I recently attended the Indy Jewish Community Relations Council Media Leaders Luncheon. The keynote speaker at the Central Library event was Jerusalem Post chief political correspondent and analyst Gil Hoffman.
Hoffman spoke primarily about his 20-year-career for the Israeli English language daily which has a large audience in the U.S.
The most current round of hostilities between Israel and the Gaza Strip—a tiny swath of land between Israel and the Mediterranean packed with 1.8 million Palestinians—was much on his mind as he started his keynote. The day before, Nov. 12, Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups launched from Gaza more than 400 rockets directed at Israel.
Said Hoffman, “It’s really hard to be here when there’s so much going on in the Gaza Strip.”
He then asked us to imagine what Israeli families were going through during these attacks.
“Imagine it if it happens in the middle of the night when you’re in bed and that siren goes off and you have to run for shelter in 15 seconds while getting your kids; and you’ve got three kids, you’ve got two hands. That’s what the people there on the Gaza periphery inside Israel are dealing with right now.”
According to The Guardian, one civilian was killed and 20 were injured on the Israeli side while medics in Gaza reported that five people had been killed, two of them militants, in Israeli reprisals.
Hoffman said that many of 400 missiles were stopped by the Iron Dome defense system but most landed in Gaza.
A cease-fire was brokered by Egypt and put a halt to hostilities, at least for the moment, and prime minister Bibi Netanyahu accepted that deal.
I found what Hoffman left out of this narrative interesting, however.
That is, in the lead-up to these hostilities, both sides had been going at it sporadically for months. Hoffman also failed to mention that Hamas and other militant groups had launched these rockets in response to a botched Israeli special forces raid inside Gaza.
Hoffman talked a lot about Netanyahu. The right wing prime minister is currently under fire for accepting the ceasefire agreement from politicians on his extreme right flank. There were now also widespread protests throughout southern Israel by people who, presumably, wanted to launch another incursion into Gaza.
“They’re upset that he didn’t take more action to prevent this from happening again; tomorrow, a week from now, a month from now, they’re sick and tired of Hamas being able to being able to make life hell for them,” he said.
Netanyahu, Hoffman said, surprised a lot of people by agreeing to the cease-fire.
“As someone who’s covered him for 20 years; he’s probably one of the most misunderstood leaders in the world,” said Hoffman. “His image in America is very different than his image in Israel. His image in America is being this extreme right winger who is uncompromising; maybe eating Palestinians for breakfast, where in Israel he has a very different reputation as being a lot more pragmatic as being someone who avoids conflict.
"Israelis aren’t surprised so much that he wouldn’t go to war in Gaza; he’s avoided it so many times. He’s someone who’s hesitant, who doesn’t want to get embroiled in things. His reputation is not so much right wing, not left wing, kind of self-centered; he does what makes sense for him politically.”
Such a reputation, Hoffman did not say, is only possible because of the Israeli shift to the hard right over the past two decades.
To be fair, Hoffman mentioned this rightward shift later during the Q&A; he explained the profound rift between increasingly right wing Israeli Jews and predominantly liberal American Jews in what I felt was a particularly astute analysis.
“The gap between Israel and America in general and Israel and American Jews in particular is only going to widen as long as Donald Trump is president,” Hoffman said. “Any efforts to heal that rift will fail right now. Why? Because he’s a divisive figure and he’s in charge and Israelis will continue liking him.”
Hoffman brought up the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. For Israeli Jews, he said, the shooting might serve as a teachable moment. That is, the Jews there were targeted because they helped refugees—not just because they were Jews.
“Squirrel Hill exposed people in Israel to a conservative synagogue,” said Hoffman. “Seeing the outpouring of [support from] a Muslim iman exposed Israelis to what liberal Jewish life in America is like, how entrenched American Jews are in their society that they are embraced in a way they are.”
The majority of American Jews affiliate with conservative and reform congregations. Nevertheless neither conservative nor reform congregations are accepted by the Orthodox religious authorities in Israel who are in control of the religious institutions there.
Thus it’s worth noting that the moniker “conservative,” pertains to Jewish practice, not to Jewish politics. More conservative Jews keep kosher, for example, than congregants from reform congregations.
I was thinking that it might have been helpful for Hoffman to go on Fox & Friends and explain the difference between conservative and more religiously liberal reform Jews to their clueless hosts but it didn’t occur to me during the Q&A session to suggest such a thing.
This point of terminology was probably lost as well on the producers of Fox News’s Oct. 28 news segment titled “Conservative Rabbi Prays with Trump after Synagogue Attack.”
The segment was based on an interview with Rabbi Benjamin Sendrow, who leads the conservative Shaaray Tefilla congregation in Carmel that was vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti in July. The interview took place a day after he appeared with Trump at an FFA convention in Indianapolis.
“I think the more we stray from our religious values, I think the more this becomes a problem,” Sendrow told the news hosts.
I was puzzled by Sendrow’s blaming the shooting on irreligion, which seemed right out of the NRA’s playbook. The congregants of Tree of Life Synagogue were, after all, confronted by a man who didn’t kill his victims with strayed religious values. He did it with an AR-15 assault rifle and other guns that he obtained legally.
During Hoffman’s keynote as well, I wondered how in tune some of his opinions were with majority Jewish opinion in America.
“In Israel you have freedom of the press,” he said responding to a question about journalist safety in Israel. “It’s been questioned more lately with an atmosphere of left wing extremists who pose as journalists, who maybe get a press pass from Australia and then come to Israel to try to make the country look bad around the world. Those kind of people are more limited. Their press passes get revoked.”
One of the news organizations that had its press passes revoked in 2017 was the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera. Hoffman, believe it or not, is a contributor to that news organization (as he is to CNN and other media outlets.)
He is also a reserve soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces Spokesman’s Unit.
I wondered how he reconciles those two roles which, I would think, involves some cognitive dissonance, but I didn’t think to ask at the time.
I suppose I could have also asked him about his background, which is an interesting one.
Hoffman was born not in Israel, but in Chicago, IL, where he grew up. He graduated from the Northwestern University School of Journalism. He started his journalism career at the Miami Herald and then the Arizona Republic, before winning a Pulliam Journalism Fellowship that brought him to Jerusalem, where he lives with his family.
So it seemed apropos that the media luncheon was taking place in the Nina Mason Pulliam Special Collections Room. The Pulliams, in addition to owning the Arizona Republic, were longtime owners of The Indianapolis Star.
All in all, I appreciated Hoffman’s perspectives and his sense of humor. He’s a funny guy, and a great speaker.
But it also seemed apropos to take some of his pronouncements, especially on military matters—considering his IDF affiliation—with a kosher grain of salt.