Bambi Sheleg, a giant of Israeli journalism, a woman of courage, keen intelligence, and unyieliding commitment to truth and justice, died today at the age of 58. Her presence will be fiercely missed. Below is a profile I wrote about her six years ago for The Forward.
In June 2006, the Supreme Court of Israel handed down one of the most important but barely publicized rulings in the history of the Jewish state. The decision to cancel the Law for the Privatization of Prisons halted a process that would have abdicated an unprecedented amount of state authority — that is, the correctional system — to private bodies. Remarkable in this story is not only how quietly the law nearly took effect, but also how the Supreme Court came to its conclusion. The decision was credited to a magazine, Eretz Acheret (“A Different Place”), in particular the April-May 2006 issue, titled, “Can the State abdicate its role as responsible for the correctional system?”
Bambi Sheleg, the soft-spoken founder and editor-in-chief of Eretz Acheret, recalls this event fondly. “It was an incredible moment,” she said humbly of the victory. “This is why we founded the magazine, to influence the social agenda in Israel and offer a deep analysis of the issues critical to Israel’s identity.”
Sheleg, 52, a mother of three who is married to writer Yair Sheleg, was born in Chile and moved to Israel at age 12. Her family is Religious Zionist, and she began her journalism career as a writer and editor at Nekuda, the magazine of the settler movement. At a certain point, though, she started having doubts about her ideological home. “I was in the religious ‘camp’,” she said, “but sometimes I felt that I connected more with people outside my camp.”
Her sense of inner turmoil came to a head with the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. “I asked myself, ‘How can it be that the divisions between sectors in Israeli society are so strong that they can bring someone to commit murder?’” she recalled. “And I realized that, as a member of the media, I was contributing to the problem. In fact, I was the problem.”
Following the assassination, Sheleg quit her job and began developing a vision for an alternative media in Israel, one that is not ratings based but rather not-for-profit, replacing the journalistic “If it bleeds, it leads” thirst for violence with an ethic that seeks to build connections between people. “In the mainstream media, radicals get all the attention,” she explained, drawing a diagram of a pizza pie to illustrate her point. “Israel has all kinds of sectors — Jews, Arabs, Haredim. See here, where the crust is? Those are the radicals in each social sector… The rest of us are much closer to one another than to the radicals in each of our camps.”
After three years of planning, during which time she wrote a regular Op-Ed column for the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, Sheleg secured funding from the Avi Chai Foundation and published the first issue of Eretz Acheret in October 2000. Since then, the bimonthly magazine, with intensive articles written in Hebrew and up to 12 pages long, has given voice to Ethiopian Jews in Israel, Arab citizens of Israel, Haredim, women, artists, immigrants of the former Soviet Union, impoverished Israelis and others and has covered issues of conversion, assimilation and the rabbinate. “My goal is to build bridges between people,” Sheleg explained, “rather than focus on what divides us.”
So far, she says, she has had remarkable success. Aside from a circulation of 35,000 print readers, 7,000 unique monthly visits to its website and 3,000 Facebook friends, the magazine has been purchased en masse for professional training by the Ministry of Welfare, the National Insurance Institute, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry. Various university departments use the magazine as part of their core curriculum. Writers are brought in as experts in Knesset hearings — especially during the investigation following the Second Lebanon War — and are interviewed in the press regularly.
“We have created ripples in the mainstream media,” she said proudly. Indeed, some of Israel’s most senior writers and thinkers sing Sheleg’s praises. Leading Yediot Aharonot journalist Nahum Barnea, in a recent weekend column, called the magazine’s coverage of the Haredi community in Ramat Beit Shemesh “outstanding.” Sheleg has a collection of letters from loyal readers, among them novelist and playwright A.B. Yehoshua, Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg and author Nissim Calderon.
But Sheleg has made some enemies along the way. With the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, she wrote a controversial essay titled “Friends, We Were Wrong,” in which she decried what she considers the moral failings of Religious Zionist leadership and its overemphasis on land settlement at the expense of moral values. “Some of my friends haven’t spoken to me since I wrote that,” she said. “But I have no regrets.”