This year, articles about Israel’s multiple elections, the toppling of a long-entrenched government, the May mini-war, and — oh yeah — the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic topped The Times of Israel’s most-read articles in terms of sheer numbers.
But when our reporters were asked which of their pieces were most important or most moving, with their selections we soon see a different, more nuanced picture of Israeli life. The following articles and their authors’ explanations of why they were chosen also offer you a behind-the-scenes glimpse at what motivates us.
As we enter 2022, all of us here at ToI hope for even fewer pieces about conflict, and many more on its resolution.
Israel, a working democracy
A formidable and extremely able prime minister, who had led Israel for more than a fifth of its lifespan, finally lost power this year — despite using every trick in the book, and a few more that he devised himself (withholding a national budget?!), in the desperate effort to cling on.
Benjamin Netanyahu was ousted because the narrowest possible majority of Israel’s duly elected politicians concluded that they and their parties’ particular agendas were less vital than the imperative of removing him. The process was excruciating for our divided electorate, which endured, or put itself through, four indecisive elections, bequeathing its representatives a splintered house and nothing near a consensus on who should govern the country.
While Netanyahu raged at the treachery of his opponents — alleging the greatest fraud not only in the history of Israel, but in the history of democracies — and issued dire warnings about the fate of the country if his fingers were pried from the wheel, his fate and Israel’s, for now at least, were sealed in a vote of 60 votes to 59, with one abstention, on the evening of June 13.
After 12 consecutive years under Netanyahu, Israel completed a raucous, bitter, intensely contested transfer of power. But as this piece documented, ultimately an orderly one nonetheless.
The vaccine data heard ’round the world
This story captures the moment when Israeli data became key to the world’s understanding of coronavirus vaccines. Until that moment, Israel’s turbo-speed vaccination campaign had been “the source of awe, envy (and some criticism) worldwide.” Suddenly, it was more…
This small country, by virtue of its fast implementation and meticulous record-keeping, was providing the first large-scale real-world data on how well the vaccine worked. Here at The Times of Israel, we were among the very first to appreciate this. Israel is “set to be the source of groundbreaking insights expected to help bolster vaccination efforts globally,” I wrote, burning the midnight oil.
Within weeks of this early analysis piece on what would become the mainstay of my work for months, media outlets around the world were trying to get up to speed on this. We became an influential source on the topic, followed by many far beyond our normal readership.
I have no rose-tinted spectacles about Israel’s pandemic performance, but on this particular issue of vaccine rollout and data generation, I’m proud — and proud of the role The Times of Israel had in the last year telling this story.
Gaza war: New, and more of the same
Judah Ari Gross
This May, the Israeli military and Palestinian terror groups in the Gaza Strip, principally Hamas and Islamic Jihad, fought a punishing 11-day mini-war, known in Israel as Operation Guardian of the Walls, the most significant conflict between the two sides since the 2014 war. Some 250 Palestinians were killed, roughly half of them civilians, mostly by Israeli strikes, but a not-insignificant number by Palestinian munitions that fell short of their goal in Israel and landed inside the Gaza Strip. Thirteen people were killed in Israel, 12 of them civilians, mostly from Hamas rocket fire.
That conflict was not Israel’s finest hour. Beyond the inevitable allegations of disproportionate force against Israel, the Israel Defense Forces was found to have deliberately misled the foreign press about a ground invasion that never happened. It also targeted a building housing a number of international media outlets, including the Associated Press, prompting global condemnation and demands by the White House for Israel to bring the fighting to a close. More troublingly for the Israeli public, the military admittedly failed to prevent Hamas and Islamic Jihad from launching thousands upon thousands of rockets at the Israeli home front, particularly at the city of Ashkelon, which seven months later is still reeling from the barrages.
At the same time, the IDF demonstrated in that conflict that Hamas could no longer effectively use the massive tunnel network it had built underneath the Gaza Strip due to both the recently completed underground barrier around the enclave and the military’s ability to hit tunnels from the air, denying the terror group a key facet of its attack plans. The military also successfully tested out a number of new technologies and strategies that it may someday need to deploy against more powerful enemies, such as the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon.
Though there has been relative calm on the Gaza front following the conflict, the underlying dynamics have remained the same. The beleaguered coastal enclave is still ruled by a brutal, violent terrorist organization that is actively rebuilding its arsenals and preparing to again target Israeli civilians, and Israel can envision no better alternative in Hamas’s place — meaning that according to Israeli assessments the next round of fighting is ultimately just a matter of time.
Hamas’s fatal flaw
Haviv Rettig Gur
There was a lot that needed to be said about the 11 days of fighting that rocked the Gaza Strip this past May. And the media conversation, as is so often the case, defaulted to the usual run of debate: Tactics were dissected, political shifts weighed in the balance, blame assigned and reassigned, and then bickered about.
In this article, I tried to take a step back from the moment’s events, from analyzing Hamas’s dramatic political triumph or its equally important military failures, to what one might call the organization’s grand strategy and organizing principle: Its interpretation of the Israeli enemy from which flow its strategy and raison d’être.
Hamas may grow better at challenging Israel militarily. As the world has learned repeatedly since the days of Thermopylae, small, disciplined forces capable of innovation and sacrifice can sometimes force even the largest and best-equipped militaries into retreat. It may eventually ride the wave of Western sympathy seen in May to a place of honor in the moral pantheon of progressive politics. That’s happened before to terrorists and terror organizations.
But no matter the adulation and tactical prowess Hamas may yet bring to its cause, it will continue to fail, and to drag the Palestinian cause down with each successive failure. As I argue in this piece, there is a hole at the heart of the whole enterprise, at the core of Hamas’s strategy and identity, a fatal misapprehension of its enemy that, even if everything else goes right, will forever and inevitably doom the Hamas-led branch of the Palestinian national movement to ignominious failure.
Pandemic’s shadow shines light on families separated for years
The coronavirus pandemic was a trying time for those of us living far from our families, hemmed in by travel restrictions and unable to visit them. Perhaps that is why I was so taken by the stories of the many thousands of foreign spouses married to Palestinians, most of whom have not seen their parents for years or decades.
Due to a freeze in ties between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, most foreigners who married Palestinians and moved to the West Bank have been unable to live there legally, leading many to stay illegally for decades. Many rarely leave PA areas; traveling to their home countries to visit family, and then being unable to return to their spouses and children in the West Bank, is unthinkable.
Soon after the publication of this story (not to say as a direct result), the Israeli Defense Ministry moved to issue approvals for some undocumented Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, including one of the women who agreed to be interviewed. Tens of thousands remain without legal status to this day. I hope, personally, that Israeli authorities reach a decision soon — deporting those deemed to be threats and issuing passes to those who want to live normal lives with their families.
Housing crisis sends prices through the roof
The tech headlines from Israel this year were nothing short of staggering. This small country has become a formidable tech powerhouse, churning out unicorns at a dizzying pace and seeing firms consistently nab billions of dollars in investments and reach new heights on capital markets. The tech sector is indeed the crown jewel of the Israeli economy. But it accounts for just about 10 percent of the workforce. The majority of the population remains out of sync with this booming industry, and life here is marked by eye-popping prices driven by high economic concentration, as well as housing and transportation crises.
The housing issue is especially poignant. In October, we published an in-depth feature on the nonstop rise of housing costs — a trend of over a decade — and how Israel became a country where the concept of owning a home (or an apartment, to be specific) is increasingly out of reach for many. I spoke to a number of young professionals who feel frustrated and ignored by an Israeli government that has done little to address the issue, allowing market players to drive up prices given the restricted land supply and the unfettered demand. Israel offers few real alternative solutions, such as social housing and long-term rental projects.
The researchers interviewed in the piece warned that the housing crisis will only get worse, and the gap between the haves and have-nots will continue growing. A nation of high tech and high inequality.
Catching a predator
In 2019, the state of New York passed the Child Victims Act, raising the age by which a person must file a civil suit for abuse they experienced as a minor from 23 to 55. The legislation also opened what became known as a “look-back window,” granting certain other victims the opportunity to take legal action against their alleged attackers.
Two days before that window was scheduled to close in August, The Times of Israel received an email from Jordan Soffer, who had been weighing joining such a lawsuit but ultimately decided against it. Instead, he wanted to go public about his alleged abuse at the hands of the New York regional director of the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth movement in the late 1990s. While he came from a place of deep love and appreciation for the religious institutions that shaped his childhood, Soffer was convinced that the Conservative movement had yet to internalize or learn from its mistakes, which allowed his alleged abuser access to vulnerable teenage boys for decades. He felt that only a public reckoning would lead to the necessary change.
The 72 hours that followed Soffer’s email were a whirlwind, as I sought to corroborate his story, identify and interview other victims, and plow through hundreds of pages of civil suits filed against the alleged abuser, Ed Ward. We hoped to publish the story at least a day before the look-back window closed to raise awareness and provide those able to take advantage of the clause one last opportunity to do so. The story immediately blew up upon going live, apparently resonating with other graduates of Jewish youth movements in the United States who may not have necessarily been abused themselves, but were exposed to a culture of hyper-sexualization at such institutions that allows illicit sexual activity to go unchecked.
The story also led more alleged victims to come forward, compelling us to publish a follow-up which revealed that the list of those impacted by Ward likely extends to hundreds of USY graduates. At least two more lawsuits were filed against Ward and the Conservative movement hours before the look-back window expired.
While the Conservative movement’s initial decision not to comment on the investigation amid ongoing litigation sparked additional anger, it subsequently announced a series of steps aimed at boosting accountability, transparency and safety for USY participants. As US correspondent, I often report on global political developments — but it was this much more local story that seems to have had a greater impact than just about anything else I’ve ever covered.
When Israel’s prime minister didn’t roll on Shabbos
This piece, like the event it describes, was entirely unplanned. I was in Washington, DC, to cover Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s first meeting with US President Joe Biden at the White House. The meeting was scheduled to take place on a Thursday, giving the religiously observant Israeli prime minister time to fly back home before the start of Shabbat, during which travel is prohibited by the Torah. However, a suicide bombing at Kabul’s airport during the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan caused Biden to delay the meeting until Friday, meaning our group would not make it back in time before the onset of the day of rest.
Instead, I took part in an impromptu Shabbat weekend in the Willard Intercontinental Hotel with Bennett and his staff. We prayed together, chatted, and listened to (several of) the Sabbath’s customary thematic Torah lessons from the prime minister.
After writing so many weighty articles on Israel’s security and diplomacy, it was a lot of fun to write a lighter piece about a weekend none of us will forget any time soon.
Israel’s first deaf MK fights for disability rights
When Yamina MK Shirly Pinto was sworn into the Knesset on June 16, she made history as she joined an already historically diverse governing coalition. Pinto is Israel’s first-ever deaf member of Knesset, and one who has made fighting for the rights of Israelis with disabilities a fundamental cornerstone of her political agenda.
While it may seem to be a consensus issue — her maiden speech in sign language received bipartisan applause — Pinto has made it clear that Israel has a long way to go when it comes to equal rights for those with disabilities.
When I sat down with her in July, weeks after her inauguration and amid a series of exhausting all-night parliamentary sessions, Pinto — currently also the youngest member of Knesset — made it clear she is up for the battle. We discussed how the Knesset had to make unprecedented changes to accommodate her, how hearing-impaired Israelis have to be warned of rocket sirens and how, above all, she wants to make the world a more welcoming place for her own deaf children.
Six months into the job, with a newborn baby, Pinto undoubtedly has her hands full. But she has given hope and inspiration to children, teens and adults around Israel who can now see Pinto — neither because of nor despite her politics — as a role model.
An international and interfaith historical restoration project in Iraq
Nineveh, Iraq: Jews, Christians and Muslims coexisted in this region for hundreds of years. Maybe not perfectly — but with a level of tolerance and acceptance that should not be forgotten. This was at the heart of a story I wrote for The Times of Israel in September.
Despite the Jewish exodus from the area being within living memory, almost no traces remain of the once-vibrant Jewish life. The article was about two Israeli experts in the preservation of historical architecture who were smuggled into Iraq — with their Israeli passports — and how important it is to save historic cultural and religious contributions from being lost to time.
The story also stresses the ability of people from different regions and religions to cooperate on heritage projects. Adam and Sheryl from the US, Yaacov and Meir from Israel, local Kurds and Iraqi residents, the heads of the local Chaldean Catholic Church, and the heads of a Czech company all volunteered tirelessly for several years to repair, restore and renovate the Prophet Nahum’s gravesite and attached ancient synagogue.
What’s more, I was first told about this project more than five years ago by an acquaintance, Adam Tiffen, whom I met during my time as a correspondent in Washington, DC, back when the Iraq war was raging. We kept in touch through the years, though I promised not to reveal the restoration operation until the time was ripe. This September was that time.
Congregation helps Afghan refugees
When the US withdrew from Afghanistan this past August, I got in touch with activists who help Afghan refugees. They were trying to get people out who were at risk of Taliban reprisals, but were having a hard time due to the chaos, US bureaucracy and other hurdles.
Months later, an Afghan family made it to New York thanks to a local synagogue group, which was the focus of this story. By that time, Afghanistan had fallen from the front pages, even though the humanitarian crisis there was worse than ever.
This article put a human face on the catastrophe. The two main people I interviewed, an Afghan father and an American activist, told a compelling story about the escape from Afghanistan that illustrated how things played out on the ground. It was clear they really care about each other.
I also thought it was important to keep Afghanistan in the news. The story I wrote is not a happy one, even though this particular family made it to safety. They lost everything and have relatives who are starving and still hiding from the Taliban in Kabul. There is a lot of good, bad, and ambiguity, like most complex stories.
The dispossessed of north Tel Aviv
About a decade ago, someone sent me a link to a digitized article about the 1992 death of a member of my family, and I had this overwhelming feeling that the defining tragedy of my childhood was “just” a news item. Givat Amal is like that situation, at an order of magnitude.
Until mid-November 2021, Givat Amal was a working-class Tel Aviv neighborhood of about 120 families, founded by Mizrahi (Jewish Middle Eastern) immigrants who held the then-peripheral land at the 1947 request of future prime minister David Ben-Gurion. The neighborhood had the mixed blessing of taking root in what would become some of north Tel Aviv’s most sought-after real estate. Had the state not sold the land out from under them in 1961, they may have been able to take part in the wealth created around them. But instead, they faced a multi-decade legal battle that ultimately led to bitter evacuations and such a low level of compensation that many families will be hard-pressed to stay in Tel Aviv.
Touring the neighborhood with Ronit Aldouby just days after she and her family were physically removed by the Tel Aviv Police was haunting. What was her tight-knit community just a week prior was now a ghost town. Homes were still adorned with family names — a substitute for house numbers, since the city never set up streets inside the neighborhood. While we were there, there was a representative from the water company dismantling meters. Ronit remarked on how the empty neighborhood received faster service than the living one.
No matter where you stand on Givat Amal — sympathetic to the march of progress that will turn it into luxury high-rises, or to the families who have now scattered to the winds — it’s really difficult to watch someone lose their home.
And, if you lost that home, and this was the defining tragedy of your life, it must be really hard to see it as “just” a news item.
An expensive environmental lesson is learned
The year began with an oil leak from a Syrian-owned ship that covered most of the Mediterranean coast with tar, killed wildlife, and exposed Israel’s lack of marine pollution preparedness. But it ended with a victory of sorts for those who have fought to stop a secret deal to channel Gulf crude oil overland from Eilat on the Red Sea to the Mediterranean — the gateway to European markets.
The influx of tar in February, which caught the country by surprise and saw tens of thousands of volunteers helping with the cleanup, resulted from the dumping of oil during the cleaning of barrels out at sea. Opponents of the deal between the state-owned Europe Asia Pipeline Company and businessmen from Israel and the United Arab Emirates used the tar incident to demonstrate the damage that even the smallest oil leak could cause to the corals of Eilat in southern Israel, as well as the desalination facilities off the coast of Ashkelon. Following a massive national campaign to stop the agreement, the Israeli government in December told the High Court that it would not intervene in any steps that the Environmental Protection Ministry wished to take against the deal.
Decaying Budapest synagogue gets new lease on life
For decades, the Rumbach Synagogue in central Budapest was in such bad shape that the number of birds and small animals who’d taken up residence in the building often outnumbered the congregants. The state of the city’s second-largest — and once glorious — Jewish house of worship reflected the damage done to the community during the Holocaust and subsequent decades of communist rule. Many times since moving to Budapest in 2017, I’d walk by the building and — though I’m a newcomer, myself — feel a pang of loss on behalf of the Jews who are no longer here.
This year, after a long, drawn-out renovation process, the building was reopened with many improvements including a cutting-edge sanctuary and auditorium, office space for local nonprofits, a museum and a cafe. Jewish life in Europe is, for the most part, a fraction of what it once was, but it perseveres — and may even be growing.
To brighter days
Looking back on these two pieces reported from Jaffa and Acre brings me back to those tense weeks and days in May when it seemed the very worst events were taking place, with Arabs and Jews rioting against one another, hurting one another, letting out the worst of their aggressions.
The reporting wasn’t necessarily comforting, but it’s always better to be on the ground getting a sense of what people have to say and what the place looks like, rather than staying away.
Hearing peoples’ stories was a comfort to me, and more importantly, I hope, to them. It was a way to start moving forward, finding our way out of the morass of politics and hatred that too often drowns our better natures.
They don’t make ’em like they used to
There is absolutely no doubt that in terms of Israeli archaeology, the announcement of the discovery of new Dead Sea Scroll fragments trumps all. Unveiled before international media in March and heralded by scholars and laymen alike, the new fragments are yet more missing pieces that may bring academics another step closer to completing the puzzle that is the scrolls. Found during a daring rappelling mission, their discovery is noteworthy in every way.
However, for this simple reporter, what captured my imagination was the massive 10,500-year-old woven basket also on display — like a footnote — in the treasure trove at the Israel Antiquities Authority headquarters. Unearthed during the cinematic campaign, the basket is a beautiful piece of workmanship, and so darn useful! Countless times as I’ve straightened up the living room or lugged around a laundry hamper in my home I’ve thought wistfully about this lovely piece and hoped that one day I’d have something as fine.