Sorry Naftali, we're not your footsoldiers in the media war

By Jenni Frazer, July 6, 2014
Bennett: led the Jewish media summit

Bennett: led the Jewish media summit

It was not, perhaps, quite what the Foreign Ministry had bargained for when, after a decade-long gap, the idea of reviving a Jewish journalists' conference in Jerusalem was mooted.

Unlike previous events, this one was run by the Foreign Ministry in conjunction with the Government Press Office and - for the first time - the newly designated Ministry of Diaspora Affairs.

Given that the latter's minister is the controversial Jewish Home Party leader Naftali Bennett, it is unsurprising that the entire proceedings had a distinct slant.

From a breakfast meeting with Knesset members who represented only right-wing parties ("Where are the Labour MKs?" asked the journalists - "They didn't want to come" was the response), to the somewhat worrying suggestion by speaker after speaker that Jewish journalists were front-line troops in Israel's propaganda war, the conference assumed a bias which was, refreshingly, rejected by many of the 140 participants from 27 countries.

Nevertheless, there were some high points, not least the gala opening session with outgoing President Shimon Peres and a timed-for-the-8pm-television-news address by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There was also a later appearance by Israel's president-elect Reuven Rivlin and - naturally - Minister Naftali Bennett.

The biggest mistake was to treat the group of journalists as a UJIA mission

Former Prisoners of Zion Yuli Edelstein, now Speaker of the Knesset, and Natan Sharansky, today the chairman of the Jewish Agency, provided an unexpectedly hilarious Morecambe and Wise-style double act, trading jokes about who had been better off while in Soviet jails (Mr Sharansky: "you were in jail with criminals. I had a private suite").

Throughout the conference, of course, the burning news story of the week was the fate of the three kidnapped teenagers, and face-to-face with some of the main players in the tragic drama, the journalists took every opportunity to work out what was happening. On the second day, the reporters split into four separate tracks - Gaza, high-tech, Jewish renewal and the West Bank.

Those on the West Bank section piled into a shabby armoured bus with an armed guard and were taken to the distressingly ordinary bus-stop in the Gush Etzion bloc from which the teenagers had been picked up.

The bus stop, now covered with sad messages, was the backdrop for an aggressive address by Likud MK Ze'ev Elkin. As Mr Elkin thundered neo-biblical vengeance on the perpetrators of the kidnapping from the safety of the bus shelter, West Bank Jews continued to flag down passing vehicles on the road. Perhaps hitchhiking should be banned for teenagers, an Australian reporter told Mr Elkin. His response? "It's more dangerous to hitchhike in Tel Aviv than here in Judea and Samaria." Elsewhere, despite endless attempts to portray life in the West Bank as one of genteel integration between Jews and their Arab neighbours, a sharp reminder of the realities forced the way through.

David Perl, the mayor of Gush Etzion, stated: "I'm not happy for my kids to play with Arab kids. They are culturally and socially different. We don't need it and we don't want it." Rejecting the idea of a two-state solution, Mr Perl complained: "Do Jews in France ask for a separate state? No." The difference, of course, is that French Jews have full civil rights, something that cannot be said of the Palestinians.

The mistake, perhaps, was to treat a group of journalists - even one whose opinions were as diverse as possible - as though it were a UJA mission, with classes in basic Zionism.

Fiercely passionate about their work, Greek, Dutch, American, French, Spanish and British journalists told the Foreign Ministry and Mr Bennett's ministry that they could not have it both ways - if they wanted Jewish journalists to defend Israel, then they had to treat Jewish journalists in the same way, giving them the same access as the so-called "big players" of CNN or the Guardian. It is to be hoped that the message will have penetrated by the time of the next Jewish media summit - if there is one.

Last updated: 11:45am, July 6 2014