Media anti-haredi bias made it easy to spread fake news

It was fake news about haredim on El Al last week, but everyone believed it for a while. What does that say about Israeli society?

Tzvi Lev

OpEds El Al passengers in airport
El Al passengers in airport

Like many other Israelis, I was horrified upon seeing reports of haredim acting violent on an El Al flight.

Immediately after last Shabbat, almost all of Israel’s leading news sites breathlessly reported that a group of haredim aboard an El Al flight from New York had rioted over fears that they would not land before the onset of the Jewish day of rest.

Two El Al flights that took off from JFK airport in New York were scheduled to land on Shabbat after being delayed by snow. One flight was diverted to destinations in Europe instead of Ben Gurion Airport while the other received permission, due to a sick passenger, from Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef to land in Israel after Shabbat began.

As the screaming headlines told us, a group of haredim began to riot on the flight to Israel after it became clear that they would not arrive before Shabbat began. The haredim allegedly pushed flight crew, cursed stewardesses, and threatened to forcibly break into the cockpit.

"In midst of my deep sleep I heard shouts of 'liars, cheaters,' and raised fists and the shouts at the flight attendants who burst into tears," recounted an eyewitness.

Another wrote in a viral Facebook post that "after six hours of flying, I hear shouts and see a flight attendant cry after they raised their hands on her, pushing her and threatening to break into the cockpit. All this in order not to desecrate Shabbat."

The story hit on every possible anti-haredi narrative. Violent haredim? Check. Religious extremism? Check. Social media boiled and seethed. “What kind of people are these, who are willing to run wild over their religious beliefs?” people asked.

Yet it only took a few more hours for the entire story to be revealed as a cynical piece of fake news designed to hide El Al’s scandalous behavior. The first cracks in the story appeared after Israel Hayom’s haredi affairs correspondent Yehuda Shlezinger recounted what he saw on the momentous flight.

Calling the media version of events “fake news”, Shlezinger presented a totally different version of events. As the journalist put it, El Al had willfully lied to its religious passengers; after departure was delayed by a tardy crew, the captain assured the observant flyers that they were heading back to the gate to let them disembark yet immediately taxied to takeoff.

"They sat us on the plane and each time they told lies, 'The flight attendants are already here,' 'We're leaving,' 'We're first in line,' 'We're on the fast lane'" he wrote. "Three hours on the plane, lots of lies. Passengers who wanted to go down were refused, and the captain promised unequivocally: 'we will arrive an hour or half an hour before Shabbat.'

"Two hours before the landing, the captain announces that the religious are to be removed in Athens, the secular will continue. Both sides were angry, both secular and haredi. They lied to us. Brazenly and without compunction."

"No passengers were beaten. None were threatened. They did not burst into the cockpit. They asked for answers," added Shlezinger.

This version of events was quickly corroborated by other passengers, including Arutz Sheva Group Chairman and former lawmaker Yaakov ‘Ketzale’ Katz, who adamantly denied that the story of violent haredim was baseless. Arutz Sheva posted an article by passenger Ben Chafetz refuting the claims.

Within a few short hours, the narrative had changed completely. Instead of goonish haredim, the story was about El Al’s shameful decision to lie to its passengers and force them to desecrate Shabbat.

After a few days of mounting backlash, El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin admitted that tales of the violent haredim were a total fabrication. "I never said that the haredim on the flight attacked anyone. There was no physical violence,” said Usishkin.

It’s important to stress that the libelous stories did not appear in fringe publications, but in Israel’s most prominent news platforms, including Channel 2 and Ynet. In other words, for a few hours, almost all of Israel's media edifice was propagating totally false information that smeared an entire community.

In an even more serious case of media malpractice, Channel 10 published videos taken by passengers of the flight, but with background screams artificially inserted into the audio. Instantly, a forceful conversation between passengers and crew sounded like a violent bar fight. Channel 10 later apologized and attributed it to a “technical problem”.

This whole saga begs the question: What would have happened had Yehuda Shlezinger and Yaakov Katz not been on the flight? The answer is obvious. The completely false story would never have been debunked. This entire week, we would have seen eruptions of anti-haredi vitriol all over Israel. Only the presence of two highly respected media and political personalities stopped the libel in its tracks.

It’s no secret that the haredi community is one of the most hated groups in Israel. As a current MK told this writer, “the haredim are the only group you can insult and still get away with it". Surveys show the haredim constantly topping the list of the most disliked sectors in Israel, ahead of other constantly-pilloried groups such as Arabs and settlers.

Much of the animosity stems from decades of hostile coverage by a ravenous press that searched for every way to make haredim look bad. One wonders how many other media circuses that besmirched haredim were equally baseless. How many times did we cluck our tongues after reading reports that presented haredim acting in an outrageous manner?

It’s important to mention that slanted and biased press coverage is not restricted solely to the haredi community. The Religious Zionist sector was brutally pilloried in the months preceding the Gaza Disengagement by a media that had sworn to do whatever was needed to ensure that plan went forward.

Time after time, hostile reporters willfully invented gruesome stories that portrayed settlers and the religious as demonic extremists, often inventing reports out of thin air that had no basis in reality.

“For a full year, they were portrayed as violent, deluded, and messianic (the fact that almost half of those expelled were secular was played down.) "There will be a war in Homesh and Sa-Nur," the headlines predicted. "Senior figures" warned of bloodshed,” recounted former Yesha Council Spokesperson and senior journalist Emily Amrousi in a 2015 article for Israel Hayom

“The media had a key role in shaping public opinion. What seemed like a disaster to us (and turned out to be a disaster) was what the media wanted.”

Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously wrote that “a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on”. Cases of media malpractice as witnessed this past week should make us all ask ourselves if our beliefs about the haredi community are false as well.