Boris, Bibi and the Press

DURING THE PAST WEEK, the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been engulfed in wave after wave of allegations and accusations about his conduct in the highest office of public service in the UK. He has seemingly slipped deeper and deeper into the slime of sleaze.

On a wide range of issues, a familiar story has unravelled — influence peddling, lack of accountability, accessibility to ministers by the well-to-do, the subtle abuse of the English language and a firm embrace of being economical with the truth.

In Israel, the first testimonies in the Netanyahu corruption trial in Jerusalem have revealed striking parallels and an insatiable appetite for la dolce vita —the good life which makes no concessions to the vicissitudes of a suffocating pandemic.

They and many other world leaders have been brought low by the power of the word — by investigative reporters and campaigning lawyers. It is not by accident that Jews are represented disproportionately in these professions.

The Jews are known as “the People of the Book”. They bow their heads in respect when the words of the Torah scroll are carried through the congregation each Shabbat morning. It is therefore not by accident that Jews have been found in dissident movements the world over — from the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War to the Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa to the Human Rights Movement in the USSR.

Did not Hillel the Elder say “Do not do unto your neighbour that which you would not have him do unto you. This is the whole Torah”?

In contrast, other Jews, many of whom carry the scars of persecution, want stability in their lives and are highly critical of such involvement. They fear the resurrection of anti-Semitism and the fanning the flames of hatred. Speaking truth to power is a dangerous preoccupation.

The desire to maintain the status quo and to shout for change have existed side by side in recent Jewish history. Yet stability also means respect for the law and supporting a rules-based society. In the afterglow of the successful vaccine rollout in both Britain and Israel, concern about moral conduct in high office is the last thing on people’s minds.

Boris Johnson is riding high in the polls while Netanyahu has maintained a steady support of at least 30 mandates during the last four inconclusive elections. Why be bothered about values?

The power of the word threatens authoritarian figures — and those who would like to become authoritarian leaders. It is not by chance that Narendra Modi has attempted to silence criticism of his administration’s handling of the pandemic in India by closing down Twitter in that country.

It is not by chance that Soviet Jews fought for the right to emigrate to Israel after 1967 through open letters to the leaders of the Kremlin. Their weapon was the pen, not the sword. As the philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel commented many years ago: “Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.”

Reporters Without Borders recently published the World Press Freedom Index for 2021. While the Scandinavians occupied the top positions, Australia was listed at 25, followed by the UK at 33 and a US, recovering from Trump, at 44.

Israel was listed at 86 where security concerns offer an explanation for its low position. Its partners in the Abraham Accords, the UAE (131) and Bahrain (168) did not fare well. Neither did Egypt (166) which was described as ‘one of the biggest jailers of journalists’.

The ayatollahs’ Iran, the imprisoner of hapless dual nationals, including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, is listed at a lowly 174.

In the often hostile neighbourhood of the Middle East, Israel can rightly be proud of its freedom of the press. Indeed, many Jews came to Israel from countries of oppression and understood clearly that a free press was something to be treasured. Not all politicians saw it that way.

In the spring of 2017 during the halcyon days of the Trump presidency, Netanyahu called the media “an industry of despair”.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. However, in all the charges, ranged against him, it is fear of the press that has brought him to a Jerusalem courtroom.

Case 2000 saw Netanyahu attempting to gain political favour by playing off Arnon Mozes, the controlling shareholder of Yediot Aharanot against the late Sheldon Adelson, the central funder of the freebie, Israel Hayom, known as the ‘Bibiton’ for its effusive support of the prime minister and cut-price advertisements.

The New Israel Fund was incessantly attacked and eventually took Israel Hayom to court because ‘it crossed every red line of journalistic decency and ethics’. Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman — Netanyahu’s bitter rival and one-time aide — termed it ‘Pravda’. He was, after all, born in Kishinev, then in the Soviet Union.

In a series of meetings with Mozes, Netanyahu’s alleged aim was to improve positive coverage in Yediot Aharanot and to roll back the encroachment of Israel Hayom. However, a Knesset bill to force Israel Hayom to charge for the newspaper eventually failed, but it was undoubtedly a factor in the collapse of his government and the calling of an election in 2015. Arnon Mozes has been charged with bribery.

Case 4000 saw a quid pro quo, referred to in more sedate terms as a ‘reciprocal arrangement’, between Netanyahu and Shaul Elovitch, the owner of the popular website, Walla. The Prime Minister doubled up as Minister of Communications between 2014 and 2017. Elovitch was also the controlling shareholder in Bezeq, the major telecommunications company in Israel.

The Attorney-General, Avichai Mendelblit, commented: “Mr Netanyahu used his powers and authority as a public servant to promote matters in accordance with Mr Elovitch’s wishes.”

Elovitch and his wife are charged with bribery, obstruction of justice and suborning a witness in connection with an investigation.

Even in ‘the gifts affair’ of Case 1000, Netanyahu allegedly assisted Arnon Milchan, the Israeli-American billionaire, advance his interest in two television channels in Israel.

This is not a pretty picture and it tempts too many Diaspora Jews to bury their heads in the sand so as not to see it. Perhaps this is what Ben-Gurion understood by the Zionist revolution — that a normal society of Jews in their own nation-state would produce Jewish prostitutes and Jewish crooks as well as great scholars and people of profound Talmudic learning.

But whatever the outcome in the courtroom, it is a tremendous achievement for dedicated journalists in Israel and a victory for the rule of law. It is the flip side of misinformation, ‘alternate facts’ and malicious fantasies propagated by the mindless trolls of social media.

Ahad Ha’am wrote a remarkable essay in 1904 about Moses. In it, he defines Moses neither as a warrior nor as a lawgiver, but as a prophet. He writes about Moses: “He sees facts as they are, not through a haze of personal dispositions and tells the truth as he sees it… not because he has convinced himself by a process of reasoning that he is duty-bound to tell the truth, but because he can do no other. Truth-telling is the law of his nature, he cannot escape it even if he would.”

A romanticised view of the world, perhaps, but one which even the most hard-bitten journalists would regard as sacred.

Plus61j 4 May 2021

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