After being the subject of numerous unflattering news reports over the past week, Prime Minister's Bureau chief Natan Eshel went to his neighborhood synagogue on Friday for some love and support from the home crowd.
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Eshel entered the synagogue - Hapoel Hamizrahi after Rabbi Dorf, on Tel Aviv's Nahalal Street - after the start of the service.
For several days the main topic of conversation in the pews has been the injustice being done to "Natkeh," as he is known there. The worshippers were indignant about the paparazzi photographers that dogged his steps, his "traitorous" colleagues and the sensationalist television reports. Some prayed for a resolution to the story and questioned whether Eshel's alleged actions amounted to sexual harassment. "If I photograph a woman walking in the street, from a distance, if I photograph her chest and legs, is that sexual harassment?" one man asked another, who replied, "Ask Natan."
At the end of the service, everyone gathered around Eshel and he barely managed to forge a path to the street. He shook hands, thanked congregants who had sent him messages of support during the week, and apologized for not getting back to everyone. One man whispered to him: "A woman who is being harassed makes a complaint; if she didn't complain, presumably there's nothing to it."
Eshel appeared to be stunned by the show of support. Another man said, "There's nothing to the complaint. It's nothing. People are simply making things up." Eshel echoed him, repeating, "There's nothing to the complaint."
A third man asked Eshel if he had the support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to which Eshel smiled and said, "Netanyahu is on my side."
The questioner said, with an air of decisiveness, "What's obvious is that there are a few scoundrels who should be thrown out of the Prime Minister's Bureau." Eshel replied, "You're right. One after another."
Eshel belongs to the religious Zionist community of Tel Aviv's Nahalat Yitzhak neighborhood. It is the center of the old power elite of the movement, whose members seem not to have heard about the disintegration of the National Religious Party, the rise of Haredi nationalism and other changes of the past dozen years or so.
One of the community's major machers is Leora Minka, head of Emunah, the NRP's women's organization. The organization, with 37 branches and an annual budget of NIS 200 million, operates 140 day care centers, four ulpana women's seminaries and 13 family counseling centers.
Minka, like other public figures in the movement, has been supportive of Eshel. On the day the affair broke in the news, she sent him a text message saying she "liked" him. She told Haaretz she did not want to be interviewed about the issue.
Natan Eshel's wife, Dvora Eshel, is the central region director of Emunah's national service association, Bat Ami.