What Matters Now to arrested activist/physicist Shikma Bressler: ‘Saving Israel’
The nation watched Thursday as the world-renowned scientist, a leader in the anti-judicial overhaul protest movement, was dragged to a police car. Hear why she is still optimistic
Welcome to What Matters Now, a new weekly podcast exploration into one key issue shaping Israel and the Jewish World — right now.
On Thursday, Israelis watched as Shikma Bressler, a world-renowned physicist, was arrested during the nationwide “day of paralysis,” a day of ramped-up civil protests against the government’s judicial overhaul. Bressler, who is one of the top leaders of the grassroots protests against the widespread changes to the judiciary, was dragged toward a police car as bystanders shouted, “shame, shame, shame.”
Following Bressler’s short detainment, social media lit up with the news and, among other responses, Labor leader MK Merav Michaeli tweeted, “In a normal country Shikma Bressler would be given the Israel Prize.”
I met with Bressler, 42, at her Weizmann Institute office in Rehovot on Wednesday this week to hear how the scientist, a co-founder of the Black Flag protest movement and head of a collaborative project with CERN, originally activated her activist gene. We hear what she sees as the next steps in stepping up civil disobedience, even as she believes we’re already in a form of a civil war.
With her mild, almost professorial manner, she explained that Israel is quickly nearing the point of no return. That things are much worse than most international observers can imagine.
During our lengthy conversation, Bressler also laughingly told me that three years ago in her initial protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she coined the chant “De-mo-crat-ya.”
This week, we ask Dr. Shikma Bressler, What Matters Now?
The following transcription has been lightly edited.
The Times of Israel: Shikma, thank you for letting me join you today at the Weizmann campus.
Shikma Bressler: Hello. Welcome.
Thank you. Such a pleasure. It’s a beautiful day here after some winter rain, and the skies are, well, still gray, but the grass is green. And it’s just a pleasure to be in such a nice atmosphere to talk about perhaps some things that are less nice. So, Shikma, I ask you, what matters now?
Maybe it will sound a bit dramatic, but what matters now is really to save Israeli democracy, to save the state and nation of Israel. As part of my duties and job at the Weizmann Institute of Science and being part of a huge international collaboration, I do talk to many people from abroad. And what is clear to me is that people are not aware of the dramatic things that are happening these days in Israel. And the fact that if we will discuss it a month from now, we could be already beyond the point of no return. What people need to take away from this conversation and not wait until the end of it is to understand that we are now, these days, facing a real coup, in the sense that if we are not able to stop what is going on at the moment, in a couple of weeks, days, maybe, Israel will no longer be a democracy and then once the point of no return has passed, it will take decades to get back from this point, and maybe it will not even be possible. And I know it sounds dramatic, but it is dramatic, but these are the circumstances. This is what matters now. I think that people are not really digesting, fully digesting, what is going on. And it is dramatic and it’s happening now.
Just to very briefly talk about how you, who are, of course, “just” an internationally acclaimed physicist and mother of several, how did you become active in the public sphere, in the grassroots protesting movement?
Just to say, I’ve never been involved in any civil acts, politics or whatever. I always cared. And as a family, we always cared. And we became active without planning that back in the first days of COVID in March 2020, actually, three years ago. And what happened back then is, on top of all the mess, what was happening in one week, the minister of justice back then, [Amir] Ohana, decided to effectively lock down courts just a couple of days before [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s trial was supposed to start.
What a coincidence.
We were, I think, as far as I know, the only democratic and maybe even the only country worldwide where courts were actually locked down because of COVID. And then in the very same week, we were just after an election. And the first thing that has to happen after an election is that the Knesset members have to elect a new Knesset speaker. And this speaker, which was [Likud MK] Yuli Edelstein, then refused to follow a decision made by our Supreme Court and run an election. “Surprisingly,” [Likud MK] Yariv Levin, who is now at the top of this judicial overhaul, told him not to follow the court decision — so effectively doing criminal acts.
In the very same week, out of three authorities, we found ourselves with, effectively, one. So courts were down, the Knesset was down. If no head for the parliament is elected, the committees of the parliament, whose role is to follow and supervise decision-making by the government, were not formed. So there was no supervision whatsoever on the government’s decisions. Netanyahu locked his own courts and we were there with just one authority making decisions on what back then was thought to be very dramatic days.
And we sat at home and say, what’s going on? I mean, our knowledge is based on primary school knowledge, basically. And we know that the entire Israeli democracy relies on having the separation of power and balance between them. And we were out of authorities, there was only one, nothing to balance during critical days. And looking back in history, these are exactly the conditions that you need in order to make a dramatic change.
So we went out back then, basically calling, “De-mo-crat-ya,” which you can hear everywhere today. I’m proud to say that I made this chant, but back then, so it was from the first minute about democracy. It later changed into asking Netanyahu to leave, just because we understood there that he is basically the enabler of all of it.
But what is going on today is even worse: Because of his criminal trials, he allowed and gave a lot of power to the super-extremist groups in Israel — racist groups, fundamental ones, who want to make this coup or this revolution; who want a judicial revolution in order to basically change the backbone of this country from something that in its spirit sings and discusses things like equality and freedom into something that doesn’t have equality.
And what we see today is that many people understand that. They understand that it’s going to affect them, it’s going to affect the way that they see their future here. And what we see today is much broader than what we managed to do back then, simply because maybe back then it was just a threat. This is why we went out, by the way, with black flags, because in Israel it means a threat. You put a black flag when the sea is dangerous. So this is what we wanted to mark back then.
But now we go out with our own national flag, the blue and white flag, just because we are really fighting for the core values of this country, for everything that it means to us and I think also to the world. And the danger is it’s not a threat anymore because it’s here, it’s happening right now. They have the majority to do that, basically to change the entire nature, the entire morals on which this country is based, and to take it down a very dark road, which we see in countries like Hungary, like Poland, maybe Turkey, Iran. This is what we are facing.
It’s not a joke, it’s not dramatic, it’s not just to attract your attention, but it really is what is going on and this is what we are fighting against.
When you first began to protest though, you say you — and I know it’s also your brothers who helped found the Black Flag Movement — but you can’t just think, oh, this is bad. I’ll go out to the street and then suddenly hundreds and then thousands and then hundreds of thousands will appear. There has to be some kind of mechanism for getting the word out. How did it spread? What was the wildfire that spread?
So thinking of that after it happened, like two years when the previous government was formed, we basically closed all of our activities. We were happy to go back to our own normal life because we were out just to make a change, change happened and so on.
And then at that point in time, I was thinking how really, as you said, how did we manage? And I think that what was really happening is that if people like us, who were so not involved, so nonactivist, felt that they have to do something, it just represents the feeling of many, many people and they simply joined. They just needed or looked for someone to say, “Come.” And they came. So we found ourselves calling on, first for a convoy to the Knesset, to bring back the wind of change into the Knesset. This, I think, was what we said. And my brother recorded a short selfie movie asking people to join a convoy to the Knesset. I recorded something similar and then it runs out and becomes viral really fast. And the next day when we actually went to the convoy, there were thousands of cars already there.
And then, yes, then we understood that we know nothing about activism. But I think that maybe the wisest decision that we made was to embrace the fact that we don’t know anything about activism and ask and get the experience of those who do. And they immediately joined. This was amazing. All of them immediately joined. So in an instant, we had an organization. We knew that we need, for instance, to have someone who will represent us to the media, we need to have some lawyer who will take care of the decisions we are making, that they are legal and so on, and that we need to build some logistics so that people can actually join.
And this is how it evolved. And as I said, when the[former prime minister Naftali] Bennett and [former prime minister Yair] Lapid government was formed, we closed everything, all the activities. We just kept the WhatsApp groups alive. Not active, but alive. And now when the recent government was formed, by the way, in the beginning, nothing was happening. I mean, we didn’t do anything because if you look back at what Netanyahu said when he formed the government, what will be the four points that they are going to tackle? Nothing was said about the judiciary — they want to call it reform, but I cannot call it a judicial reform, but really a coup. And only a couple of days later, Levin, the minister of justice, came up with this plan and then it just shook us all apart.
The President of the Supreme Court, [Esther] Hayut, gave a mind-blowing speech about the essence of what they are proposing and what it actually means. And then you start getting tons and tons of different groups understanding that this is going to affect them. And what was nice is that based on the experience that we gained in the first iteration, we knew very fast, we understood that, okay, if groups are about to become active, they will need assistance. They will need some sort of structure to support them financially, to support them when going to the media, for all the logistics and all the, I don’t know, graphics media and so on. So it was formed based on the knowledge gained in the first iteration.
And now we have these headquarters that actually give support to all the different groups, not telling them, not giving content, but provided that they are fighting for the same morals, the same democratic ideas, then we are giving them basically anything that they need in order to be effective.
So you are part of this headquarters as well?
Okay, so in the headquarters, how many different groups are there?
The headquarters has its, I don’t know, like, board? And then there are all the parts, the things that all the facilities that we provide facilitate, and then there are the different groups that get support out of this headquarters. And then there are more than hundreds of groups.
So how many are on the board itself?
It’s also changing, but around eight, maybe six to eight people. But it’s not a decision-making board in the sense that it’s not management, right? It’s a board and the groups themselves are those who call to action. And of course, it’s easier for them to call to action when they know that their call will be spread around and whatever they need will be provided. So it’s very well organized in this respect, but not managed, which is a big difference.
This is a huge thing to get across, actually, to our listeners because I think so many people abroad just feel like, oh, the opposition in the Knesset is probably the one who is behind all of these protests. But no, it is the people. So explain a little bit more about how it’s the people.
It’s even more than that. It’s not the standout organization in the sense that you take for instance, I don’t know, doctors, medical doctors, have their own social union, but the union itself is not part of the protest. But it’s the grassroots of some doctors deciding to do something, sending around a call for the others, and building the groups from the bottom. It’s not the unions that are active. The unions, many of them are actually controlled by the Likud Party for huge — if I say bribery, I’m putting myself at risk. So I won’t call this bribery a bribery, but it is to some extent something like that.
But what you’re saying essentially is that individual doctors are using their social networks that they’ve built as being part of different associations, et cetera, and reaching out. And then what?
And then they do some act, right? So they want to run some sort of a protest, so usually first they do something, maybe write a letter, send it to the press. And then from that point on, what we understood in the headquarters thing, or the people who came up with the idea of establishing this headquarter is that, fine, so they have a group. How can they manage to be active? How can they be effective?
Leveraged. Exactly. So this is what we try to assist with. Some groups are more organized, and some groups have more facilities on their own, like the high-tech groups. So they obviously don’t have “smaller problems” related to money. So each group, depending on its need, is being supported. But many people, when we call out tomorrow, for instance, we have the fourth day of I don’t know how to call it, but we call it “Hitnagdut,” or disruption.
I think this week you called it a day of paralysis. Every week it has a different brand.
Yes, we try to keep it interesting to the public and to the press. But anyhow so you start by calling to do that and then what you see amazingly is how people lead with their own ideas, their own close friends, to do something. So I think that the headquarters, we support all of that, but we are not organizing any of it. Maybe a couple of activities just to set the basic principle and then you get more than 200 different individual places where actions are being taken.
Another amazing example is groups of kids and their parents striking in schools, primary schools, high schools and so on, and they are organized on their own. Once they were there, they needed some posters and so on. So this we would assist with but the motivation is really grassroots, as you said. All over the country. You have to understand from really the most northern point in Israel to Eilat, which is the most southern.
It’s not even about political [parties]. I think that when I try to structure it for myself, also thinking for the future, one thing that needs to be understood is what divides the watershed, let’s say, that split our political system, our Knesset, and the watershed that is being now drawn by the people in the streets are completely different things.
What Netanyahu managed to do in the last year was to somehow pull the entire political system to a certain watershed separating between maybe right and left wing, this kind of terminology, what we see in this. They try to, by the way, keep saying that. They try to say that the protest is of the other side. It’s the “they” protest and not us. But if you go and look at the details of the people who are there so they are holding right and left wings. Ideologies they come from literally all over the country with some points which are of course weaker for clear reasons. But it’s completely new. I think that the protest is defining a complete is drawing a completely different watershed. And I really hope that at some point the political system will also adopt this shed and it’s going to be a huge struggle because the current political system, I mean, the fact that it is torn and split it in between this us and them is really in favor of what Netanyahu is trying to do. But the people of Israel is completely different.
This is why, for instance, if you look at the polls of what would be the result of an election today, you will see that the change is there, but it’s not very massive. On the other hand, if you ask people directly whether they’ll support this judicial reform, then you will see that a very small minority is actually supporting it. So this revolution thing, this protest concept is not yet translated into the political, the political debate. But it’s there, it’s completely different. And I hope that we win and then that we will be able to leverage that into something that will change really the way that the country is running and will not be torn apart anymore for the wrong thing as Netanyahu is doing in the last decade.
How could you just to play devil’s advocate, how could you possibly win? The government coalition will pass the overhaul bills because it can. It’s in power. It will do that. So what is a win for you?
So, first of all, to some extent, we are already winning. Maybe we are winning a battle, but not the entire war. But you have to understand that if you look at the changes that [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orban did in Hungary in the last decade, when you compare it to what is being done here, they are trying to do what Orban did in a decade in Hungary to do here in two months. As I said, it’s not just one law that they are trying to pass, but it’s more than 120 laws that we are being really ambushed with. And this will probably not happen the way that they want. They thought that they are going to do this legislation and they will be done with it in no time. And now they need to change that. So they are calling back a lot of their issues and only focusing on this committee for the election of judges, which is the core thing. If you go back again to Hungary, you will see that this is how Orban started, by taking control over the courts and the judges. So they are focusing on that.
What is likely to happen is that, as you said, they will pass the law because they do have a very stable majority in the parliament. But what needs to be remembered is that in democratic countries and as long as this law did not pass, Israel is still a democracy, then the parliament or the government gets its legitimacy from the people. And what this protest is showing is that the people of Israel, a vast majority of them — if you look at the polls again, it’s more than 70% who do not support the judicial overhaul the way it is being done right now — what we are showing on the streets is that these acts taken by our government are not legitimate to us. And this should give the strength and the courage, let’s say, to the remaining gatekeepers to do their job.
So what we hope will happen, what should happen, is that if they pass those laws, then the Supreme Court will somehow deny them. They have the ability to do that. And then — by the way, our Minister of Justice already says that he will not follow the Supreme Court decision if they deny the rules. Meaning he’s effectively saying that he is going to be breaking the law.
So we call it a constitutional clash or constitutional crisis. But what it actually means is that the government does not follow the law. I mean, they deny the law, they become active criminals. And what should happen then is that all the security system, police, army, and secret services should stand by the law, because this is their mandate to stand by the law.
And if we will be in the streets, if the people will show that we stand by our own laws, then we should win it this way. The bureaucratic part of it, how it actually will be managed, I mean, it will be the first time for us. So I have no idea. But this is the only outcome that I see possible out of this crisis.
The protests are getting increasingly violent reactions, both from the police and from counter-protesters. What you’re describing sounds like a civil war.
So there are threats for that, I want to say. So I think that we have been — we, I mean, the democratic people, those who think of freedom, think of human rights as morals that are worth fighting for — we have been quiet for too many years and we have allowed the non-democratic part, the fascists… It’s worth a separate podcast to discuss how this thing actually grew up in Israel and became the monster that it is right now.
So they are becoming violent, by the way, the protesters, none of them, even though we have been defined by our own prime minister and his son as terrorists, as anarchists, even though I mean, they are not following the laws and the decision of the Supreme Court and they call us anarchist? It’s just changing or turning upside down the meaning of this word. Whatever, any other world that you can imagine, we have been accused of. But it doesn’t work for them. It doesn’t stop us from moving forward, it doesn’t stop new people from joining. And I think that, as you say, the next step, the tool that they are left with is violence.
I hope it will not go there, but I have to say that I’m not certain. I mean, you see tons of attacks — people running over protesters with cars to hurt people. We have tons of people from the protest reporting that they walk around with the Israeli flags and the flag is being taken away violently from them. They are being surrounded by groups of people who wear masks to hide their identities.
So we are in some sort of a civil war. It’s not the way that you imagine it like big armies clashing in some battlefields. But it is.
You feel like we are in a civil war right now.
We are. How else would you call it? Being attacked by the other. But I have to say that what we do understand is that against that we cannot put our heads down. We have to look straight, move forward and win this thing. Again, nonviolent. We are not violent, but we understand who we are facing and we have to win that.
Let’s suppose that the judicial appointments bill goes through and that the Supreme Court does not say that it is not democratic. Meaning it goes through. The Supreme Court restrains itself and does not act. What then?
So I think that if, as I said, these laws will pass, by definition the Israeli court system will be underneath the political system, the government by definition, it’s not a democracy anymore. And then we will wake up one day to something completely different than what we were used to. I think that then what we will see here is that the country’s conditions fall, and goes down quickly. We heard yesterday large groups from the reserve army unit saying that if this happens, they will not serve a dictatorship. We are here. We all took our oath to protect a democratic, Jewish democratic country and not a dictator. I think that we see it already. We will be affected economically very dramatically. We’ll be affected basically in every aspect. It may not happen in one day, but again, if you look at countries that went down this road, their condition… And then it will be a huge and long battle, in which we will all lose. But it will be awful. It will be awful.
You’re a physicist, so forgive me for this, but a body in motion stays in motion, right? And the current trend of the legislation, of what is going to be passed in the future, seems pretty clear. Do you really think that the protests are enough to stop that body in motion?
No, I think it was said nicely by Prof. Yuval Noah Harari on one of those days. You cannot stop that. And we cannot go back to what was happening before it started. We cannot go back to November 8, when Levin came up with this. So in any case, this body is in motion, and now it’s on us to decide whether this motion will take us to a much stronger democracy or to a dictatorship, or some sort of dictatorship.
So we are not going to stop that. But it’s on us, if you imagine a huge train, then you can change which track it’s going to capture. And sometimes it’s a very small movement and it’s on us to make sure that it goes in the right direction.
You cannot run a protest if you don’t believe that you are going to succeed, right? What will bring you out? So I do think that we are going to succeed and we will be able to change, turn the course of life such that we will take the right track. And out of that we can come out with a much stronger democracy.
One of the things that we should be aiming at is a real constitution that defines the roots of this country. So I think that we understand better the problem, but to fix it is going to be so hard. And if we don’t manage to prevent this coup from happening, then it would be even harder.
Many, many people are curious how the protest movement is so well funded. It appears to be well-funded. Clearly, there are beautiful flags, pristine flags, every protest, and buses. It takes real money to put on a real principled protest. So where is this money coming from?
So it’s amazing, but the awakening that you see from the people is also reflected in raising funds for it. So, for instance, we opened a platform. We are using a platform for fundraising from the public. And it already raised, I think, close to NIS 10 million and we have a similar platform which we just spread over WhatsApp which raised a similar amount.
And if you look at it, we have tens of thousands of people who actually donated. So these are not huge amounts, it’s not a person who put many million into it, but much, much smaller funds. And then we also have some bigger people who donate larger amounts of money because they are high-tech people who have the money and they understand the importance and there are people who want to promote liberal and democratic ideas. So we also have that. The vast majority of the money comes from donors in Israel. More than half of it, I think, is from this smaller, much smaller amount.
And people really are there and they understand, I think, that people, as you said, I mean, it’s clear that flags cost money. That building a stage in Kaplan Street with tons of screens and sound equipment is super costly. People understand that and they are I mean, we are here to win. So winning, part of it is also spending money.
So now that you have all this money coming in, you must have to face all sorts of issues such as how do we avoid corruption, how do we be as transparent as possible so we don’t fall into the traps that we’re fighting against.
So I’m happy to say, I’m pleased to say I’m proud to say that we are not there. So the money goes into a nonprofit, and all the money goes through this place because you need to have a bank account and you need to have someone who is following it and regulating that and it has to be visible, and transparent. So it is there. You can find all the details, we report as we need to report when having that.
And really all the money that goes into that is being donated is used for that. It’s even more than that since as I said, there are tons of different groups. So sometimes people donate money for specific groups’ activities. So this money is earmarked for the activities of that specific group and it is used for that. So, yeah, I’m proud to say that we are there.
I think that what you see out now is really the amazing faces of Israel as I think that in recent years, you know about a lot of that. For instance, the Jewish communities in North America, for instance, some of them are looking with “a bad eye” on what is going on here in the last decade. I think it’s because the people that are now in the streets, we were really quiet, we were putting our heads down just hoping that it will end. And what you see right now is really what you had in your thoughts about what Israel is all about. And you see the beautiful faces of Israel, and you see that it is really the majority of the people.
So I’m not ignoring the fact that we do have fundamentalist groups and racists here, but the majority of the people here are fighting now. Also, someone, a friend from Silicon Valley, I hope I can call her a friend, she told me, well, it’s a good opportunity for us to be united again, to take Israel as the country of the Jewish nation as a whole. I kind of think it is correct because what people should be seeing right now when they come and look into the protesters, is all the things that we ever thought about the beautiful faces of this country. And it’s amazing.
You’re organized, you’re funded, you have many, many activists in the streets. Why not take it to the next level and enter politics and help the Knesset, or guide the Knesset, move that body that’s in motion slightly, tap it and give it back the chance of going to the center?
First of all, we do not anticipate elections anytime soon. This is one thing that needs to be understood. As I said, there is a huge gap right now between the political watershed and the protest watershed. And it’s not going to be, this is one thing that should be understood. It’s going to be super hard to win the fights that will take the right watershed up.
We are facing, we call it here a “poisoning machine” that works super efficiently, efficiently on all the news, the media, and social media. So the things that are clear to me, to make them clearer and to let them propagate, we are behind by more than a decade on what the other side did, what Netanyahu did here in the last decade. And this is something that has to be understood.
So it may take a long time for what’s happening now in the street to be reflected in the political system. And I think that these days are dramatic, because if we fail to prevent this rebellion from happening, this coup from happening, we will not be able to even try to change it. Because if the country goes down the dictatorship road, people like me will not be able to sit here like you and talk. I mean, it’s almost unbelievable. I don’t believe that this is going to happen if we fail. But if you look at what happened to academia, people, journalists and the judicial system in places like Hungary and Turkey and Poland, this is the meaning of that.
Now, I’m saying that and it sounds to me — I’m not even emotionally connected to this statement — but if you think about it very realistically? This is the concern. And if we manage to prevent it. We still have a huge way to go. I do hope that people that are now active will not disappear and get back to their own life the minute after. This is what happened to us in the previous round. We should somehow leverage it and put it later on into politics. Somehow.
But not yet, is what you’re saying.
I’m saying that right now the problem is that — this is again my own interpretation — if you jump into the political system and establish a party, by definition you are losing the support.
Because you’re no longer “the people,” the grassroots.
Because politicians need to, in the end, take decisions. And there are real things that we are divided upon. But in the protest, I am together with people who have different opinions than me on how the future of Israel should look in terms of religion and citizenship. Now we are totally united because it’s the discussion of how conversation and decisions should be taken in our country in the future. It’s not about making a decision about what it is. And this is a completely different level of discussion and politics, I think, either that we manage to make the politics deal with what we are dealing in, which will be ideal, or that we first fix everything and then we go back fighting against and arguing again about how to structure, how to deal with the core problems of this country.
Shikma, it’s been such a pleasure speaking with you. I won’t take up any more of your precious time, and I really, really appreciate everything explained here.
Thank you so much. Again, I’ll end with the same words that I started with. Please be aware that we are going through dramatic days. And it’s not a movie, it’s our own life.
We ourselves do not even believe that we have to fight for our freedom, for our democracy. But this is what’s going on. Take the example of Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Iran. It’s the same track. We did not invent anything. The book is already written. Let’s make sure that our history will be the book that has a happy ending and not a sad one.
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