Israel, a young democracy, established in 1948, with a 120-member unicameral parliament elected officially every four years in universal, proportional, nationwide elections, is located in the Middle East, along the eastern coastline of the Mediterranean Sea, bordered by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. It lies at the junction of three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa.
From the outset, Israel’s media system took shape in the shadow of an extended conflict with Arab states and the Palestinian people that culminated in several military clashes – 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, 1989, 2000, and 2006. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2005, the country’s population exceeded seven million, consisting of 5,313,800 Jews (76.0 percent of the population); 1,140,600 Muslims (16.3 percent); 146,600 Christians (2.1 percent), of whom 118,700 are Christian Arabs; 1,115,200 Druze (1.6 percent); and 272,200 with no religious affiliation (3.9 percent). The country’s founders overtly aspired toward creation of a modern, western, democratic state. As such, the concept of social responsibility had a decisive influence on the development of mass media in the fledgling democracy.
During Israel’s six decades of independence, its media institutions have undergone extensive structural change, shifting from a centralized, monolithic system to a decentralized one that integrates traditional and new media and boasts a well-developed telecommunications infrastructure. Besides the printed press – dailies, local papers, and magazines – and dozens of radio and cable and satellite television channels, a variety of online newspapers enriches the media map. Furthermore, four mobile telephony service providers offer a wide range of programs, while old broadcast media and new entrepreneurs are examining options for the Internet.
The Pre-State Period (Until 1948)
The media first struck roots in the British Mandatory period, before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Cultural capital – and especially commitment to the press and books – was the chief resource borne by Jewish immigrants. Although only modestly endowed economically, the pre-state Jewish community (Yishuv) was blessed with an extensive supply and variety of publications, about half of them published regularly, including some 40 dailies of varying life-spans. These were generally unassuming publications of a few pages each, appearing at varying intervals and functioning as ideological organs of political movements and schools of thought.
On March 30, 1936, in the best colonial tradition, the Mandatory authorities in Palestine inaugurated radio broadcasts in three languages – English, Hebrew, and Arabic – on a station called the Voice of Jerusalem.
The Transition Period (1948 –1967)
The second stage extends from the country’s initial, formative years until the Six-Day War (1967). The political-party and foreign-language press flourished during the state of Israel’s first decade, as mass immigration underscored the urgent need for newspapers in the languages of incoming immigrants: Yiddish, Polish, Romanian, Hungarian, French, and others. Moreover, the demographic processes engendered by immigration were conducive to the emergence of popular dailies eager to maximize circulation. Leading papers Maariv and Yedioth Ahronoth, along with several morning papers, most of them party organs, challenged the population’s traditional reading habits.
Initially, the professional infrastructure installed by the British was reorganized as the Voice of Israel. Experienced broadcasters staffed the state radio network that began operation as the Israel Broadcasting Service under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office. In 1965, radio broadcasts were institutionalized as part of the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA).
The vision that guided Israel’s state radio system, which bore just a soupçon of paternalism, also sought to promote educational goals among the young immigrants who comprised the country’s army. In 1950, the Israeli government decided to launch an additional radio station, under the auspices of its armed forces, called Galei Zahal. In 1966, Israel Educational Television, financed by the Rothschild Foundation, began broadcasting programs to strengthen education and enrichment for children, especially those living in development towns and frontier localities.
Controlled Pluralism (1967–1986)
This period is characterized chiefly by the reinforcement of a moderate, liberal atmosphere, a controlled pluralistic structure, and varied regulatory arrangements concerning reciprocal relations between the media institution and its surroundings. Immediately after the Six-Day War, traditional opposition was lifted and Israel Television was given the green light. Regulations declared that programming time would be divided between two languages, Hebrew and Arabic, on the same channel, which would be subject to public supervision within the framework of the IBA (Katz 1971).
The postwar economic boom hastened decentralization of the printed press and yielded a flourishing local press industry (Caspi 1986). At the same time, the status of privately owned publications was enhanced at the expense of party organs and the foreign-language press, largely due to the accelerated integration of immigrants, most of whom switched to Hebrew-language media. Social growth processes were particularly kind to private newspapers, which began to consolidate and take shape as media conglomerates owned by three families: Mozes, Nimrodi, and Schocken. Each had a flagship daily (Yedioth Ahronoth, Maariv, and Haaretz, respectively) and produced numerous publications, including magazines, local papers and books.
In 1973, “peace pilot” Abie Nathan launched the Voice of Peace radio station, transmitting from a ship anchored, at least officially, outside the territorial waters of Israel.
Open Skies (1987–)
The fourth and current stage, which reflects the Israeli government’s neo-liberal policies, features extensive regulation, particularly concerning broadcasting channels, as well as an open-skies policy, accelerated development of telecommunications infrastructures, and increasing signs of a decline in the status of the printed press.
August 1986 saw the completion of Amendment No. 4 to the Telecommunications Law, the legal device required for regulation of cable television. At first, cable broadcasting was divided regionally among five franchisees. These five firms later merged into three and eventually became one company, HOT, as a result of competition with the sole satellite television service provider in the early 2000s. Cable television enhanced the supply of programming, primarily by providing dozens of foreign-content channels, including English-language news networks such as CNN, SKY, and the BBC, as well as sports, music, film, and entertainment channels.
In 1993, seven years after the start of experimental broadcasting and three years after Knesset ratification of the relevant law, a franchise for a commercial television channel, Channel 2, was issued. At the same time, franchises were awarded to 14 regional radio stations, which were also supported by advertising. In early 2000, the firm YES received a franchise for provision of satellite television service, which increased the supply of foreign channels in the same format as cable television. Two years later, in 2002, another commercial television channel, Channel 10, went on the air. By the start of the third millennium, Israel’s broadcasting map had changed markedly, displaying an abundance of radio and television channels (Caspi et al. 2002).
The multiplicity of channels supported by advertising was the first palpable threat to the printed press. Small newspapers closed down and the three major dailies anxiously sought ways to persevere, consolidating themselves as media conglomerates and expanding cross-ownership of other media. At first, each conglomerate intensified its hold on the local press through a network of local papers dispersed throughout the country, seeking to exhaust the financial potential of local advertising. Subsequently, the media barons joined forces with the country’s economic powers. Three of them – Arnon Mozes, Ofer Nimrodi, and later Eliezer Fishman – secured shares in the Channel 2 franchise groups. The Yedioth Ahronoth conglomerate even has a hand in the vibrant Russian-language press, which has flourished because of mass immigration from the former Soviet Union since the late 1980s, as it owns the only Russian-language daily, Vesty (Caspi et al. 2002). Over the past few years, increased Internet access has given rise to online journalism in all its many shapes and forms, threatening the status quo once again. In 2006, about 3.7 million Israelis aged 13 and up browsed the web, and 86 percent of them were exposed to online newspapers. Three types of online newspapers can be differentiated. The first is online editions of printed newspapers, such as the Globes financial daily, which launched an English-language Internet version for foreign investors in 1996 and later added a Hebrew version as well. Immediately thereafter, Haaretz launched its own site, as did other newspapers. Second are separate online and printed newspapers: the two most outstanding sites are Ynet, launched in 2000, which belongs to Israel’s most popular daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, and nrg, belonging to the daily Maariv. Third, there are independent online newspapers: Zman Merkazi is a pioneer in this category, to which News First Class belongs as well.
Over the past few years, other media have also found the Internet to be a fertile field for experimentation. Broadcasting stations have learned to provide Internet broadcasts along with conventional transmission.
The Arab Media
The Arab media map in Israel, like its Jewish counterpart, took shape in the shadow of the bitter conflict between Israel and its neighbors. By one count, there are over 100 Arabic publications in Israel (Adoni et al. 2006), most of them suffering from low circulation and irregular publication. A majority of the regularly published Arabic periodicals are supported by political, public, or religious factors. In 2006, only two Arabic dailies were published in Israel: the Communist Party organ al-Ittihad, and the independent al-Fajr al-Jadid, first published in 2004.
The first original and successful initiative emulating the private newspaper model occurred in 1983, when local advertising agency owner Lutfi Masha’our decided to publish a local newspaper in Nazareth, al-Sanara (The Fishing Rod). Another venture, Kul al-’Arab (All the Arabs), under Arab–Jewish joint ownership, was also economically dependent on an advertising agency.
Private weekly newspapers apparently succeeded in establishing and reinforcing reading habits, as three additional weeklies were subsequently published regularly: Panorama in Taibeh (since 1987), and al-Midan (The Square) and al-A’ein (The Spring) in Nazareth (since 1999 and 2000, respectively).
The new political and nationalistic spirit led to the emergence of nationalistic Arab political parties and their respective organs: Al-Watan (The Homeland ) – Progressive Party for Peace, 1983; Sawt al-Haq wal-Huriyya (The Voice of Truth and Freedom) – weekly, Islamic Movement, Umm el Fahm, 1989; and Fasl al-Maqal (Unequivocal Words) – weekly, National Democratic Alliance, Nazareth, 1996.
The broadcast media, by contrast, enjoyed significant prosperity and stability thanks to generous government support. Most Arab radio and television broadcasts remained under the auspices of the IBA, which also supervised their content. Technological developments challenged the Jewish majority’s control of Arabic broadcasting channels. Pirate radio stations began operating in several Arab towns despite meager human, financial, and technological resources; their transmitters were weak but sufficed to cover concentrated Arabic-speaking areas, offering a refreshing alternative to partisan radio-for broadcasts. In October 2002, a new license was awarded to the Radio al-Shams group, which began as a Jewish–Arab group.
When a designated commercial Arabic television channel was approved, the concession was again granted to an ostensibly “mixed” group controlled by Jewish businessmen who guaranteed its television-for nature. As of summer 2006, however, this group has not succeeded in carrying out the project, which has apparently been hampered by a lack of serious investors.
Similarly, the advent of cheap satellite dishes enabled many citizens to watch television stations from elsewhere in the region rather than Israel Television’s Arabic broadcasts. As of 2006, nearly 25 Israeli Arab reporters are employed by satellite stations in Arabic-speaking countries (Al Jazeera, Abu Dhabi, al-’Arabiyya, Egyptian satellite television, etc.), and most are also connected to leading newspapers in Arab countries (al-Ahram, al-Mustaqbal, al-Khaleej, and al-Sapir) and in the west (al-Sharq al-Awsat, al-Hayat, and al-Quds al-’Arabi in London).
- Adoni, H., Caspi, D., & Cohen, A. A. (2006). Media, minorities, and hybrid identities: The Arab and Russian Communities in Israel. Cresskill, NJ. Hampton Press.
- Caspi, D. (1986). Media decentralization: The case of Israel’s local newspapers. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
- Caspi, D., & Limor, D. (1999). The in/outsiders: The mass media in Israel. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
- Caspi, D., Adoni, H., Cohen, A. A., & Elias, N. (2002). The red, the white and the blue: The Russian media in Israel. Gazette, 64(6), 551–570.
Katz, E. (1971). Television comes to the people of the book. In I. L. Horowitz (ed.), The use and abuse of social science. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, pp. 249 –272.