Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review April 10, 2000 / 5 Nissan, 5760

Israel's post-democracy

By Jonathan Rosenblum

THE NIGHT before the pope arrived in Jerusalem, Israel's Dan Rather, Nissim Mishal, on a government-run TV station screened a film clip of four guys in the Safed Cemetery invoking the Angel of Death to expedite the departure of the pope, Yasser Arafat, and Hafez Assad from their earthly toil. The four were identified as fervently-Orthodox Jews affiliated with a Chassidic group.

That clip was eagerly seized upon by the world media. It possessed all the elements for a great visual piece --- a spooky candlelit ceremony enacted in an ancient cemetery at midnight. For the station, the story also provided a tailor-made opportunity to cast the fervently Orthodox in the most ridiculous light. If that meant reducing Judaism to black magic in the eyes of tens of millions of viewers around the world, so be it.

Within two days, the police had arrested researcher Avishai Bar-Haim on suspicion of having staged the pulsa d'nura ceremony, and the organizer of the ceremony had been identified as Meir Baranes, a well-known local crackpot. By that time, however, the damage had been done. Millions of viewers of the original clip never learned that the entire ceremony was a fake. Fervently Orthodox Jews and a Chassidic group had been successfully smeared. Econophone

The film clip smacked of a staged job. Who, for instance, thoughtfully provided a neatly printed sign "Pulsa d'nura ceremony against the pope" to be held up for the camera? Of the four participants, two had to be commandeered at the cemetery itself. One of them had so little idea of what was going on that he kept calling for the pope to do teshuva (repent in accordance with Jewish Law), until Baranes told him the pope isn't Jewish.

Whether or not Baranes was actually paid for his antics, those involved in the broadcast knew that he represented absolutely no one besides himself. Baranes was long ago expelled from the said Chassidic group.

After notices of his expulsion were posted around Safed last year, Baranes attacked and beat Rabbi Levi Bistritsky, the chief rabbi of Safed, as well as of a Chassidic group. So badly was Bistritsky beaten, he had to be hospitalized for several days. (Baranes was convicted of felonious assault but let off with a small fine, thereby reinforcing the conviction in the a Chassidic group community that he is another mentally unbalanced individual being used by the General Security Service.)

Haim Hecht, who dispatched Bar-Haim to film the ceremony, knew very well that Baranes is a quack. Baranes is a frequent caller to Hecht's radio call-in show.

Veteran Kol Yisrael reporter for the northern region Shula Shmerling reported the pulsa d'nura story on Israel Radio the following day, describing Baranes only as a a Chassidic group member. Yet when asked privately whether she knew about Baranes's expulsion from a Chassidic group and his felony conviction, she replied: "Of course, everybody knows that." Only her listeners were left ignorant.

If the staging of the pulsa d'nura ceremony sounds familiar, it should. It apes the infamous Eyal (rabbidly-right-wing militia ) initiation ceremony broadcast in September 1995. (Interestingly, both the Eyal and the pulsa d'nura clip were edited by the same person, Yisrael Segal.)

The clip of Eyal's supposed initiates vowing to murder their opponents caused, in the words of then attorney-general Michael Ben-Yair, "grave damage [to the right-wing], and created a virtual public storm."

Trakdata Yet Eyal was the creation of the GSS and its operative, Avishai Raviv. The Shamgar Commission found that the swearing-in ceremony was entirely staged and that "anyone who was there had to be aware that it was staged."

Nevertheless Eitan Oren, the journalist responsible for the filming the fake ceremony, continues to be employed by the Israel Broadcast Authority.

Israel Media Watch filed a criminal complaint against Oren for broadcasting deceptive material. For 3.5 years, the State Attorney's Office pushed off the complaint with the excuse that the matter was under investigation. In fact, the decision not to prosecute Oren was made over three years ago by State Attorney Edna Arbel. (It was the minutes of the meeting at which that decision was taken that Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein tried so hard to suppress last November.)

The faked pulsa d'nura ceremony shows that the lessons from the failure to prosecute Oren were soon internalized by Israel Broadcast Authority staffers: One runs little risk in staging "news" events that will discredit the Right or the religious.

The staging of news events that discredit or delegitimize certain segments of Israeli society is symptomatic of a much broader problem. The free marketplace of ideas has broken down in Israel, and those calling for its repair are scarcely to be found, at least not among elite opinion makers. As a consequence, we are experiencing a poor man's 1984.

On the one hand, the media manufacture or distort news. On the other, certain groups cannot even gain a hearing for their views. Last week, for instance, both Ha'aretz and Ma'ariv refused to accept a full-page advertisement showing a group of members of the far-far Left wing party, Meretz, stomping a Chasidic man at a Ramat Aviv protest, with an accompanying text of quotes from prominent left-wing figures calling for violence against fervently-Orthodox Jews .

For money, Ha'aretz did not hesitate to publish a recent insert by a Christian missionary group, and Ma'ariv has been only too happy to serve as the country's pimp in advertising massage parlors and escort services.

But, hey, these people have principles! Even for tens of thousands of shekels, they would not allow certain uncomfortable facts to reach the Israeli public.

Two weeks ago, revivalist Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak was invited by a group of students to speak at the Hebrew University. More than 50 students showed up, but they never got to hear him. A group of Meretz protesters heckled him so loudly for over two hours that he could not speak, and the university did nothing to defend his right to speak.

Today whenever Rabbi Yitzhak rents an auditorium, defenders of "freedom" of religion and pluralism institute legal proceedings to stop him, forcing him to spend thousands of shekels in legal fees. Aren't our enlightened ones even embarrassed to be so scared of one little rabbi in a funny costume?

First we had post-Zionism. Now, it seems, our elites would bring us post-democracy as well.

JWR contributor Jonathan Rosenblum is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post. He can be reached by clicking here.


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© 2000, Jonathan Rosenblum