Journalists Distort Facts to Reinforce a Narrative of Religious Division

A negative narrative that’s rapidly gaining currency in the media concerns a broadening rift between Israeli and American Jews caused by Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate that is allegedly intolerant of Jews from other denominations. So popular is this theme that it is sometimes imposed upon news events as context, even when the evidence suggests otherwise.

A case in point are some of the articles written about the massacre at a progressive Conservative synagogue in Pittsburgh alleging that Israel’s Orthodox chief rabbi refused to confirm the location was a synagogue because of his disdain for non-Orthodox congregations.

The story began in Israel. Ha’aretz published an article under the banner “Israel’s Chief Rabbi Refuses to Call Pittsburgh Massacre Site a Synagogue Because It’s non-Orthodox”  followed by another one suggesting that the Israeli prime minister “rebuffed” the chief rabbi’s comments about the massacre.

The story gained steam among some Israeli politicians and in the Israeli/Jewish press, with journalists reading motive into what Chief Rabbi David Lau did or did not say.

The AP’s Aron Heller picked up the theme, as well, in an article entitled “Israeli PM, chief rabbi at odds over Pittsburgh synagogue” in which he expounded upon the rift narrative. The rabbi’s comments, the AP story suggested, “exposed some of the recent strains between Israel and the more liberal Jewish Diaspora, even in the wake of the deadliest anti-Semitic attack against Jews in U.S. history.”

Newsweek ran a story by Brendan Cole entitled “Israel’s Chief Rabbi Under Fire For Refusing to Call Pittsburgh Attack Site a Synagogue Because It’s Not Orthodox”. And the Daily Beast expanded on the theme in article by Jay Michaelson entitled “The Tone-Deaf Israeli Reactions to the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting.”

The New York Times’ David Halbfinger then jumped onto the bandwagon with an article entitled “Pittsburgh Killing Aftermath Bares Jewish Rifts in Israel and America,” purportedly about Israel’s increasing intolerance. He declared:

“Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi took pains to avoid the word “synagogue” to describe the scene of the crime — because it is not Orthodox, but Conservative, one of the liberal branches of Judaism that, despite their numerous adherents in the United States, are rejected by the religious authorities who determine the Jewish state’s definitions of Jewishness.” 

So what was the latest iteration of the rift narrative based on?

Journalists were referring to Rabbi Lau’s interview with the Israeli publication Makor Rishon, where he was pressed about independent publications that had referred to the massacre site as a “Jewish center” rather than a “synagogue.”

Despite the fact that Rabbi Lau immediately made clear in the interview that he refused to be dragged into an irrelevant conversation about theological differences between Orthodoxy and other denominations, journalists nonetheless twisted it into a story about the chief rabbi’s refusal to legitimize Conservative Jews.  

From the start, Rabbi Lau forcefully called for an end to any discussion about what stream of Judaism the victims followed:

“What is the connection? It has no relevancy to what happened. We are talking about Jews murdered because they were Jews. What is the relevance of this question? I do not hear or understand what kind of discussion can take place about such a question. [The Jewish worshippers] were murdered simply because they were Jews. Does it make any difference which synagogue they attended or which liturgical text of prayers they were reciting?”

So contrary to the journalists’ claim, Rabbi Lau did refer to the “synagogue” where the victims prayed. When pressed about publications that had referred to a “Jewish center” rather than a “synagogue,” Rabbi Lau replied:

“Am I the spokesman for these publications? I can tell you how many times I like or dislike, appreciate or don’t appreciate items that have been published. I’m aware of what they write and know that sometimes there is no connection between what they write and the reality.

Let me repeat myself: We are talking about Jews… we must not turn the painful events to the topic [of division]. That is not the issue at all. I may have a strong ideological disagreement with [other branches] about the topic of Judaism, its history and its implication for future generations of the Jewish nation, but so what? So because of this they’re not Jews?”

When pushed yet again about the appellation of “synagogue”, Rabbi Lau responded:

“[The point is that] Jews were killed in a location that the murderer saw as having a prominent Jewish character. A place with Torah scrolls, Jews wearing prayer shawls, a place with prayer books, where people came in order to be closer to G-d. This is why the murderer came specifically here and not somewhere else in order to kill. The pain and anger is about that.”

And when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted the same thing afterwards in slightly different words– “Jews were killed in a synagogue. They were killed because they are Jews. The location was chosen because it is a synagogue. We must never forget that. We are one”– the journalists rushed to label this a repudiation of Rabbi Lau’s earlier remarks, even though Netanyahu had neither mentioned the rabbi nor his remarks.

This demonstrates how a narrative can be advanced and reinforced by journalists, regardless of the facts.  Apparently, the real story about Israel’s chief rabbi expressing solidarity with fellow Jews was less sexy than the fabricated story of division  that reinforced the media’s pre-existing narrative of rift. 

A notable exception to this coverage was the Forward article by Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt entitled “Israel Chief Rabbi Didn’t Dismiss Conservative Synagogues, Stop Twisting” that accurately reported and corrected a previous article in the same newspaper by Judy Maltz, entitled “Israel Chief Rabbi Won’t Call Pittsburgh Shooting Site ‘Synagogue’ — Because It’s Not Orthodox”. 

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