonstrators as the familiar words — “the hope is not yet lost” — rang out across the Tel Aviv Museum plaza. And that was when I broke down in tears.
Tears because of the genuine fury I had seen that evening. Tears for the terrifying incitement I had heard in the videos projected to the thousands of people there. Tears for the hate. Tears for the future of the country that I have called home for 14 years and been brought up my entire life to see as one.
It was here, surrounded by people, not politicians, that I grasped perhaps for the first time the true stakes of the political year we’ve been through.
2. Behind the scenes of the first morning minyan in Manama in over 70 years
Raphael Ahren, diplomatic reporter
In June, I was sent to Bahrain to cover the so-called Peace to Prosperity workshop, during which the US administration unveiled the first part of its Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal. I also conducted an unprecedented interview with Bahrain’s foreign minister, Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa, who told me about his country’s desire for better relations and eventually “peace” with Israel — a country he nonchalantly declared a part of the Middle East that is “there to stay.”
Yet even more meaningful for me was the morning service I managed to organize in the Manama synagogue. It was the first time that a quorum of at least 10 Jewish men gathered in this Gulf nation’s only Jewish house of worship for shaharit prayers in more than 70 years.
It all started when I entered the hotel where the peace conference took place and noticed several rabbis among the delegates. If you add to that the three observant Israeli reporters and perhaps the religious members of the US delegation, I reasoned, we could perhaps arrange a minyan to pray together in shul the next morning.
I approached Bahraini-Jewish diplomat Houda Nonoo, who had shown us the synagogue earlier during the day, with my idea. She told me she could probably open the shul if we managed to get a minyan together. I immediately walked up to senior White House official Jason Greenblatt, who said he would come and even bring an aide or two. A few Israeli businessmen and other (not necessarily observant) Jews who attended the conference were also thrilled at the prospect of joining morning services in Bahrain.
The next morning at around 8:45, 15 men made their way to the shul, located in Manama’s Sasaah Avenue, ready to pray.
After the service ended, we spontaneously joined hands and danced in a circle, singing Am Yisrael Chai, “the people of Israel live.”
“Where’s the kiddush?” someone joked. “When’s mincha?” somebody else piped up, using the Hebrew term for the Jewish afternoon prayer.
“It’s a historic moment. For the first time in my life, I saw a prayer service with a minyan in my synagogue,” Nonoo told me afterwards.
Jacob Magid, settlements reporter
I went out for a beer with a friend shortly after the April elections, and he told me of an acquaintance who’d served as an election day field coordinator for the Likud party and had been shocked by the experience. I got in touch with the young man, who said he had just been looking to make an extra buck and had no idea that he would be playing a role in the party’s mass surveillance operation targeting Arab Israeli communities throughout the country.
The hidden body cameras used by Likud polling officials on election day made headlines, but follow-up in the Hebrew media was limited and focused on the notion of voter fraud rather than the selected targeting of a minority group. This was despite the fact that the operation’s organizers publicly boasted having been responsible for dropping Arab turnout rate to below 50 percent.
I’d like to think that the Times of Israel’s reporting on “Operation Moral Standards,” as it was dubbed, played some role in the attorney general’s decision to bar party operatives from filming voters inside polling stations in the September elections that followed.
David Horovitz, editor-in-chief
The pieces I wrote that have mattered most, I believe, during this roller coaster of a political year, are the analyses and op-eds about the investigations into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his verbal assaults on media and opposition, and especially police and prosecutors, as he has attempted to portray his legal entanglements as a partisan political plot to oust him from power. Netanyahu plainly nurtures a profound sense of injustice, and there may well be justification for some of his complaints about the way the investigation has been conducted. Furthermore, Netanyahu has proved an immensely popular prime minister for an unprecedented length of time, trusted by enough voters to serve without interruption for over a decade now.
But along with an appreciation of his sense of grievance, and a respect for his achievements, there is the fact that he has taken to demonizing and undermining some of the systems on which our democracy depends. Most starkly, in his declaration hours after the charges against him were announced, he placed himself in opposition to Israel’s law enforcement establishment, and urged the Israeli public to join him.
The day Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced his decision that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will stand trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three different corruption cases, I ended an op-ed as follows: “… our country’s national interests, notably including its internal cohesion, take precedence over those of any individual — even its longest serving prime minister, even a prime minister convinced he is the hapless victim of dark and corrupt forces. His ferocious assault on Israel’s agencies of law enforcement, his appeal to the public to side with him and against the state, is a step too far. For Israel’s sake, and for Netanyahu’s, would that he had chosen a nobler path.”
It gave me no pleasure to write. But it had to be said.
5. For Eurovision fans, even the bad music is good, so long as they can party
Jessica Steinberg, culture and lifestyle editor
I spent last spring listening to many of my Times of Israel colleagues deal with their coverage of the first set of national elections — something that I, thankfully, as the culture editor — had nothing to do with at all. But as May approached, and with the 2019 Eurovision song contest being hosted in Tel Aviv, I realized that this, in essence, was my equivalent of election coverage. Some reporters covered political parties and possible prime ministers; I was about to dive into the corny, fan-heavy world of Eurovision and its presence in Israel.
It was a world I knew little about before moving to Israel. Even during my 25 years here, I only tuned into Eurovision when something momentous was happening. When Dana International strutted her colorful feathers for the winning song of 1998, I watched it at an outdoor bar on the Sea of Galilee, cheering along with the crowd. And of course I knew the words to previous Eurovision songs, like Abba’s “Waterloo,” and had learned Israel’s 1979 song “Hallelujah” and “Abanibi” at summer camp.
But I knew nothing about Eurovision festivities, and zilch about the other contestants, the red-hot fans, the hubbub, the costumes (!) that surround this annual song contest representing more than 42 delegations. When May 19 rolled around, I packed a bag, said goodbye to my husband and kids, and went to spend the week in Tel Aviv, bunking down in my brother and sister-in-law’s apartment in Jaffa. I spent most of my hours at the press center in the Tel Aviv Expo, a rolling compound set up for the song contest. I was such a newbie that I had no idea that you need to apply six months in advance for tickets to the rehearsals or that the place to be, as a reporter, is actually in the press center, where each country sets up its own table, complete with flags, costumes and decorations.
It was a blast, a week-long deep dive into die-hard Eurovision territory, and one that made me into a bonafide fan. Even now, all these months later, I get a little thrill every time I hear the chords of a familiar Eurovision 2019 song, and I’m already vying for tickets to this year’s show in the Netherlands.
Amanda Borschel-Dan, Jewish World and archaeology editor
In the rocky cliffs abutting the Dead Sea, archaeologist Oren Gutfeld channeled his inner mountain goat and skipped along a barely visible trail to reach Cave 53, the newest, latest epicenter of an ongoing search for additional sacred scrolls. It was mid-January, but I was sweaty after having channeled my inner elephant while trying not to slip-slide down the cliffside.
As The Times of Israel’s intrepid archaeology reporter, I’m privileged to visit a number of archaeological sites each year. But, in an archaeology writer’s world of press conferences and orderly dig sites, rarely do I go hike a rocky hillside for an interview.
Disappointingly, the excavation, led by Hebrew University archaeologist Gutfeld and Randall Price from the private Virginia-based Christian institution, Liberty University, was drawing to a close without the hoped-for results. There was no headline-making new scroll, but Gutfeld said that in the three seasons of excavations so far, the team has discovered indications of “scroll activity” — accessories including jars, textile wrappings, leather ties.
This past winter, the team also examined a pair of hard-to-enter elevated caves, reachable only with full climbing gear and metal guides hammered into the rock.
Standing on a precarious man-made ledge some 212 meters (695 feet) above the Dead Sea and taking in the Dead Sea panorama, Gutfeld swept his arm out and said with a smile, “This is my office.”
The Israeli Indiana Jones will be back in the winter of 2021, again searching overlooked cracks and crevices for evidence of the people who deserted the land 2,000 years ago. And if he holds “office hours” again, I hope to be there, too.
7. 97-year-old Holocaust survivor, spy, and heavy metal singer is ready to rock you
Renee Ghert-Zand, reporter
As a rule, I don’t just show up at people’s homes and ask them for an interview. But a year ago I threw decorum to the wind and arrived unannounced at 97-year-old Inge Ginsberg’s apartment in Tel Aviv. I pressed the buzzer at the entrance to her building, and to my astonishment she was home and allowed me to come up. When I reached the top floor, I saw that her door was open a crack and I let myself in. It felt rather weird, but there was a story to go after, and I had to do what I had to do.
“Hello!” I called out. It took a few seconds until Inge heard me and shouted, “I’ll be out in a minute. I’m just getting ready.” Dressed casually, with her hair a bit disheveled, Inge was still recognizable from her YouTube videos. Those videos were the reason I wanted to meet the preternaturally spry nonagenarian and do a profile story on her; she is famous for fronting a heavy metal band. In fact, she writes all her own songs and performs them with a group of much younger musicians dressed in creepy costumes that scare the bejesus out of me.
I met Inge’s personal assistant and daughter, and once they were satisfied that I wasn’t some crazy stalker or crafty burglar, I spent a good part of the afternoon asking the polyglot Inge not only about her heavy metal career, but also the amazing life she’s lived that has spanned nearly a century. She is a Vienna-born Holocaust survivor who assisted the Allies in spying against the Germans. After the war, she and her first husband wrote songs for famous Hollywood singers like Doris Day and Nat King Cole. She constantly shifts — even at her age— among homes in New York, Switzerland and Israel. She’s had three husbands and many lovers — “At one time I had four boyfriends at the same time – one to live, one to laugh, one for fun, and one to cover the whole game with his name. I’m a very moral person, but I have my own moral laws. I never hurt anybody. I don’t think I have done any injustice to anybody.” A novelist or screenwriter couldn’t make up a more fascinating character if they tried.
I only hope that if and when I reach the irrepressible Inge’s age, I will be as mentally sharp and physically fit as she. I came away from our meeting with some new insights — and best of all with an invitation to her 97th birthday party a few weeks later. (As might be expected, it was a blast.)
8. The mom who beat the odds, and the bureaucrats, to become Israel’s top runner
Luke Tress, video and multimedia reporter
I had been following Lonah Chemtai Salpeter’s career since I met her in 2016 at a media event in Tel Aviv before the Rio Olympics. We spoke for a few minutes there but I didn’t get her full story until later.
She had struggled to get Israeli citizenship, despite being married to an Israeli, but the authorities came through shortly before the Olympics so she could compete for Israel. The games didn’t go well for her, likely because she had just had a son, and I didn’t hear any news about her for a while, until the 2018 European championships. At that competition, she became Israel’s first European gold medal-winner, but also suffered an embarrassing defeat after a mistake in a later race.
I reached out to her about an interview afterward. Her full story hadn’t been published anywhere in English yet. It took us almost six months to meet since she is training abroad a lot of the time, but I eventually made it to her apartment after she set a national marathon record at a race in Italy. She showed up after taking her son to an amusement park and then dropping him off at her in-laws’, who live in the same building. Despite her success and accolades from the prime minister, culture minister and others, she was very down-to-earth, happy to talk, and a little sheepish about being recognized in public. She told me her story in about an hour and a half, at her kitchen table next to her overflowing trophy case. I didn’t see any bitterness toward any of the authorities who had denied her citizenship for so long. She most of all seemed grateful for the life she has now in Israel. It was nice to do a story that wasn’t about politics or something terrible happening.
Recently in Doha she collapsed during a race due to extreme heat. I don’t have any doubt that she’ll brush it off and keep going.
9. When the IDF’s chief of staff had a snowball fight with a Palestinian family
Judah Ari Gross, military reporter
Sometimes journalists have to wait a little while to fully tell a story — sometimes it’s just a few hours, if a government office puts in place a brief “embargo” to ensure that all news outlets publish simultaneously; sometimes it’s a few weeks, so a source can get their affairs in order before going public; and sometimes it takes about five years.
Such was the case with one story from 2019: a first-person account of a 2013 snowball fight between then-IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz (today a contender for the premiership) and a Palestinian family.
In the winter of 2013, I was a military photographer, accompanying then-army chief Gantz as he toured the West Bank following a massive snowstorm, which caused damage and power outages throughout the region. Along the way, our convoy of military vehicles encountered a Palestinian family playing in the snow. Gantz, out of pure whim — or out of consideration for veteran Yedioth Ahronoth correspondent Nahum Barnea, who was accompanying us that day — decided to hop out of his car and speak with the father, mother and adult daughter. During the conversation, an honest-to-goodness snowball fight broke out. I snapped away with my camera, capturing the surreal moment on silicon.
Though Barnea wrote about the improbable encounter in his article a few days later, a decision was made that my photographs of the event were off-limits. The pictures of one of the most unexpected snowball fights in human history remained locked up on military computer servers until January 2019, when Gantz’s run for the Knesset apparently made them fair game. And so five years after crouching in the snowbanks along Route 60 in order to get a better shot, I could finally share the fruits of my labor.
10. How I found my Bubby in ‘The Auschwitz Album’
Matt Lebovic, reporter
My most memorable article of 2019 took me a few years to write, because it was the story of my own grandmother’s first day at Auschwitz.
At the end of May in 1944, an SS photographer created the so-called “Auschwitz Album” of Hungarian Jews deported to the German Nazi death camp at Birkenau. Sixteen-year old Bella Solomon — my grandmother — was among a transport of Jews sent there from several ghettos in the Muncaj area (in today’s Ukraine).
Since my article, “How I found my Bubby in The Auschwitz Album,” was published in September, several people have reached out to me about their own experiences finding a relative in the album. For one woman — whose account I hope to write about soon — that moment did not come until a few weeks ago at the “Auschwitz” exhibition in New York City.
Why is any of this important or relevant to anyone beyond myself and the people who write to me?
We will soon be living in a world without survivors, and we will need to dig deeper than Anne Frank and the palliative messages we glean from her diary. Not only are people still finding images of their relatives in photographs and films taken during the Holocaust years, but we are also gaining possession of diaries and letters and other artifacts left behind when survivors pass on. Every day, Yad Vashem’s archive is able to add one or more names, bringing us closer to having “a memorial and a name” for as many of the six million souls as possible.
When it comes to strengthening Shoah memory, the key to the treasure is the treasure — including the mostly untapped trove of primary sources that historians are still processing in dozens of languages. Let’s model the possibilities for memory work to increase Holocaust awareness and education at a time when history is under assault.
11. New citizenship in hand, Israelis vote from abroad in Portuguese elections
Melanie Lidman, social affairs reporter
I was 80 kilometers into a 100-kilometer day on my bicycle, pedaling furiously to get to the city of Porto, Portugal, by the start of Shabbat. It was the end of my first week of a month-long bicycle trip through Portugal. As I was rattling down the wooden boardwalk in a suburb south of Porto, the Atlantic Ocean crashing into miles of uninterrupted sandy beaches on my left, I came across the smallest and most polite political rally I’d ever seen. Portugal was set to head to the polls in two days, but you would barely know that a national election was imminent, with nary a ripple in the day-to-day life except for a few campaign posters at intersections. Antonio Costa of the leftist Socialists party was widely expected to win; the only question was by how much.
During my trip biking up and over the rolling hills of Portugal, I was also in the midst of writing an article about Israelis with new Portuguese citizenship who were voting in the national elections for the first time, by absentee ballot. Approximately 10,000 Israelis received Portuguese citizenship since a 2015 law opening the citizenship process to descendants of Sephardim, or Jews who were forced out of Spain and Portugal in the 1492 Inquisition.
So when I saw my first pre-election demonstration, a few kilometers south of Porto, I hopped off my bike, not even bothering to take my helmet off. “I’m a journalist,” I said, extending a bike-glove-clad hand, then rooting around amidst trail mix and peanut butter for a pen and paper and a business card to prove my identity as I tried to convince some confused activists to talk to me. “I’m a journalist AND a cyclist!” I proceeded to interview a few people with the Socialist party, who were surprised to hear that approximately 10,000 Israelis could now vote in their election, especially when that information was coming from a short, spandex-clad woman with curls poking out of her helmet.
Eventually someone agreed to talk to me, though the demonstration broke up before I could snap a picture. We talked for a bit, and then I pedaled off into the sunset. Two days later, Costa handily won reelection. And me? I made it to Porto with exactly two minutes to go before Shabbat started. “We have tens of thousands of visitors that come every year,” the community president told me when I arrived, as he helped me hide the bike behind the synagogue where the rabbi wouldn’t see it. “But you’re the first to arrive by bicycle!”
12. Climate change is knocking coral mating dance out of sync, Israeli study finds
Sue Surkes, environment reporter
There are times when nature’s poetry and magnificence leave one speechless.
For me, one of those occasions was connected to a story about changes in the reproductive behavior of certain coral species along the unusually robust coral reefs in Eilat, southern Israel.
In an extraordinary act of synchronized behavior, thousands of corals along hundreds of kilometers of a reef spout out millions of bundles, each containing eggs and sperm, at exactly the same time, responding to environmental cues such as sea temperature, solar irradiance, wind, the phase of the moon, and the time of sunset.
As a plant and nature nerd, I am constantly amazed by the wonder and complexity of nature. The spawning story reminded me of a jaw-dropping episode on David Attenborough’s “Blue Planet 2.” The film crew had to spend months trying to work out when to be on hand to film an annual event in which tens of thousands of grouper fish gather for one mass spawning event. The event draws in large numbers of sharks eager to snap up the tasty grouper.
Over the years, I’ve learned about flowers that change color to communicate with insects, about seeds designed to encourage ants to take them into fertile underground cavities where they have the best chance of germinating, about the way that trees “speak” to one another through vast networks of fungal threads, and more.
I think it is all wondrous. If only more people could be as inspired as I am, maybe the world would be a better place and humankind would offer it more respect.