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Israel media review

You have sinned, you have betrayed: What the press is saying on September 27

With Yom Kippur here and COVID-19 running wild, the media looks at who’s spreading infections, who’s trying to stop them, and who should be atoning; plus, the journalist’s ‘vidui’

An Israeli protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from a bridge in the Jezreel Valley on September 26, 2020. (Anat Hermony/Flash90)
An Israeli protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from a bridge in the Jezreel Valley on September 26, 2020. (Anat Hermony/Flash90)

1.  Waiting with dread: In Israel, it’s nothing new for the country to stop almost completely for Yom Kippur, and that holds true for the press as well, which often struggles to fill out its pages, online and in print, with actual news content ahead of the holiday. The newsiest thing is usually whatever records from the 1973 Yom Kippur war the state decides to release that year, which often contain little of actual interest to anyone beyond historians.

  • But nothing is the same this year, and while it’s the one day of the year a nationwide lockdown won’t feel out of the ordinary, the closure of synagogues and skyrocketing infection rates do more than tinge press coverage in the lead-up to the holiday — they dominate it.
  • Channel 12 news reports that Israel’s per capita daily infection rate is the highest in the world, citing a report from the military-run coronavirus information center. Unincluded in the coverage is the fact that the center bases its finding on calculating a weekly average and comparing it to just six other countries with much larger populations than Israel, including the US and France, but not Brazil, India or Mexico.
  • Of those included, though, Israel has the highest percentage of deaths per million, tests per million, positive tests, and new cases, none of which is good news.
  • The real number many are looking at, though, is 800 serious patients, which experts say is the point at which hospitals will start to lose the ability to cope with the influx. As of late Sunday afternoon, the figure stands at 749.
  • “All the steps that have been taken are aimed at keeping Israel from turning into Italy,” Shaare Zedek hospital head Prof. Yonatan Halevi tells Channel 12. “As of today, there’s no worry that there won’t be enough ventilators, but we fear the standard of care and staff attention will be lowered. That will come when we pass the 800 patient mark and we are very close to that.”
  • Channel 13 reports on what it says is a model that amalgamates all the other infection prediction models in Israel, which shows that Israel will hit 835 seriously ill patients by the end of the month.
  • “By next week we will be able to see the effect of the start of [the lockdown] ahead of Rosh Hashanah. A drop in serious cases is not expected, because those who become seriously ill do so 2-3 weeks after becoming infected,” the channel reports.
  • There is still some Yom Kippur War-linked coverage, including by Kan’s Carmela Menashe, who asks whether there are any similarities between the failures in the lead-up to the surprise attack in 1973 and the government’s failures to deal with the virus today.
  • “When talking about the leadership failures analyzed after the war, there is arrogance, haughtiness, complacency and a leadership that lost its way,” she says. “Now, a half year into the outbreak, we are talking about a confused and directionless government, which mixes politics with decision-making, leading to a total lack of public faith.”

2. Fear of a black hat: Much of the press’s attention on Sunday is aimed at the ultra-Orthodox, who are blamed for a large portion of Israel’s skyrocketing infection rate, swiftly climbing toward 10,000 cases a day. (Attenuated testing numbers due to the holiday period may keep those figures lower, though.)

  • “Politicians are squabbling over protests while the infection rate among the ultra-Orthodox breaks records,” reads the top headline in Haaretz.
  • The paper claims that 25% of tests among the ultra-Orthodox are coming back positive. While how one defines ultra-Orthodox is not totally clear, the trend appears to be.
  • “The spread of the virus in the Haredi community has been climbing for more than a month, since the start of yeshiva classes at the start of the month of Elul. Most of the carriers are young people and therefore the high numbers didn’t translate into that many serious cases,” reports the paper’s Amos Harel. “But the spread of the virus continued on Rosh Hashanah and at least two focal points of contagion were identified in Haredi synagogues which were opened specifically for older worshippers, age 65 and over.”
  • A chunk of that is attributed to the Gur Hasidic sect, according to several reports. Walla says that 260 people from the sect have fallen ill, calling it the collapse of a “capsule” system devised by them.
  • According to the report, the group hosted some 2,000 people at its Jerusalem compound over Rosh Hashanah, but kept them in separate pods meant to prevent the virus from spreading too much. Nonetheless, hundreds tested positive after Rosh Hashanah and over a thousand who were exposed to them have since returned home.
  • The remaining numbers have been sent to retrofitted coronavirus housing for the yeshivas, meant to keep them off the street. Several reports note that neighbors were none too pleased to find out they were living next to an ad-hoc High Holidays Inn.
  • Walla and other sites nonetheless say the sect is known for closely keeping the rules. (Former health minister Yaakov Litzman, a member of the sect, famously caught the virus after apparently ignoring his own rules about avoiding group prayer.)
  • Ynet, for instance, notes that the sect’s house of study, the biggest in the country, is a whopping 36,000 square meters (387,500 square feet, or about half the size of LA’s Staples Center) and normally holds around 20,000 people for the High Holidays.
  • “Several large Haredi communities disdained coronavirus guidelines over the last few months so as not to harm the religious life of their colleagues,” writes Ynet. “Other communities though kept to the rules, despite the expected spiritual price. But it seems one community simply refused to accept the dichotomy between the sanctity of life and keeping tradition. The Gur Hasidim tried to square the circle, insisting on having both, and mostly succeeded. Though something went wrong on Rosh Hashanah, the largest and strongest Hasidic court in Israel is only looking ahead and planning to fix its mistakes for Yom Kippur.”

3. Get out: Walking around Bnei Brak for a vox pop to find out if people think the rules will be kept, Army Radio finds that some are still planning on praying inside, and some groups are even planning on holding mass prayers indoors, though most at least say that they will listen to what the authorities and rabbis say.

  • “There’s a school next to the building, so some people will pray in the classrooms, but those who can’t will just pray under the building,” one man is quoting saying.
  • Makor Rishon reports that in several other cities with large religious (but not ultra-Orthodox) populations, rabbis have decided to “not wait for the chief rabbinate or government,” and have locked up synagogues.
  • “Everyone knows that for even a chance of helping someone save a single life you can break Shabbat, and for even a small worry can allow eating and drinking on Yom Kippur,” Rabbi Avi Gisar of the settlement of Ofra is quoted saying. “So it goes without saying [that we should do the same] for a danger to the masses.
  • In ultra-Orthodox Hamevaser, though, the top story talks of Jews streaming en masse “to synagogues or areas next to them, and praying and begging that we be sealed for good and that the plague be lifted from our nation.”
  • In the rest of the ultra-Orthodox press, calls for people to avoid prayer indoors are few and far between. The top story on Behadrei Haredim quotes the leader of the Vizhnitz Hasidic sect calling on those who have any symptoms to not show up at for services, but doesn’t say anything about the rest of the crowds also praying outdoors.

4. Plenty of blame, and introspection, for everyone: Given the numbers and the season, there are more than a few calls for introspection, and in fact the front page headline of Israel Hayom reads “Time for soul searching.”

  • “We sinned, we sinned wantonly, we were criminal,” reads the headline of a column by the paper’s Ran Reznik, blaming Knesset politicians, coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu for his “failed” traffic light plan, and the media.
  • “In an epidemic as extensive as COVID, the media’s influence on the public is a major element in the battle. But the Israeli media glorifies and gives a platform to the cult of ‘COVID denial,’ allowing a handful of doctors and administrators to provide misleading, false, and sometimes manipulative information about the virus, particularly information that minimizes its seriousness. Often, the media doesn’t even bother to balance their appearances with other scientists or doctors who will challenge them,” he writes.
  • The comments bear an incredibly close resemblance to remarks from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night, in which he admitted that the government messed up some parts of its exit from the first lockdown, but blames the Knesset, the media and others for the failures.
  • While Netanyahu did not mention the protests in his comments (and neither does Reznick), several others have spoken out against them, and Israel Hayom makes a point of juxtaposing a picture of Saturday’s chaotic-looking rally and the Western Wall, which was nearly devoid of people and arranged into neat capsules.
  • Haaretz’s lead editorial also casts blame, bashing Netanyahu and the government for pushing legislation that compares protests to prayers and aims to clamp down on both.
  • “The attempt to create parity between demonstrations outdoors, with the participation of a few thousand people, and massive prayers in closed spaces is but one more mendacious manipulation by Netanyahu,” it reads. “The objective is to divide, incite and turn one group against another, all to remain in power. Netanyahu isn’t making a comparison in the service of the campaign against the virus, he only aims to suppress the protest. It’s commendable that the protesters, who unlike the prime minister are behaving responsibly, are taking care to wear masks and maintain social distancing.”
  • Kan’s Yuval Agassi bemoans all the ways in which the virus has helped create divisions within society: “Via the guidelines and restrictions, each tribe has turned inward, worrying about their own house — often by comparing with and blaming others.”
  • “This virus has proven that I am willing to sacrifice you on the altar of my existence,” writes former minister Rabbi Shai Piron in Yedioth. “The nation that showed the world what faith is has stopped believing. While those who believe are not afraid, those who have stopped trusting leaders, others, neighbors, we are afraid. The lack of faith has become a bigger pandemic than the virus.”

5. The Journalist’s Vidui: With all that in mind, I present to you, as in years past, the journalist’s vidui, or Yom Kippur confession, updated for this special virus year.

  • I have slandered.
  • I have over-dramatized information.
  • I have tweeted information before checking if it is true.
  • I have cast blame on the blameless.
  • I have portrayed myself and my community as above reproach.
  • I have editorialized wantonly.
  • I have failed to internalize the pain of others, those sick, those jobless, those at high risk, those afraid, those more worried about feeding their families than avoiding COVID-19, those more worried about keeping their children healthy than in-person education.
  • I have failed to fully attempt to understand those different from me, with different priorities and different needs.
  • I have pretended to be an epidemiologist.
  • I have portrayed myself falsely as an expert.
  • I have faked mathematical, statistical and health expertise when I had none.
  • I have feigned confidence in my pronouncements when none were warranted.
  • I have quoted only those experts who match my agenda, or only those who go against the grain.
  • I have not given readers a full picture, but only snippets that give some ideas a soapbox while ignoring counter-points that also merit being heard.
  • I have led readers astray.
  • I have confused readers.
  • I have confused editors.
  • I have downplayed truly important news.
  • I have overplayed less-than-important news in the service of a certain agenda or my own comfort.
  • I have allowed sources to be quoted anonymously when no such anonymity is justified.
  • I have given nameless sources a platform to slander others.
  • I have plagiarized ideas.
  • I have not quoted women. I have not quoted Arabs. I have not quoted the ultra-Orthodox.
  • I have slandered whole communities with the stench of collective guilt.
  • I have questioned the intentions of others.
  • I have questioned the expertise and good sense of others.
  • I have hypocritically refused to follow the same guidelines that I preach.
  • I have preached.
  • I have copy and pasted.
  • I have over-edited, subsuming the writer’s voice under my own.
  • I have failed to fully understand.
  • I have assumed.
  • I have insulted my readers’ intelligence.
  • I have insulted experts, leaders and everyone else.
  • I have trolled.
  • I have mocked.
  • I have acted with disregard to the holy work of my profession, placing a dark cloud over the absolutely vital work of my colleagues, both at The Times of Israel and at other publications.
  • I have punned with horrifying impunity.
  • I have failed my readers.
  • I have failed.

Next year will be better.

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