By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
Dictators – as well as some ostensibly democratic politicians like the current prime minister of Israel Binyamin Netanyahu and his new idol, US President Donald Trump – want to control the media by curbing free speech, in order to secure their grip over the population.
That’s behind the toing and froing around the Israel Broadcasting Authority. It was about to be dismantled in favour of a new corporation with a different structure that would become a more effective tool of the prime minister. The matter has made headlines for weeks in Israel, even though few seem to understand – and I’m not among them – its full implications.
But as the new body was ready for action, Netanyahu is reputed to have discovered that it wouldn’t serve his purpose in the way he had hoped, because it was employing journalists and managers he – and much more important, his wife – didn’t like. They seem to suspect that the broadcasters were “lefties.” (To be accused of being “lefty” has become a term often used nowadays by Israeli government officials and their supporters as a euphemism for “infidel.”)
Therefore, the prime minister latched on the fact that the change of broadcasting regime would entail about a thousand employees of the old Broadcasting Authority losing their jobs. In the guise of compassion for them, he said that he had changed his mind and now wanted to keep much or all of the old system. Few citizens seem to have believed his stated motives.
The finance minister objected for reasons that aren’t clear to me. The tension between them made headlines for days. Netanyahu threatened to call new elections as a way of calling the bluff of his opponents, because every party in the current collation, including Netanyahu’s Likud, is afraid of elections and the likely loss of mandates to the opposition, and worse.
The threat worked. The prime minister seems to have got most of his way. The so-called compromise is beyond my comprehension but, by all accounts, broadcasting will remain under the prime minister’s control.
He has been holding on to the communications portfolio – as well as to the foreign affairs portfolio – throughout the current government. But after a petition by a pro-democracy organization, Israel’s Supreme Court ordered him to appoint a minister of communications. He made a temporary appointment of a trusted stooge who already is a member of the cabinet thus making sure that the master’s voice would continue to be heard.
(It’s different with the independent TV channels and newspapers, particularly the respected and venerable daily Ha’aretz. Netanyahu tried to address this problem in his potentially illicit conversations with the publisher of the daily Yediot Achronot, which are currently subject to police investigation.)
Israelis with a sense of humour have speculated as to what the new broadcasting might have been called. One of the suggestions is “BibiSee.”
The onslaught on the media is, of course, quite worrying and a sad reflection on the abuse of power in a democracy. But, despite my usual pessimism, I refuse to believe that this is the end of democracy in Israel. It may turn out to be the end of those who want to do away with democracy.