Max Moser and I surveyed journalists for Jewish media in more than 20 countries across eastern and western Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Australia. This is the first of three articles previewing the study’s findings. The full study, A World in Flux: Jewish Journalism Struggles to Survive, was released at the 2018 Annual Conference of the American Jewish Press Association in Cleveland, June 17-19.
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Journalists for Jewish media outside North America face considerable challenges in performing their jobs, including rising anti-Semitism, isolation from the rest of the Jewish world, and a lack of resources.
Except for a few journalists in English-speaking countries, they are not optimistic about the future of the Jewish communities in their native lands, and as a result are similarly pessimistic about the future of their media.
These are among the first findings of our study of Jewish journalists in more than 20 countries outside Israel and North America. Our research, so far as we can tell the first such project focusing on this group of media professionals, included an in-depth questionnaire and follow-up telephone interviews. Our goal was to name the challenges they face and to generate practical ideas to aid them.
The environment in which these journalists are working is becoming more challenging. Rises in anti-Semitic acts and pressure on Jewish journalists across Europe and even North America have been widely catalogued in the last 18 months. A British monitoring group reported hate crimes against Jews in the UK rose by more than a third in 2016, with recorded incidents now at record levels. Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry says the number of reported anti-Semitic attacks in Germany doubled from 2015 to 2016.
When we asked about anti-Semitism in their countries, the journalists we spoke with in telephone interviews downplayed its real-life impact. They put as positive a spin as they could on life in their communities. When we asked how things are, they gave answers such as, “We’re a very active community,” and “We’re very active for our size.”
“It’s not threatening anti-Semitism,” one said of a rash of anti-Semitic comments posted on her organization’s YouTube channel.
The anonymous responses to our survey told a different story. Forty percent of survey respondents said they had experienced some form of anti-Semitism during their work as a journalist, and the same percentage reported being threatened via social media. About one-quarter said they felt that their profession as a Jewish journalist is putting them at personal risk, and a similar tally said risks are escalating.
Twenty percent told us they have removed contact and personal information from their publications (Our review of their websites turned up few bylines). About one in six said they feel uncomfortable describing themselves as Jewish journalists when speaking to non-Jews, and a similar number said they stay off social media. A handful even told us they have beefed-up their physical security, including installing alarm systems and hiring bodyguards.
Even nominally optimistic journalists in English-speaking countries betrayed the positive spin they first offered us.
Ant Katz, editor-in-chief of South African Jewish Report, said South Africa is “completely and unequivocally the easiest place for a Jew to live in the world.” He cited the variety of kosher products available and the substantial number of synagogues in South Africa as evidence.
But in his next breath he spoke of BDS “becoming more and more involved with the government. This week is ‘Israel Apartheid Week’ on university campuses here.”
The journalists we spoke with said that promoting their communities and protecting the legacy of Jewish life in their native lands are among their most important tasks.
Alexandru Marinescu, senior editor of Romania’s Realitatea Evreiasca (“Jewish Reality”), said that the key issues he covers are anti-Semitic attacks and BDS, Jewish values and identity, and “explaining why the Jewish community has a certain position on a given subject.”
Survey respondents spoke of the need to explain and defend Judaism to their country’s non-Jews. In fact, several of the journalists we spoke with said that a significant percentage, in some case even most, of their readers are non-Jews.
Peter Menasse, editor-in-chief of Nu, a quarterly in Vienna, said one of his magazine’s most important aspects is explaining current events to the broader Viennese community, which makes up about 30 percent of its audience.
Marinescu said he told Romania’s chief rabbi not to bother writing an article about kashrut, as only 300 or so people keep kosher.
Dan Kantor, executive director of Finland’s Jewish Community and editor of its Hakehila magazine, said he focuses on explaining what is going on in Jewish life and explaining the way the country’s estimated 1,000 Jews play a role in Finnish society.
As defenders of their communities in increasingly hostile environs, critical, investigative journalism is rare, but it exists. Menasse said Nu recently published an article that questioned the credentials of a newly appointed rabbi and withstood his subsequent wrath.
The news, as it were, isn’t all grim. The journalists we surveyed are experienced, educated, and dedicated. Fifty-eight percent of the respondents reported having a master’s degree.
But many of these media look backward more than forward.
Andrea Ghita, a TV journalist in Transylvania, a thriving Jewish region before World War II, said the region has only five living Holocaust survivors. She said it is her obligation as the granddaughter of Holocaust victims to educate Romanians about the Jewish world. Her program, “Baabel,” airs on state-sponsored TV, but as with other “ethnic minority” programs in Romania, “they’re shown at times when people aren’t watching – late at night or early morning hours,” she said.
The poor time slot isn’t deterring her.
“I make these programs for non-Jewish people. If I don’t produce these things, who will?” she said. “As long as I live, I will discuss the memory of the Holocaust – all of my grandparents perished in Auschwitz.”
Next: Jewish journalists feel compelled to defend Israel but wish the Jewish state would back their efforts
Alan D. Abbey is Media Director of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Max Moser was a Begin Fellow and research associate at the Hartman Institute.