Back in 2003, when Benjamin Netanyahu was finance minister, a “spontaneous” protest movement arose among single mothers who opposed his economic “decrees.” The movement’s leader was one Vicki Knafo, and journalists covered her every move, including her famous protest march from Mitzpe Ramon to Jerusalem.
This journey was facilitated by a Hasidic miracle known as a "kfitzat derech," in which a person is transported from place to place faster than the laws of nature permit. But this was no miracle. Ms. Knafo and her friends didn’t actually walk the whole way, but you wouldn’t have learned that from the media, who threw their enthusiastic support behind the single mom. Journalists like Orly Vilnai went out of their way to advance a cause they believed in.
The fact that the whole thing was organized by Shatil, the New Israel Fund’s central social change mechanism in Israel, did not attract headlines either. Quite the contrary. The protest was described as “popular,” and it put the finance minister under a lot of pressure. In the end the “popular protest” collapsed and Finance Minister Netanyahu proceeded with his economic policies, which most experts now believe were sound.
Today we find ourselves in the midst of another popular protest, which according to some spokespeople “has no precedent in the history of the country.” No question, there is a housing crisis. Apartments cost a lot to buy and a fortune to rent. Protesting this fact is legitimate, as is the demand that the government take aggressive steps to remedy the situation.
The media were right to report on the nascent protest. The problem is that as time goes on it is becoming clear that the proliferation of tents is not the result of a genuine grievance, but of an influx of cash from the New Israel Fund. In other words, this is yet another attempt by the fund to undermine Prime Minister Netanyahu and possibly Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz as well.
How did the Israeli media respond to this? Army Radio, Israel Hayom and the Arutz Sheva national news network all gave considerable attention to the protest movement’s political bias, but the mainstream media behaved as they always have. Kol Yisrael’s "Yoman Boker" program featured an extensive report on the expanding protest movement, but neither editor Miki Shoshan nor presenter Aryeh Golan bothered to even hint at the fact it is being carefully organized by the New Israel Fund.
Neither Yedioth Ahronoth, Ma’ariv or Ha’aretz newspapers mentioned the truth to their readers. The Marker did mention the New Israel Fund’s involvement but did not air the critical viewpoint of the Im Tirtzu movement, which decided to quit the protests because of their political flavor.
Something is also missing from the public discussion of the circumstances that led to the difficult housing situation. Anyone with a modicum of sense understands that if Israeli governments allowed a building boom in Judea and Samaria, the problem wouldn’t be so bad. If universities had to commit to renting dorm rooms for reasonable prices, the problem wouldn’t be so bad. Even if the number of dormitory rooms was not sufficient to meet demand, universities could rent buildings or apartments en masse and house students at a price lower than that charged to individuals. And what about the New Israel Fund? Does it realize that by politicizing the protest movement it will cause its demise?
Without question, the protest is legitimate and should receive press coverage, but it is sad to see press reports so tainted with undisclosed bias. Instead of fulfilling their important role in a democracy, large swathes of the media are exploiting their power to influence politics rather than reporting on them and acting as their watchdog. Let’s hope that this time around the prime minister and finance minister ignore the phony protest and adopt a level-headed, long-term policy to address the housing crisis.