Europe’s Crumbling Myths – Yair Sheleg – Israeli Media Attitudes toward the Shoah

How does the Israeli media deal with the Shoah and related news items? According to Yair Sheleg, Jewish affairs reporter for Ha’aretz daily, the Israeli  media’s attitude on most issues is determined by its business structure and the society it portrays. The Holocaust and broader Jewish Diaspora subjects are thus presented accordingly.

A Small Competitive Market

“Israel is replete with dramatic events and an excitable media. The Hebrew lan­guage press starts with a very limited target market in which ratings are crucial. The papers have access to less than five million potential readers. Many Russian immigrants do not speak Hebrew. For others, English is their preferred language. “The country’s small, competitive market has led to a unique, delectable press

mix. The English-speaking daily, The Jerusalem Post, as well as Ha’aretz’s English edition cater to very specific niche markets. Many Russian non-Hebrew speaking immigrants obtain their information from the local Russian press. Hebrew party-owned quality newspapers have almost entirely disappeared. Only three significant Hebrew dailies remain: the liberal Ha’aretz, which seeks to be a quality newspaper and the more widely sold Yediot Aharonot and Ma’ariv tabloid-style papers, which cater to a more popular  readership.

“The style of Israeli tabloids is different from that  of foreign ones. In The Sun in England or Bild in Germany, a tax or sex scandal may be on the front page. In contrast, Israeli popular papers usually deal with topics similar to those of the quality press, but with a different presentation and emphasis. They may even put an economic issue up front, if it affects the pockets of their readers. To some extent the popular press fulfills an important role, as it introduces a public – which would not read a quality newspaper – to serious issues. Israeli radio and television likewise follow the popular trend.” Sheleg considers this to be indicative of the democratic character of the country’s public discourse.

“Since profitability is the prime consideration of most publishers, this determines what the papers’ journalists deal with. Among the Hebrew media, only Ha’aretz and Kol Yisrael radio have an employee specializing in global Jewish issues. One important Shoah-related topic they have dealt with extensively in recent years is Holocaust  financial restitution  in various countries.”

Providing Information and Entertainment

“Ma’ariv and Yediot each have journalists who, as part of their assignment, deal with Jewish Agency issues, the only Jewish-related subjects they cover. These papers also have correspondents in many cities in the world who report on Jewish issues, including Shoah-related ones, when they are of sufficient interest.

“Yediot and Ma’ariv gave minimal coverage to the financial restitution debate even when it became a major issue in the Western media. The main reason the tabloids did not deal extensively with this subject was that substantial non-dra­matic detail had to be reported.

“The Israeli popular press believes it has to provide not only information, but also entertainment, which financial restitution issues do not embrace. The tabloids only mention them when large amounts of money are involved or a major agreement is reached, like the one with Germany concerning slave and forced labor.”

Understanding the Fragility of Life

In Sheleg’s view, Israel’s drama-infested reality has stimulated interest in the Holocaust. “The conflict with the Palestinians and the accompanying casualties have caused a new generation of Israelis to understand the fragility of life. This has made Yorn Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) in recent years, an extremely important  annual event, even for the young.”

“Yorn Hashoah falls after Pesach (Passover) in the springtime, near Yorn Hazikaron (Remembrance Day for the Fallen in  Israel’s wars).  That  period  is thus associated with mourning in both the Jewish and Israeli collective memory, and has become a time of intense awareness. The similarities between the two memorial days are underlined, and the Jewish population senses an intertwined Jewish-Israeli  mourning.

“Regardless of its affiliations, the media – sensitized to this somber mood – begins writing about Yorn Hashoah and other issues of bereavement by the end of Pesach. With the Yorn Hashoah ceremonies and publicity, the Holocaust has gained respect in Israeli society and has become an expression of its Jewish character.

“Since it falls within a week of Yorn Hazikaron, Israel’s educational network has followed suit. A visit to Poland’s concentration and extermination camps has often become an integral part of the school curriculum. Such experiences have greatly affected the pupils. Seeing the places where some of the extreme horrors took place inscribes the subject far more intensely into the consciences of youth than attending Holocaust remembrance ceremonies in Israel.”

Sheleg comments: “This educative approach has been criticized for linking the youths’ Jewish identity in such a central way to the Shoah experience. The critics suggest relating it to positive issues rather than the danger of extermination.

The debate on how to maintain the state’s Jewish character by identifying more with non-tragic events continues.

“Yet with the Ministry of Education’s current policy  on  Holocaust  educa­tion, Yam Hashoah  has become  meaningful  to far more Israel youngsters  than in previous years. If one were to ask what primary issues define an  Israeli’s national identity, both Remembrance Day and  Holocaust  Day  would  figure high  on  the list.

“Another important aspect in the Shoah’s rise as an identifying factor in Israeli society is the decline of Zionism. In the past, Zionism led Israelis to look down on the Diaspora and claim that those who realized the aspirations of the Jewish people settled in Israel. The main role of the remainder  of world Jewry was to support them either financially or politically. Beyond that they were not of interest to most Israelis. In the recent partial ideological vacuum, the memory of the Holocaust more easily finds its place.”

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Associations with the Shoah

Sheleg speculates as to whether Israeli interest in the Shoah is still increasing or has stabilized: “Many feel the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will never be relegated to history. We live in a period where Israel continuously has its back against the wall. While Israel is much stronger than the Palestinians, there is the increasing perception that the conflict may at times be mitigated but never resolved. Today, Israel is the only country whose enemies express an explicit desire to destroy it. This sharpened perception of Israel’s existential problems accentuates Shoah associations.

“Such an attitude is not new. During the Six Day War, the Yorn Kippur War and the Gulf War similar issues arose, especially during the Gulf War when the country’s population was on high alert in sealed rooms wearing gas masks. Associations emerged with the gas of the death chambers. And now, once again, there are talks about attacks with non-conventional weapons.

“The Holocaust is now presented as a period of which Israelis are no longer ashamed, unlike they often were in the past. They have become increasingly aware that not only those who fought in the Resistance and ghetto uprisings were courageous people, but so were those who survived.

“With society’s increasing focus on the Shoah, by commemorating  past events as well as current associations, the media has  largely  followed  suit. There is, however, some whispered reluctance in the office corridors of editors to continue to support this trend.  The leftist elite which dominates the media mainly criticizes the government. Their hushed suspicion is that the Israeli government is using the  Shoah  to  divert  attention  from  its current  actions  to an historical event. The government may wish to strengthen  the  feeling  of Israeli victimization,  the  argument  goes,  so  as  to  blunt  the  public’s criticism of its activities.”

Of Focus and Omission

“The media focus on the Shoah is concentrated almost exclusively in the coun­try’s approximately fortnight mourning  period.  During  the  other  50 weeks  of the year, the subject is avoided as much as possible, almost regardless of any new scoop.

“During the remainder of the year Holocaust-related  issues are mentioned in the media only when there is a corresponding drama. An Auschwitz monastery is visual and  thus can be captured spectacularly in a photographic depiction, which is also easy to describe in words. Hunting a war criminal could make the newspaper, not for its Holocaust content, but rather for its dramatic and exciting details. Restitution payments do not fit the bill, since they are too complicated to readily  understand.

“Violent anti-Semitism abroad is another way of reminding readers of the Shoah. The spate of burning synagogues and other Jewish institutions – mainly in France – combined with violence against Jews, and the United Nations’ Anti­-racism Conference in Durban in September 2001, fall into this category.

“The Israeli popular press has painted the Durban Conference exclusively in anti-Semitic colors without understanding the complexity of its events. Parts of the conference had an anti-Semitic character, but the European countries’ positive attitude toward Israel, as well as the importance of the slavery issue on its agenda, were completely neglected. The black African countries did not want to make the Shoah the central issue. Inthe Durban text, slavery was considered the symbol of human evil. The  event was reported in a distorted way in several Israeli newspapers, again demonstrating that the media is a major determinant of the country’s attitude toward the Shoah.”

The Eichmann Trial: A Turning Point

“Israel’s public awareness of the Shoah today is very different from that of the first years of the country’s independence. The 1961 Eichmann trial was probably the turning point. Until then the Israeli mainstream  suppressed the subject.

“Common wisdom is that survivors were unwilling to detail their experiences. A study by Ben-Gurion University historian Hanna Yablonka, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, in her book Ahim Zarim (Foreign Brethren), published by Yad Ben Zvi and Ben-Gurion University in 1994, claims this is untrue.

“Many Shoah survivors were willing to tell their stories often in their own journals, such as publications of the Kibbutz Hameuhad movement. The surrounding society, however, was not interested in hearing about the subject. One possible reason was guilt feelings about having been saved, while being unable to help the murdered. Another was that Israelis wished to stress heroism,  rather than the acts of those they perceived as having gone ‘like lambs to the slaughter,’ an expression coined by poet Aba Kovner, a leader of the partisans in the Vilna ghetto. It is thus incorrect to consider it a typical metaphor of Israeli arrogance toward  Holocaust  survivors.”

Little Interest in Diaspora and Jewish Issues

“The media’s limited interest in Shoah-related events is true for Diaspora and Jewish subjects in general. If one were to measure the inches devoted by the popular press to other Diaspora issues, one would find them to be even less than those devoted to the Shoah.

“Diaspora events  are rarely dramatic certainly not headliners. One item however, which made it into the Israeli media during the first year of the current Palestinian uprising was the U.S. Reform movement’s announcement  that  its youth organization members would not visit Israel due to the security situation. This statement, discussed both in the press and on the radio, was interpreted as meaning that, in Israel’s time of need, the Diaspora didn’t show solidarity. It remained, however a one-time issue. The Israeli press focuses on events rather than processes. The latter are not analyzed in a systematic way thus, by definition, an important dramatic event like Durban is always a surprise.

“The popular press ‘discovered’ the Durban conference only one day before it began. Its editors didn’t  realize the  gathering potentially embodied a major disaster for Israel. Only at the last moment did they decide to send staff members there, who had no idea what the essential issues for Israel at the conference were. Their reporting created the impression of a substantive anti-Semitic festival. These people, two days earlier, had no clue about the conference’s main issues or what might happen there.”

The Diaspora is Secondary

“Many Israelis regard the Diaspora  as secondary: Israel is the natural place for all Jews to be, so those in remote locations are considered  less important. This attitude determined  Israeli interest  in Argentina’s economic crisis. Most  Israeli media almost exclusively focused on how many Argentinean Jews would immigrate to Israel. They started from the assumption that, in the event of a crisis somewhere in the world, the Jews living there should come to Israel. Why should Israelis care about their problems, if they rejected Israel’s offer to live in a permanent homeland? “This attitude is related to the Zionist education of many Israelis, which has left a deep impression until today. To some extent, that may also determine the Israeli position toward current anti-Semitism in France. In addition there is the normal factor of ‘what is remote from the eye is remote from the heart.’

“Israel’s attitude toward the Diaspora is also influenced by generational fac­tors. Before and after the Shoah, Jews were dispersed throughout the world. This spurred close familial ties between many people living in Israel and those abroad; several generations later this family bond has weakened.

“This is less true for French Jews of North African origin, who immigrated to Israel later. Many of those in Israel still have first generation connections with family members in France. If anti-Semitism continues in France this relationship may lead to greater emigration, most notably to Israel. Jews in other countries of crisis would determine where to move based on human rather than ideological factors.”

Differences between the Media

“In order to better understand the Israeli media’s approach to the Diaspora, the Jewish Agency conducted a survey on how many articles on Jewish issues appear in the various media. It found that Ha’aretz leads the Jerusalem Post, while both are far ahead of Ma’ariv and Yediot. As far as electronic media is concerned, the state-owned Kol Israel radio is the uncontested leader. The television stations rank near the bottom, with the commercial Channel Two broadcasting virtually nothing on Diaspora subjects.

“This confirms the media’s general attitude, which expresses itself in so many other fields. The quality press is interested in subjects not only because of their immediate popularity, but also because of a desire to supply  information.  To some extent, their approach to publishing is not only what already interests their readers, but also what could be important for them to know.

“It is particularly disappointing that the state-owned TV station, Channel One, gives Jewish issues so little attention. Hardly anything is known about differences in attitude between the right- and left-wing press. What is clear, however, is that the ultra-orthodox press has an above average interest in general Jewish subjects. A journal such as Agudat Yisroel’s Hamodia, which appears each Friday, devotes a full page to news from the Jewish world. The emphasis is on ultra-orthodox societies, yet the overall relationship with the Diaspora is felt much stronger than in the secular press. Also the right-wing paper Makar Rishon gives Diaspora and Holocaust issues far more attention.

“For the Russian press, some very specific Diaspora issues are important. One of these is restitution  payments. Another is Jewish world war veterans, an issue which is not reported on at all in the general Israeli press.”

One Exception

Sheleg points out that there is one major exception to what he has mentioned. “Israeli journalist Itamar Levin of the financial daily Globes has played a leading role in bringing the conflict concerning dormant Jewish bank accounts in Switzer­ land to the world’s attention. He developed this theme and gathered data on it, including major discoveries. To some extent his work has stimulated the World Jewish Congress to focus on this issue. This is the one exception of an Israeli journalist  playing a major role in the Holocaust restitution issue.

“The discussion on the Swiss banks which Levin initiated was picked up by the international press. Some American papers devoted aggressive articles to it. On Time’s cover a cuckoo clock appeared where, instead of a bird, Hitler came out, suggesting that the Swiss were  Nazi sympathizers. They were justifiably offended by it.

“Discussion on restitution issues in other countries, such as Norway or France, was major but mainly limited to their national press. The Shoah has become the symbol of ultimate evil and the restitution issue played against this background. Perhaps one reason important Western media  paid  attention  to this subject  is that some of them felt guilty for their role during the Shoah.

“Media interest  led  to  the establishment  of commissions  of historical  and financial enquiry in several countries. Verifying how locals helped the Nazi ma­chine  became  an  important  issue  for  them.  Itamar Levin continued to cover this intensively. This major process, which he helped initiate, shows what a lone journalist can do, if he is willing and able to operate outside his society’s culture.”

Yair Sheleg was born in 1964 in Israel, and was a pupil in the National Religious School system. He went to the Hesder Yeshiva in Gush Etzion. Sheleg studied for his first degree on the history of the Jewish people at the Hebrew University. For a number of years he has been writing for Ha’aretz and, for the last three years, has been itsfull-time reporter on Jewish affairs. Before that he was with Kol Ha’ir, Nekuda and the army paper  Bamahane.

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