The diaspora and Israel… how to complicate things

The diaspora and Israel… how to complicate things

For the Jewish Chronicle December 7 2018

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must have thought it was his lucky day.

Fresh from yet another difficult encounter with Israeli police, and juggling a rocky coalition with several ministerial portfolios, the Israeli Prime Minister was entitled to be on his guard as he faced us, a group of journalists from the Jewish diaspora.

But “Bounceback Bibi” was in scintillating form. In an appearance which a colleague likened to a game of softball, the Prime Minister batted away such “tough” questions as “should Israel keep the Golan?” with an eye-roll that could have been seen several continents away.

Another questioner urgently wanted to know whether Mr Netanyahu had considered playing a role in a Russian or Ukrainian-language film (he had not).

Only time — and perhaps luck — intervened to prevent a man wearing a jacket covered with hundreds of stars of David asking a question about food.

To say this was a depressing scenario is an understatement. And yet, the Netanyahu encounter was said by many to be the high point, together with an earlier audience with President Rivlin, of an intense four-day Jewish media summit, which attracted 160 participants from 30 countries.

What was evident from my time at this, the third such summit organised by Israel’s Government Press Office (GPO) under the current coalition, is that it is not clear what the conference was actually for. The overall theme was: “Israel and the Diaspora: It’s Complicated” — which it is.

But it is hard to expect diaspora Jewish journalists to take Israel seriously, and vice-versa, if it insists on treating them as an extension of its public relations arm, a practice long derided by communities around the world.

The arcane process by which people were approved to take part in this event meant that there were a solid number of bloggers and social media representatives — who had not the faintest idea what we older hands were complaining about.

Parts of the programme seemed to take no account of the fact that most, though not all, of the participants were working journalists. These were people familiar with Israel, its topography and its political shenanigans.

For them, some events were deeply frustrating because there was barely any opportunity to pose challenging questions.

GPO director Nitzan Chen seemed to believe that we, the delegates, were the frontline troops in Israel’s ongoing war against international opinion.

After leading the group in an excruciating pre-Chanukah rendition of Ma’oz Tzur at President Reuven Rivlin’s residence, for example, Mr Chen told the President with some pride that, “we have created a corps of people who can go out into the world and advocate for us”.

The summit was a great opportunity for Jewish journalists to meet and network — and to gain access to powerful politicians.

But it is hard to see the point in bringing in, say, Deputy Prime Minister Michael Oren to talk about the possibility of Israeli recognition of Reform and Conservative Jews — and then not allow the deeply well-informed American Jewish journalists present to ask any questions.

One good idea in the wake of Pittsburgh and the wave of global antisemitic attacks, both verbal and physical, was the decision to devote sessions to unpacking antisemitism in different world communities

But all such examination was presented from an Israel-centric viewpoint, with no opportunity given to the diaspora journalists to tell each other what things are like where they live.

And yet there were Hungarian journalists who could have talked about Viktor Orban, Brazilian journalists who might have had the lowdown on new far-right leader Jair Bolsanaro, Ukrainian and Russians who would have given a flavour of the rapidly degenerating situation in their countries — and even three from Britain with knowledge of one Jeremy Corbyn.

Well, there’s always next time.

  • 14 December, 2018