The Man Who Transformed Israeli Television

Moti Kirschenbaum turned Israel's broadcasting authority from a platform that served the state into one that served the public.

Vardi Kahana

Moti Kirschenbaum, who died Friday morning, loved public broadcasting. During the five-year period when he ran public radio and television in Israel, the respected and much-loved journalist left his indelible mark on this important institution, which during his tenure turned from a platform designed to serve the state into one that aimed to serve the public.

The director generals who preceded him at the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) had, for the most part, been political appointees who took their orders from the Prime Minister’s Office and had little appreciation for free speech. Kirschenbaum’s appointment in 1993 ushered in a new era of free and independent journalism at the public broadcaster. Also during his tenure, the IBA – for the first time in its history – faced competition with the advent of Israel’s first commercial channel. It was left to Kirschenbaum to implement the IBA’s radical transformation from a state-controlled monopoly to a public broadcaster operating in a competitive environment. “We do not sanctify the ratings,” he would say, “but we cannot disregard them. We have a public to serve and we want them to watch us.”

Kirschenbaum resisted all attempts at government interference. Every Sunday morning, he would receive angry phone calls about items broadcast on the popular weekend news show, but he never caved in and spared his editors the details of what went on in those conversations. During his tenure, the news divisions of Arabic radio and television were relieved of their longtime role as mouthpieces for state propaganda. For the Arabic-language editors and reporters, it was an adjustment that did not come easily. And despite his identification with the Israeli peace movement, during the violent protests against then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Oslo Accords, Kirschenbaum would repeat the following dictum: We are committed to the peace process – reporting about it, not supporting it.

Under his direction, the IBA flourished creativity like never before. The commercial channel’s most popular satire program, "Hahamishia Hakamerit" (“Chamber Quintet”), agreed to move to public television for less pay because Kirschenbaum promised its creators something commercial television couldn't – absolute freedom in their work, with no censorship or interference. He kept to his word, even when they pushed the envelope by producing controversial skits on sensitive subjects like the Holocaust and Rabin's assassination. Kirschenbaum supported the TV news division’s introduction of opinion pieces on its flagship weekend show and successfully defended a challenge to this in the Supreme Court.

During his tenure, the IBA produced some of its best, most controversial, docudramas. Of particular note was “The Kastner Trial,” which chronicled the story of Rudolf Kastner, the controversial Hungarian-Jewish leader who negotiated with Adolf Eichmann in a deal to trade Jewish lives for arms. The program was broadcast only after the IBA’s right to veer from the standard narrative was upheld by the Supreme Court. Kirschenbaum also refused to budge when former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir threatened him with legal action if the IBA went ahead and broadcast “Bus Line 300,” a docudrama about the 1984 scandal involving two Palestinian kidnappers, the Shin Bet security service and Israel’s top brass.

Still, despite his liberal tendencies and devout support of the peace movement, Kirschenbaum had an “old timer” commitment to the establishment. He recruited this correspondent to serve as the IBA’s director of legal affairs and international relations. During my time under his leadership, I had the honor and pleasure of spending extensive time, both professionally and personally, with him. I once saw him get into a heated argument with a British journalist over the actions of nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu, whom Kirschenbaum considered a traitor. When the commercial channel broadcast a short phone interview with Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir, his reaction was that he would never have agreed to broadcast it on his own channel. “He had his say with his bullets,” he said, “and that is enough.”

In addition to his unparalleled sense of humor, Kirschenbaum had a warm heart. Several decades ago, on a roots trip to Warsaw, he discovered a remnant of the Ghetto wall in a private backyard. He offered to pay a fee to the family on whose premises he discovered it, to ensure it would be safeguarded for posterity. When he received a gold watch as a gift from King Hussein of Jordan, he donated it to the victim of a terror attack. These things were done privately and not for public consumption.

Ahead of Israel’s 50th anniversary in 1998, Kirschenbaum commissioned the documentary series “Tkuma” (“Resurrection”). Unlike its predecessor “Pillar of Fire,” which touted the official Zionist narrative and was broadcast on Israel’s 25th anniversary, “Tkuma” drew on many different voices. Hitherto controversial subjects, like the treatment of the Palestinians and discrimination against Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin), were addressed full-on. His successor, Uri Porat (a former aide to Prime Minister Menachem Begin), vowed to add two more episodes that would “balance” Kirschenbaum’s legacy and retell the state’s history the “correct” way.

Indeed, ousting Kirschenbaum and privatizing the IBA were high priorities for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he first assumed power in 1996. Kirschenbaum’s presence was a major thorn in Netanyahu’s side, yet this larger-than-life man was determined to remain in office until his five-year contract expired – and he did. In many ways, his legacy is the importance that many Israelis now attach to public broadcasting. Unfortunately, this legacy was not upheld by his successors. His unique voice, though, which found expression in his many other creative pursuits, will live on.

Prof. Amit Schejter of Ben-Gurion university of the Negev served as director of legal affairs and international relations at the Israel Broadcasting Authority between 1993-1997.