Is Public Television the Israeli Government’s Next Target?

When you host one of the world’s last over-the-air radio shows in Yiddish, fans occasionally get in touch. But you hear more often from critics. They write to Avraham Zaks, the 37-year-old behind the mic of a weekly program called “We Are Here!” to nitpick about his grammar. Or to complain about his accent, which doesn’t sound sufficiently Eastern European to their ears. Some tell him the show needs more religious content.

Mr. Zaks, who has flecks of gray in his beard and warm dark eyes and wears wire-rim glasses, does not mind. On some level, he is kind of tickled by the feedback.

“I write and say: ‘Thank you very much, we’re doing our best. It’s nice to hear that you’re listening,’” he said on a Wednesday afternoon, just minutes before his show started. “The problem in broadcasting generally is that most of the time, you don’t get any reaction. You feel like you’re speaking to yourself.”

“We Are Here!” is one of a handful of niche language radio offerings of Kan, Israel’s public media network, officially known as the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation.

Most of the company’s 1,000 employees run a highly regarded TV, radio and digital news division or oversee the production of some of the country’s most prestigious television shows, some of which air on U.S. streaming platforms. As Israel’s answer to the BBC or PBS, Kan, whose headquarters is in Jerusalem, is more interested in gravity than ratings.

These days, Kan has a new focus: survival. It sits squarely in the cross hairs of Israel’s right-wing government elected in November. Through Shlomo Karhi, the minister of communications, the government has issued a number of threats against the network, starting with a vow to defund the company and shut it down.

“There is no place in this day and age for a public broadcaster when there is a wide range of channels,” Mr. Karhi said during a news conference in January.

In case anyone thought he was talking exclusively about saving taxpayer money — Kan receives the equivalent of $180 million a year from Israel’s coffers, about 85 percent of the company’s budget — he also accused the media more broadly of being “too biased toward the left.”

A few weeks later, a spokesman for Mr. Karhi said in a statement that the closure of Kan was delayed “until further notice” so that the government could concentrate on overhauling the judiciary, a plan that has convulsed the nation.

Inside the Media Industry

More recently, the minister said he wanted to strip Kan of three of its eight radio spectrums, which are needed for radio stations. The station broadcasting “We Are Here!” is expected to survive any cull because an Israeli regulation requires foreign language broadcasting in this nation of immigrants.

The fear among Kan’s supporters is that once the government is done with the judiciary overhaul, whether its plans end with success or failure, the network is next.

“If you’re looking for a textbook on how to turn a democracy into an autocracy, it includes shutting down independent media,” said Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, who drafted Kan’s journalistic code of ethics.

The media market in Israel, a country of 10 million people, is small by American standards and highly competitive. There are four TV networks in total. The other three are privately held and Kan is generally in a tie for fourth place in the ratings race with Channel 14. That network, often called Israel’s version of Fox News, enthusiastically supports the Netanyahu administration. In recent months, according to the network, it has enjoyed a ratings surge.

Political leaders in Israel, like those in virtually every country, try to influence and shape news coverage. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems especially eager to manage the media. Two of the three corruption trials against him involve quid pro quos for favorable coverage from powerful publishers — one the owner of a large daily newspaper and the other a telecom tycoon who operates a popular online news site. (Mr. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing.)

“The coalition is not interested in the standard pushback game we’ve seen in the past,” said Shuki Tausig, chief editor of The Seventh Eye, a media watchdog publication. “They want to use regulations to weaken, or even smash, big commercial players that are not obeying them. And they want to eliminate or control Kan.”

The network is the successor to the Israel Broadcasting Authority, which was closed in 2017 after critics from across the political spectrum concluded that its programming was shabby and the authority too easily buffeted by politicians, who appointed its board members and controlled its budget.

Kan has been designed for imperviousness to partisanship, relatively speaking; the job of selecting board members is up to industry professionals. It’s a structure that has produced a catalog of highly compelling television, including a three-part documentary about Adolph Eichmann, “The Devil’s Confession,” available on Amazon Prime and bankrolled by a number of companies. Last month, Kan was nominated for 125 Ophir Awards, Israel’s version of the Oscars and Emmys, more than double its nearest rival.

“All the other networks are trying to make a profit so they are filled with shows where people are on an island for three weeks fighting over a bag of rice,” said Tsuriel Rashi, senior lecturer at Ariel University’s School of Communication. The Eichmann documentary, he added, was “a huge undertaking.”

“It’s expensive, and it won’t make money,” he said, “but it’s important.”

Kan is in an office building in a generic patch in Jerusalem, not far from an ultra Orthodox neighborhood and near the Israel Tax Authority. During a recent visit, the place hummed with reporters readying an evening broadcast. In the Arab media room, a handful of employees were watching dozens of televisions broadcasting from around the Middle East.

“Today is kind of quiet,” said a reporter with his eyes trained on the screens. “There was a machine gun fired into the air in Gaza, which set off sirens in Israel, but no rockets.”

“I’ve seen scarier things in my professional life,” one of his colleagues said.

Despite the business-as-usual vibe here, morale has sagged, as it would at any institution facing extinction.

“We had a companywide meeting a few weeks ago, and I told everyone, ‘I know there are people here who go home at night and have children ask if they will have a job in the morning,’” Gil Omer, chairman of the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, said in an interview at Kan’s offices. “And I told them that we will do everything we can to keep this place alive.”

For now, the government appears to have scaled back its ambitions to those three radio spectrums, which it plans to make available to commercial networks.

It’s not a measure Mr. Karhi could take unilaterally. Yoaz Hendel, his predecessor as minister of communications, said in an interview that Mr. Karhi did not seem to understand the job, which has nothing to do with Kan’s budget — that’s the finance ministry’s purview — and is all about building communications infrastructure, like 5G.

“Karhi could announce tomorrow that all Israelis need to wear red hats, but that doesn’t mean anyone would listen to him,” Mr. Hendel said. “He should focus on what he was appointed to do, which is to make sure that Israel is well-connected.”

Elad Malka, the vice director general at the Ministry of Communications, disagreed. “The minister in charge of public broadcasting is the minister of communications,” he said. “Of course, if there are changes that the minister wants, he needs to go to the Knesset,” Mr. Malka added, referring to Israel’s Parliament.

Even if he lacks the authority to unplug Kan on his own, Mr. Karhi, a former member of the Knesset, has grabbed national attention in Israel because his statements appear to reflect the will of the government. And grabbing attention is one of Mr. Karhi’s specialties.

In February, he denounced critics of the judicial overhaul plan as “erav rav,” an ancient term for demons who pose as Jews and must be killed. In early March, during the Jewish holiday of Purim, he tweeted a message wishing everyone well — except for reservists soldiers opposed to the judicial overhaul, who he said could “go to hell.”

“He has no interest in media,” Mr. Tausig said. “His actions as minister are just political opportunism, a way to demonstrate he’s more extreme than extreme, to serve Netanyahu.”

A spokesman for the Ministry of Communications declined to comment.

Mr. Zaks, the host of “We Are Here!,” has closely followed the drama that has engulfed his employer, but one recent Wednesday afternoon he was more interested on his upcoming interview with the head of the Yiddish Department at Hebrew University.

They discussed how to attract Israel’s ultra Orthodox to evenings of Yiddish theater and literature, a major challenge given that much of the canon is downright irreligious. Reaching the Haredi, or ultra Orthodox, community is important to Mr. Zaks, who was raised in a Lubavitcher community outside Tel Aviv. By the time he was 20, he realized that he was an atheist and left. He spent the next few years discovering popular culture that he had never encountered — television, movies, professional sports.

“I knew about radio because it was on all day at home,” he said. “That was it.”

The biggest group of Yiddish speakers in Israel are Haredi, but he assumes they are a tiny percent of the audience for “We Are Here!” because it’s a secular show. He knows, however, that every year a few thousand exit the ultra Orthodox community and he’s happy to offer them some connection to the world they have left behind.

“It’s like being an émigré and reading a newspaper in the language you were raised in,” he said. “I don’t love the place that I left, but I love Yiddish. It’s a heritage that we have to keep.”

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