Eretz Acheret finding its voice

Journalist Bambi Sheleg (left) says she’s airing views that neither the mainstream nor the religious presses in Israel will print.Of all the threats facing Israel today, it is the danger from within that frightens Israeli journalist and commentator Bambi Sheleg …

Journalist Bambi Sheleg (left) says she’s airing views that neither the mainstream nor the religious presses in Israel will print.Of all the threats facing Israel today, it is the danger from within that frightens Israeli journalist and commentator Bambi Sheleg the most.

She sees a country that has lost its center. There are huge divisions between the groups that make up Israeli society, and people lack a common language to discuss the issues facing them. A catastrophe, Sheleg said, is unfortunately what it takes to start a conversation.

But Sheleg is not waiting for a catastrophe to do something about it. She is the founder and editor of Eretz Acheret (A Different Country), a bimonthly magazine devoted to exploring Judaism and identity in today’s Israel. Supported by the Avi Chai Foundation and the New Israel Fund, it is the only Hebrew-language magazine to defy political and religious categorization, Sheleg said.

“In Israel, all the media is very sectarian,” Sheleg said. “It means that in a religious newspaper you could never, ever print some of the articles that we have printed. And on the other hand, you could never, ever print some of them in Ha’aretz. So, we don’t want to be afraid of anyone. And we want to give real freedom to people to print their ideas and speak up.”

Eretz Acheret is eight issues old. Its five-person production staff works in a small Jerusalem office. The magazine’s staff and board are politically and religiously diverse. Its contributors include Israelis – Jewish and Arab, religious and secular, from all parts of the political spectrum – and writers from other countries. Many of them represent voices and viewpoints unlikely to be heard in the mainstream Israeli press. Sheleg had perceived – correctly it seems – that Israelis were looking for something to help them with their current situation.

“I say Israelis are quiet now because they are thinking,” she said. “Because the reality’s so chaotic that you have to deal with the most basic values you believe in and that you’ve been taught to believe in.”

Sheleg spent years raising the money to get Eretz Acheret off the ground. Its first issue went to print the day before Rosh Hashanah 2000 – just as the Al Aqsa Intifada was breaking out.

“We were terrified,” Sheleg said. “We were sure that no one would be interested in an identity march when the reality collapsed.”

But the opposite happened. In Eretz Acheret’s first 10 months, the magazine met its two-year subscription goal.

Each edition is devoted to a single theme, allowing writers to take approaches that are sometimes surprising or unusual. The newest issue takes on Islam: one article, by an Iraqi architect, explores relations among Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the seventh century and compares them to today’s conflict. In another, an Israeli rabbi looks at the similarities and differences in attitudes toward women of traditional Islam and Judaism. One past issue examined God and the nature of religious feeling, another was devoted to what Sheleg calls the ruling language that Israeli media and society use to define Israel and Israelis.

“The magazine is about the search for identity of Israeli society and the Jewish people,” Sheleg said. “Who are we? What are we doing here? We try to open ourselves to all the interpretations that we can get, that we think are worthwhile to hear. Because we think that the conversation going on in the media is not deep enough, and it’s too stereotypic and also politically driven. We don’t see much hope in the kind of conversation that is going on now. So we try to create a place where a different kind of conversation is going on.”

Sheleg, herself Orthodox, was a journalist for the religious Zionism movement. “When Rabin was assassinated I was editing a children’s magazine,” she said. “I decided that I didn’t want to create any more culture only for religious people; that there is a problem that is much deeper. Language is a real problem. People don’t understand what other people are telling them. We live in such different worlds of values and language and concepts that if we want Israeli society to exist, we have to go on an identity march to try to find out what’s going on here. Who are the people who are here and what do they tell us? We need to understand the deep feelings of people, not only try to stereotype them as left, right, religious, not religious.”

As an example, Sheleg points to the gap between religious Jews and so-called secular Jews. “The haredim (ultra-Orthodox) don’t get to know the values and knowledge of the secular world,” she said. And by turn, the Israeli intelligentsia tends to be secular, with no knowledge of Judaism and Jewish values, which, Sheleg said, makes them irrelevant to their own society. “The (so-called) elite in Israel are detached from Judaism,” she said. “They don’t realize the value of Jewish values. If you don’t know the language, you can’t have a conversation or debate. You have to know the language to create a conversation.”

Israelis have to find a common language, Sheleg said, because, now, after 53 years of gathering, building, and fighting for survival, Israel is finally ready to create a culture of its own.

“Now the center of the society has to define the rules of life. And this is what we are after. What does it mean to have a Jewish society? How should it work in every parameter of life? And for this I think it is very valuable for us to listen to what people are saying. Because there is something there for us to learn. This is why, I think, we are working on a project that works on hope. Because we think about the future, about how we are going to start a new culture.”

Sheleg considers herself part of what she calls this journey. “I don’t know the final answer,” she said. “It’s not that I know the truth and someone else doesn’t. It’s that I’m also part of this quest. It’s really a quest for what’s going on and how it should be in the future. It’s part of a process of change we are all going through… That’s why we find hope and a lot of satisfaction in our work.”

And, in the face of news that seems to get worse every day, Bambi Sheleg has some good news to offer.

“The good news is that Israeli society is a very interesting society. It’s very rich and wonderful. We have lots of people who speak not only one cultural language, but also several cultural languages. This is a great hope. People who speak more than one cultural language can understand better, even when they meet a third culture. They can understand the importance. So there is hope – davkah – in being bilingual.”

Highlights from Eretz Aheret are available in English. To receive a copy, email acheret@netvision.net.il.