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Spring 2019

Home and Away: The Accidentally Global Scope of Israel's English-Language Media

While the international media industry came crashing down in the beginning of the 21st century, Israel's English-language media experienced a tremendous renaissance.

Two thousand and twelve was a great year for journalism in Israel. The Arab Spring, still in full swing, saw once omnipotent dictators toppled one after the other like tiles on a domino board. Many Israelis believed that the country was on the verge of a new economic era, in the wake of the 2011 mass social protests—the largest protest movement in the country’s history, an estimated one in nine Israelis taking to the streets. In government, the prime minister and defense minister were seriously considering a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities—thwarted at the last moment, it later emerged, by the adamant and unanimous opposition of the Army’s top brass.

Two thousand and twelve was also a terrible year for journalism in Israel. The newly established freesheet Israel Hayom had just become the most widely circulated daily newspaper in the country, pushing sales of the paid-for dailies into a downward spiral. Haaretz, the country’s oldest and most esteemed newspaper, narrowly escaped bankruptcy. Maariv, once Israel’s most widely circulated newspaper but now hugely unprofitable, was changing ownership frequently. Journalists were losing their jobs en masse; those lucky enough to hang on to their positions had to stomach radical pay cuts.

Against this backdrop, in February of that year, the English-language online newspaper Times of Israel was launched. The founding editor-in-chief, veteran British-Israeli journalist David Horovitz, outlined the company’s mission in his inaugural piece, entitled “Starting The Times of Israel“:

“Fair-minded journalism, based in Israel, and read both here in Israel and among those who care for the Jewish nation around the world, has a vital, even noble role to play in enabling informed debate over the challenges and the choices that face the Jewish state. Informing that debate is one of the prime goals of The Times of Israel.”

Commendable goals indeed, which any self-respecting journalist would unhesitatingly subscribe to. However, they would be even more welcome if Israel’s media landscape was not saturated with a growing number of English-language outlets, either as primary producers of news or as sister sites of Hebrew titles, all dedicated, in their own individual ways, to “informing the debate.” Currently, at least a dozen English-language online newspapers, radio stations and television channels operate in Israel—an unparalleled number per capita for a country of just over eight million inhabitants, one in which English does not have, and has never had, an official status.

“There’s one thing that you can be sure about: The existence of so many outlets means that there is a market for it”

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the blossoming of Israel’s English-language media sector is that it reached its apex exactly at a time when the newspaper industry hit rock bottom—namely, as it was witnessing the all-but-complete collapse of its business model. Going far beyond Israel’s (yet to be drawn) borders, the crisis was global in scope. According to the Newspaper Association of America, the US newspaper industry registered a net loss of just under $50 billion in advertising revenue in the first decade of this century alone.

The industry’s nemesis, by and large, was the Internet. Democratizing and diversifying the production and availability of information, the Internet has served to dilute the industry’s long-held ability to capitalize on its privileged status as the chief promulgators of knowledge. One no longer had to buy a newspaper to keep up to date—myriad free news sites were just a click away. Equally, and perhaps more ominously, when people wanted to sell their car, rent an apartment or find a job, classified ads (a huge source of income for newspapers) were no longer the go-to destination. Craigslist was, now.

As the global newspaper industry licked its wounds, the effect on Israel’s English-language newspaper industry was diametrically opposed. The two Israeli newspapers established in the pre-Internet era and went online—The Jerusalem Post (founded in 1932) and the English edition of Haaretz (1997)—saw, overnight, an astronomical growth in exposure. In the late-1990s heyday of these titles, the average circulation of The Jerusalem Post was 15,000 copies daily and some 80,000 copies on weekends (including the international edition, printed on telex paper and airmailed to tens of thousands of subscribers around the world); that of Haaretz stood at about 5,000 copies. Today, the websites of the two newspapers register millions—and sometimes tens of millions—monthly pageviews.

“The website was making a lot of money. It soon became the tail that wagged the dog,” says Alan Abbey, editor of jpost.com between 2002 and 2004. (He later became the founding editor of Ynetnews, the English-language sister site of Israel’s largest news site, Ynet—itself the online arm of the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth).  Other media companies similarly started to look overseas, away from the faltering local news industry, in search of their El Dorado: after a short-lived attempt by Maariv in 2004, Ynet became the first heavyweight to follow in the footsteps of The Jerusalem Post and Haaretz. But so too did Israel Hayom, the relatively new freesheet, when it launched an English edition in 2011; pro-settler radio network Arutz Sheva transformed itself into a multilingual website after losing a legal battle for a broadcasting license in 2003; Globes, Israel’s first business newspaper, started an online English edition in 2002; even ultra-Orthodox portal Behadrey Haredim launched its own tailor-made English news site in 2009. New, English-language outlets also emerged, chief among them the abovementioned Times of Israel in 2012, and the far-left, Israeli-Palestinian webzine +972 two years earlier. Broadcasters, for their part, came late to the party, but have nonetheless established a presence: the trilingual television network i24 News, dubbed “Israel’s answer to Al Jazeera,” started to broadcast from its state-of-the-art Jaffa studio in 2013, placing emphasis on world news from an Israeli—and English—perspective. The same year, the online-only TLV1 Radio, Israel’s first fully English-language radio station, came into being, followed by a similar endeavor, The Voice of Israel, in 2014. Thanks to the Internet, the world—quite literally—was Israeli journalism’s oyster.

My (other) country, right or wrong

According to internal figures, a sizable proportion of the readership—anywhere between 30 and 60 per cent—comes from the United States, and is believed to be predominantly Jewish. Barring scarcely successful attempts to reach out to non-Jewish readers (such as Christian fundamentalists by the right-wing media, and non-Jewish sympathizers of the Palestinian cause by the left-wing media), the core readership remains, by and large, a demographic harboring an attachment of some form to the Jewish state. It is this very attachment that drives them to seek first-hand news and information from and about Israel.

But the contours and characteristics of this attachment have become much less clear than they might have been once. Unlike the good old days, things are not so simple anymore. “It’s been a truism for generations,” J.J. Goldberg noted in The Forward, “that Israel is the one issue on which Jews agree.” Unwavering support for Israel went almost without saying, a particularly intricate version of vicarious patriotism; “my (other) country, right or wrong,” after a fashion. This across-the-board sympathy derived because, in the eyes of most (including non-Jews), Israel was mostly in the right. The overwhelmingly conventional version of the Israel story spoke of a young society that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust, fighting an unremitting war for survival in a hostile environment. Israel wasn’t just the world’s only Jewish state, nestled in the cradle of Jewish civilization, where Hebrew was the spoken language and Shabbat the official day of rest; it was also a vibrant democracy, consecrating free speech and caring for the poor. Israel was perceived as a peace-loving country, whose conciliatory gestures were repeatedly turned down by rejectionist, maximalist and blood-thirsty Arab leaderships. The occupation of the Palestinian Territories, which began in 1967 and was authoritarian in its essence, was construed as a momentary aberration from an overall noble endeavor; it was but a temporary arrangement until the Arabs “come round” and recognized Israel’s right to exist.

The deafening collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in 2000 was the watershed. The ostensibly unending cycle of violence of the Palestinian uprising, or Second Intifada, of 2000-2005 sent Israeli public opinion into a rightward spiral, heralding the consecutive elections of skeptic hardliners Ariel Sharon and—to a greater extent—Benjamin Netanyahu. On the Palestinian side, the death of Yasser Arafat, a one-time revolutionary and terrorist whose rehabilitation as a statesman was the subject of heated debate, coupled with a growing disillusionment with the prospects of violent struggle, led to a consolidation of a new type of leadership, under the aegis of Mahmoud Abbas, that was resolutely committed to nonviolence and diplomacy. The ball was no longer decidedly in the Arabs’ court: the question of responsibility for the absence of peace and the perpetuation of the occupation was increasingly open for interpretation. “From a unifying element [for American Jews], Israel has become a divisive one,” says Dov Waxman, a professor of political science at Northeastern University, and author of the 2016 book Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel.

This sea change—and, according to journalist and author Peter Beinart, the failure of the leadership of the American Jewish community to account for it—has forced the predominantly liberal American Jewry to face a dilemma of Sophie’s Choice magnitude. They were required to align themselves with one of the two pillars of Jewish politics in postwar America, their Zionism or their liberalism, which were becoming increasingly at odds. Many, especially of the younger generations, have opted for the latter; those who have remained faithful to Zionism, Beinart says, weren’t great liberals in the first place. “For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead,” he wrote in his seminal 2010 essay, “The Failure of the Jewish American Establishment.”

Beinart’s thesis is enthralling, yet somewhat reductive. Even if illiberal elements are threatening to take over the entire Zionist enterprise, the liberal reaction to it can, in theory if not in practice, be more than just indifference. Diaspora Liberals can, as indeed some have, try to assert their agenda in an Israel that is increasingly at odds with their values. They are, therefore, engaged—in a more confrontational and less affectionate manner, true, but engaged nonetheless. In this category, we can find groups like the vehemently anti-Israel Jewish Voice for Peace, about whom former Hebrew Union College sociologist Steven M. Cohen has said: “They’re showing disapproval, even extreme disapproval, but they’re involving themselves in the life of Israel,” and about whom The Forward‘s J.J. Goldberg aptly commented: “One can love one’s kin without necessarily liking them.”

These recent trends, pointing to the “opening of the Jewish-American mind” as it were, have emerged—whether in a correlated or coincidental fashion— simultaneously with the pluralization process that the news from Israel has undergone.

The question that needs to be asked now is the role of Israel’s English-language media in this process. In his book The New American Zionism, Theodore Sasson argues that the “new realism about Israel derives … from an enhanced information environment,” which includes greater exposure to Israel thanks to two factors: the plethora of travel opportunities to Israel, and greater access to news from the country. There is no doubt that Israeli titles have found a much greater echo in America than before; the question is how influential this increased reach has been.

“There’s one thing that you can be sure about: The existence of so many outlets means that there is a market for it,” says Israeli journalist Shmuel Rosner, formerly Washington correspondent for Haaretz and founder of the pioneering blog Rosner’s Domain. The media is first and foremost a commercial endeavor; before seeking to inform the public and sway public opinion, it seeks to be profitable. Profits, in this case, came easy; influence—less so. The latter, as we shall see, falls far short of what the opportune conditions of this specific moment in time may have nurtured.

The origins of factionalism

When the day comes and former US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew writes his memoirs, Sunday, June 7, 2015 will probably get a prominent mention as one of the most traumatic days of his career. Lew, an Orthodox Jew, took his life in his hands and entered the lion’s den that no other high-ranking White House official had dared approach since 2012: The Jerusalem Post‘s annual conference, taking place that year at Manhattan’s Marriott Marquis Hotel. Lew’s address, emphasizing the Obama Administration’s ongoing commitment to Israel’s security, was repeatedly interrupted by boos and catcalls. Lew eventually cut his speech short and left the conference room abruptly, although not before Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief Steve Linde, moderating the session, had apologized, together with the high-ranking panelists on the podium. Following the event, which attracted considerable media attention, prominent US journalist Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted: “Well, of course U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew was heckled at a Jerusalem Post conference. Have you read The Jerusalem Post lately?”

Goldberg was alluding to an open secret: The editorial pages of the Post had become a magnet for the incessant bashing of Barack Obama, European politicians and civil society more generally, the Palestinian Authority and—as Goldberg put it—”anyone to the left of Bibi.” A group of writers, led by the Post’s extremely prolific Senior Contributing Editor Caroline Glick—a former adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu, an avowed Republican and an adamant opponent of the two-state solution—churn out, day in and day out, virulent indictments of Israel’s enemies, real and imaginary.

Looking at the Post today, it is hard to fathom that up until three decades ago, it was a liberal, left-of-center newspaper. Historically edited by sympathizers of David Ben-Gurion and his Mapai governments (the founding editor, Gershon Agron, left his position in 1955 to run, successfully, as Mapai‘s candidate for Mayor of Jerusalem), the Jerusalem Post was owned by Koor, the state-owned industrial conglomerate, and was half-jokingly referred to as the English edition of Davar, the now defunct Labor-affiliated mass-circulation Hebrew daily.

After the election victory of Menachem Begin’s right-wing Likud party in 1977, and the succession of right-wing and coalition governments that ensued, The Jerusalem Post‘s editorial line became increasingly at odds with the government’s policies. In his memoirs, The Press and Politics in Israel, Erwin Frenkel (co-Editor-in-Chief between 1975 and 1990) lists a number of instances in which Yitzhak Shamir, Begin’s successor as chairman of Likud and prime minister, together with other government officials, accused the Post of badmouthing Israel internationally. Naturally, the Post‘s weight was more than the sum of its parts: as an English-language newspaper, read by expats, international businessmen and diplomats, any criticism of the Israeli government was perceived as washing the dirty linen in public.

Looking at the Jerusalem Post today, it is hard to fathom that up until three decades ago, it was a liberal, left-of-center newspaper

In 1989, the Canadian Hollinger group, jointly owned by the neo-conservative David Radler and the Thatcherite Canadian-British media mogul Conrad Black, came to Shamir’s rescue. Ari Rath, Frenkel’s co-Editor-in-Chief, would later divulge that the Hollinger’s purchase offer was more than seven times the sum requested by Koor, at the time undergoing liquidation. A few months after the purchase, Frenkel resigned, citing repeated editorial interference by his newly appointed publisher, Yehuda Levy. Not long afterwards, in January 1990, 25 of the paper’s senior staff staged a walkout. The most senior of them was the managing editor, David Landau, who would go on to found the Post‘s most serious competitor to this day: the English edition of Haaretz.

As the Post continued its rightward journey, its once loyal left-of-center readership, together with new liberal-Zionist audiences overseas, found refuge in the pages of a veteran Israeli broadsheet that, despite plummeting support for left-wing politics in Israel, continued to preach against the occupation, for a two-state solution, and for the protection of civil rights—stances that put it at odds with an increasingly defensive mainstream public opinion.

Both papers, gradually moving away from the middle of the road and toward a more strident partisanship, have reflected an increasingly polarized Israel to an increasingly polarized Jewish diaspora. But there was a middle ground that was neglected, comprised mainly of skeptics—English-speaking Israelis and international sympathizers of the Jewish state who, like most Israelis, accepted the two-state solution in principle but believed that the prospects of its peaceful realization in the contemporary geopolitical climate were slim. “I felt Israel and the Jewish world deserved nonpartisan journalism,” says David Horovitz about his decision to launch the Times of Israel, a few months after he stood down as editor of The Jerusalem Post. Apparently there was demand for this kind of journalism: with remarkable proximity to its founding, the Times became a force to be reckoned with and, together with its two veteran forerunners, today occupies the bulk of the market share.

The other outlets are comparatively marginal players. This is either because they are too new to have gained sizable exposure, or because they have consciously branded themselves as Israeli, rather than Jewish. Such is the case of Ynetnews which, according to its founding editor Alan Abbey, “steers clear of the Anglo-centric approach” of its competitors. Modeled on USA Today, Ynetnews was designed to be “more Israeli than Jewish,” says Abbey, and reflects the news atmosphere that surrounds the average Israeli, rather than presenting an Anglo-Israeli interpretation of it. As a result, Ynetnews has never purported to implicate itself in the diasporic debate about Israel. Neither has Israel Hayom—but for a different set of reasons altogether. Bankrolled by Jewish-American mega billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the freesheet was founded in 2007 with the all-but-explicit goal of countering what was perceived (with a certain degree of justification) by fans and sympathizers of Benjamin Netanyahu (Adelson chief among them) as Israeli media’s pathological bias against him. It was soon followed by his successful return to the premiership, which many attributed to Israel Hayom‘s relentless lobbying on his behalf.

A kosher certificate

The only statistical data detailing the media consumption habits of American Jews can be found in J Street’s 2010 National Survey of American Jews. In a question removed from subsequent surveys, the participants were asked to state which news sources they “turn to for information about Israel and the Middle East.” Out of a list of 22 options, only two—The Jerusalem Post and Haaretz— were Israeli publications, which with 10 and 6 per cent respectively fared much worse than domestic outlets such as ABC, CBS or NBC national news (60 percent collectively), The New York Times online (21 percent) and paper (12 percent) editions, and even Newsweek and Time magazines (13 and 11 percent respectively).

These are remarkably low ratings for the United States, a country where overall trust in the media is traditionally low (38 percent, according to the 2017 Reuters Institute Digital News Report—among the lowest of the three dozen countries surveyed). It is even more so given that news from Israel, especially at the level of intensity of such dedicated sites, is often consumed out of more than merely intellectual curiosity. Israeli news from the horse’s mouth is a readily available political auxiliary—a tool that, given its authenticity as a source, can be used to counter what is often perceived as a reporting bias in the US media, offering a genuine insight into the “real” Israel—as would like to know it.

The nature of the media bias on Israel, as always, is in the eyes of the beholder; to put it in Terry Eagleton’s immortal words, “Ideology, like halitosis, is what the other person has.” Thus, on the one hand, a pro-Israel advocacy group by the name of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) is engaged in meticulously scanning America’s leading newspapers, determined to “expose” their collective anti-Israel bias. The chief culprit is The New York Times, opposite whose headquarters in Manhattan the group hung a multistory billboard urging the Gray Lady to “stop the anti-Israel bias.” Conversely, in their much-touted 2007 book The Israel Lobby, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt identified 56 leading US columnists who “can be counted upon to support Israel reflexively and without qualification,” as opposed to just five pundits whose attitude towards Israel was cooler.

These trends, though much more pronounced lately, are not new. The failure of The Jerusalem Post, in its liberal phase, to fulfil its role as the voice of Israel in a hostile media environment, led one angry reader to cancel his subscription on the grounds of the paper’s damning coverage of Israel during the First Intifada. In a letter to Frenkel, the disgruntled former subscriber wrote: “I don’t need your paper. I find your views ably and drearily promulgated by Anthony Lewis, Tom Wicker, The NY Review of Books, etc. Who out there rises to the defense of Israel? Not The Jerusalem Post, for sure.” At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who, according to J.J. Goldberg’s observation above, love Israel while strongly disliking it. For them too, the Israeli media—+972 in this case—provides an axe to grind or, rather, a kosher certificate. In its pages, they find refuge from the stifling Zionist paradigm that dominates the debate, as an adulatory piece published in The Nation shortly after its launch, noted: “+972 is unencumbered by the careful dialogue we have cultivated in this country, and yet because it is written in English, the site enables American (and international) readers to see just how constrained our opinions have become.”

“Some of my readers tell me, when I meet them, that my column gives them a sense community,” says Bradley Burston, author of the veteran column A Special Place in Hell on haaretz.com, home to opinionated writing that often pushes the boundaries of the liberal-Zionist discourse. And community—or communities, to acknowledge their fragmentation—is indeed what the Israeli press can offer an increasingly divided American diaspora (in the main) audience, whose desire for open and gut-wrenching debate is not sufficiently addressed by the Jewish Federations and the local Jewish press, who cling onto the sheen of unity on Israel and debate Israel with a caution that brings alive the image of walking on eggshells.

Inside the echo-chamber

Despite its opportune starting point, Israel’s English-language press has failed to break into the Israel debate in the US in significant numbers. Thanks to its intrinsically combative tone, the Israeli press mainly found itself preaching to the converted—the audience segment most engaged with Israel which, according to successive polls, amount to no more than a third of America’s Jews. But for the media outlets, often small and thrifty operations, there was enough commercial scope here to justify their existence.

The limited exposure of the Israeli press across the pond is, to a great extent, due to the failure of established journalism to grasp the nature of the new medium. The Internet was met by an attitude consisting of a mix of arrogance and disregard. Because of its open-ended and pedestrian nature—anyone now could hang up their shingle as a “published” writer—the journalists, jealous and protective of their profession (and, perhaps, sometimes, their professionalism), became even more entrenched in the ivory tower. Online journalism became a craft in its own right only at a very late stage; at the outset, the online editions were, without exception, simply a replication of the printed paper.

Overwhelmed by the unexpected opportunity to cash in on an exponentially bigger readership than before, Israeli newspapers took the overseas audience for granted. A motley crew, they were all but shunned by newspapers that continued to target a local population who, by virtue of being situated on the ground, at the very top of the engagement spectrum. Therefore, also among their overseas readership, they limited themselves only to the most engaged.

The collapse of the center and the multiplication of voices, enhanced by the unabated continuation of the Conflict would, on the face of it, present Israeli outlets with an open invitation to leave a much more sizable—and influential—mark on the debate. But bedazzled by the unprecedented exposure and the profits that ensued, the Israeli media in expansion mode scarcely gave this a thought.

As journalism gradually pulls away from a commercial business model and edges toward a philanthropy-based replacement, the industry’s (not entirely unjustified) obsession with profitability may, belatedly, be subsumed by a greater focus on playing a more influential role in shaping the debate. And in the fast-changing world that we live in, this may well have already started to happen.

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