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2020 in review

Bye-bye 2020: ToI writers share important stories from a year of crisis and hope

As the year comes to a close, many would like to put it out of mind. But first, a few ToI stories that have made the last 12 months unforgettable — for better or for worse

  • Clockwise from top left: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives the coronavirus vaccine (Amir Cohen/Pool/AFP); National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat elbow bumps with an Emirati official, (Nir Elias/Pool/AFP); protesters pose for Netanyahu's 'Last Supper,' (Courtesy Omer Burin); Donald Trump holds up his face mask, (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File); A woman at prayer, September 2020 (Ricki Rosen/Times of Israel);  a new Israeli iconic demonstrator (AP Photo/Oded Balilty).
    Clockwise from top left: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives the coronavirus vaccine (Amir Cohen/Pool/AFP); National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat elbow bumps with an Emirati official, (Nir Elias/Pool/AFP); protesters pose for Netanyahu's 'Last Supper,' (Courtesy Omer Burin); Donald Trump holds up his face mask, (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File); A woman at prayer, September 2020 (Ricki Rosen/Times of Israel); a new Israeli iconic demonstrator (AP Photo/Oded Balilty).
  • A delegation of Muslim religious leaders at the gate leading to the former Nazi German death camp of Auschwitz, together with a Jewish group in what organizers called “the most senior Islamic leadership delegation" to visit the former Nazi death camp, in Oswiecim, Poland, January 23, 2020. (American Jewish Committee via AP)
    A delegation of Muslim religious leaders at the gate leading to the former Nazi German death camp of Auschwitz, together with a Jewish group in what organizers called “the most senior Islamic leadership delegation" to visit the former Nazi death camp, in Oswiecim, Poland, January 23, 2020. (American Jewish Committee via AP)
  • An IDF medic gets vaccinated against the COVID-19 coronavirus at the medical center of Tzrifin military base in Rishon Lezion on December 28, 2020. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
    An IDF medic gets vaccinated against the COVID-19 coronavirus at the medical center of Tzrifin military base in Rishon Lezion on December 28, 2020. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
  • Israelis wearing protective masks and dressed mainly in black take part in a demonstration on April 25, 2020, in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, to protest what they consider threats to Israeli democracy, against the backdrop of an imminent coalition between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ex-rival Benny Gantz. The protesters stood two meters apart from each other, thereby respecting the social distancing measures in force to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
    Israelis wearing protective masks and dressed mainly in black take part in a demonstration on April 25, 2020, in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, to protest what they consider threats to Israeli democracy, against the backdrop of an imminent coalition between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ex-rival Benny Gantz. The protesters stood two meters apart from each other, thereby respecting the social distancing measures in force to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
  • Police use a water cannon against demonstrators during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, July 18, 2020 (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
    Police use a water cannon against demonstrators during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, July 18, 2020 (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
  • Ivanka Trump speaks at a campaign event while her father, US President Donald Trump, watches in Kenosha, Wisconsin, November 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)
    Ivanka Trump speaks at a campaign event while her father, US President Donald Trump, watches in Kenosha, Wisconsin, November 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)
  • A nurse in Haifa's Bnai Zion Medical Center's coronavirus ward (Courtesy Micha Brikman)
    A nurse in Haifa's Bnai Zion Medical Center's coronavirus ward (Courtesy Micha Brikman)

While the coronavirus pandemic caused the world to grind to a halt this year, some things have been business as usual: Israel is headed to yet another election, the environmental crisis continues unabated, traffic safety is still a major issue on Israeli roads…

Thankfully, the show must go on: Films and series continue to stream, concerts have moved online, academic forums are meeting virtually, and chefs have taken to giving cooking classes from their own kitchens.

Even without the pandemic, 2020 has had its share of extraordinary and world-changing events — mass demonstrations have rocked the United States, a top Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated under mysterious circumstances, and no fewer than four Arab League nations have suddenly begun to forge ties with Israel, ushering in some fresh Middle East optimism.

Throughout it all, The Times of Israel team has reported the news as it unfolds, working from wherever we could as Israel faced repeated lockdowns. We covered the raging pandemic, Israel’s rising death toll, and hospitals dangerously approaching their breaking points — even as we kept a hopeful eye, now vindicated, on prospects for a coronavirus vaccine.

This year has brought us fresh perspective — and we’d like to share with you, our readers, some of the stories from the era of the “new normal” which have held the most meaning for us, ToI’s writers, as we worked on them.

David Horovitz, founding editor

A terror victim’s family fights for justice

The Roth family, with Malki standing at right. (Courtesy the Roth family)

The story I worked hardest on this year concerns the battle, conducted by the parents of Malki Roth, to have the woman who orchestrated the 2001 Sbarro suicide bombing in which Malki was killed extradited from Jordan and brought to justice.

It’s the story of a bereaved family’s quixotic struggle — first against evil, and then, against realpolitik.

Except it’s not over yet. And it just might not be quixotic.

Judah Ari Gross, military correspondent

Lebanese man who spied on Hezbollah for the Mossad begs Israel not to abandon him

Illustration by Avi Katz.

Last summer, “Benjamin Philip” — whose true name is barred from publication — contacted The Times of Israel out of desperation. Philip was a Lebanese citizen with deep connections through his family to the Hezbollah terror group. He’d worked with Israeli intelligence for years, providing what he said was highly valuable information and connecting the Mossad to operatives within the organization, who in turn supplied yet more intelligence about its operations.

After years of service, Philip was on the outs with Israel, running out of money in a foreign country and being threatened with deportation back to Lebanon — which he had no intention of returning to. He was prepared to commit suicide to prevent the torture and humiliation that awaited him at “home.”

Reporting on the case required trips abroad, a deep and complicated independent investigation of Philip’s claims, grappling with ethical conundrums, fights with the military censor, and a good dose of paranoia in order to at least attempt to maintain secure communications with Philip and other sources.

The story, though, has somewhat of a happy ending. Philip is now living in a different country, where he is poised to receive asylum — in small part because of this article — ensuring he won’t face deportation again. He is no longer contemplating suicide, having sought and received psychological help. And he is working with an organization in his new home to help LGBT refugees like himself.

Amanda Borschel-Dan, deputy editor

Lost 1,000-year-old Hebrew Bible found on dusty Cairo synagogue shelf

In July 2017, Israeli historian Yoram Meital stumbled upon a handwritten 1028 CE biblical codex that was lying abandoned on a dusty shelf in Cairo’s Moussa Der’i Synagogue. Wrapped in simple white butcher paper, at 616 pages, the Zechariah Ben ‘Anan Manuscript is one of the era’s most complete and preserved examples of the “Writings,” the third and concluding section of the Hebrew Bible. It had been lost to scholars for almost 40 years.

This detailed illustration lists the name of the scribe, Zechariah Ben ‘Anan, as well as the owners of the Codex that was rediscovered in 2017 by Israeli scholar Prof. Yoram Meital in a Cairo synagogue. (Yoram Meital)

My awareness of the rediscovered codex came in February, directly upon the heels of an emotional first Shabbat service at a refurbished synagogue in Alexandria. I had hoped to attend the festive weekend, but was unable to get a visa to enter the country as an Israeli journalist and it was impossible to be added as a civilian to Egyptian security lists.

But I reported on the monumental event through telephone interviews with some of the 180 attendees just after the moving Shabbat. The few, mostly elderly, remnants of the once-thriving Egyptian Jewish community were overwhelmed by the rare chance to share their family heritage with their children and grandchildren.

These roots run deep in the rare Zechariah Ben ‘Anan Manuscript discovered by Meital in the Karaite Moussa Der’i Synagogue. It was previously documented in various publications by modern biblical scholars, from a 1905 Jewish Quarterly Review to microfilms of the manuscript done by a team of Israelis from the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts in June 1981. But when ties with Israel again soured, access was cut off, and the manuscript was lost.

The manuscript is today hidden in an undisclosed safe place while Meital dreams of a way of exhibiting it in Cairo. In this era of increasing cooperation between Israel and the Middle East, perhaps his dream will be a reality before another four decades pass.

Nathan Jeffay, science and health reporter

“But there is no coronavirus,” says man waking up from monthlong coma

David Vodiansky, right, with his wife Alin Zaraabel (Courtesy of Alin Zaraabel)

The pandemic has been a humbling experience for all of us. It’s forced us to accept realities and make changes to our lives that we couldn’t have imagined. Some have found it harder than others, and I don’t think this reflects whether we’re good or bad people; our minds just work differently.

My interview with the couple that didn’t believe in COVID-19 hammered all of this home. When David Vodiansky came around and heard he was in a coronavirus ward, he said, “It’s not possible, there’s no coronavirus.” They replied: “So what are you doing here?” Suddenly, the virus was all too real.

Vodiansky and his wife Alin Zaraabel had been in denial. They couldn’t, or didn’t want to, accept the awfulness of this illness. They were then shaken to reality. In a sense, this has been the experience of each and every one of us. For many of us, it took just a few minutes last March; for others it took months. But as I see it, this realization is the universal story of the human race in 2020.

Shoshanna Solomon, Start-up Israel editor

Israel’s most vulnerable suffer economic brunt of coronavirus, next generation will foot the bill

People wearing face masks walk through the largely shuttered Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem, on October 7, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As the 2020 “Annus Horribilis” comes to a close, I took some time to revisit the stories written about how the pandemic has wreaked havoc on Israel’s economy. Coupled with political instability, the nation is witnessing its worst recession ever.

Our stories covered the plight of small businesses, from the bar owners in Tel Aviv who saw nightlife come to a standstill, to chefs and cosmeticians who saw revenues plunge. Experts worried about how unemployment could become the Achilles’ Heel to recovery, as the first lockdown put over a million workers out of jobs. The virus also highlighted inequalities within Israel, with the weakest, youngest populations and women being hardest-hit by the closures. “Academic Darwinism,” is hurting university students, and it will be our children who will have to pay the massive bill for the huge amount of money the government is spending to keep the damage at bay.

Hopefully, 2021 will be better. As the nation rolls out the coronavirus vaccines at a world-record pace, there may be light at the end of the tunnel. We’ll continue to keep our fingers on the Israeli pulse. Meanwhile, keep your masks on, and don’t unlock your seatbelts just yet.

Sue Surkes, environment reporter

Coronavirus is driving thousands to hunger in Israel

A homeless man in Jerusalem. Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel has emerged as one of the developed world’s most economically unequal countries. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

With the Israeli media focused on the dual tracks of coronavirus and will-there-won’t-there-be-elections, I am glad The Times of Israel could draw attention to the disturbing finding that almost one in three Israeli households now live in poverty, as families hitherto able to make ends meet have been brought down by the economic fallout of the coronavirus.

Despite this, and for political reasons, the biggest single budget for food security has been given to a ministry which is not even responsible for the issue — the Interior Ministry. Fears that the criteria for food aid have been “stitched up” to benefit Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) families were sufficient to prompt the Movement for Quality Government to petition the High Court.

Among those hardest hit by what looks all too much like government indifference are children. The Hebrew-language media has scarcely touched on the fact that each time there is a lockdown, more than 400,000 children eligible for hot school meals don’t receive them, with ministries passing the buck and blaming all — but themselves.

Jessica Steinberg, culture and lifestyle editor

Israeli musicians find a way for the show to go on

Ido Shpitalnik, conductor of the Jerusalem Street Orchestra, performing at the one concert he’s been allowed to hold since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. (courtesy, Jerusalem Street Orchestra)

When the coronavirus arrived in Israel in March, my coverage of the local arts and culture community changed completely.

I found myself writing constantly about the struggles of artists, whether musicians, actors, dancers, directors, or anyone else involved in the performing arts world. Big names and lesser-known performers were trying to figure out what to do with themselves, how to fill their days and their bank accounts while satisfying their creative urges. For some, it was all about survival, about work, and whether they would ever be able to return to the stage full-time. Even the periods between the lockdowns were fraught with questions, indecision, concerns.

The piece I chose to highlight is about musicians staging an outdoor concert. It took several weeks to complete because each time the interviewees tried to make a plan about a performance, the government guidelines would shift and plans needed to be changed, again.

At the same time, as a reporter, I felt a kinship with and understanding of my interview subjects’ dilemmas. It’s true I was still working, but in a different world, with changed conditions. We understood one another, and could commiserate. Cynicism was (mostly) put aside, and I wanted to report what they were experiencing, to share this particular slice of the coronavirus experience.

״שלום עליכם״ בעיבודו של גיל אלדמע בהפגנה בבלפורתודה ל-Or-ly Barlev על התיעודול-Noy Shiv על הקמת המקהלה

Posted by Haddar Beiser on Saturday, August 1, 2020

Haviv Rettig Gur, political correspondent and analyst

1. Will the coronavirus forever change ultra-Orthodoxy as we know it?

Haredi men wearing face masks walk past Health Ministry posters warning against large Passover holiday gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic, in Jerusalem on April 5, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In Israel, the pandemic has upended everyone’s lives to one degree or another. For the Haredi community, however, it attacked the very heart of their culture and challenged the basic fabric of their way of life. Its transmission traveled along pathways that in better days are the sources of Haredi society’s strength and sense of purpose — its academies, its tight-knit synagogues, its close-quarters socializing in the street.

One of the most poignant and complicated articles for me this year was the attempt to get to the bottom of the astounding and much-criticized Haredi failure to deal responsibly with the virus. I tried to acknowledge that failure, acknowledge the criticism, and then move past the anger from outsiders to get to the human heart of the problem, to explore how the very things that make being Haredi so rewarding in ordinary times render the community more vulnerable than others in the face of a pandemic.

2. How the Emiratis won by giving Israel something to lose

L-R: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan participate in the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House, on September 15, 2020. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

Another major story this year, of course, was the sudden rush of Arab states seeking normalization agreements with Israel.

Each country had its reasons, from American F-35s for the Emiratis to getting removed from the US terror list for the Sudanese. But a unifying theme nevertheless emerges from each government’s decision to abandon what was until today more or less a consensus view.

The importance of the Palestinian cause has shrunk in the broader Arab political consciousness. What was once a story that represented the general Arab experience now represents the Palestinians alone. What was once seen as a battlefield in a broader West-East clash has morphed into a conflict driven as much by an intransigent and incompetent Palestinian leadership as by Israeli malfeasance.

While the Palestinian story has diminished in importance in the Arab world, Israel’s story has done the reverse. Growing numbers of Arabs, especially Arab leaders, now want to learn from this small nation — more than half of whose population hails from the Arab world — which has achieved a level of economic and military success and power unmatched by anyone in the Arab world itself.

Slowly but surely, the Arab world is coming to view Israel as one of its own, a strange but nevertheless unavoidably present part of the landscape, which has a lot to offer its newfound friends. I explored these shifts after the first announcements of normalization deals in August and earlier this month in an essay sparked by some surprising comments from a senior Emirati official. [Editor’s note: Haviv and the following writer were allowed to pick two articles, because 2020 has proven there are no rules.]

Aaron Boxerman, Arab affairs and demonstrations reporter

1. After UAE announces ties with Israel, Palestinians still without a plan

Palestinians in the West Bank city of Ramallah burn pictures of Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (top) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, during a demonstration against the UAE-Israeli agreement to normalize diplomatic ties, August 15, 2020. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

Every year is a year of dramatic upheaval in the Middle East — but 2020 more than most. The decision by some Arab regimes to normalize ties with the Jewish state heartened many Israelis and angered the Palestinians. The process happened slowly, and then all at once: Four normalization accords in four months. The Palestinian leadership, surprised by how quickly the regional order was upended, spun its wheels.

While this piece was written back in September, directly after the announcement of an accord between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, the sense of political isolation, receding alliances, and dwindling, unappealing choices still haunts policymakers in Ramallah. They can but hope that 2021 — and a new administration in the White House — will bring more appealing news for their cause.

2. At Jerusalem protest, water cannons everywhere, but not a place to go

Police use water cannons on demonstrators against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, on July 18, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Moving to Israel from the United States to report for The Times of Israel in the middle of a pandemic in July heralded something of a change in my Saturday night plans. Almost as soon as I got out of quarantine, I was off until all hours covering the nascent protest movement against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, week in, week out for nearly four months.

The early days of those thousands-strong demonstrations saw some violence. While nothing compared to that seen on a regular basis during clashes between Ultra-Orthodox or Palestinians with Israeli security forces, it was noteworthy for West Jerusalem. Watching water cannons and mounted officers attempt to push protesters off the light-rail tracks was as interesting a “Welcome to Israel in 2020” as I could have hoped for.

It was at these events when I came to really appreciate the role of the reporter as witness: The importance of having someone to record what was happening on the ground, even when it was late at night and everyone just wanted to head home. It made it worth getting my clothes soaked.

Jacob Magid, US correspondent

United States assures Emirates it won’t back Israeli annexation until 2024

(L-R, rear) US senior presidential advisor Jared Kushner, US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien clap for US President Donald Trump after he announced an agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel to normalize diplomatic ties, at the White House, August 13, 2020. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

The August 14 joint statement from the US, Israel and the United Arab Emirates declared that Abu Dhabi had agreed to normalize relations with the Jewish state in exchange for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suspending his West Bank annexation plans — but what wasn’t specified was just how long that postponement would be.

It took almost a month, but I was able to confirm the agreed-to suspension would last at least three years. The major revelation put to bed speculation that Israel, with backing from the settlement-sympathetic Trump administration, would still move forward with annexation several months down the line, after the dust had settled. What the Emiratis had was not a commitment from Netanyahu — as several sources with direct knowledge of the negotiations told me — but a promise from the White House that Washington wouldn’t give its blessing on annexation until at least 2024. For the Emiratis, who understood that Netanyahu would not pull the trigger on such a controversial plan without US President Donald Trump’s support, this was enough to agree to normalization.

The countless conversations with government officials and others in-the-know that it took to confirm the story served as a helpful crash course for my new beat as US correspondent — one I had started less than two weeks before the normalization announcement. As a rather junior reporter with much more to learn, the experience provided me with a jolt of confidence that I have tried to subsequently leverage to continue breaking news.

Raoul Wootliff, political correspondent

Out of quarantine and into the polls — Israel votes in the coronavirus era

An Israeli under home quarantine arrives to cast a vote in a special polling station outside the city of Modiin, March 2, 2020 (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)

On the day of the national ballot in March, I wanted to do something different, having already spent two election days in the previous year-and-a-half following politicians around as they cast their votes and made unremitting speeches. I wanted something novel. And what had more novelty than going to one of the 16 specially-equipped voting booths for the 5,630 voters under home quarantine to prevent the Israeli spread of the “novel coronavirus” (as we called it at the time)?

Ten Israelis had tested positive for the coronavirus back then, and Israel had taken what seemed like far-reaching steps to prevent an outbreak, banning entry to foreigners who had been to China, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Italy, and compelling all Israelis recently in those areas to self-quarantine for 14 days. They were, however, allowed out of quarantine in order to vote in the tented polling stations while taking “special precautions” like wearing face masks and gloves (remember those?).

As voters arrived, they were greeted by polling staff wearing full protective gear who asked them to temporarily take off their face masks and checked their identity against their Israeli identity card. Then, after each applying anti-bacterial hand gel, the voters were given a specially-prepared pack with a new face mask and gloves to wear while voting. I observed the masked voters queueing up, as polling workers told them through a megaphone to stay at least two meters apart, which was met with curiosity and some bewilderment.

Few at the time could have predicted that less than a year later, Israel would be going to yet another election after the failure of a national unity government specifically formed to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has so far taken over 3,000 Israeli lives. Fewer, perhaps, could have imagined that those elections would be taking place after (at least) three national lockdowns aimed at cutting raging coronavirus infection rates that reached close to 10,000 new cases a day at the peak.

Those 16 polling stations turned out not to be a quirk but an omen. And the novelty has long worn off.

Yaakov Schwartz, deputy Jewish World editor

Muslim delegation visits Auschwitz, normalization ensues

A delegation of Muslim religious leaders at the gate leading to the former Nazi German death camp of Auschwitz, together with a Jewish group in what organizers called ‘the most senior Islamic leadership delegation’ to visit the former Nazi death camp, in Oswiecim, Poland, January 23, 2020. (American Jewish Committee via AP)

At the risk of sounding flippant, over the course of 2020 there were moments when I thought about where I’d spent much of the year’s beginning — covering various delegations at Auschwitz — and how in retrospect, for me those visits had set the tone for the rest of it. But this year hasn’t been all bad. Along the way, some unexpected silver linings have popped up and surprised us.

Looking back, I see that I was able to catch a moment that hinted at bigger things coming when I covered an unprecedented Muslim delegation, headed by world-renowned Saudi cleric Mohammed al-Issa, paying their respects at Auschwitz. At the time it seemed like a nice gesture, but I would have guessed normalization with Israel was at least a decade away — if it were ever to come at all.

As 2020 concludes, no less than four additional Arab League countries have established or reestablished ties with Israel, and it looks like more will do the same in 2021. This has been a year with a lot of loss and even more sacrifice, but it may also be remembered as the year that saw the sun rise over the Middle East.

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