Free paper vs. free press?

Free paper vs. free press?

American Jews may be unaware of a phenomenon that is reshaping the media landscape in Israel. An exchange of JTA op-eds helps fill in the gaps.

Billionaire U.S. philanthropist Sheldon Adelson has bankrolled a daily newspaper called Israel Hayom, which is distributed free in Israel and thus has bitten deeply into the market share and sustainability of Israel’s homegrown and venerable newspapers and broadcast outlets, including Maariv and Haaretz. At the same time, Hayom has pressed an undisguised political agenda that supports the policies and government of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Adelson makes no bones about his political agenda in Israel or the United States, where he combines major support for the Republican Party with pro-Israel activism (see page 20).

In the age of on-line media, Hayom is hardly the only factor in the decline of the traditional media in Israel. And Israel’s wild and woolly press has in recent years come to be dominated by a small number of extremely influential families with political agendas of their own. As one of Hayom’s columnists, David M. Weinberg, writes in JTA, Hayom has gained readers not only because it is free, and not only because it has “solid editing, experienced reporters, comprehensive coverage, and a fine lineup of sharp columnists,” but because of the “deep gap that opened between the left-wing ideological viewpoint peddled by [its competition] and the healthy, increasingly conservative instincts of the Israeli public.”

But if that last statement is true, the case for a robust media that challenges the status quo is even more essential for Israel’s democracy, and its image abroad. As Ori Nir, the U.S. spokesman for Peace Now, writes in JTA, “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.” He worries that Hayom is eroding that culture.

This isn’t a question of whether Mr. Adelson has the “right” to fund an Israeli daily. Of course he does. But his influence in Israel raises questions about the relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israel, and the role of non-citizens in influencing Israel’s political climate. Often self-conscious about our ability to criticize Israel from afar, we should be equally introspective when our most powerful activists engage so directly in its politics on its home turf. At the very least, we should keep informed about the Israeli media and have a communal discussion about what role if any we have in making sure they continue to thrive in a region where press freedoms, criticism of governments, and respect for ideological pluralism are hardly the norm.

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