Over the past year, as every year, Times of Israel reporters have pursued stories across Israel and around the world, striving to shed light for our readers on complicated and important issues, and sometimes directly affecting how those issues play out.
From stymieing (inadvertently) Israeli government censorship of the entire internet to examining the sordid case of a sex offender rabbi; from uncovering political aides’ inappropriate conduct to reporting objectively on the Pittsburgh tragedy despite a personal stake in the tragedy; from sampling the most iconic kosher food in New York, to introducing the world to a secret synagogue in Dubai, our journalists have worked to inform, entertain and empower our (4 million a month and rising) readers.
As we close out the year, we asked our reporters to look back over the articles they’ve written in the last 12 months, and select the ones that mattered most. Here, then, is their list of important and Times of Israel stories that made an impact in 2018.
(What was your favorite story of 2018? Leave a comment below.)
David Horovitz, editor
A major role and responsibility of independent journalism is keeping watch on our elected officials, to make sure they faithfully do what we’ve elected them to do. Watch movies like “All the President’s Men,” “Spotlight” and “The Post,” and you get an idea of how this is supposed to play out in a properly functioning democracy: Reporters expose the wrongdoing, and then law enforcement moves in to hold the offenders accountable and ensure that justice is served.
What’s been so troubling to me, while editing and writing at The Times of Israel over the past year, has been the evidence of a crumbling of this process. I’ve written quite a few pieces that I think matter a great deal in the past 12 months — including on why I believe Jeremy Corbyn’s staggering anti-Zionism amounts to anti-Semitism; how I think Israel needs to fight BDS; the sadly missing sentence from the nation-state law; the global refusal to recognize Hamas’s destroy-Israel agenda; and Israel’s lose-lose decision to cancel its agreement with the UN on African migrants. I’ve never had a more surreal week than my time earlier this month with “Son of Hamas,” Mosab Hassan Yousef. But, for me, nothing goes more to the heart of journalism that matters than this piece about the assault on Israeli democracy.
“Israeli democracy is being battered,” I wrote in August. “There are attempts to intimidate the judiciary. The media is both demonized and compromised. Financial corruption goes untreated and seeps into politics.”
And that was before the prime minister turned the full weight of his derision on the chief of police — a respected former army officer and Shin Bet deputy head, whom he had appointed, and who had the temerity to investigate him.
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Raoul Wootliff, Knesset reporter
After sitting through a three-hour Knesset committee meeting in June finalizing the so-called “Facebook bill,” designed principally to clamp down on social media incitement to terrorism, I decided to do a careful read of the 16-page final text in order to prepare an article for when the bill was expected to be passed into law days later.
What I found was shocking. Rather than just dealing with social media, as the nine committee discussions I had sat through over the year had done, the bill that took shape was vastly more far-reaching than I had hitherto understood. In fact, the legislation, if passed in this form, would have given the government the authority to unilaterally block any content from any internet site (including news websites) deemed to violate any section of Israel’s penal code — all via administrative court order, under gag order, for perpetuity.
There is no country in the democratic world where the government has internet censorship powers anywhere close to this.
After questioning every member of the committee — and discovering that they too had no idea of the true reach of the would-be law — Knesset legal advisers were consulted and they, also surprised and shocked, passed on the concerns I had raised to the attorney general. The prime minister’s last-minute decision to cancel the final vote was a direct result of those efforts.
Israel was literally moments away from completely destroying free speech on the internet here, without even knowing it.
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Jacob Magid, Settlements reporter
In honor of Pride Month, I wrote a story about what “coming out” is like for LGBT youth in the settlements. I had the opportunity to sit down with a group of incredibly inspiring LGBT teens from towns in the Gush Etzion Regional Council, who opened up about their experiences coming to terms with a part of their identities. They shared the strides being made in their American-influenced communities that left them hopeful for the future. The story rather unexpectedly led me to camp out for two nights in a pair of settlement parking lots, talking to roughly a dozen closeted teens using Grindr, a geography-based gay social media app. The conversations helped illuminate the fears many of these youth face in disclosing who they are to the world.
While the goal of the piece had simply been to shed some light on a unique facet of Israeli life in the West Bank, after it was published I received emails from a couple of Gush-area teens who had read it and were planning on taking advantage of the new resources they had not previously known were available to them.
One of the activists I interviewed summarized his efforts as being about “lowering the price” of coming out for youth. I’m not naive enough to think that a news article can reduce the burden of such a decision, but I do hope that readers who have never struggled with these issues finished the piece thinking about the small ways they too can help create an environment — wherever they live — in which that “price” isn’t so high.
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Amanda Borschel-Dan, Jewish World editor
Five days. Four funerals, one protest march, a top-level security briefing, an inter-denominational, interfaith Friday night dinner, capped by a long, intensely painful, communal Shabbat morning prayer service. All in a week’s work for an Israeli journalist, one might say. But this time the field was America and the rules of play were unwritten.
The mass shooting in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue is without a doubt the year’s most devastatingly important moment for worldwide Jewry.
It was decided that I would parachute in from Jerusalem to cover the aftermath of the anti-Semitic attack. In a mere five days I attempted to give a glimpse of the lives lost and, through broadcasting their stories on an international platform, allow the mourning Diaspora Jewry to take part in the grief of the Squirrel Hill Jewish community.
The objectivity that a reporter must try to maintain was worn thin for me in Pittsburgh. In a Starbucks following the funeral of the best woman I will never meet, I was comforted by her friend, also a well-known academic. The confirmation of her truly remarkable personality gave me the will to return to the keyboard and let the world understand what was mown down in the senseless rain of bullets.
After sitting in a synagogue on Shabbat, tears streaming down my face as I barely choked out the well-remembered Conservative tunes from my American youth, I tried to give a reasonably accurate account of the resilience and unity that so moved me there.
Upon my return to Israel, I was told via email by a colleague that some in the community had asked for journalists not to cover the prayer service. Had I known this — in the chaos of the week, my calls to community representatives went unanswered — I would have respected those wishes. As a reporter who, inevitably, became a mourner, did I even have the right to write an objective report?
But the next email in my inbox was from a former Pittsburgh native, now in Israel, who thanked me profusely for allowing her a sense of togetherness with her home community in this ineffably impossible time.
It’s a tough call.
As one who charts the wave of global anti-Semitism, it is clear to me that the Pittsburgh shooting is a seminal event. It cannot — and does not — remain a moment of private communal grief, an anomaly.
But even as the tragedy takes the form of a necessarily amplified wake-up call, I hope against hope that it is the people who are remembered, and not the murderous act.
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Raphael Ahren, Diplomatic reporter
In September, The Times of Israel published an investigative report regarding a dozen women who complained about sexual misconduct by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign media spokesperson, David Keyes. The anonymous allegations ranged from sexual assault to overly aggressive and otherwise inappropriate behavior when Keyes was still living in New York.
The California-born Keyes denied any wrongdoing, but our report quickly made waves in local and international media, prompting other women to come forward with additional complaints. After a ToI followup article cited a woman alleging an “aggressive, sexual” advance by Keyes after he had already moved to Jerusalem and started working for Netanyahu, Keyes declared that he wanted to “take time off” to clear his name.
On December 12, the Prime Minister’s Office announced that Keyes was formally leaving his position.
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Marissa Newman, Religion reporter
When I started looking into the Shuvu Bonim community of Eliezer Berland, an influential mystic and convicted sex offender, I was immediately struck by the proximity of his group, which has been designated a cult, to my world: First, there was the initial sinking feeling when I saw that a respected mutual friend on Facebook (a follower of the Bratslav Hasidic dynasty to which Berland ostensibly belongs) had liked his page. Then, the jarring realization that the stronghold of his community is a mere 15-minute walk from The Times of Israel offices, something I was only vaguely aware of, though I’ve spent most of my life as a Jerusalem resident. Conversations I had with acquaintances who were Bratslav-minded, though not necessarily affiliated with the community directly, signaled that many believed the Berland affair to be overblown, at best, or an elaborate plot to bring him down, at worst.
Berland, I had assumed, had been entirely ostracized after fleeing the country and then facing a jail sentence in Israel. This turned out to be true among the broader Bratslav community and for most Israelis. But for many believers — both those living in his community and admirers from without — no amount of damning news reports or recordings of his deranged musings could upend their unflagging support. He was their messiah, however literally or loosely they interpreted that. The rest was fake news.
This story is important not merely because it highlights the vulnerability of those who set off in ecstatic pursuit of religious meaning in the face of a self-styled omniscient leader promising salvation and communion with the divine for those willing to part with some cash. It is important not only because it sheds light on the invisible pockets of lawlessness in Israeli society and alleged police ineffectiveness. It is important not just because it traces the transformation among Bratslav Hasidic leaders in disavowing Berland. It is important, most of all, I believe, because it highlights the courageous, whistle-blowing ex-students who risked, and continue to risk, their well-being to ensure that Berland becomes a pariah in the Bratslav community and the Israeli public at large. Without them, we may never have heard the name Eliezer Berland at all.
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Melanie Lidman, Environment and Social Affairs reporter
When we broke the news that the United Nations High Commission on Refugees was in secret talks to resettle about half of the country’s African asylum seekers in exchange for permanent status for those remaining, it seemed like a solution to a highly complicated problem that would please almost everyone.
The 35,000 asylum seekers would finally gain some semblance of status, either in Israel or abroad, and an end to their limbo. The south Tel Aviv Israeli residents would see a drastic decrease in the number of asylum seekers crowded into the impoverished neighborhoods around the Central Bus Station.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would gain political capital for engineering a solution. Best of all was the price tag: free. The resettlement costs were to be paid by the UNHCR and the countries that accepted the refugees.
The Times of Israel was the first Israeli publication to report on this landmark deal. But the impact of our story? Zero.
Under pressure from south Tel Aviv residents angry that even a single asylum seeker would receive permanent status in Israel, Netanyahu backtracked. In an embarrassing capitulation mere hours after announcing the deal, he canceled it.
I live in this south Tel Aviv neighborhood, just steps from the Central Bus Station. I felt the way the air changed, from years of frustration that the authorities were ignoring this issue, to deep-seated hatred as the deportation issue reached a fever pitch in April. For a few hours, there was a solution that seemed close enough to touch. And then it disappeared before our very eyes.
Now, there’s a bitterness, a hopelessness, that pervades the streets. Eight months later, the asylum seekers are in the exact same position: still in limbo, still without the ability to obtain many of the rights and opportunities needed to improve their situation.
Nothing changed. And south Tel Aviv remains as crowded and impoverished as ever.
* * *
Miriam Herschlag, Opinion and Blogs editor
The Jewish community of… where? That’s the response I’ve gotten since reporting on a synagogue that has been operating for a decade in Dubai. Jewish expats and visitors in the Gulf emirate have, in recent years, gathered discreetly for services and celebrations, meeting in an unmarked villa in a residential neighborhood. Uncertain over how favorably the authorities viewed their activities, the community remained so far below the radar that even longtime Jewish visitors to the emirate had no clue.
With the publication on December 5 of this article in The Times of Israel and a report the same day in Bloomberg News, the Jewish community of the Emirates took a cautious step out of the shadows. Community members who allowed this unprecedented publicity took their cue from United Arab Emirates’ rulers, who are working to brand the UAE as a tolerant, cosmopolitan society compatible with the global business community. Publication also comes at a time of warming ties between Israel and some Gulf countries who share concerns over Iran’s regional ambitions.
Spending time with community members as a visitor at Shabbat services, over a kiddush cholent stew, and at Friday night dinner in the strictly kosher home of one of the community’s leaders, I was profoundly moved by the pains taken to nurture Jewish life in this remote and unlikely setting.
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Jessica Steinberg, Culture and Lifestyle reporter
I researched and wrote this piece about Israelis learning Arabic over the course of several weeks, having repeatedly heard from friends and family members about the conversational Arabic classes they were taking or contemplating taking. It’s something I’d thought about doing many times in the 23 years I’ve lived in Israel — and it’s a project that I still haven’t embarked upon, regrettably.
There’s a disconnect when you live life next to many others who speak a different language, and it’s not a helpful one. But what surprised me in the research was the approaches of different teachers and students, from vastly differing backgrounds, all learning and teaching for a variety of reasons. There’s nothing I love more than being poked and prodded in my reporting and writing process, and this was one of those kinds of stories.
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Yaakov Schwartz, Jewish World assistant editor
This story about the first Taglit trip by an isolated community of African Jews from Uganda wasn’t easy to research, which was pretty mysterious to me, since it seemed like the kind of thing they should have loved to publicize. I tried to reach out to spokespeople, participants, and the trip leader for comments, and came up with nothing. But as I gradually figured out why everyone was stonewalling me, I started to realize the underlying injustice the participants on this trip — and their entire community — faced.
Since converting to Judaism 100 years ago (with some more recent officially performed conversions under the auspices of the Conservative movement), the Abayudaya community has faced local persecution and isolation, including under the brutal Idi Amin dictatorship. Not all branches of the Israeli government consider the Abayudaya officially Jewish, and there was a possibility that Israel’s Interior Ministry would change its mind about allowing them into the country at any time. (In January, the Interior Ministry had refused to let a leader from the Kenyan Jewish community into Israel, where he was supposed to study at the Conservative Yeshiva.)
Afraid that they might get their visas revoked at the last minute, organizers requested that we hold off from publishing anything until after everyone was safely through customs. It was yet another exhausting manifestation of some of Israeli society’s greatest weaknesses — lack of recognition for non-Orthodox religious denominations, decades-old racism, you name it. Did that stop the Abayudaya folks from dancing through the gates of Jerusalem like it was the happiest day of their lives? No way. We knew this was an important story from the get-go, because it had ramifications for this community and others in Israel and abroad. I hope that covering it was helpful in some small part, but it also inspired me to see the love the Abayudaya Jews have for Israel, even if parts of the Israeli government refuse to recognize them as Jews.
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11. Legal loophole allows secret loans to candidates in local elections
Sue Surkes, Investigative reporter
This story, about how “loans” can be laundered into de facto, below-the-radar political donations, exposes a legislative loophole through which individuals can potentially buy political influence during elections without the public knowing.
As often happens during reporting, the article actually emerged from a separate story I was writing about Russian oligarch support for one of the Jerusalem mayoral candidates, Ze’ev Elkin. While looking into Elkin’s finances, I realized that the declared donations to a rival candidate, Ofer Berkovitch, could not possibly be sufficient to fund a campaign that saw Berkovitch’s face plastered across buses and buildings all over the city.
The law on transparency during local elections is very detailed. Among other things, the State Comptroller’s office obliges candidates to report in real time on donations and guarantees on an internet site accessible to the public.
After digging around, by contrast, I discovered that personal loans — as opposed to guarantees — must be reported to the State Comptroller, but only at the end of the election, and in a way that is never made public.
This means that a candidate can report a loan after the election but, with the agreement of the “lender,” can then not pay it back. In this way a loan becomes a donation far from the public eye, and the donor can theoretically leverage it once the candidate gets into power.
As we move into national election season, this legislative loophole could have far-reaching consequences in determining the slates for each party. That is because it applies to candidates in party primaries, although not to elections to the Knesset itself, which are state-funded. A statement from the State Comptroller said the office was looking into the loophole but gave no timetable for any possible change.
Robert Philpot, London-based reporter
One theme and one man dominates much of what I have written for The Times of Israel in 2018: anti-Semitism in the British Labour party under its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. This piece summarizes and encapsulates a shocking and shameful year for a party that many Jews once felt was their natural home, friend and ally.
Why does this matter? As Britain’s politics lurches from one Brexit-induced crisis to another, the chances that Corbyn may make it to Downing Street continue to grow. What that might mean for the country’s Jews, its relations with Israel and its approach to the Middle East will inevitably make plenty of grim copy for 2019.
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Cathryn J. Prince, New York-based reporter
This story, about a rise in anti-Semitism in America, ran in February 2018, almost a year before 11 American Jews were murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA. It called attention to an issue that the majority of US news outlets were ignoring – that as anti-Semitism continued to rise, far-right groups were becoming increasingly violent, and American Jews were getting increasingly worried.
It wasn’t until after the Pittsburgh shooting that outlets such as CNN, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal started paying attention to this issue. In a single week in December, there have been five reported hate crimes, including Nazi-themed posters found around SUNY-Purchase College and a man in Toledo, Ohio, who was accused of planning to shoot Jewish worshipers.
The rise in bias-related crime here in the US is a disturbing trend and is one supported by the data. As the granddaughter of immigrants who fled Eastern Europe because of persecution, as someone with relatives who survived Auschwitz and many who did not, as a parent who has seen the rise of anti-Semitism in our local school system, I believe this is an issue we journalists must continue to cover.
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Jordan Hoffman, New York-based reporter
Most but not all of my ToI contributions are about entertainment, so I try to keep it entertaining. The piece that has lingered with me most was a pop-in I did with the current owners of B&H Dairy Restaurant, one of the few remaining kosher spots in New York’s East Village.
The owners aren’t Jewish; they are a married immigrant couple from Egypt and Poland. But they respect the heritage and keep the place true.
This was definitely my tastiest assignment of the year, but better than the blintzes and challah was listening to the stories and eavesdropping on the regulars. Moreover, this story “matters” to me because keeping Jewish culture alive isn’t only about books and davening, it’s about sharing it with all who want to take a bite.