Jerusalem — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed a group of 140 Jewish journalists from 32 countries to Israel on Sunday evening and charged them with the task of speaking out against “the rising tide” of anti-Semitism in Europe and the “dangerous” deal being negotiated between the U.S. and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program.
Asserting that “this is your land” and “you are part of our people,” the prime minister told us, as participants in The Jewish Media Summit, that we can help as well in reporting on Jerusalem’s efforts to “cement fraying identities” among young Jews in the diaspora through programs like Birthright Israel and Masa, which seeks to infuse them with Jewish pride.
As a panelist the next morning at a session on the impact of Jewish media on Jewish life, I noted the irony of Netanyahu stressing the vital role of Jewish journalists though he has not held a meeting with or given an interview in America to Jewish journalists during his tenure. In response, moderator Shmuel Rosner, an Israeli journalist who writes frequently about Israel-diaspora relations, told me not to feel left out. “He doesn’t give interviews to the Israeli press, either.”
Netanyahu had encouraged us to report on Israel’s remarkable accomplishments in such areas as high-tech, medical and scientific achievements. Though Israel is “the most challenged nation on earth,” surrounded by enemies in an increasingly chaotic region, it has a flourishing economy and is responding to the challenge of creating a secure society.
“This is Israel,” he said. “This story has to be told.”
But in emphasizing the importance of reporting on the “Start-Up Nation” side of the Jewish state (the phrase is taken from the 2009 book of the same name, about Israel’s successful high-tech economy, by Dan Senor and Saul Singer), with no mention of the controversy over settlements, occupation and the failed Mideast peace talks, the prime minister and other key officials inadvertently were underscoring the ongoing tension Jewish journalists face in covering issues fully. That means reporting both sides of a given issue — in this case presenting the truly inspiring successes Israel has had while at the same time dealing with the reality of a society divided over its efforts to ensure its security while upholding democratic and ethical values.
The summit, sponsored by the Government Press Office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, was the first major attempt to bring Jewish journalists from around the world to Israel since the second intifada. Nitzan Chen, who heads the Government Press Office and helped launch the meeting, said the goal was to hold a summit every two years. Previously, the World Zionist Organization hosted an international conference every two years from the mid-1980s to 2000.
The participants seemed pleased to hear Akiva Tor of the Foreign Ministry, who helped organize the conference, tell them they are under-appreciated by their communities, and the State of Israel, but perform a vital function.
“We need you to speak up. Tell the story,” said Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of the economy and of diaspora affairs.
“We are trying very hard, though we’re imperfect,” added Bennett, who heads Jewish Home, the third largest party in the Knesset.
The four-day conference included presentations by experts in a variety of fields and visits to the Gaza border, West Bank communities, start-up companies and educational projects promoting pluralism.
The highlight for many participants was a session with outgoing Israeli President Shimon Peres who demonstrated that he is still sharp as he approaches 91.
Asked how Jewish journalists should report on Israel, he said simply: “Criticize us” when it is deserving and “support us” when we merit it.