Fighting for His Country

During the week his film "The Shakshuka System" hit the screens, it's nearly certain that journalist Miki Rosenthal won more media coverage than the prime minister. Rosenthal's battle with the Ofer family, whose business dealings with the state are detailed in the film, was in nearly every newspaper. In one piece, Rosenthal himself, in a kind of J'accuse article, discussed what had happened to him during the years he made the film.

The nine months since then are probably enough to draw initial conclusions, even though Rosenthal's positions have not changed and the personal price he has paid has not swayed him from his usual assertive tone. It seems that for Rosenthal, who now will be serving as a reporter on "The Source," Ofer Shelah and Raviv Drucker's new program on Channel 2 tonight at 9 P.M., there is no other way. Filters between his thoughts and tongue simply don't exist. And the problem isn't his, he says.

Difficult struggles

It's no easy matter to elicit from Rosenthal, 55, a statement about the events of the past few months. Clean-shaven and dressed in a well-pressed button-down shirt, he tries to cooperate, but every question about coping and family pressures receives an answer about social, political and economic issues. Slipping into a worldview comes naturally to him; it takes less than a single sentence. "I had a period that wasn't simple," he says finally. "No one likes to be sued and no one likes to be attacked. It's expenses and time, and it isn't pleasant."

Did your family ask you to stop?

"Yes. They said stop it, they said enough, and I kept saying that as far as I'm concerned I'm fighting for the way this country looks. These sound like very big words and people don't talk that way nowadays, but I don't want my children to leave the country."

It sounds like it was more difficult for them than for you.

"Yes, it's been harder for the family with this, with the economic threat. They've sued me for NIS 1 million and I'm not a wealthy person - I don't have a million shekels to pay. If I lose I'll have to sell my home. My family doesn't always understand why I'm doing this. When I was making the film, every other day a threatening letter came. Yes changed its mind about broadcasting the film and the bank didn't want to lend me money. At a certain stage my family said: 'Enough, we understand that this is important to you, we understand that you're a Don Quixote, but there are limits.' This wasn't easy, but it's like telling a religious person not to believe, and in the end it's belief. This sounds presumptuous but I really do believe in this."

When you look back at that period now, what do you see there?

"'The Shakshuka System' caused me difficulties and struggles that haven't been simple. The subjects of this film are bullies who do not hesitate to use brutal methods, including making a film about me, manipulations, suing me and threatening me and television channels to prevent the broadcast of the film."

We'll meet in court

Another claim that Rosenthal made around the time the film was released concerns the cessation of his employment at Channel 2 franchisee Keshet, where his program "Bulldozer" was broadcast. At the time, Keshet refuted the claims and said there was no connection between the film and the program. "I can't say Idan Ofer gave an order to anyone," says Rosenthal. "I can't prove it, but the timing was problematic. After I'd been getting messages from Keshet about how wonderful my program was, praise and notes, they called me in one day and informed me that the story was over and had come to the end of its usefulness .... I can't prove that anyone gave anyone an order, but I haven't found any other logical reason."

Two weeks ago the Tel Aviv District Court rejected Rosenthal's request that it reject outright the suit the family filed against him because of the "obsessive persecution" of the Ofer brothers. Recently it has also become known that the Ofers are working on a film in reply to "The Shakshuka System." Rosenthal says this helps prove that representatives of the family are plotting against him.

Did you believe that the film would arouse such opposition? "No, I didn't think that the level of opposition and the level of bullying would be like this. I don't know any journalist about whose film a film has been made. If you have something to say, say it in a film, get interviewed elsewhere. It is their right to make a film, clearly, but the personal harassment at such a level and the applying of pressure on people - I can't recall that his has ever happened at a level like this."

A spokesman for the Ofer brothers said: "Miki Rosenthal is waging a personal and obsessive struggle against the Ofer family that is contrary to all the rules of journalistic work. Rosenthal is aware that his film's reliability is being questioned, so he is not acting to enable the Ofer family to respond to his appearances around the country, as might have been expected from someone pretending to be so concerned about freedom of expression."

Not a typical journalist

During his long career Rosenthal has experienced other crises, but none as deep or resounding as the latest. It seems that if he kept his mouth shut from time to time, he would not be participating in editorial meetings as a mere reporter but would be running them. He left mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth, where he served in a number of senior positions. That last of these was managing editor, in 1999, after a hasty replacement of the editor, which he claims was done for illegitimate reasons. After that he was deputy chief of content at Channel 2 News and presented the program "Bulldog" on Channel 8 and "Bulldozer" on Channel 2.

He cites journalistic integrity for these changes and says the problem is that most of his colleagues don't share the same professional criteria. "Most of us, most journalists, depend on their publisher, on their news outlet, and a priori don't deal with any topic that could land them in a conflict like this," he says.

What kind of conflict do you mean?

"A conflict that isn't in the political realm .... Ilana Dayan, for example, who is a journalist I respect - and I'm not saying this cynically, 98 percent of the topics she deals with on "Fact" are the army, politics, the president - she doesn't deal with the wealthy. There was an investigative piece about Israir, and this is an example after which they saw what kind of trouble and what kind of pressure this produces."

These comments bring the discussion back to the previous topic - Rosenthal's inability to act like a politician and preserve his position and status. Rosenthal is dismissive.

"I'm not there for the sake of my career," he says, a bit astonished by the question. "I'm there to fight so there will be a better country."

Or perhaps you simply like to get embroiled in something; you feel good being a "troublemaker."

"I could have been appointed to positions that are more prestigious in the eyes of the journalistic milieu. This is my choice and it is conscious, not to look for trouble. I would rather be writing learned pieces in a newspaper; the problem is that it isn't more effective."

It's hard to imagine Rosenthal being content with writing newspaper pieces. He's a journalist who likes to deviate from the usual methods while raising a ruckus in front of the camera. His critics hold this style against him; a bit surprisingly, he also criticizes himself because of it.

"My public image is disturbing," he says. "People are afraid of me, and I'm a pretty pleasant person in my private life. There's an unbridgeable dichotomy between who I am and my image."

Why choose such a style if it makes you into a clown on television?

"The issues that I deal with are considered terribly boring. Who wants to hear about environmental quality, about exploitation of workers or about money and power? If say I want to do a report on television about environmental quality, that's boring. If I tell them there's a journalist and there's a bad guy, and that along the way maybe the journalist will get beaten up, that's 'reality.' Through the price I pay - and I do pay a price for the style - I succeed in getting across issues that otherwise wouldn't be on television. It's not by chance that I adopted that style."

And do you have any intention of moderating it? "I do my work, I do my things. Nearly all of my journalistic reports touch on one thing, and that's nearly all I've done in journalism. Many years ago I saw a nature film about a pride of lions. As I watched it an insight came to me on which I base nearly all my journalistic work. I saw that in the pride the ones who work hard and do the hunting are the lionesses, and then the males come and take the lion's share, as it's called. That's the history. Throughout all human history, in every society, there are always assets produced, 'prey,' and there is always someone who claims that he deserves more. This's what I do reports about. It doesn't matter what direction you attack it from - environmental quality or money and power. It's always the same thing."