Israel media review

Getting schooled: What the press is saying on October 27

Local authorities and pundits put on a clinic for the government to learn how to think outside the classroom, and the comptroller releases a damning, but not damning enough, report

Israeli students wear protective face masks as they return to school for the first time since the outbreak of the coronavirus, May 3, 2020 in Jerusalem. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Israeli students wear protective face masks as they return to school for the first time since the outbreak of the coronavirus, May 3, 2020 in Jerusalem. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

1. Missing the blame for the pandemic: A long-awaited state comptroller report Monday found serious failings with several aspects of the government’s handling of the pandemic, though one likely would not need a several-hundred-page report to know that.

  • “Released on Monday, just one day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly said that state coffers can’t cover daily classes for elementary schools’ youngest students — meaning they will have to attend only half the week — the document raises questions about the spending of NIS 112 million ($33 million) in state funds without a plan,” reports ToI’s Nathan Jeffay on just one of several major issues brought up by the interim report.
  • Speaking about a portion of the report that found that Shin Bet contact tracing forced many into isolation unnecessarily, while not breaking the infection chain, Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler of the Israel Democracy Institute tells him that “the state comptroller’s report shows that many of the half-million Israelis who were told to self-quarantine received the order erroneously. The social consequences, as well as loss of work days and income, are not appreciated by authorities.”
  • Yedioth eschews a hierarchy of importance and tackles the report by printing four small boxes each focusing on an issue, from failings to recommendations, such as long waiting times for COVID-19 test results.
  • “The apparent solution that is most effective to shorten waiting times for test results is to rush as many rapid tests and possible to hospitals and clinics, without giving up on quality of reliability,” the paper recommends. Now why did nobody think of that?
  • Haaretz leads off its broadsheet with the report, but focuses on what’s not in it rather than what is: “State Comptroller report does not deal with the management of the crisis and does not say who is to blame,” reads the paper’s top headline.
  • “The report does not even expose major failures in managing the crisis – it presents a picture of the situation as of two months ago – so that many of its findings are no longer relevant. In addition, the comptroller focuses only on implementation of the measures to fight the pandemic – and has avoided any criticism of the way the crisis was managed or on the decision-making processes in the government and professional forums,” complains author Ido Efrati.
  • Others also see the report itself as blameworthy: Prof. Nadav Davidovich, an adviser on the pandemic, tells Army Radio that “we see a series of failings and ask ourselves, why not connect the dots? There’s a serious management problem here and a lack of integration between [government] bodies.”
  • Kan’s Mordechai Gilat says that one would expect the report to be a clear-eyed, critical look at how decisions were made at the top. “But, believe it or not, there is no report like that. It has not been written. To the prime minister, whose successes are always credited to him and whose failings always roll to someone else, the state comptroller did not think it right to devote a chapter, half-chapter, single page or even a single paragraph. Nothing, zilch.”
  • Even with it sparing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the report is still buried by Israel Hayom, given half of page 10 and a headline about a lack of home computers for distance learning.

2. Outclassed: It’s true that schools are the main thing on people’s minds, at least judging from the press landscape, with nobody happy with the solution of sending kids in first and second grades to school only half a week. Instead, according to several reports, local authorities and parents have taken matters into their own hands.

  • Haaretz writes that in Shoham, a town near central Israel, “The council devised a plan that enables a full return to classes of first to fourth graders, for five days a week. The smaller groups will be taught alternately be permanent teachers and the ones recruited by the Education Ministry, as well as by city employees from the youth and welfare departments, as well as by students required to do volunteer work in exchange for stipends.”
  • “Principals are now working hard to organize schedules,” the head of the city education department is quoted saying. “They need to be creative, taking into account different plans and regulations. But we believe it’s possible, providing the best solution for our city.”
  • The story also expresses bafflement over the Education Ministry trying to deny local authorities the ability to act on their own, citing “pedagogic concerns”:
  • “This argument does not accord with the facts: Pupils can study part of the time with the trained teachers and part of the time have freer activities, supervised by supporting teachers recruited by the ministry. Moreover, sources said the pedagogic argument never came up in earlier discussions the Education Ministry held with the Health Ministry and treasury, ahead of the cabinet meeting.”
  • Israel Hayom reports that in the Merhavim Local Council, schools will open five days a week for kids in grades 1-4, by “utilizing the many nature areas in the region.”
  • Local authorities representative Haim Bibas, who is mayor of Modiin, tells Army Radio: “All due respect to the education ministry, but the ones who are managing this crisis is us — definitely not them. The Education Ministry is large, archaic, unwilling to reform. People there have no idea how things work on the ground.”
  • But Education Ministry official Sa’ar Harel responds to the station that “Bibas doesn’t talk or deal as much with poorer authorities, who rely deeply on government funds.”
  • That’s a point driven home by Yedioth, which runs a front page picture of a poor kid on a laptop in a cowshed, noting that letting local authorities take charge just means the gaps between rich and poor will grow.
  • “Not everyone has the fiduciary ability needed to bolster the education system without state funds … and the effect on kids in lower grades will be determined based on how deep their municipalities’ pockets are,” it reports. The paper also explains that cowshed kid, 6-year-old Eilon Zahari from Beit Shearim, got shunted with the bovines when his older brothers, also learning by Zoom, made it hard for him to follow. “Three days a week? Who’s making these terrible decisions? It seems the decision-makers are not raising young kids in such a time of uncertainty,” his mom fumes.

3. Show us the money: As for the argument about there not being enough money for the extra classes, some don’t quite buy it.

  • “This is absurd. The only consistent thing about the cabinet is its lack of consistency,” Prof. Hagai Levin, an epidemiologist and vocal critic, tells Army Radio, arguing that the money could be found to fix the issue, if there were more willpower.
  • “The government does not want to invest money in health and education. That’s the simple truth. If they were willing to invest money, it’s absolutely clear that they would find solutions … they simply don’t want to.”
  • Yedioth also asks whether the well has actually run dry, as claimed by Netanyahu, and goes through all the other things the government found money for, even though, in the paper’s telling, they were not urgent or supported by taxpayers. This includes NIS 6.6 billion for the flat-rate stimulus checks, NIS 600 million for three new ministries, NIS 300 million for the cabinet, and NIS 780 million for the state’s shiny new plane to fly the president and prime minister around (even though that was approved and budgeted years ago.)
  • “’We’re out of money’ is a logical claim when taxpayer funds have been used sensibly and responsibly. But what’s happened here recently is that huge sums from the state coffers have been sunken into various areas that raise a large question about whether resources are being doled out in a smart and correct way,” the paper writes.
  • Kan’s Shaul Amsterdamski writes that with some localities going it alone, it should make it cheaper for the state to fund the smaller number of towns that truly need it, though it will require a leader to stand up to the rich folks and tell them “listen, you won’t see another shekel from us, because we are going to put all our resources in the poorer authorities who are not able to go it alone.”
  • Prof. Asher Elhayani, a former head of Meir Hospital, writes in Channel 12 that closing schools or keeping them closed could end up being a lot more expensive in the long run.
  • “Many researchers have pointed to long-term damage to health, life quality, life expectancy, and the future earnings capacity of children due to deprivation of education, even when it’s just a period of a few months. The loss of a year of education will have serious consequences for the health of the children and later for the health outlook, the development of chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes, shortening life expectancy and higher infant mortality in girls who will become less educated adult mothers,” he writes, stopping short of total societal breakdown as a result of the extended summer vacation.
  • “It’s sad to me that it is the people of the book who sanctified education throughout history who are the first to close schools and hesitate about reopening them,” he adds.

4. Open up a can of whoop-Ash: Perhaps some fresh blood will help matters. Within hours of the announcement of former army medical chief Nachman Ash as new coronavirus czar, several news outlets come out with forward-looking pieces on how Ash may tackle the pandemic and how he may compare with his predecessor.

  • Channel 13 says Ash only got word about him being appointed a few moments before the official announcement. “I haven’t put down goals, I first want to study and then I can speak and present,” he tells the channel.
  • The station tries to gauge Ash’s stances based on his sparse social media postings, which include a link to a paper in Nature titled “Study the role of hubris in nations’ COVID-19 response,” and the comment “is it true for us too?”
  • Globes takes an even deeper dive into his whopping 35 tweets and retweets over the last five years and comes up with the conclusion that “he supports the traffic light plan, is not afraid of a lockdown and does not hold back from criticizing the government: Gamzu’s replacement brings a change of tack to dealing with the pandemic.”
  • Kan looks back at its own interviews with Ash, who criticized the government for its inability to catch ‘em all.
  • “You can judge by the results — and they are very bad. The first wave was managed reasonably well, and it’s very sad to see the second wave break out, when we haven’t managed to deal with it as a country,” he told the station last month.

5. MAGAlomania: Israel Hayom puts schoolkids on its front page, but the paper is really all about US President Donald Trump and his path to glorious victory and making Isramerica great again.

  • “Simple beloved,” gushes editor Boaz Bismuth, who naturally includes a picture of himself in a three-piece suit, with regular ol’ Trump supporters at a rally in Lititz, Pennsylvania.
  • “Trump was received here with a fervor that’s hard to describe. This president, who people like to call ‘divisive,’ ‘controversial,’ ‘hatemongering’ – is also one of the beloved. Maybe not by everyone, certainly not by the tastemakers, but in his way, he is uniting deep America, rural America, America that is connected to the values of family, the Bible, and patriotism,” he writes.
  • Not feeling the love is Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein, considered a leader of modern Orthodox Jewry, who is quoted in a JTA piece telling Makor Rishon over a week ago, “This is a mentally disturbed person without any inhibition or judgment who controls the button of the most powerful nuclear weapons in the world — and here people applaud him for opening an embassy in Jerusalem.”
  • “They don’t stop for a moment to think about the moral damage that he inflicts on the United States, or even on the world. They don’t ask how it’s possible to abandon the fate of humanity to such an unbalanced man, who doesn’t recognize the concepts of truth and falsehood,” he adds. (Full disclosure: Lichtenstein was one of my teachers for a short period in high school.)
  • Haaretz looks at the two-year anniversary of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting through the lens of the upcoming election.
  • “Many Jews in the neighborhood now have another statement to make: President Donald Trump’s rhetoric at the time and failure to condemn white supremacy contributed to the attack and they vow to vote him out of office next Tuesday on Election Day,” writes Danielle Ziri.
  • “Trump is definitely courting right-wing militias and they’ve done nothing but talk hatred against Jews and Black people – and they’re very well-armed,” says David Ainsman, who is one such person. “I’ve always felt in the back of my head that there can be another Holocaust and it can be in the United States of America. And Trump encourages it, in my opinion.”
  • But ToI’s Renee Ghert-Zand, writing about a new anthology to mark the anniversary of the massacre, notes that most writers shied away from politics. “Regardless of who the president was before or will be after, the pain is the pain. It may be increased or decreased for some people based on their viewpoints and what they are hearing from their political leaders,” says Eric Lidji, one of the anthology’s two editors. “But at the end of the day there are some things that are bigger than that.”
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