Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu played a game of softball on Wednesday at the Knesset as a group of international Jewish journalists and bloggers were given the rare opportunity to ask the Israeli leader “anything.”
While for domestic Israeli journalists that “anything” would have certainly included questions concerning looming expected corruption indictments and coalition squabbles, this group was more concerned about anti-Semitism and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement — issues closer to their far-flung own homes.
The group of 150 writers from 30 countries participated in the third Jewish Media Summit, a four-day meet-up organized in cooperation with the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and the Jerusalem and Heritage Affairs Ministry. The invited attendees included heads of international Jewish media, alongside bloggers and social media gurus.
In a packed few days, participants were feted and fed a mix of Israel’s finest catering, with a side of public relations. A handful of Members of Knesset addressed the group, as well as top ministry directors and other leading Jewish professionals. With overstuffed brains matching full stomachs, one participant said she was staggered by the amount of content she’d swallowed in one day.
There were a few wrinkles: A promised Monday night speech from Diaspora Affairs and Education Minister Naftali Bennett was cancelled at the last-minute. Likewise, a video address by the prime minister didn’t materialize at the opening gala.
However, on the final day of the summit, participants started their Wednesday with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence and continued on to a tour of the Knesset, with a surprise question-and-answer session with Netanyahu, who rarely has open press conferences with the Israeli media.
The double-barreled Israeli political star power was not lost on the crowd. One attendee called the likable president, “everybody’s grandfather.”
In prepared remarks, the president mentioned some of the greatest Zionist leaders who were journalists, including visionary Theodor Herzl and Nahum Sokolow. “We Jews are the people of the book. We are a people of words. From our earliest days, our words have defined who we are. We carried our words in our hearts, in our books, on the long journey of the Jewish people. You, too, are people of words, and pictures,” he continued. “Today, you work on different platforms: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, blogs, but the task is still the same — to tell stories, to help us understand, to bring light and truth.”
When he went off-script, Rivlin discussed his four tribes of Israel model, in which Ultra-Orthodox, Arabs, secular Israeli Jews, and national religious Jews each are a quarter of Israel’s demographic pie. Referring to the derision faced by Conservative and Reform Israeli Jews, he lamented, “We have a real cultural war here in Israel.”
The Diaspora has an important place in his paradigm, he said. “The world is a small village and the Jewish people is the fifth tribe,” he said. “Whether we like it or not,” he said, “the Diaspora and Israel are all in it together, with the same goals, same needs.” To that end, it was announced that the president is supporting a project under the direction of Israeli Diaspora Affairs reporter Tzvika Klein, which will help explain world Jewry to influential Israelis.
President of the Bibi fan club
The media group’s affection for the prime minister went even beyond their connection to “grandpa” Rivlin, however, as question after question gave him the opportunity to expand on favored talking points and recycle well-worn phrases.
A London-based journalist asked how he views the idea of a Jeremy Corbyn-led Britain. After a sentence addressing the topic, we heard that Iran is the most anti-Semitic government in the world. “While denying the Holocaust, they prepare the next holocaust,” said Netanyahu.
According to the prime minister, a person stating that he is not anti-Semitic, rather merely critical of the Israeli government, is analogous to saying, “I’m not against the French, I just don’t think there should be France, which is absurd,” he said.
Netanyahu was asked whether Israel should keep the Golan. “Of course we’re keeping it,” he retorted, to a delighted reception.
Asked about the state of the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora, the prime minister turned to another favored topic: the Holocaust and demography.
Assimilation, he said, is “chipping away at our numbers” in the Diaspora, adding that we have not yet reclaimed the Jewish population from before World War II. However, he forecasted that very soon, the majority of the Jewish people will live in Israel “for the first time since the Second Temple.”
He chided the journalists for not being aware that the secular Jewish population in Israel has the highest growth rate in the Zionist world. “You should know that, you’re journalists,” he said to chuckles. Lauding the country’s “robust demographic base,” he continued, “the bad part is the shrinking of the Diaspora… The disappearance of Jewish identity is what concerns me.”
Netanyahu also drew laughs after a question from a Ukrainian journalist, who wondered whether the prime minister, whom he said is very good on his Russian social media channels, would ever consider starring in a Russian-language film. “No,” Netanyahu answered succinctly.
After telling a Latin American journalist that he intends to increase ties with the region, he added that the country has much to offer: “Israel is like a global supermarket for technology,” with “aisles” for each hi-tech sector.
A South African journalist, who, “feeling lonely at the southern tip of South Africa,” wondered how she should combat the “ground-zero of BDS” (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) she finds in her country.
“Just tell the truth” about Israel, advised Netanyahu. “BDS is a distortion and lies,” he said. “You shouldn’t just defend, you should attack. Attack, attack, attack,” he repeated. “You need to delegitimize the delegitimizers,” he said.
Rushing off to a vote in the Knesset plenary, Netanyahu was swarmed with admirers. An excited blogger screamed after the departing prime minister, “I love you, Bibi!”
Abashed, she said to the open-mouthed group around her, “I can’t help it. I just love that guy.” And another participant sheepishly admitted, “Yeah, me too.”
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