Thursday, May 21, 2009

Steve Leibowitz Interviewed

One on One: 'Are you asking as a journalist or as my wife?'

May. 20, 2009
Ruthie Blum Leibowitz , THE JERUSALEM POST

The advantage of interviewing one's husband is not having to dress up and drive across the country - or even across town, for that matter. The disadvantage is that it's difficult to simulate distance of the kind such exchanges normally involve. Well, that and the other little issue of how it's going to come across to the reader. It's this last bit, more than anything else, that had kept me from adding Steve Leibowitz - otherwise a perfect subject for this column - to my list of one-on-ones.

But I decided to succumb to better judgment in this case, because Leibowitz, originally from Queens, New York, is a walking wikipedia of the Anglo scene in this country. And his endeavors, both as chief editor of Israel Television's IBA News in English and as president of American Football in Israel, affect the lives of many English-speaking immigrants.

Leibowitz, 57, became an ardent Zionist with the outbreak of the Six Day War, when his passion for Israel was only equalled by his love of sports and rock'n'roll. (Today, a bust of the late Menachem Begin sits on a shelf in his room, next to statuettes of quarterback Tom Brady and "the boss," Bruce Springsteen.)

An activist in American Betar, he made aliya in 1974, soon after which he became a community organizer for the Likud, which - to his great delight - came to power for the first time in 1977. It wasn't long after that that he began working at the Prime Minister's Office (under Begin), serving as an official in the Government Press Office, explaining settlement policy to foreign journalists.

From there, he became a Jerusalem correspondent at the English-language newspaper The Nation. When it folded a year later, Leibowitz became a sports reporter for The Jerusalem Post, as well as a news-related features writer for In Jerusalem, a job he continued doing for several years, even after moving to Israel Television.

IBA News was launched in 1991, just as the first Gulf War broke out. With everybody in the country holed up in sealed rooms, with gas masks in tow, the IBA team's faces became familiar in one fell swoop, due to a prime-time slot on what was then the country's only TV channel. Leibowitz was among its founding staff.

A lot has changed since then, including what many Anglos felt was an unfair marginalization of the only local broadcast they were able to watch and fully understand.

As the station became embroiled in a ratings war with the commercial channels, Leibowitz explains, English began to get "pushed around." But veterans, like Leibowitz and colleagues Leah Zinder, Yochanan Elrom, Dennis Zinn, Jonathan Elkins and Laura Cornfield, "stuck it out, as IBA survived many threats to its existence."

Lo and behold, rather than being put on the proverbial chopping block, IBA News is now being beefed up with extra airtime.

While reports of reforms and severe cutbacks at the Israel Broadcasting Authority continue to emerge, the English department at Israel TV is being bolstered. Why?

We're getting bolstered because the Broadcasting Authority sees that our department has been making money. We are sold to Web sites here and abroad, as well as to certain TV stations in the US. There are a dozen clients who buy IBA News on an annual basis, among them The Jerusalem Post.

It is true that we used to be the "bastard child" of Israel TV, initially given only 15 minutes, and bumped around whenever we were inconvenient for another department - with Hebrew programming, of course, always being given priority. But then, several years ago, with the addition of Channel 33 - which was established as the local Arabic station - possibilities opened up for us. It was then that we were given a full half-hour slot, which is actually 22 minutes in American terms, since the other eight minutes are devoted to commercials. We still have a presence on Channel 1, with a 10-minute bulletin every day at 16:50, but we are an important part of Channel 33 [news on weekdays at 17:00-17:22; Fridays and Saturdays at 18:00-18:22] - a full partner, with strong support from IBA Chairman Moshe Gavish, Director-General Moti Sklar and Arabic department head Rafi Yehoshua. And once it became clear that we were able to sustain ourselves financially, I raised the idea of expanding English programming beyond straight news. This is how Close-up, was born about three months ago. It is a 30-minute talk show focusing on the issues of the day, and it is broadcast every Wednesday on Channel 33 at 17:25, immediately following the regular IBA News. I host it, together with anchor Leah Zinder, one of the best journalists in the country.

In addition, sometime soon we will be launching Spotlight, hosted by IBA staffers Jonathan Elkins and Viva Press, which will deal with culture, hi-tech, Israeli innovations, with a media corner hosted by Elli Wohlgelernter. Aside from all that, we plan on having a daily 10-minute interview show called IBA Q&A, Sunday-Thursday at 20:50-21:00.

There's no getting around the fact that English is the international language. And we are the world's window into Israel. I will keep pushing for more programs, until someone stops me. It makes me and the staff work harder, but I view English screen time as my personal hasbara mission.

What kind of viewer response do you receive?

I know that thousands of people set their clocks by IBA News. Most say, "Bring it on; give us more about what's going on in Israel."

But we also receive criticism, usually from viewers on the Right, who think that we should never bring up anything negative about Israel, or that we should be taking a more conservative stance. But our goal is not to take a political position. We try to report on the news as it is, with all of its stripes. I'll bring in a Peace Now activist, just as I will someone from Gush Emunim, as well as representatives of the government and the opposition. It is true that the balance we try to achieve overall sometimes isn't complete on a given broadcast, but we try to be balanced, and over the long term, our viewers respect that.

Speaking of how you portray Israel, unlike your Hebrew counterparts, your broadcast rarely reports on crime. Is that a function of time constraints, or is it an editorial decision on your part?

It's both. I don't like to devote too much time to crime stories, because our viewers tend to hunger for the bigger picture - which means politics and security. And though crime is an important internal issue here, with rape, child abuse and so on that have to be reported on and dealt with, they don't necessarily have to be emphasized on our show, because they are not mainly what our viewers are interested in knowing about Israel. Having said that, we do not ignore social problems, and we try to bring on guests who offer solutions.

Apropos the guests you bring on your show, how much of your selection boils down to their fluency in English?

It's a major consideration. We don't want to torture our viewers with people who are hard to understand. And because we don't have the ability to include subtitles, those who speak better English end up getting more airtime than those who don't. Thankfully, there are many Israelis from across the political spectrum, and in different fields, who speak excellent English. We have a long list of these - about 1,000 people - who agree to come on when they are invited.

You frequently use Jerusalem Post reporters. What do you think about the trend of considering members of the media "experts," by virtue of their covering certain beats? Why interview an economics reporter, for example, instead of an economist?

We're not expecting a person from the Post to act as an expert. We're looking for the person who is not only a reporter, but who also does analysis, such as your editor-in-chief, David Horovitz, or your political correspondent, Gil Hoffman, and military reporter Yaakov Katz. They are able to give our viewers the benefit of their analyses. And our viewers are also Jerusalem Post readers, so they are familiar with the names of your staff, which gives added value. The exposure has been mutually valuable. The Post is the only English-language newspaper in Israel - Haaretz is a translation of the Hebrew paper. So, we also sometimes invite Haaretz reporters who know English, but everyone at the Post does. So, it's a perfect fit that serves both of our interests.

If, as you claim, so many people in the world are hungry to hear about Israel, why has nothing come of the many private attempts to establish a 24-hour English news channel here?

It all boils down to money. Over the past few years, at least four different individuals have approached me for advice about how to best launch such a project. I was happy to sit with each and discuss the value of a round-the-clock news station in English. But each went away and never returned - I guess when the numbers didn't crunch. The idea to do what Al-Jazeera did by creating an English-language broadcast is a great one. But Al-Jazeera has unlimited funds from the Qatari government, which is something the Israeli government doesn't have. And even the amount of commercial time that could be sold is limited. I imagine that one day such a thing will exist, probably on the Internet.

You are also the president of American Football in Israel - another Anglo venture. How did that happen?

I was always involved and interested in sports. I've been playing in the softball league here since 1978, and I'm still playing - at the age of 57! I even pitched a victory last week. But my true love has always been football. And when I made aliya, it was the one thing I missed here. Then The Nation, where I had been working as a reporter, folded [in 1989]. And not only was a room in its Jerusalem office left empty, but because it was in Beit Agron, where the Government Press Office and other media-related organizations were located, there was a satellite dish on the roof. So, Danny Gewirtz [a colleague] and I decided to pirate the signal from American Armed Forces Television, and to start offering to show games there for all of the Anglos who couldn't otherwise watch American sports.

We put up posters around the city, and many people starting turning up. It became a whole social club. Our biggest draw was football, and we discovered that there were a lot of guys out there who also missed playing the sport.

So we organized a league of eight teams, comprised mostly of American immigrants, but also two yeshiva teams. We then approached a political friend of mine, Ruby Rivlin, who was involved in the Betar organization and Betar soccer team, and he got us a field to use, in Bayit Vegan. We didn't realize just what a monster we were creating. By 1999 - a little over nine years later - we had grown to 36 teams. The biggest problem we had while growing was finding places to play. We had to keep moving around. When Bayit Vegan wasn't available, we moved to the YMCA stadium, then to the Hebrew University and to other places. It was a constant battle. None of the facilities had lights, which meant that the only time we could play was Friday mornings.

One day, one of our players happened to spot Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, in the lobby of the King David Hotel. He walked up to him and told him about our football league, and asked if he would be interested in knowing more about it. Mr. Kraft said he was, so I contacted him, and he invited me to put together a proposal on how he could help, and to come and see him in Boston. In the meantime, I went to see the mayor at the time, Ehud Olmert - whom I knew from my days as a Likud activist, through my work at the Government Press Office and finally from IBA News - to propose an idea. I had noticed an unused field next to Beit Berlin, overgrown with weeds, which had been built originally as a soccer field, but which had been totally neglected. I proposed that the city would give us that land, the Kraft family [Robert and his wife, Myra] would pay for its development, our football association would handle all the games and the Jerusalem Foundation, which was very interested in sports facilities, would be the conduit for donations. After Olmert and the Jerusalem Foundation agreed, I went to Boston to show my proposal to Mr. Kraft. The rest is history, so to speak.

Today, we have 95 teams playing on a regular basis at Kraft Stadium: 57 men's teams, 16 women's teams, 16 high school teams and six teams in the coed league. And there are an additional 200 or so kids who come from Jerusalem and elsewhere to play at Kraft. So, Kraft Stadium was able to help us develop football into a major sport in this country. I don't mean that it can compete with soccer or basketball, but it's now recognized by the state as an official sport, and our national teams compete abroad.

Once we became established with flag football, I felt it was time for the real thing, tackle, which we started last year, with great success - and interestingly, unlike with flag football, that drew mostly Anglos, tackle is being played by sabras. In fact, one of our star players this year, the quarterback for the team Real Housing Haifa, is Itai Ashkenazi, the son of Chief of General Staff Gaby Ashkenazi.

You said that Ruby Rivlin had been instrumental in getting you access to Betar Jerusalem fields. Over the past month, you have developed a new kind of connection to that soccer team. There have been several news stories, mainly in the Hebrew press, but also in these pages, about the potential sale of the team to philanthropist Guma Aguiar. Some of them have been inaccurate. Can you set the record straight?

It happened by chance, when you and I were invited to take part in the March of the Living, which this year was sponsored heavily by Guma Aguiar. Two of the people who work closely with him [Bobby Brown, his CEO, and Charley Levine, the head of Lonestar Communications] are Betar comrades of mine from the "Old Country."

During the three-day emotionally wrenching trip, we spent a lot of time commuting from one place to another by train or bus. On one of the train rides, Guma and I talked about sports. We hit it off right away, because he's also a football fan, and is even interested in playing in the tackle league as a linebacker next season. Anyway, I knew about all kinds of philanthropic efforts of his in Jerusalem, and I asked him whether he would be interested in buying Betar Jerusalem, whose owner, Arkadi Gaydamak, left the country. He said he was. But since it wasn't the right time to be talking about such things, we postponed the discussion until after returning from Poland. He invited me to his house to discuss it.

I gathered whatever information I could, and briefed him on the current ownership, the prices involved and other issues, including the negative reputation the fans have. I also let him know that whoever owns Betar automatically becomes a media personality, so he should take that into account. This led to several more meetings, which I won't go into here, with the relevant people in Betar. Where it stands now is fluid. We'll have to wait and see what happens. [see here]

What's in it for you?

Are you asking as a journalist or as a wife?

My playing matchmaker between Guma and Betar has to do with my love of sports and Jerusalem. Betar is on the brink of collapse - heading into bankruptcy - and it's a sad day for soccer fans. Betar has a huge fan base in this country, and even abroad, as the representative of Jerusalem. With all of my interest in American football, I realize that in Israel, the No. 1 game is soccer. And I realize what a tragedy it would be if Betar were forced into Chapter 11, without a buyer who is going to lift it back up to where it needs to be.

But hasn't Betar been terrible for Israel's image, with all that "death to the Arabs" chanting at matches? Can any owner alter that?

I took my son, Mikey, to a Betar game a few years ago, and vowed it would be the last, because of behavior like that. It wasn't an atmosphere I wanted my child exposed to. That has to change. The fans have crossed the line and hurt the team. There was even an incident when they ran onto the pitch before a match was over, causing Betar to lose. It's just unacceptable behavior, which the players and owners have never wanted. But the ownership has to be willing to confront the fans.

Confront them in what way?

Guma's idea is to drown out their profanity with loud music. But my advice is to be tougher than that. I would employ the zero-tolerance approach that's used in many professional stadiums in the United States. They bring in a judge, and rowdy fans who break the law are arrested right there in the stadium.

Sports produces some of society's most important role models. My son, for example, has posters of his favorite athletes on his wall, and I remember how hard it was for him to discover that one of them was on steroids.

The players have to abide by a certain set of rules, and the same is true of the fans. There's a contract here between the fans and the players that can be broken by either side. And when it's broken, it damages the sport.

My general philosophy is that organized sport, whether amateur or professional, has tremendous potential for the good of Israel. The football league, for example, gives a good 1,200 players the chance to play the game they loved in their childhood, and even pass it on to their sabra offspring.

If the big league soccer team, Betar Jerusalem, becomes healthy, not only could it elevate the city's image abroad, but it could become the team favored by Jews all over the Diaspora. So maybe I will be remembered some day as the guy who brought football from the Diaspora to Israel, and helped bring soccer from Israel to the Diaspora.

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