Newspapers and the Jewish Mission

How can we recognize our failings and correct our mistakes, especially on Tisha B’Av, if we aren’t prepared to confront the stories we’d rather avoid in newspapers like Haaretz?

If you are reading this on, I am afraid you have already upset many of my friends. "How can anyone read that anti-Israel rag?" they protest.

They resent newspapers that report and thereby publicize difficult and disturbing aspects of our country from the neglect of Holocaust survivors to the treatment of the middle classes. Most of all, they see no reason to focus on the problems faced by foreign workers, refugees and Palestinians.

In certain circles, it has become axiomatic that the foundation of the State of Israel marked the beginning of the messianic era. God is on the side of the Jews and moral challenges, especially those relating to anyone outside the religious Zionist camp, must be ignored.

The great British newspaper baron, Lord Northcliff, was a proud patriot. His newspapers stood for "the power, the supremacy and the greatness of the British Empire." Still, he was well aware that challenging reporting would not be universally popular. "News," he said, "is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.”

Tisha B'Av is about putting aside that self-promotion and honestly focusing on the difficult issues that we prefer to suppress.

Thousands of years ago, as the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile and began rebuilding the Temple, they asked the prophet Zechariah whether they needed to fast on Tisha B'Av. Bitterly, he pointed out that even in the years when they had fasted, their fasts had more to do with ritualistic posturing than sincere repentance.

God had made clear to them his will: "Execute true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other” (Zechariah 7: 9). Tragically, the people failed to accept their moral mission, so we were exiled again and so long as we fail to listen to the moral guidance of prophets and teachers, we are destined to repeat our sins and relive their punishments.

We still continue to dismiss any facts that might lead us to ask difficult questions. Just last week, a leading politician attempted to convince me that the refugees sleeping in Israel's parks did not in fact come here to escape persecution in Eritrea and Sudan, but in fact are being dispatched here by the New Israel Fund in a deliberate campaign to dilute the Jewishness of our country.

While all reasonable people shun these absurdities, many Israelis feel that we must protect ourselves from journalists who undermine national pride by painting our moral portrait far darker than it really is and whose anti-religious sentiments are profoundly offensive.

They may be right. But even if only a small percentage of the disturbing reportage were true, we would still have sufficient cause for concern and a decisive reason for action in rooting out racism and inequalities from our society. Proud Zionist Jews are the heirs of the ethical tradition of prophets and rabbis who taught that we must never be complacent or self-satisfied. On the contrary, we must constantly reexamine our conduct to be sure that we are striving for the highest standards.

My Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Amital, a Holocaust survivor, an eminent scholar, and a passionate Zionist declared that he was fearless in criticizing governmental blunders because his prime responsibility was to preserve the ethical standing of the nation and to avoid a desecration of God's name.

On Tisha B'Av, we recite Zecharia's words expressing the Jewish challenge. Return to Me says the Lord of Hosts and I will return to you. Fast days provide opportunities for national cleansing and renewal. But returning to God requires that we first recognize our failings and correct our mistakes. We cannot do that unless we are prepared to confront the stories we'd rather avoid in our newspapers.

Rabbi Gideon D. Sylvester will be speaking on the Halakhik aspects of publicly criticizing Israel this Sunday at 11:45 A.M. at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem. .