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Living in a tough neighborhood

Times of Israel founder, journalist David Horovitz, to speak in Paramus

David Horovitz
David Horovitz

David Horovitz, the founder, editor, and visionary behind the daily online Times of Israel, will be speaking at the Jewish Center of Paramus/Congregation Beth Tikvah this Sunday evening at 6:15.

“I’ll be talking about the only things I know about — current affairs in Israel,” Mr. Horovitz said modestly, if inaccurately.

Mr. Horovitz, 53, was born in London, and his affect — his ginger hair, his accent, his very dry wit, his politely veiled but nonetheless evident impatience with incompetence and cant — is deeply British. But although his body and his manner were in the west, his heart, as he tells his story, always was in the east. In Israel.

He made aliyah in 1983, when he was 21, married a woman whose path began in Texas but intersected his in Jerusalem, and they made their life in Israel. Mr. Horovitz, a gifted writer and clear thinker who began his career with a journalism degree from a college in Wales, worked for the Jerusalem Post and the Jerusalem Report; he was the Jerusalem Post’s editor from 2004 to 2011. Both those publications, like the Times of Israel, are written in English, and have readers around the world.

The Times of Israel is nonpartisan, although it is strongly Zionist. (It is also our partner; our website, jewishstandard.timesofisrael.com, shares the Times of Israel’s back-end technology, including its blogging platform.) In a country where politics are bare-knuckled and journalists, like politicians, often are unrestrained in their loathing of their opponents, this middle ground often is untrodden.

That of course does not mean that the Times of Israel’s bloggers — one of the website’s strongest features is its range of bloggers — do not have strong political opinions, which they share almost entirely unrestrainedly with their readers. They do, and they do.

That also does not mean that Mr. Horovitz does not have opinions. He has them, and expresses them frequently, firmly but mildly, entirely without flying spittle but with eloquent emphasis, in his editorials.

One of the issues that the Times of Israel has been examining recently isn’t even strictly speaking about Israel, although it is about the relationship between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. It’s the ongoing revelations about the depths of Jew-loathing in the British Labour party.

“Those of us who grew up in the decades after World War II wanted to believe that anti-Semitism had been shamed into the margins, if not obliterated altogether,” Mr. Horovitz said. “I think that in the last few years, we’ve learned that it is not the case. And it’s worse in France than in Britain.

“French Jews are now looking at Israel as a necessary refuge. I don’t think that anyone ever anticipated that in our lifetime, western European Jews might regard Israel as a refuge for themselves.

“In England, the Labour Party has a very fine tradition, and has had leadership that should be appreciated from a Jewish perspective,” Mr. Horovitz continued diplomatically. “But in the last election, it was taken over by a man of the radical left” — Jeremy Corbyn — “who has spoken about Hamas and Hezbollah as his friends. He is now the head of Britain’s largest opposition party.

“You have an alliance between the far left and the far right. Very strange bedfellows — and very unpleasant people. Members of the Labour Party now find themselves with leadership that is unceasingly hostile to Israel, obsessively hostile to the planet’s only Jewish state.

“When I left England to move to Israel, there was an undercurrent of anti-Semitism, but it’s become more prominent since, but it’s not at the level of France,” Mr. Horovitz continued. “I think that British Jews feel pretty comfortable in Britain. Jews in central London feel that they can wear a kippah or a magen david, the way Jews cannot in Paris. But there long has been an undercurrent of anti-Semitism, and it’s absolutely gotten worse in recent decades.”

What about the United States? “I don’t feel qualified to make parallels,” Mr. Horovitz said. “I think that on college campuses in America, there is an obsessive hostility to Israel that lapses into anti-Semitism.” It’s a worrying trend, he added. “In Britain there are a lot of campuses that had proud supporters of Israel a few years ago.” Now they’re afraid to be so public. “Increasingly it’s like that in America, and I fear it will get worse.

“I fear that the people who are being misled about Israel on campus today are tomorrow’s journalists and politicians.”

Still, he said. “America is one of the few places on earth where Jews can lead a comfortable, proud Jewish life. On the one hand, that’s fantastic. On the other hand, that’s not the norm.”

What about Jewish life in Israel, compared to the United States? One clear difference between here and there is that in Israel, most Jews are either Orthodox or secular; as the ancient, more-true-than-funny line has it, the shul they don’t go to is Orthodox. That’s not true here; even though the numbers of Orthodox Jews are rising and the numbers of liberal Jews are falling, according to the Pew survey, still most Jews here are not Orthodox.

“Non-Orthodox Judaism does not have much of a foothold in Israel,” Mr. Horovitz confirmed. “That’s because, relatively speaking, there aren’t many non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, and ultimately Israel is a democracy. If 20 to 30 percent of Israelis were formal members of non-Orthodox streams, and chose to use their electoral weight, they would be able to.

“You have Orthodox Jews, secular Jews, and lapsed Jews here in Israel, but not non-Orthodox Jews who are passionate about it. There just isn’t that tradition or footprint here.

“It is a function of demographics. If there were more people with that ideology in Israel, then things would change.”

Still, he said, “American Jews do have some influence. Israeli leaders do not want to alienate American Jews. Some things were done by accident, 20 or 30 years ago, without ill intent, that would not be done now. People in Israel now are better informed about diaspora Jewry.

“You’ve seen the effort to resolve the issues around the Wall,” he continued. (The situation at the Western Wall is fraught with tension, which often rises to overtly expressed rage. The Kotel now functions as an Orthodox synagogue, with a large men’s section and a smaller women’s one, and with a separate section, not connected to the main plaza and not part of what is generally thought of as the Western Wall, set aside for mixed-gender prayer. Women’s efforts to pray publicly, led by the controversial Women of the Wall, often meet with violence; the Israeli Supreme Court’s efforts to calm the situation often meet with disregard. The Wall, like the Temple Mount above it, is both a sacred space and a tinderbox.)

What about diaspora Jews who have given up on Israel, or who have never felt its pull on their hearts? Despite any tensions between various diaspora communities and the Israeli government, “if you think that Judaism matters, if you think that it is a way to live that is worth preserving, and if your history speaks to you, then it is sad if you don’t think that the well-being of the Jewish people is intrinsically connected with the well-being of Israel,” Mr. Horovitz said. “There are very few places on earth where Jews can be comfortable — I think that at least in the medium term, America is one of the them — but the immediacy with which a Jewish state can look after its residents is critical.

“We know that Israel was revived too late to provide a refuge for Jews from the Holocaust, but it was able to do so for Jews in the Middle East and northern Africa, and now we’re seeing that it’s becoming important for some European Jews as well. It is important that Israel remain robust. If American Jews don’t see that, I think they are being short-sighted.

“On the other hand, America is very welcoming. It is wonderful to be a Jew here. It is so comfortable to be an American that the perceived imperative to champion and develop your Jewish identity seems less urgent.”

The best way for diaspora Jews to understand the emotional, historic, political, and moral importance of Israel is to go there, he said.

For himself, the descendant of a family of Holocaust refugees, and his wife, whose father was the sole survivor of his family, “we wanted to be part of this history, to build a sovereign Jewish nation.”

Next, Mr. Horovitz turned his attention to the American presidential election, as seen by Israelis. “The biggest, most read newspaper in Israel is Israel HaYom, and that’s been quite supportive and complimentary to Trump,” he said. That’s hardly surprising; the paper, which is free, is owned by Jewish casino owner and philanthropist Sheldon Adelson, the Republican who recently announced his support for the Republican presumptive presidential candidate. “The biggest selling tabloid, Yediot Achronot, for whom Netanyahu can do no right, has been more openly critical of him.

“I think that now we are down to the two of them, Trump and Clinton, that if Israelis could vote, probably they would be voting in higher numbers for Clinton over Trump. I can only speculate as to why. She is a known quantity, and there is a lot of good feeling about her husband.

“Also, Israelis may be wary about Trump’s feeling about minorities,” he added.

Turning to the Times of Israel, now four years old, “people appreciate that it tries to be fair-minded,” Mr. Horovitz said. “I think that the combination of traditional news reporting with the vibrant blog community has been effective, and our effort to report not only about Israel but also about the Jewish world, and having both original writing and breaking news, is important.”

It’s hard being online. “The almost impossible challenge of speed and accuracy just gets harder and harder,” he said. “You try to work out what’s going on. If you don’t report something fairly rapidly, people will stop coming to your website. I think that people’s expectations of the media, of photos and videos and so on, have grown. The internet allows you to do that.

“The challenge is the 24 by 7 aspect of it. And we are an English-language website based in Jerusalem, and about sixty percent of our readers are in North America. When it is midnight in Israel, it is only 5 o’clock in New York and New Jersey.”

The Times of Israel has staff reporters in Israel and regular correspondents in other countries, and it uses freelancers and news agencies, including JTA, the New York-based organization once known as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. (The Jewish Standard, like many other Jewish weeklies, gets much of its back-of-the-book world coverage from JTA.)

“There are thousands of people who have opened blogs with us, and we get about 40 posts per day — or something like that — from around the world,” Mr. Horovitz said.

Moreover, “we also publish in four languages,” he added. “We have a very serious French-language website, and we also have websites in Arabic and Persian and Chinese.” The Chinese website is almost entirely about business, particularly Israeli innovation, he added; it touches on politics only when politics affect innovation. “We set it up because of Chinese interest in Israeli high tech,” he said.

The Arabic and Farsi websites, on the other hand, “are mission-oriented. I wanted them to get a sense of how Israel is fair-minded.” Bloggers write in Chinese, Farsi, Arabic, and French, and often their readers stumble over the larger website while following a link to the blogs.

The New York Jewish Week soon will join the Jewish Standard in partnership with the Times of Israel, Mr. Horovitz reported, and another two or three local Jewish newspapers are at various stages of discussion with the Israeli site. “I think it’s fantastic,” Mr. Horovitz said. “It’s mutually beneficial. It has to be. We only partner with publications that have good original content. Otherwise it wouldn’t work.”

When he speaks to U.S. audiences, he said, “I try to give people a credible and nonpartisan sense of what we are dealing with in Israel. It is fascinating and challenging, and it also has real implications for the free world.

“We are living in a region where there are plenty of people who don’t want to live and let live, but to kill and be killed. Regimes like Iran, which are obsessively critical of Israel, are similarly obsessive about the United States. It is critical, I would think, to understand them.”

Mr. Horovitz’s talk is the first project of the Harold Lerman Fund for Israel Education and Engagement at the JCC of Paramus. Mr. Lerman, who died last year, was a passionate supporter of his shul, of Jewish life, and of Israel, so Mr. Horovitz seemed a logical choice.

Rabbi Arthur Weiner of the JCC of Paramus is enthusiastic about Mr. Horovitz’s upcoming talk. “The shul chose him because of his outstanding reputation,” Rabbi Weiner said. “He is acknowledged to be clear, level-headed, and perceptive.

“He has become a very important voice on Israel — the lay community, policy-makers, diplomats all read him and think about what he has to say.”

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