Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Read all about it!

Like most subcultures, Israeli shuls have their own printed medium of communication – it’s called the Shabbat leaflets. These leaflets, published by Yeshivot and Jewish organisations, started out some years ago as black and white photocopies, comprised of a few short Divrei Torah. As they became more popular, and publishers saw the possibility of making money from them, they began to include adverts for everything from mobile phones, kosher holidays to the Far East and new homes. As the money poured in, the leaflets got bigger, the graphics got fancier and the general appeal started to grow. The content branched out from Parshat Shavua to cover a wider variety of Jewish topics and the selection of leaflets grew as more and more organisations started printing their own. In piles by the front door of shuls across the country, worshipers now enter shul on a Friday night and can choose from a wide selection.

However, the common thread through most sheets is a strong political line. With Mekor Rishon as the only right wing newspaper among a generally left-wing media, these leaflets fast became the medium through which the Dati Leumi community leaders would air their views. Whatever the week’s Parsha, Rabbis from West Bank settlements search for connections to themes such as the holiness of Eretz Yisrael and the importance of a Torah-conscious leadership. During disengagement, the sheets were vocally anti-withdrawal, directly attacking the government and its policies. Shul reading, previously the exclusive domain of Talmud Torah, has been for some time now, infiltrated by right wing political propaganda. The sheets regularly advertise new housing projects in West Bank settlements, promote demonstrations, and around election time, can be expected to call upon its readers to vote for one of the right wing parties.

The Yesha Council now publishes its own leaflet called Yesha Shelanu. This leaflet is pure politics – it mostly consists of news stories and pictures, all centred around the settlements. In many ways it’s a breath of fresh air – for once a leaflet that says what it is, rather than trying to disguise itself as a Torah publication. Last week’s edition reviewed a new trend of getting married outside the Cave of Machpela and offered a prize to anyone who could identify a photograph taken somewhere in the Land of Israel (funnily enough the Yesha Shelanu photographer never seems to make it to the Galil, Negev or even the Mercaz!)

As something of a backlash against this trend, a couple of new leaflets came out, published by more moderate or apolitical organisations like Tzohar, which aim to keep the focus on Judaism. While some of these sheets have managed to break into the mainstream of shul reading, it is hard to ever imagine a politically left-wing sheet ever being circulated around the shuls. And this is precisely the root of the problem – these publications have no accountability whatsoever. Their circulation is guaranteed by central distributors who decide what to deliver to the shuls, as well as the shul gabaim who have the final call as to whether they allow sheets on to their premises or not. If the distributor or your shul gabbai doesn’t like it, you simply can’t read it – you will read what they give you. And what’s more, I’m yet to see a sheet which publishes letters, leaving the readers with no way of channelling dissatisfaction in the way one can with a newspaper.

So if I don’t like them, why do I read them? Simple really. Beats the alternative.