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.
Israel hatred sours drawn-out Clover strike
Israel is being used as a political football by striking workers, unions, and the anti-Israel lobby in the protracted domestic labour dispute with Clover, which has entered its ninth week.
Clover was acquired in 2019 by a consortium called Milco SA, which is led by Central Bottling Company (CBC). CBC is an Israeli-based manufacturer and distributor of soft drinks, dairy products, and alcoholic beverages.
The merger was complicated from day one as anti-Israel lobbyists attempted to scupper the much-needed R4.8 billion deal.
Essentially, when the merger was unfolding, Clover made commitments to the South African competition authorities to create more jobs and protect existing jobs. However, the company has now embarked on a series of retrenchments arising from the restructuring of its operations.
Disgruntled workers have downed tools for nearly 10 weeks in protest over, among other things, restructuring, non-payment of bonuses, retrenchments, job losses arising from crippling factory closures, salary cuts, and working conditions that have allegedly worsened over the past two years.
It’s messy, and the relationship between workers, unions, and Clover may sour further with no end in sight. The anti-Israel lobby has jumped on board from the start, lending its voice to the strikes.
It should be noted that job losses were identified by Clover before Milco approached it with a merger proposal.
Trade unions representing Clover workers, including the General Industries Workers Union of South Africa (GIWUSA) and the Food and Allied Workers Union, said hundreds of workers had already been dismissed, while hundreds more had accepted voluntary severance packages. They said more jobs were under threat.
Clover has reportedly said it has “explored all possible avenues to minimise retrenchments”, but cannot avoid lay-offs.
In a statement, the company said retrenchments were “necessary to enhance Clover’s resilience for the benefit of its collective stakeholders”. The company, it said, “had been subject to a difficult trading cycle for several years, where economic growth has been poor, costs have generally been rising above inflation, and consumer spending has been subdued. COVID-19 has added to these pressures and the uncertainty faced.”
Striking Clover workers marched through the Johannesburg city centre on 18 January, stripping Clover products from shop shelves including places like Checkers, and leaving them in shopping trolleys.
Last week, there were similar scenes of chaos at shops such as Pick n Pay selling Clover products in Observatory, Cape Town.
Among many demands, the workers are insisting that the company stop plans for further retrenchments and reinstate all workers. They also want it to be independent of the Israeli CBC. Calls have also been made for nationalisation of the company.
Political economist Phumlani Majozi said that while workers had a constitutional right to mobilise and push for their demands, it was important to look at what motivated this particular strike.
“The matter has been politicised, which is a bad approach from our unions, but it’s not surprising. Any labour dispute shouldn’t be politicised because then the dispute gets tainted. Going into the issue of Israel and Palestine isn’t going to help their members secure jobs,” Majozi said.
“Going into shops and causing chaos will obviously have a negative impact on Clover, and this will definitely have an impact on jobs and there will be more job losses. It’s sad that this issue is being politicised, and it’s sad there are some politically motivated movements that have joined in the strike to push their agenda. It’s disappointing.”
The South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) this week said it was “disturbed” by the “trite attempt” by the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement to exploit a South African labour dispute to pursue its own nefarious, antisemitic agenda.
SAZF National Chairperson Rowan Polovin told the SA Jewish Report, “The retrenchments and wage cuts which have brought about the strike are, for BDS, merely an afterthought in its fervent pursuit of demonising Israel in cases where the connection can only be described as diluted.”
Polovin said Clover was owned by a subsidiary of Israel’s CBC, and it was patent that at its core, this was a local labour dispute.
“Lacklustre attempts by BDS have been made in an attempt to shoehorn Israel into the fray of this matter by stating unfounded conspiracy theories. Chief among these bizarre allegations is that Israeli companies are attempting to flood the market with Israeli dairy products in order to destroy local industry, akin to cases that are already plaguing the global South,” he said.
“Furthermore, BDS has accused Israel’s CBC of breaking international law, this claim of course being made without justification. These allegations are entirely baseless, and one can quickly deduce the true intentions of the BDS when they are forwarded.”
Political analyst Daniel Silke said industrial action in South Africa including strikes and worker unrest applied across a variety of industries and companies, so it wasn’t necessarily peculiar to a company with Israeli ownership or shareholding.
“However, the fact that there’s an Israeli connection certainly makes Clover a little more susceptible to industrial action,” Silke said.
“Trade unions here are vehemently anti-Israel and take a pro-BDS standpoint. The Israeli connection adds a degree of militancy and mobilisation to any kind of industrial action. Companies with an Israeli connection will find that if there is industrial action, it could take on more sinister or difficult global overtones rather than just being a domestic industrial or labour issue.”
Labour expert Sara Gon from the Institute of Race Relations said that in terms of the Labour Relations Act, a company was entitled to restructure if it was inefficient, costly, or overstaffed. “This is contrary to what’s being said in public-sector strikes, where the impression has been given that restructuring and retrenching is unlawful.”
She said management was entitled to embark on these actions if it believed it would benefit the larger company.
However, a company has to consult with employees and/or their representative trade unions and justify its actions and consider the views of employee representatives.
“Clover management has said trading conditions are difficult with poor economic growth, rising costs, and subdued consumer spending. For these reasons, a review of all aspects of Clover’s business was undertaken, which led to the difficult decision to restructure,” Gon said.
“GIWUSA has objected to Milco’s involvement in Clover since 2019 ‘in solidarity with oppressed people of Palestine’. The demands probably come more from the unions than the employees, because of the intensely anti-Israel stance taken by the federation they belong to, the South African Federation of Trade Unions.
“The DTIC [Department of Trade, Industry, and Competition] approved the takeover of Clover by Milco, and has no authority to interfere with the ownership or otherwise of the company.
“The anti-Israeli position is standard fare, but the two-month long strike is more puzzling in that not only will wages be lost over the period of the strike, it could aggravate trading conditions and result in more retrenchments.
“On the other hand, one can understand the desperate need to keep as many jobs in this punishing climate. The need to keep the company in existence is, however, paramount,” Gon said.
More rolling mass action is expected.
Pandor ends year with extreme rhetoric against Israel
South Africa’s anti-Israel stance is one thing we don’t seem to be leaving behind in 2021, as Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) Minister Dr Naledi Pandor devoted a section of her end-of-year media briefing to the topic.
Her comments suggest Israel’s very existence is problematic, blame Israel for the conflict, and emphasise South Africa’s vehement opposition to the Jewish state being given observer status at the African Union (AU).
Pandor titled this section of her speech, given on 14 December 2021, “International solidarity work relating to Palestine and Western Sahara”. She then devoted the entire section to criticising Israel.
“In 2021, we have highlighted concern that the situation relating to Western Sahara and Palestine remains deadlocked – in some instances even worsening,” she said. “The question of Palestine is still unresolved after 70 years, and continues to challenge human conscience and international justice.”
As Israel has existed for 73 years, her comments show that she finds the very existence of the Jewish state problematic.
“In keeping with South Africa’s long-term and principled support for the Palestinian people, the government of South Africa remains committed to supporting initiatives aimed at refocusing the international agenda on Palestine and the Middle East peace process. The Palestinian question remains at the heart of the Middle East situation,” she said.
“The South African government believes the only way to bring about lasting peace in the Middle East is to have a comprehensive and unconditional negotiated settlement to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and Israel’s continued blockade of Gaza. The ongoing delay in achieving such a settlement leads to an unending cycle of violence.
“In the context of Israel’s continuing violation of its international-law obligations, we have worryingly seen the African Union Commission this year granting Israel the status of an observer at the AU. This came as a shock, given that the decision was made at a time when the oppressed people of Palestine were hounded by destructive bombardments and continued illegal settlements of their land,” said Pandor.
“The unjust actions committed by Israel offend the letter and spirit of the charter of the African Union,” she added. “The AU reflects Africans’ confidence that it can lead the continent through practical expression of the goals of the charter, especially on issues relating to self-determination and decolonisation. The decision by the AU Commission in this context remains inexplicable. We look forward to the 35th ordinary summit of the African Union where the heads of state will discuss this matter.”
Local political analyst Daniel Silke notes that “the statement continues to reflect South Africa’s clear decision to side with the Palestinians rather than adequately balancing this with a deeper and more meaningful interrogation of the concerns of both sides, including the security needs of Israel. South Africa is largely excluding itself from the changing dynamics in the Middle East, such as the Abraham Accords, which have brought a much greater understanding between Israel and many of its Gulf and other Arab neighbours. Not to mention the fact that in past weeks, we have seen Egypt, Jordan, and even Turkey possibly indicating that they are looking for closer relations with Israel.
“South Africa will continue to drive the AU agenda,” he says. “But again, increasingly it’s going to come up against a changing dynamic of improving diplomatic relations between African countries and Israel.”
Local political analyst Ralph Mathekga agrees that pushing an anti-Israel agenda at the AU may not work in South Africa’s favour. “The AU hasn’t focused much on the issue of Israel/Palestine because there are more pressing issues for the region,” he says. “South Africa also has its own challenges, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems quite distant in terms of priorities.”
“South Africa will be a prime mover in trying to get the AU to reverse its decision on observer status,” says Steven Gruzd, the head of the African Governance and Diplomacy Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs. “It will be interesting to see how much support Israel has been able to consolidate in Africa after five years of diplomatic positioning. The chair of the AU passes from Democratic Republic of the Congo to Senegal in 2022. Israel has good relations with both, but this decision will almost certainly be challenged.”
The national chairperson of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Professor Karen Milner, says, “We welcome Naledi Pandor’s call for a negotiated solution, even though it’s regrettable that she wrongly places all the blame on Israel for its failure. In view of the need for the international community to engage with all parties in the conflict to help them reach a lasting settlement, the government’s continued opposition to Israel’s observer status at the AU is baffling.”
South African Zionist Federation National Chairperson Rowan Polovin says, “The minister’s speech ignores the actual reasons why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains persistent to this day. In spite of decades-long efforts by both Israel and external actors, all attempts at a lasting and universal peace have failed. The responsibility of this failure lies squarely in the hands of the Palestinian leadership which has unfailingly and consistently rejected peace and recognition of the Jewish state.
“Minister Pandor bizarrely positions Israel at ‘the heart’ of the ongoing crises in the Middle East,” says Polovin. “This crude analysis is done without elaboration or mention of the ongoing conflicts and human-rights disasters where Israel is either a mere spectator or committed to assisting those in dire predicaments.
“Within international relations, dialogue should be encouraged. These ideals are ironically espoused in the minister’s speech. However, it’s made clear that the intention of Dirco is rather to isolate Israel, which would consequently dash any hopes of a settlement resolved with the joint participation of the international community.”
“South African Jewry has sadly got used to the government’s extreme position,” says Gruzd. “Minister Pandor has said strongly anti-Israel things before. Equally sadly, without real peace-making in this conflict, this government could become even more intolerant of Israel.”
What’s driving SA’s record aliyah numbers?
In 2021, there were record aliyah numbers from South Africa – the highest since 1994. Israeli media reported a 50% to 70% increase on 2020. Olim and those in the field say that a combination of the pandemic, uncertainty about South Africa’s future, and unemployment have led to this increase. Just as 1994 was filled with unknowns about South Africa’s future, so too is a post-pandemic world. South African Jews are questioning where they want to be – and many are choosing Israel.
“We had 555 olim [from South Africa] in 2021. It was a record number since 1994,” says Israel Centre Director Liat Amar-Arran. “The numbers in 2022 will depend on the situation in South Africa, the world, and Israel. I’m assuming we’re going to see the same [numbers].”
Telfed Chief Executive Dorron Kline says 753 South Africans made aliyah in 1994. “However, in 1994, the community was double the size it is now. Therefore, proportionately, 2021 holds the record of the most South African Jews making aliyah since the 1970s.
“The number of olim scheduled to arrive in January 2022 is almost double the number of arrivals in January 2021,” he says. “Given these numbers, we anticipate another large aliyah wave.”
In January alone, there were 46 new South African olim and another flight with 35 to 40 people is planned for next week. There may be another aliyah flight with El Al on 15 February.
“People have had the opportunity to re-evaluate their lives,” Amar-Arran says. “People who lost jobs may have decided it’s time for a change. Some believe there’s no future for their kids. Others realised they could work remotely, so they make aliyah and work from there. I also believe the riots [in South Africa in July 2021] made people decide to make aliyah.”
For Stan Sadman who came alone on aliyah from Cape Town in January 2021, the main driver was his inability to find work. “I’m in my 50s. I was in sales, and I struggled,” he told the SA Jewish Report from Netanya. “Especially when COVID-19 came, and even the year before, the economy was going down. I’m now working as a janitor in a big retirement village. There’s no doubt about it, there’s a lot more opportunity here if you’re willing to get your hands dirty. But you’ve got to start fresh as an Israeli. When you leave South Africa, close the door. Unless you come with a lot of money, you’ve got take a step or two down in your standard of living.”
Another oleh wrote on Facebook that “a big motivator is more job opportunities. For me, it’s certainly true – especially with the incentives [in South Africa] which are harshly unfavourable to white males.”
“The South African Jewish community is Zionist, so there’s always a pull factor to live in Israel,” says Kline. “Another significant factor is that many olim are joining family who have already made aliyah. Many young families are moving here because they believe Israel offers a better future, employment prospects, education, and healthcare. Personal security is an obvious factor. And let’s not forget that Israel is a vibrant democracy with a strong and stable economy.”
Amar-Arran says the demographics of olim are wide-ranging. “We have 18-year-olds going to the army, ulpan, and higher education; younger and older families; elderly people joining their kids – all types of demography.”
“Families made up almost half of our 2021 olim,” says Kline. “Thirteen percent of 2021 olim were young singles [18 to 25]. Seventeen percent of new olim were seniors.”
Amar-Arran agrees with Sadman that aliyah is a big adjustment. “It’s a very different culture – Israelis can be less polite! It’s more expensive, and homes are smaller. People may struggle with Hebrew.”
Says Kline, “Understanding the differences between the cost and standard of living between Israel and South Africa is important. Telfed hosts klita [absorption] webinars for new olim, during which our social worker explains the importance of budgeting and living within one’s means. There have been instances where olim took out loans that they struggled to repay, so we do caution against this. Emigration can also be an emotionally challenging experience. In the webinars, our social worker speaks about the importance of finding networks for support – in shuls, schools, communities, through hobbies, volunteering, or just finding one reliable friend who can offer good advice.”
Sadman says basing the place you live in on a job is a mistake. It’s more important to find your community and settle in, then find a job. “I made that mistake, and I’m now in Netanya, although I would have preferred to be in Ashkelon. At the same time, I’m a 10-minute walk from the beach. The freedom here is amazing.” He advises people to work part-time until they find something more permanent as the rand’s value is low and one needs to earn shekels to get by.
Amar-Arran says the high aliyah number has had an impact on the Israel Centre. “We’re working very hard. Especially during COVID-19, the amount of bureaucracy and paperwork for aliyah is crazy. I wish we had more time to contribute to people, as we are trying to give a personal service. But when you have 70 olim in one month, you don’t really have the time to sit with each one of them privately. We don’t really have a budget to hire people, but I hope we can have another aliyah worker who can assist us this year.”
On the other side, the high numbers have also had an impact on Telfed. “Our services are in high demand – including employment counselling, support from our social worker, housing [there is a long waiting list for Telfed rental apartments in Ra’anana and Tel Aviv], and scholarship applications,” says Kline.
“We are dependent on donations to allow us to continue to offer these free services. Donations also allow us to provide urgent financial assistance to olim who have fallen on difficult times. A committee assesses each request to ensure that support is given to those in genuine need. In addition, we offer financial counselling so that those in need of help can get back on their feet.”
Amar-Arran emphasises that making aliyah isn’t for everyone. “It’s important to know that aliyah isn’t going to solve your problems. Israel is amazing place to live, but people need to know that feeling settled takes time.”
“Aliyah is a sharp learning curve, exacerbated by the language and cultural barrier,” says Kline. “Arriving with realistic expectations, some spoken Hebrew, and patience can stand olim in good stead. If you’re considering making aliyah, get in touch with us. Community support is instrumental to successful aliyah.”
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