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Op-Ed: Supporting Israel’s media strengthens its democracy

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Can you imagine Israel without a free, independent, vociferous and diverse media? Can you imagine Israel without Maariv and Haaretz? Without biting commentary, investigative reporting and an open, cacophonous marketplace of views and ideas?

Such an Israel terrifies me, and it should alarm you, too. It is not the Israel in which I grew up, certainly not the Israel that we all love to love and be proud of. Increasingly, Israel is heading in that scary direction.

The media industry in Israel is alarmingly shrinking. Independent media organizations are struggling to survive, while a daily newspaper that serves as a de facto mouthpiece for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — fully funded by a rich conservative American Jew — is handed out free on every other street corner and threatens to dominate the public discourse.

Not only the commercial, independent printed press is fighting to survive; the electronic media also is in crisis.

Sure, online media and narrowcasting are eating away at traditional media organizations in other Western democracies. Newspapers are folding in America as well. Just like anywhere else, the proliferation of Israeli blogs is welcome. But just like anywhere else, personal blogs don’t have the resources that news organizations muster to produce deep, broad, professional and independent reporting.

Israel, however, is a special case.

Israel’s democracy is fragile, and for the past four years some of its basic tenets have been under attack by its own democratically elected officials. Many of the notorious undemocratic bills and initiatives that ultranationalists in the current Knesset have introduced are aimed at silencing dissent, at weakening Israel’s civil society and at limiting political expression.

Netanyahu and his coalition have been striving — not without success — to dominate the public debate. The prime minister strongly believes in the power of words, images and perceptions. He therefore fights his battles, more than any past Israeli leader, in the public domain, using the media. And media organizations, particularly ones that depend on government funding or government control, have been losing their independence. Israel’s Broadcasting Authority, once known as the BBC of Israel, is a case in point. Under political pressure, its management and editorial staff are limiting criticism and dissent, and sticking to a perceived "party line."

I admit, I am an Israeli media devotee. At the age of 6, I severely injured myself while chasing my brother in a fight over a newspaper’s weekly supplement. I later worked for an Israeli daily newspaper for two decades. And recently I helped my organization, Americans for Peace Now, establish a daily review of the Israeli media. We offer it to anyone free because we believe that Americans should be familiar with the facts about Israel and with Israel’s public discourse.

When critics attack Israel for its shortcomings as a democracy, I always point out that Israel has an impressively thriving media, and therefore a well-informed public, engaging in open and unhampered debate on issues of supreme importance for their nation. That is still the case. But it may not be for long.

There may not be much that American Jews can do about other threats to Israeli democracy. When it comes to the threat to the Israeli media, however, they really can help. Buy a subscription for the electronic edition of an Israeli daily. Give a subscription to a young relative returning from a Birthright Israel trip. Publish ads in the Israeli media. Encourage your local federation or your favorite American Jewish organization to do the same. Get Israeli media apps for your mobile devices and pay for upgraded services.

Supporting the Israeli media is a win-win. It will make Israel a better democracy and you a better friend of Israel. You will be better informed and more deeply involved. You will have a stronger sense of reinforcing the kind of values that you believe in and would like Israel to follow.

An independent, thriving media is an asset for Israel and for anyone who loves it. Letting it perish will serve those who don’t see Israeli democracy as an asset but as a liability.

(Ori Nir is the spokesperson for Americans for Peace Now.)

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