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Jumping from hack to flack

Haaretz today took a pretty serious jab at the Jewish Agency for Israel over the agency’s decision last week to refocus its mission from one historically bent on settling the State of Israel and recruiting new immigrants to one aimed at building global Jewish identity. The interesting part, however, is that it will soon be up to a former Jerusalem Post reporter to defend such attacks.

Anshel Pfeffer, the staff writer who covers the agency for Haaretz, went right for the jugular in a piece titled, “Jewish Agency’s new plan for the Diaspora proves its irrelevance.”

“There were two significant messages of change in the Agency’s goals: that it is effectively getting out of the aliyah business and it wouldn’t continue funneling huge funds into educational programs in Israel,” Pfeffer wrote. “But these changes were obfuscated by weasel words and hackneyed explanations.”

Ouch.

The paper followed up its coverage of the agency with a story Tuesday about the agency’s newest high-level hire: The organization plucked from the Jerusalem Post Haviv Rettig, the journalist who has covered the agency for that paper, and tabbed him as their spokesman for Israeli and European media.

Haaretz sidestepped taking any further potshots at the agency or Rettig, but the story certainly elicited a response. Several people e-mailed me this morning asking me what I made of the deal and whether I thought there was any conflict of interest.

Though Rettig’s hiring did not become official until today, I had heard that it was in the works early last week, and that Rettig was in the final stages of the agency’s tender process. 

After a couple of playful private e-mails last week with Rettig, who I have known as a colleague and competitor for the past several years, I got him on the phone Tuesday to talk about what it means to jump from covering the agency to flacking for the agency – and about what it was like to cover the group during the past couple of weeks as he vied for what was a highly sought-after job, especially during the agency’s board of governors meetings last week.

“It has been a funny few weeks, going through the tender process,” he said, but he took the job because he is on board with the new course that Natan Sharansky has set for the agency. “This might sound a little arrogant, but there is an issue I am an expert in, and it is a genuine issue in that is the growing gap between the Jews in Israel and the Jews in the Diaspora. These are two different kinds of Jews and Jewish societies, that is something I have expertise in, and that is fundamental to Natan Sharansky’ project.”

And, Rettig added, Sharansky’s plan to help the two Jewish societies better see eye-to-eye is why he is joining the agency.

That being said, Rettig says that he begged off of the Jewish Agency beat when he became a serious candidate for the job, but the Post’s editor in chief, David Horowitz, did not honor the request. 

“David Horovitz thought that I could be fair, and that he could make sure the coverage itself was fair. And the coverage was very, very much in quotes. Even in the news, there was no analysis. The vast majority is almost entirely quotes. That was all intentional. The concept was to be very, very careful. He said he trusts my honesty, my basic honesty, and it was all overseen by the staff.”

And in truth, the JPost’s coverage of the agency during the past couple of weeks has been pretty vanilla, though accurate, including a straight story about the passing of the agency’s new plan and a straight story that was something of a scoop involving the agency working with the prime minister to create more opportunities for high school students from the Diaspora to go to Israel. 

(Sorry Haviv… I’m not counting anything over the past week as a real scoop. But as someone who has covered much of the same territory as Haviv, albeit from a different side of the ocean,  over the past four years, I will say that I trust his reporting and respect his opinions. I will not vouch for all of the all of those who cover the Jewish organizational world. Some of what you read is just flat wrong. But I have always found Rettig’s reportage to be spot on, even if I did not always agree with all of his analysis.)

Still, covering his new employer from his old seat was a funny balancing act, Rettig said, especially as the agency made a potentially historic change.

“The news reportage was difficult, and the way to do it was to minimize it, to just keep it honest and minimal,” he said. If he had not been a candidate for the job, it would have "been my choice this would have been the lead story in the paper, and it would have had analysis extolling [the new plan] and saying [the agency] could collapse. Nevertheless, this is the direction that could save the agency. Instead there were three relatively small stories.”

Once the hiring was made official Tuesday, Horowitz did indeed take Rettig off the Jewish Agency beat, and in his last few days at the post, Rettig will focus on non-agency stories. Now that Rettig is jumping to another ship, he says that he is looking forward to a job in which he is not merely relaying to the world the party line of a potentially revamped Jewish Agency, but that hopefully he will get to help shape the new agency – for which he has pushed from afar for years in the pages of the post. 

“I have come to really believe the Jewish people really need some things done, so it is tremendously gratifying to step in to do it,” he said. “This is the aircraft carrier. The huge prototypical education system of the Jewish future. Everything can fail. There have been strategic plans before that have failed, and leaders with big ideas. On the other hand, it could succeed. Once upon a time, there were a few big Jewish machers, who put together a group that built a state," he added, referencing the early days of the Jewish Agency. "It takes a lot to turn an air craft carrier around. But if you do, then you have an aircraft carrier on your side.”

Good luck, Haviv.

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