Talking Jews and News
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Talking Jews and News

The menu for an overnight Shavuot study program included lasagna, cheesecake, and Dave.

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

For some reason (okay, I was invited) I agreed to take a 1 a.m. slot at an overnight Shavuot study program at Ahavath Achim Synagogue, to talk about Jews and news.

I kept that appointment, despite a partially completed root canal hours earlier.

An hour or so before my session, I stood in front of a table laden with the holiday’s traditional dairy-based foods, the most tempting being trays of lasagna and cheesecakes. Heeding my inner cardiologist, I abstained, though I might have nibbled an ice cream sandwich along with the two cups of coffee I drank to fortify myself.

After wondering who would turn up for a middle-of-the-night discussion titled “What makes the news Jewish?” I was surprised that 10 people joined me at a library conference table.

I made clear at the outset that I was there representing only myself and the 46 years I’ve spent committing acts of journalism for money.

I paraphrased Joe Alterman, executive director of Neranenah (formerly the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival), who often is asked “What’s Jewish music?” The answer, he tells people, is that it’s not only music written, performed, and produced by Jews, but also music influenced by and relevant to the Jewish experience.

So, what makes the news Jewish? Yes, it’s news about Jews, in Israel and the diaspora, but also news from beyond the Jewish world that impacts Jewish lives. I have applied a Jewish filter to write articles on politics, abortion, gambling, and school vouchers, for example.

“Jewish” news might be just one entry on a lengthy menu for the “secular” media, though Israel often is part of the daily special.

For Jewish news organizations, just about anything to which a Jewish individual, community, or group is connected can be newsworthy — the good, the bad, and sometimes, the ugly.

So, what makes the news Jewish? Yes, it’s news about Jews, in Israel and the diaspora, but also news from beyond the Jewish world that impacts Jewish lives.

Israel can pose a challenge, in part because of the intensity of opinions held by readers.

“Good” news out of Israel — much of it concerning medicine, science, technology, and the arts — receives generous play in the Jewish press.

The appetite for these subjects by major American news organizations noticeably declined beginning with the first intifada, the Palestinian uprising, in December 1987. The story line from Israel since has been one of almost constant crisis, usually around domestic politics, security/military affairs, and foreign relations.

Sometimes the news from Israel is less than flattering. I said (again, speaking only for myself) that to be honest with their readers, Jewish newspapers should resist being overly deferential toward Israel — just as they should toward individuals and organizations in their own back yards. Surely the community is past the point of moaning about airing dirty laundry in public.

Much of the Shavuot session centered on the Hamas-led terror attacks on Oct. 7 and Israel’s subsequent war against Hamas in Gaza. The holiday fell five days after an Israeli combat operation freed four hostages being held among civilians in two Gaza apartment blocks. (Note: As of this writing, 120 hostages remain, though more than one-third are believed dead.)

I was asked about something that seems obvious but apparently befuddled several news organizations, the difference between reporting that the hostages were “released,” which they were not, rather than “rescued,” which they were.

There also was a question about whether the Jewish press should do more (short answer: yes) to acquaint readers with two right-wing figures in Israel’s government, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, whose demands —among them, no ceasefire that halts the war against Hamas and unfettered development in the West Bank — threaten to bring down the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and send Israel to elections for a sixth time in little more than five years.

The discussion also touched on the tens of thousands of Israelis regularly marching in Tel Aviv and elsewhere in support of a deal to bring home the hostages, while also demanding accountability from the government for the Oct. 7 attacks and a “day after” plan for Gaza. They would welcome elections.

In response to a question about antisemitism on the nation’s university and college campuses, I pointed to examples of what I consider excellent reporting, the best of which has gone past generalizations to examine the circumstances at individual schools.

We could have continued the conversation about Jews and news and delved into other topics, but we needed to clear the room to make way for 2 a.m. Torah study.

On the way out, I again resisted the temptation to sample the lasagna or the cheesecake.

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