God, Jews and the Media: Religion and Israel’s Media, by Yoel Cohen

, December 30, 2013

God, Jews and the Media: Religion and Israel’s Media, by Yoel Cohen, Routledge Jewish Studies Series, 2012. 258 pp.

Reviewed by Haim Shapiro

Several years ago, Bar Ilan University held a symposium on religion and the media. As a newspaper reporter, I was curious as to what the panelists might have to say about the moral issues occasionally faced by journalists. For example, what did the Jewish sages have to say about the conflict between the public’s right to know and the prohibition of lashon hara (gossip)? How does one deal with the possibility of ruining someone’s reputation or even endangering his or her life by reporting on something that was said or done? I wondered if any of the journalists on the panel, some of them religiously observant, had ever consulted a rabbi on such issues.

To my disappointment, the symposium quickly evolved into a discussion on the way in which the media portrays the Jewish settlers in the disputed territories, most of whom are identified with the national-religious movement. I then realized that this was what interested most of the audience, which clearly sided with the settlers.

Yoel Cohen, a professor in the School of Communications at Ariel University, has delved into a vast array of issues relating to Jewish religious practice and the media, surveying not only the written press, radio, and television, but also internet coverage and the leaflets distributed on a weekly basis to worshippers at synagogues. He has surveyed the range of Israel’s Jewish population: the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Hassidic and Lithuanian yeshiva circles, the modern Orthodox, the traditional and secular communities, and even the demographically small Conservative and Reform movements. Indeed, Cohen’s study reveals that media coverage of “religion” in Israel is concerned, most often, with specific groups and the way they relate to one another. That is, theology per se is not considered particularly newsworthy.

Considerable media attention, Cohen notes, is paid to the members of the Haredi community, both because they are picturesque, with their distinctive dress and lifestyle, and because of their political clout. When Shas, a Sephardic Haredi party, was organized to challenge the Ashkenazi Agudat Yisrael, which had hitherto claimed the entire Haredi vote, there was additional coverage. Later, when yet another Haredi party, Degel Hatorah, associated largely with the rationalist Lithuanian yeshivot came on the scene, there was even more material for journalists. Cohen reminds us of an interesting paradox: The rabbis who guided each of these political parties and were themselves a source of media interest remained almost entirely inaccessible to the press. The former Sephardic chief rabbi and spiritual mentor of Shas, Rabbi Ovadya Yosef, is an excellent example. In the absence of direct access, journalists would regularly cover his weekly Saturday night sermons, broadcast by satellite, and report on his more outrageous remarks.

Another colorful figure, whom Cohen does not mention, was the late Rabbi Eliezer Schach, the aged mentor of Degel Hatorah, whose pronouncements were top news. In a 1990 Tel Aviv rally, he held the fate of the government in his hands while masses of black-garbed followers contrasted sharply with a small cluster of journalists who relied on an interpreter to translate Schach’s Yiddish into Hebrew. And, while Cohen does to some degree discuss Habad, a more developed treatment of this movement’s relations with the media would have been welcome.

At the other end of the religious spectrum, one would have also hoped for an in-depth analysis of the role of Rabbi Uri Regev who, as head of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, ran a well-oiled campaign on two fronts, in the courts and in the media, relating to a series of issues challenging the Orthodox hegemony over Israel’s religious life. Regev succeeded in doing this in spite of the fact that most Israeli journalists, even those covering the “religious” beat, knew even less about Reform Judaism than they did about the Haredim.

Cohen extensively and informatively covers the profusion of ultra-Orthodox media. In his view, it reflects a philosophy of withdrawing from modernity and seeking to maintain religious values in a cultural-ghetto framework. This contrasts with the relatively narrow range of media aimed at the modern Orthodox or nationalist religious public. Hatzofe, the one newspaper that did reflect a modern Orthodox position, is no longer in circulation. Today the nationalist religious camp may be said to be represented by Makor Rishon and to some extent, by the free daily, Yisrael Hayom. A pirate radio station reflecting this outlook was, following a court order, closed down.

The Haredi world enjoys a much greater degree of media diversity. The longstanding Agudat Yisrael newspaper, Hamodia, is available alongside the newspaper, Yated Ne’eman of Degel Hatorah. In many respects the two papers resemble one another. Both are actively censored, with no pictures of women and no mention of sex crimes or sexually related issues, even when these are of national interest. To these one may add other publications including Yom Leyom of Shas, Hamachane HaHaredi of the Belz Hassidim, Ha’edah, of the Council of Torah Sages, and Hahomah of the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta.

These affiliated organs have been augmented by a bewildering collection of more independent Orthodox and Haredi periodicals, beginning with Yom Shishi and continuing with the more upmarket Mishpacha. These, in turn, were supplemented by religious radio stations, at first a wide array of pirate stations, which continue to crowd the airways, and eventually, the legally sanctioned Radio Kol Chai. Despite the disapproval of the internet by the Haredi sector, there are even Haredi-oriented internet sites, including Kikar Shabbat, BeHadrei Haredim and LaDaat, which challenge rabbinical bans on internet use while ostensibly adhering to rabbinical standards.

The relatively small number of publications catering to the Modern Orthodox (what is today called the National Religious) public may be related to the fact that it is made up of people who tend to read general publications, listen to non-religious radio stations, and watch television, while the Haredim shun all of these. At the same time, this is a group which may well be said to feel under-represented in the media. In this sense, the participants in the Bar Ilan symposium might not have been so far off the mark.

Cohen’s otherwise excellent volume suffers from something of an identity crisis, in that the author does not seem to have decided whether to write a popular work or a scholarly treatise. Further, the book was poorly edited. The most egregious example of this can be found on page 122, when the author appears to say that any child born of a forbidden marriage, such as that between a kohen and a divorcee, is considered a bastard (mamzer) according to Jewish law. As I am certain the author knows full well, a mamzer (whose situation is far worse than that of a bastard as defined by western culture) is the offspring of a very limited number of combinations, such as a child proven to be that of a married woman and a man who is not her husband, or the product of incest.

God, Jews and the Media: Religion and Israel’s Media demonstrates Professor Cohen’s encyclopedic familiarity with the subject. It is required reading for anyone interested in issues relating to religion and the media in Israel. One would hope that journalists wishing to write about religious issues in Israel would read it as well.

Haim Shapiro

Haim Shapiro was a staff member of the Jerusalem Post from 1973 to 2003. During much of this time, he was the reporter for religious affairs. Following his retirement he studied Art History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Recently, he completed his MA thesis, about a Greek Orthodox Church which had been decorated in modern times by a Greek artist.