The right to wail over the wall
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Hebrew media review

The right to wail over the wall

Press coverage plays down the decision to freeze the Western Wall deal, underscoring differences between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, who some think shouldn’t have a say over the holy site’s future anyway

Liberal Jewish activists enter the Western Wall carrying Torah scrolls on Wednesday, November 2, 2016 (courtesy)
Liberal Jewish activists enter the Western Wall carrying Torah scrolls on Wednesday, November 2, 2016 (courtesy)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to bow to ultra-Orthodox pressure and freeze a historic compromise creating a pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall on Sunday is arguably the biggest news in the tangle of Israel-Diaspora relations since, well, the deal was reached almost two years ago.

Thus it’s no surprise that the shock decision not to make a decision is plastered across front pages Monday morning, the tabloids pulling out their most garish blocky fonts for headlines like “Walled out” and “Broken stones” and gray Haaretz running the news in full 70 point font across all eight columns of its front page.

Wait, no. That never happened. In reality, the news is relegated — like the pluralistic space itself — to an out-of-the-way place in the news hole, once again underscoring the massive divide between Israeli Judaism, where liberal Jewish concerns and streams continue to struggle to break the popular Orthodox hegemonical ceiling, and the Diaspora, where progressive Judaism is the majority.

What coverage the Hebrew papers do offer centers in large part on pundits focusing on those divisions, i.e., the low rung of the ladder Reform and Conservative Jews hold when it comes to the power politics of the Knesset, despite their importance everywhere outside of Israel.

Haaretz, which some may say is the least “Israeli” of the papers, with its English edition, liberal outlook and more internationalist bent, at least plays the story above the fold (and Israel Hayom also does put the story on its front page, despite it making dear leader Netanyahu look bad).

“The government retreats from a plan allowing mixed prayer at the Western Wall,” reads the headline in the broadsheet — neutral enough that the same words could have appeared in Haredi paper Yated Neeman — and notes Netanyahu defended himself by blaming those loud-mouthed Diaspora Jews.

“The activism of American Jewry doesn’t always help,” Netanyahu is quoting telling his cabinet. “I intend to present a partial solution. We need to avoid controversy over things that do harm to the fabric [of relations] between American Jewry and Israel whenever that is possible.”

Or as columnist Chemi Shalev, who accuses Netanyahu of tying his personal and political well-being to the fortunes of the state, puts it, the prime minister told American Jews to take a long walk off a short pier.

“He once waxed lyrical about how important they are to him, how critical the relationship between Israel and American Jews is, how he has their best interests at heart and so forth and blah blah. But when push came to shove and Netanyahu was forced to choose between endangering Israel’s strategically important ties to US Jewry and risking his own seat ever so slightly, the great Israeli patriot made his obvious choice. He caved to the extortion of his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners and told American Jews, in the words of the famous 1975 New York Daily News front page about Gerald Ford and a federal bailout of New York City: Drop dead,” he writes.

Not only does Israel Hayom put the story on its front page and make it its top story inside the paper, it doesn’t exactly pull many punches with its news coverage, calling the events “ a day of achievements for the ultra-Orthodox” and going through all the criticism of the move, of which there is plenty.

Somewhat mimicking Netanyahu’s defense, though, columnist Haim Shine writes that even if the Western Wall may be important to all Jews, it’s only those with an israeli ID card who have a right to protest over its future.

“Any Jew in the world who wants to influence the governing agenda and the government and Knesset decisions, in any area, including conversion, religion and state, can immediately make good on the right on the return, immigrate to Israel and vote for any party it chooses. As long as they choose to live abroad, they need to act modestly and not with the resoluteness of authority,” he writes.

The statement is an interesting take from somebody whose ability to spread his opinions in a free tabloid is made possible by an American Jew who wields more influence over Israeli policy making than almost any actual voting Israeli.

Yedioth Ahronoth, owned by an Israeli, doesn’t have that problem, but shows how little Yossi in Kiryat Malachi probably cares about this issue, burying it way back on page 8 under the headline “Haredi monopoly.” For its readers who do care, though, the paper features dueling columns for and against the decision to freeze the plan.

In one, Sholomo Pyoterovsky says good riddance to the deal, writing that nobody was happy with it anyway — the Conservative and Reform are bitter than it keeps most control in the hands of the ultra-Orthodox, and the Haredim are bitter that the non-Orthodox get thrown any sort of bone — and predicting the decision over what happens will come from the High Court anyway

In another, though, Amichai Eteli intimates that Netanyahu made a terrible decision, noting the importance Diaspora Jews have for Israeli policy and employing a panoply of parables, from setting relations with Diaspora Jewry on fire to tripping up our own interests and more.

“Diaspora Jews are our future: for immigrating, contributing to the periphery and to academia, to doing vital political lobbying. So what does this look like to them? We’re going to spit in their face and tell them it’s holy water,” he writes.

Unmentioned, but just as important from Diaspora Jews is their money, as a visit to any hospital wing, with plaques honoring donors from Sheboygan to Santiago, will attest.

What is or isn’t happening in those hospitals makes up some actual lead stories in the press, as in Yedioth, which leads its paper with the latest installment of Hadassah pediatric cancer ward soap opera. Ths latest episode features the parents going on hunger strike, or in the words of the paper “despondency strike,” which doesn’t make much sense but lets you know where the tabloid’s heart lies.

“For weeks, along with the difficult treatments and shakiness these families are going through, parents of children in the hemato-oncological unit at Hadassah have been forced to also deal with a crisis that has fallen on the department. One hand is used to comfort and help their child and their other hand protests and fights in the new arena,” the paper writes. “Yesterday, a group of parents decided to step up the fight and started a hunger strike. The goal: stability for the doctors and nurses and a clear call to find a quick and immediate solution to the crisis that has shaken their lives.”

Haaretz’s lead story reports that sick patients are being caught in another power struggle, this one between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Hamas rivals, with the result being that Abbas is trying to keep Gazans from being able to seek medical care in Israel, alongside the pressure he is putting by trying to cut electricity to Gaza.

“In the media everyone’s focused on the electricity but the story with the approvals for medical treatment is undoubtedly of concern to many people, and the problem is that no one is providing answers,” the paper quotes a human rights activist saying.

Israel Hayom plays up a story that Israel is investing in upgrading rocket shelters in northern Israel amid an increase in errant fire from Syria and rising tensions with Hezbollah.

“The plan, set to begin this summer and conclude by the summer of 2018, will cost tens of millions of shekels and include 21 municipalities and local authorities,” the paper quotes a defense official saying, adding that officials found the north to be the area most under threat of missile attack.

Haaretz’s Amos Harel writes notes that the army is also pouring money into upgrading its border fence in the north, which could itself add to tensions.

“The IDF’s Northern Command is preparing for the possibility that Hezbollah or organizations under its influence will try to disrupt the work, on the pretext that the route deviates from the international border approved by the United Nations after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000,” he writes. “Though Israel says the route adheres to the border, it is preparing for the possibility of demonstrations, clashes or even sniper fire at the workers.”

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