Israel's Jewish Identity Administration Presents: TV Broadcasts With 'Jewish Values'

Almost half the funding for Shas-backed programs to come from state coffers.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Aryeh Deri, left, was behind the appoinment of Rabbi Shalom Cohen to head the Shas Council of Torah Sages, filling the void left by the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, right, last year.
Aryeh Deri, left, was behind the appoinment of Rabbi Shalom Cohen to head the Shas Council of Torah Sages, filling the void left by the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, right, last year.Credit: Reuters
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

The Religious Services Ministry’s Jewish Identity Administration is planning to expand its activities by producing television broadcasts.

The administration recently published a call to production companies to create programs that would “make the values of Jewish culture accessible to broad sections of Israeli society.” The plan is to launch a joint venture with the production company worth 4 million shekels ($1.03 million), of which the administration will cover 40 percent.

Haaretz has learned that the ministry is in advanced negotiations with the Hidabroot organization, an ultra-Orthodox group that promotes Jewish observance and runs a cable TV channel of the same name. It is headed by Rabbi Zamir Cohen, who is affiliated with the Shas party.

The ministry proposal to the production companies said that the broadcasts would include talk shows, lectures and “series based on ancient Jewish sources, like the Bible or various sources from the Oral Law. Programs or series that express Jewish values in a manner that generates identification with the content or the characters. Programs or series in which the central characters are based on Jewish role models from earlier periods. The activity will invite involvement by the audience and followers on social networks.”

The proposal also states that the purpose of the venture is to produce alternative cultural heroes, since those who have this status in contemporary Israel are not necessarily those who “represent lofty values or who have advanced humankind educationally and culturally from a historical perspective.”

Thus, “creating a cultural alternative based on Israeli and Jewish values is an important and extremely necessary objective, and the use of advanced technology is the most relevant tool for promoting alternative programming and encouraging and facilitating a public discussion that will enable such an alternative to break into the public sphere and resonate positively.”

The Jewish Identity Administration was established by Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett when he was appointed religious services minister in 2013. Earlier this year it moved into Shas’ hands when that party assumed control of the ministry, and its programming is changing to reflect this. The administration’s budget for 2015 is 13 million shekels, most of it coming from special coalition funding.

According to Oded Fluss, the ministry’s director general, there are precedents for programs produced jointly by government and private bodies, citing the series “Tironoot” (“Basic Training”), which ran from 1998 to 2001 and was jointly funded by the Reshet broadcaster and the Israel Defense Forces Spokesman’s Office.

“We have different types of activities in the administration,” said Fluss. “Generally it involves an individual working with a group, like an activity for 30 students at Tel Aviv University. We thought to ourselves, why keep it small if we can do it bigger, if we can create content that’s accessible to the whole world and not just to those 30 students? The idea is to make those topics that we deal with accessible, which is why we decided to pursue a joint venture with an entity that knows how to produce TV programs.”

Of all the production companies that responded to the announcement, Hidabroot seems to be the front-runner. Hidabroot is one of the largest religious outreach organizations in the country. Aside from the large assemblies and Jewish studies classes that it runs all over the country, since 2008 the group also operates a cable TV channel featuring lectures by Cohen and Rabbi Yitzhak Fanger, among others. If Hidabroot wins the contract, it isn’t clear whether the broadcasts would be shown on Hidabroot’s own network or whether an effort will be made to place them on other channels or websites.

The organization also has an extensive website in several languages. The website stresses its connection with the Mizrahi (Middle Eastern and North African) stream of ultra-Orthodoxy, featuring, for example, stories for children about “the great light” Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and about Rabbanit Margalit Yosef, “the wife of the great light.” The website answers questions about Jewish law, provides information about matchmaking for religious singles, and has presentations in various formats on a wide range of topics, including lectures against assimilation and abortion.

Cohen was assaulted in Tel Aviv three weeks ago, apparently because he had criticized Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak, another charismatic outreach rabbi who in recent years had rebelled against Ovadia Yosef and Shas. The day after Cohen was attacked, Shas chairman Arye Dery told Radio Kol Hai that he had to protest “for the honor of the Torah.”

“I didn’t sleep last night,” Dery said. “They beat up a Jew, one of the most important Jews in the world, a Jew who sacrifices himself in Israel and abroad with humility and modesty to convey the word of God. We have to protest. Rabbi Zamir Cohen is the envoy of the entire Jewish people and is sparking incredible revolutions. May God strengthen him so that he should not fear and continue his work. We are all behind him.”

The Religious Services Ministry said, “The cabinet decided that the Jewish Identity Administration should engage in creating an infrastructure that will enable every Israeli to encounter Jewish traditional sources in an accessible, interesting and meaningful manner. The administration seeks to meet its goals in a variety of ways, and among other things it is considering the purchase of externally produced content to be distributed on different platforms and through different media in partnership with various entities. All engagements will be undertaken in accordance with the regulations and with the approval of the ministry’s tender committee, made up of a representative of the treasury and the ministry’s legal department.”

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