It’s hard to pick a single David Bowie song that sums up the zeitgeist Israel of January 11, 2016, as seen through the lens of the morning’s Hebrew-language newspapers.
There’s “Ashes to Ashes,” which is apt, considering the suspected arson at the offices of lefty NGO B’Tselem. Or one might choose “Changes,” given a controversial plan to frisk people without nearly any suspicion which is now moving to the Knesset and which also garners prime real estate in the press.
Perhaps “The Man Who Sold the World,” who is none other than convicted fraudster Aryeh Deri, once again finding himself as interior minister after serving his time in jail. Or simply, from one of his more recent songs, “Where Are We Now?” No matter what, though, it’s safe to say that things are not hunky-dory.
Much like Bowie’s alter ego Ziggy Stardust, the press is mostly androgynous in its coverage of the fire at the offices of B’Tselem in Jerusalem, with both Haaretz and Yedioth Ahronoth, likely hamstrung by the late hour of the fire, reporting matter of factly on the blaze, the extent of the damage and the suspicions of arson, though without much reaction or context into the fire (which police later said was likely an electrical fire).
Israel Hayom, however, reports extensively on the blaze, noting that B’Tselem recently came under criticism over a report that it was helping track down Palestinians who sell land to Jews for execution. The paper quotes Joint (Arab) List chief Ayman Odeh blaming government “incitement” for the fire, but also gives equal play for some reason to far-right wing politician Michael Ben Ari, no longer in the Knesset or with much influence at all, accusing B’Tselem of lighting the fire itself as a false flag.
“The method of arson fits the people of B’Tselem like a glove, and we’ve already seen how they or those close to them don’t hesitate to break the law,” he’s quoted saying.
The anti-B’Tselem campaign doesn’t end there in the righty tabloid, but continues to a column by Dan Margalit, possibly penned before the fire, in which he excoriates the Israeli left for defending B’Tselem and defaming investigative journalist television woman Ilana Dayan as crazy, instead of condemning what Dayan uncovered. Margalit has the least truck with Haaretz journalists Gideon Levy and Amira Hass, the latter of whom he calls out for going after activist Ezra Nawi as an “aging Mizrahi homosexual.”
“She understood that Nawi turned into a burden and threw him to the dogs as an ‘aging Mizrahi homosexual,’” he writes. “I suggest reading over those three words ‘aging Mizrahi homosexual.’ And what in the eyes of Haaretz is the big crime between the three? That he’s aging? That he’s Mizrahi? That he’s homosexual? And this is from the ‘thinking person’s paper.’”
Haaretz itself, though seems to have moved on from the B’Tselem affair and onto other matters, like the appointment of Deri as Interior Minister. Commentator Yossi Verter notes that Deri did not want to retake the Interior Ministry, but was unhappy making do with the piddly ministry in charge of developing outlying areas and so will leave the capsule for the tin can. His old chair may easily turn into a hot seat though, and the papers will want to more than just whose shirts he wears.
“Returning to the Interior Ministry – with its powers relating to Shabbat bylaws and personal status – is akin to peeing from the diving board. It will ignite the old argument about ethics and politics,” he writes. “It will bring back memories of his conviction and incarceration. It will bring the issue back to the courtroom, and put him back in the eye of the storm – all the tribulations he seemed happy to avoid in the last round, as he himself explained so eloquently all those months ago.”
Yedioth, meanwhile, is concerned with what is happening with all the suspected rebel rebels who will now be pat down by police pretty much at will if a new law passes. The paper reports that the law has been somewhat watered down since it was first introduced, and will no longer designate areas where police need no suspicion at all to search someone.
“However given that, it suggests expanding the reasons for frisking even when the suspect is not carrying a weapon illegally, rather for any suspicion of violence, including broader reasons – like acting like a bully in a public space, including making insults or threats, or acting intimidating or scary, which keeps the public from using the space safely,” the paper reports.
Given the controversial nature of the legislation, Yedioth brings in two voices to take either side of the debate. In favor of the plan, columnist Ben Dror Yemini makes the “break a few eggs to make an omelet” argument, writing that while it may lead to some cases of police abuse, it’s not like there aren’t already claims of that, and anyway, “there’s a chance that they’ll search a real suspect. And it could be, as has been proven from experience, that this search could prevent a much bigger tragedy.”
On the other side of the fence is Avner Pinchuk, a lawyer for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, which has fought vociferously against the bill.
“The frisking law started as a long stretch of a proposal which caused extreme harm to private rights of citizens,” he writes. “It has drawn strong public criticism from ACRI, as well as from public representatives and lawmakers. And for good reason.”
Or as David Bowie and jazz guitarist Pat Metheny might have said, “This is not America.”