Why Benjamin Netanyahu treats the Jewish media with contempt
(JTA) Whether this week marks the last of Benjamin Netanyahu’s record-setting tenure as prime minister or is just a prelude to another never-count-him-out comeback, it seems a fitting moment to try to understand why he has consistently treated diaspora Jewish media with disdain.
It’s something I’ve experienced personally on several occasions, and may well reflect the prime minister’s attitude not just toward the Jewish press but toward American Jewry in general.
It seems ironic, if not baffling, that Netanyahu would be rude to the one group of journalists who are most sympathetic and accommodating. But then he is a man of many contradictions, with remarkable skills and ugly traits, towering oratory, and gutter-level charges, and great success in protecting Israel from outside threats while allowing the weakening of Israeli society from within.
I have interviewed the prime minister one-on-one in his Jerusalem office, attended a number of meetings he’s held with the press, and heard him speak many times in the United States (US) and Israel. Perhaps the most illuminating example of his contradictory behaviour dates back to a visit he made to the US when he first served as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999.
During that visit 25 years ago, Netanyahu’s staff scheduled back-to-back sessions for him with two separate groups of journalists in a small conference room at his Manhattan hotel. The first group consisted of about a dozen major media figures, including the network news anchors of the day and A-list reporters. The second meeting was with the same number of editors of Jewish newspapers from across the country.
As editor and publisher of The Jewish Week, I was invited to the second meeting. But thanks to an influential friend at the local Israeli consulate, I was allowed to attend the first meeting as well, though I was asked to keep a low profile.
When Netanyahu walked into the room with the media notables seated around a table, he was warm, friendly, and upbeat from the outset. He greeted them individually by name, shaking hands, making small talk as he moved gracefully around the room. During the session, he handled questions with aplomb, on point, articulate, and used colloquial expressions at times – it was easy to forget that he was the leader of a foreign country. He was thoroughly charming.
About 15 minutes after the meeting, while Netanyahu was taking a break, my Jewish media colleagues were ushered into the room. When we were settled in, the prime minister re-entered and immediately sat down at the head of the table. No schmoozing this time. He was all business and began, “OK, ask me your questions.”
A bit taken aback by the abrupt opening, the chair of our delegation asked if it would be all right for us to introduce ourselves briefly, stating our names and professional titles. Netanyahu agreed. When it was my turn, the prime minister looked closely at me and said, “You look familiar.”
I said, “I was with the first group here as well.”
What I wanted to add was, “I saw how engaging and friendly you can be if you want to make the effort. What’s your problem?”
For a split second, Netanyahu seemed a bit taken aback, but he just nodded and the introductions continued.
The mood of the session couldn’t have been more different to the earlier one. Though he was in the presence of loyal, influential Zionists who treated him with great respect, the prime minister was curt, contentious, and clearly couldn’t wait to be done with us.
“Ask me your questions.”
A few years later, when I was in Israel, I was granted a one-on-one interview with Netanyahu in his Jerusalem office. I was ushered in by an aide who announced my name as I sat down in a chair facing the prime minister. He wore a leather bomber jacket and was seated at his desk, reading through a document in front of him.
“Go ahead, ask me your questions,” he said without looking up. He was using a yellow outliner pen to mark his reading material.
I wasn’t sure how to proceed and waited for him to make eye contact. After a moment, he repeated his request. I waited again – it felt like minutes but was probably only a few seconds – before proceeding, reluctantly, with the interview.
I don’t remember the details of what transpired, only that I was thrown by Netanyahu’s rudeness, and that the agreed-on 45-minute session ended abruptly when an aide came in to announce that the prime minister was needed for a pressing matter. It seemed prearranged; the prime minister got up and followed him out of the office without a word or gesture to me.
One more: five years ago, at a Jewish media conference in Jerusalem I attended with dozens of colleagues from the US, Europe, and South America, Netanyahu addressed our group and was ornery from the outset. His manner was challenging and dismissive, interrupting the moderator, the Forward’s Jane Eisner, and suggesting alternative topics. At one point, he evaded a question about his government’s relations with American Jewry and responded, in effect, “Why not ask me about Israel’s impressive dairy output?” He then waxed eloquent on the subject, and had an aide display a chart on the wall with statistics about Israel’s prolific cows.
“After the session ended, some of the women journalists in the room were furious, sure that he acted as he did because I was the moderator,” Eisner wrote. “I appreciated their support, but male colleagues tell me that Netanyahu can be similarly dismissive to them, too.”
How does one explain this behaviour?
I turned to two close colleagues and veteran Bibi watchers – journalist and author Yossi Klein Halevi in Jerusalem and Mideast expert David Makovsky in Washington – and asked why they think Netanyahu treats the Jewish media so shabbily. Is it because he doesn’t respect us as journalists? Or because he believes that diaspora communities are less relevant to Israeli politics? Or neither, or both?
“Bibi treats his friends worse than anyone,” Klein Halevi responded, “which is why, at the end of the day, he doesn’t have any. He takes them for granted and abuses their trust. That’s why this new government is being led, in part, by three of his former closest aides,” Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman, and Gideon Saar.
“The American Jewish media was simply in his pocket,” Klein Halevi continued, “or so he assumed, and he could treat them with the special contempt he reserved for those on his side.”
Makovsky believes Netanyahu views the diaspora Jewish media in the larger context of his attitude toward American Jewry – seen as declining dramatically in relevance.
On a practical level, he noted, diaspora Jews don’t vote in Israeli elections and so are “less central for his [Netanyahu’s] purposes to cultivate”. Similarly, the prime minister focuses mainly on Israeli media, which he views as either for him or against him, so the diaspora media is less important.
The prime minister has told those who meet with him privately that with the exception of the Orthodox, “American Jews will last another generation or two … due to assimilation and low fertility rates,” Makovsky said. “This has enabled him to discount the liberal attitudes and voting trends of non-Orthodox American Jews and not think of the impact of a few of his policies on the relationship.”
In addition, Netanyahu has said in private that as long as he has the support in America of evangelical Christians, who vastly outnumber Jews, and the Orthodox Jewish community, he’s in good shape.
We’ll know in the coming days the shape of Netanyahu’s immediate future. But even if the “change” coalition is sworn in, no one who knows Bibi Netanyahu believes he can be counted out.
- Gary Rosenblatt was editor and publisher of “The Jewish Week” from 1993 to 2019.
SA seethes as Israel scores diplomatic coup in AU
The South African government this week lashed out at the recent decision by the African Union (AU) to grant Israel observer status.
After nearly 20 years of persistent diplomatic efforts, Israel last week attained observer status at the AU. The development was welcomed by Israel, who has long held that the Jewish state has much to offer Africa.
However, predictably, it has been shunned by the government and local pro-Palestinian groups.
In a statement on 28 July, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), said it was “appalled” at the decision calling it “unjust” and “unwarranted”.
It said that in the context of the recent flare-up of violence in the Middle East, the decision was “inexplicable”, and accused the AU Commission of taking the decision unilaterally without consulting its members.
DIRCO said it would ask the chairperson of the commission to provide a briefing to all member states, which it hoped would be further discussed.
“South Africa firmly believes that as long as Israel isn’t willing to negotiate a peace plan without preconditions, it shouldn’t have observer status,” the statement said.
Earlier this week, the SA BDS coalition slammed the government for its silence on the matter, and for not immediately criticising the move like it has done in the past. The organisation urged the government, as well as other AU member states, to reject Israel’s claim to accreditation.
“We are extremely disappointed that our government didn’t immediately publicly reject the Israeli claim and announce that it would lodge an objection to the AU chair,” it said.
The SA BDS coalition accused Israel of “falsely claiming” that its assistance to African states in fields such as agriculture, technology, and economic development was philanthropic.
“In reality, this is simply opportunistic leverage,” it said, adding that Israel’s objective was to “muscle recipient states” to support it at the United Nations (UN) and other international fora.
One local pro-Palestinian media organisation tweeted “Remove the Zionist cancer from the AU”.
South Africa, along with several other African nations, has long opposed Israel’s desire to gain observer status at the 55-member continental organisation. While chairing the AU Commission from 2012 to 2017, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma strongly objected to Israel’s rapprochement with the organisation.
In November last year on the UN International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, DIRCO Deputy Minister Alvin Botes accused Israel of “vociferously” lobbying African states to support its bid, saying that it was “more important than ever” to ensure that this didn’t happen.
Said Botes, “There is a growing and justifiable sense that certain African and Arab nations no longer see the liberation of Palestine as a common objective.”
He said Israel, with the support of America, was driving a wedge between these nations. “If Israel continues to score political victories while facing little resistance, it could eventually dominate Africa,” Botes said.
Algeria on Sunday condemned the decision of the AU to grant Israel observer status.
Israel previously held observer status at the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), but has long been thwarted in its attempts to get it back after the OAU was disbanded in 2002 and replaced by the AU.
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prioritised Israel’s relations with Africa during the latter half of his 12 years in office, including with several Muslim-majority countries on the continent.
Besides seeking new markets for Israeli expertise in fields like agriculture, high-tech, and security, Netanyahu was keen to improve African nations’ voting record on Israel-related matters in international fora such as the UN Security Council.
Aleligne Admasu, the Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia, Burundi, and Chad, on 22 July presented his credentials to Moussa Faki Mahamat, the chairperson of the AU Commission, at the bloc’s headquarters in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid hailed it as a “day of celebration for Israel-Africa relations”, noting that Israel currently has relations with 46 African countries.
The move will enable stronger co-operation between the two parties on various aspects, including the fight against coronavirus and the prevention “of the spread of extremist terrorism” on the African continent, the statement said.
In a separate statement, Faki Mahamat stressed the AU’s position over the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict, reiterating the bloc’s stance that a two-state solution was “necessary for peaceful co-existence”.
Steven Gruzd, the head of the African Governance and Diplomacy Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs said it was a pragmatic decision by the AU rather than an ideological one, as “Israel has a lot to offer Africa”.
“South Africa will feel a little out-manoeuvred on this one, given that during Dlamini-Zuma’s tenure as AU commissioner, the proposal was blocked presumably by Arab states in the North of Africa as well as countries like South Africa.
“This seems to be a diplomatic coup for the Israelis. It has been quite a long time coming, and even though symbolic in many ways, it’s an entry into a forum where their interests are being discussed, and it will provide a platform for a deeper engagement with the continent.”
Since 2016, Netanyahu has been to Africa five times, displaying Israel’s keen interest in growing relations with African states, Gruzd said.
“Also, as part of the Abraham Accords process, we’ve seen normalisation with Morocco and Sudan, both Muslim-majority states. So, Israel’s forays into Africa is paying dividends, and I think it will be very pleased about this. South Africa is a strong supporter of the Palestinians, and I guess will see this as a defeat, but it’s not like pressure on Israel is going to be reduced by South Africa.”
Rowan Polovin, the national chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF), welcomed the development, saying it was hopeful that AU members would work more closely with Israel on issues such as fighting the coronavirus, improving regional security, and implementing water, agricultural, and healthcare technology solutions.
“We are also further encouraged that the AU status may assist other African countries to do the same,” Polovin said.
“The SAZF believes that greater intercontinental co-operation with Israel is a sign that the South African government should follow suit in building and improving its relations with Israel. Furthering the partnership with Israel would bring increased positive benefits and impacts for all South Africans, and would help address the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment, and inequality.”
Israel re-established relations with Guinea in 2016 and Chad in 2019. In October 2020, Israel also signed a normalisation agreement with Sudan.
In July 2016, Netanyahu became the first Israeli premier in decades to travel to the continent when he visited Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and Ethiopia. There has been ongoing collaboration and engagement ever since with a number of African countries.
Meanwhile, the first direct commercial flights between Israel and Morocco landed in Marrakesh on Sunday, 25 July, more than seven months after the countries normalised diplomatic relations in a United States-brokered deal. This is another example of Israel and Africa moving closer together.
Passengers from Tel Aviv arrived on an Israir flight early on Sunday afternoon, and were met with dates, cakes, and mint tea at a welcoming ceremony organised in their honour. A second flight, by Israeli national carrier El Al, landed in Marrakesh later in the day. Both airlines are planning several flights per week to Marrakesh and Casablanca.
Morocco was one of four regional states to agree to normalise ties with Israel last year, along with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan.
The normalisation deals between Arab states and Israel have been deemed a “betrayal” by the Palestinians, who believe the process should follow resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Aliyah interest spikes after unrest
The director of the Israel Centre South Africa, Liat Amar Arran, says the organisation received “100 enquiries” into aliyah over the past three weeks, and that “at least 50 files were opened” – the first step in the aliyah process.
Comparing these figures to the 30 to 40 enquiries the organisation normally gets every month, Amar Arran says although she’s happy South African Jews see Israel as an option, we shouldn’t make aliyah in a panic.
“Making aliyah in an emergency means the person isn’t ready and hasn’t had time to do their research. It means they’re running away, and it’s very hard to settle when you are running away from something. Aliyah is a process.” Amar Arran emphasises that while Israel will always be there for South African Jews, it’s unlikely it would ever evacuate the community unless lives were truly at stake.
She says the Israeli government was updated during the unrest, but didn’t see it as an evacuation-type situation. Her team and the Israeli government have faith that the Jewish community will stay and succeed in South Africa for decades to come. “Israel will be there to strengthen, support, and assist,” she says.
She points out that Israel isn’t a solution to the complex challenges that people might be facing in South Africa. “If you are struggling financially, Israel isn’t going to save you. Yes, it gives some support and assistance, but aliyah doesn’t mean all your problems are going to be solved. You will probably carry the same problems with you. We want to see olim succeed, not collapse. You may get some assistance in the beginning, but eventually, you need to live your life there. We don’t want you to look back and say, ‘Why did I make this decision?’”
If you want to have the option of aliyah in a time of emergency, “then open a file now, and work on it [getting documents]. Don’t wait. You want to be ready on your side. Then you know that you have the documents, even if you might never use them. That’s your insurance.”
She emphasises that the Israel Centre doesn’t have the capacity to “hold people’s hand”, and that it’s each individual’s responsibility to gather their documents and do their research. While she and her team offer guidance, advice, and support, each person has to take their own steps.
She refers to the joke of a man in a town that’s flooding, and people keep offering him help – in a car, a boat, and a helicopter, but he refuses to go with them because he’s “waiting”. Eventually, he drowns and goes to heaven, where he asks G-d, “Why didn’t you come save me?” And G-d answers, “I sent you a car, a boat, and a helicopter!”
Essentially, she’s saying that you can take practical steps like opening an aliyah file if you want to have an option during times of crisis. You can also watch the informative video explaining the aliyah process that the Israel Centre recently released online. There will also be an aliyah Q&A webinar on 5 August, and the Israel Centre hosts these webinars often for prospective olim.
Though the organisation has been stretched to capacity in recent weeks, Amar Arran doesn’t expect the high level of interest to continue unless there’s more unrest. In addition, she says there is always more aliyah interest during harder lockdowns, when people are at home, less busy, and thinking about the future.
Meanwhile, olim who are making aliyah this week say the process takes time. “Getting all my South African documents [to make aliyah] was the biggest challenge, especially during COVID-19,” says Tammy Wainer. “At times it felt like I was climbing up a mountain with no end in sight! Once I had all my South African documents, it was smooth sailing.”
To others considering aliyah, she says: “Aliyah is a very big decision. Do your research, and weigh the pros and cons. Israel will be there waiting with open arms, but ultimately, it will be up to you to make a new life for yourself.”
The recent unrest in South Africa didn’t have an impact on her decision, but “it made it easier for me to say goodbye. I won’t miss going to bed at night feeling anxious at the sound of gun shots. But at the same time, it makes me worried about the loved ones I leave behind. Just because we are leaving South Africa, doesn’t mean we are turning our back on South Africa. The fire of South Africa lives in all of us, and I will continue to be proudly South African and proud of our incredible Jewish community from afar.”
Tamar Lutrin is in Grade 10, and making aliyah with her family. “Making aliyah during COVID-19 was both beneficial and hard. It was easier to leave because we weren’t spending every second with the people we love, but at the same time, we couldn’t say proper goodbyes.” To others considering making the move, she says, “Don’t prolong it, go as soon as you can. It’s hard to break down a life here without building up a new one there.”
The recent unrest “made it easier to leave”, Lutrin says. “My family and I were never leaving South Africa because we hated it, we love South Africa and the community, but it did make the grass look greener on the other side.”
Says Sandra (Sandi) Shapiro, “After the current unrest in South Africa, I can say that I’m fortunate to be one of the lucky ones to be able to leave South Africa in such uncertain times. I leave behind family and friends, and I worry for them all. I can only pray that Hashem will protect all of South Africa, and that peace, harmony, and tranquillity will prevail.”
Commonwealth Jewish Council calls for release of ‘Nigeria three’
All Rudy Rochman wanted to do was to shine a light on unknown, disconnected, and re-emerging Jewish communities around the world, but something went horribly wrong.
The charismatic 27-year-old Israeli activist, who has more than 97 000 followers on Instagram, was working on a new documentary series titled, We Were Never Lost, which focused on these “lost tribes”. At the beginning of July, he and his team travelled to Nigeria to film their first episode.
However, Rochman, filmmaker Andrew Noam Leibman, and French-Israeli journalist Edouard David Benaym were arrested by Nigerian security services when the three presented a Torah scroll to a local community. They remain in custody, haven’t been charged, and haven’t been given legal representation. Organisations and individuals around the world are working desperately to get them released.
“Our first season is set in Africa, and we are filming our first episode on the Jews of Nigeria,” Rochman’s team wrote on Facebook on 8 July. “There are many Jews in Nigeria, Igbos included, and we are here only to help local practising and observing Jewish communities, to provide them with resources, and to document their lives, experiences, and aspirations. We don’t take any position on political movements as we aren’t here as politicians nor as a part of any government delegation.”
But the next day, they were arrested, supposedly for supporting “separatist activists”. Commonwealth Jewish Council (CJC) Chief Executive Clive Lawton is one of the many people working behind the scenes. Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from his home in the United Kingdom, he says he is alarmed that the men have been held in detention for more than a week without being charged. “That would indicate it’s only an investigation, but they still have no legal representation, and how can such an investigation take more than a week?”
He says the CJC has written to the Nigerian high commissioner to the Commonwealth, His Excellency Sarafa Tunji Isola, urging him to pressure his government to release them soon. “They are being detained on the flimsiest of pretexts. I’m sure the Nigerian government wouldn’t want to cultivate an image that foreign visitors can be snatched up on spurious accusations,” says Lawton.
He has also written to the secretary general of the Commonwealth of Nations, Baroness Patricia Scotland. “In this family of nations, the quality of relationships and expectations of decency carry a lot of weight. It’s shocking that Nigeria might continue to hobnob with other heads of governments while treating foreigners like this. It should be seen as shameful. Yes, they might need to investigate something, but that doesn’t take 10 days. This isn’t just an investigation. It’s intimidation. Acting without due process is against Commonwealth principles,” he says.
He hopes that the less formal relationships between Commonwealth countries will make an impact. “At the very least, they should be released to go home. But more desirable would be that they be allowed to return to their cultural activity of making a documentary.”
Lawton says his organisation seeks to build relationships between Jews from around the world. More than 40 countries, including South Africa, are members.
Although the media reported that “three Israelis” were arrested, it’s unclear if all three have Israeli citizenship.
Lawton says Rochman and Leibman entered Nigeria on their American passports, and Benaym on his French passport. “We knew that they planned to make this documentary and were in the first stages of filming. They went to south-east Nigeria to visit a community. Like anyone making such a visit, they wanted to bring artefacts or objects to present to them. In this instance, they very generously brought a Sefer Torah.”
Two weeks ago, Rochman wrote on Instagram about how his team had “just acquired a beautiful Torah that survived the Holocaust and is believed to have come from an old community in Ukraine about 200 years ago”.
“The scribal experts our team spoke to stated that the ktav [writing] had since gone extinct, and they couldn’t believe their eyes when we sent them pictures of the scroll.
“We will be bringing the Torah and gifting it to the youth movement of Igbo Jewish communities of Nigeria for them to have access to our nation’s holy text.”
“It would seem that some separatist activists wrote Facebook messages along the lines of ‘welcoming this act of solidarity’”, Lawton says. “But in fact the filmmakers categorically stated that they had no interest in political issues and were there for a cultural reason – to make a film.
“They arrived on a Thursday, and visited a synagogue,” he says. “That was when Nigerian security services entered the synagogue and arrested them, taking them to the capital, Abuja. On the Friday, the men’s embassies were alerted, and sought to get involved. Chabad in Abuja has managed to organise provision of kosher food for them, which the security services agreed to allow. They also agreed for Benaym to be transported to the French embassy for medical attention, as long as he was returned to detention, and that is what was done. Israel has no ‘formal locus’ to help as they didn’t enter on Israeli passports, but it has sought to engage government and services.”
He believes that they are being held in some kind of “detention circumstances”, but cannot say what these conditions are like, if they are separated, or if they are being held with others. But he says that the fact that the French embassy was willing to return Benaym suggests it was “probably not extreme”.
A member of the Igbo community, speaking to the SA Jewish Report on condition of anonymity, says, “Our information is that Rudy and co. came here to do a documentary on the connection of the Igbo people to Biblical Israelites. Many Igbos are reviving the practices of their ancestors and returning to Judaism. This is what Rudy and his team wanted to do – to hear our story as told by our people. But sadly, some local people hijacked the original intention of Rudy and began to make political capital out of it. The team was bringing a Sefer Torah to be donated to our community. We were very happy that many Israelis would get to know about our Israelite heritage and know that we are brethren.
“Our people are very saddened by the arrest, but we don’t want to heighten tension by making utterances as the matter is being handled. We keep praying for their safety. We believe they will be released because their visit was for religious reasons. We don’t believe they came here to undermine the security of Nigeria. In our synagogues, we don’t entertain separatist activities. We are very sad about their plight. We see it as someone getting into unforeseen trouble while in search of a long lost brother.”
The most recent update on the We Were Never Lost Instagram page is that, “Rudy, Noam, and David are still in custody, but are ok. Their spirits remain high. Three embassies are working diligently towards a resolution. No other action is necessary from the community at this stage, but thank you all for the care and support.”
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