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Twelve million documents. Over 40,000 mentions of the word “Israel”. Some 565 Israeli politicians and leaders involved in potentially nefarious deals. Ten success stories detailing these deals, published by virtually all Israeli media, 72 times and more.
Welcome to your guided tour of the Pandora Papers, courtesy of Shomrim, the Israeli nonprofit investigative journalism agency which is about to celebrate its second anniversary. Shomrim – the Hebrew name for âThe Guardiansâ – has been an organization that has inspired me since its inception, and his work on Pandora as part of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists is a landmark achievement.
So I spoke with Zoom this week with Eyal Abrahami, the editor, and Alona Vinograd, CEO, about what they do and why it is so critical to the health of Israeli society.
Eyal started working at the Jerusalem Post in the 1990s after his military service as an intelligence officer because, as he put it, “it was a terrible winter in Jerusalem” and “I didn’t want to go at University “.
He was a clerk, but had a few small reporting assignments, and “it was so much fun” he “wanted more”. He went on to become editor-in-chief of Kol Ha’ir (Voice of the City), a beloved Jerusalem weekly often compared to the Village Voice in its heyday, and eventually ran G Magazine, a publication of the financial daily Globes.
Alona went to law school and, as she said, “the minute I finished I realized I didn’t want to be a lawyer unless it was the right kind.” She led the nonprofit Freedom of Information Movement suing the government for access to records on sexual abuse in the military, civil servant salaries, city governments – “basic things, de basis that are so evident in the United States, “she said – and later worked at Israeli Institute of Democracy.
Then Silicon Valley philanthropists Laura and Gary Lauder set out to create an Israeli version of the groundbreaking, nonprofit investigative newsroom that has racked up six Pulitzer Prizes since its publication in 2008.
The Lauders enlisted Yoel Esteron, former editor-in-chief of Kol Ha’ir, founder and publisher of Calcalist – and, now, chairman of the board of Shomrim. When he reached out to Alona, ââ”I said to her, stop looking, don’t talk to anyone else, I want this, I want this, I want this.” Eyal was “in a restaurant in Thailand with my kids” – and between jobs – when he got the call.
âIt’s a dream come true,â Eyal said of Shomrim. âGo do journalism. You don’t have to bother with the ad department, and you don’t have to fight HR over, I don’t know, spending too much money and things, just go bring the stories.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. Shomrim began work on the Pandora Papers in January, putting the names of public figures – Knesset members, CEOs of big companies, other powerful people who make headlines – into the huge database.
âWe are getting thousands of results,â Eyal said. “When you get these results, you just have to download the documents, put them in a file, telling yourself that you will be back to check them, to read the files one day, because the files can be dozens. of pages. You have to read everything, which is very boring.
âA lot of times you just get a clue to the story, you don’t get the title in the middle of the document,â he continued. “For the next two months all the reporters did was read the papers, sit down day in and day out and read those papers, which is, I have to say, a terrible, terrible way. to earn a living. “
Until you find some stuff. Shomrim revealed that Nir Barkat, a Likud member in the Knesset and former mayor of Jerusalem, had stakes in a company registered in the British Virgin Islands to avoid taxes; maintained direct ownership of shares of companies that he said he had placed in a blind trust; and transferred shares to his brother, in apparent violation of the Knesset’s ethical guidelines.
Shomrim also discovered that Haim Ramon, a former Israeli minister of justice, used a company registered in Cyprus to strike a deal with Austrian billionaire Martin Schlaff – whom Israeli authorities had sought to interview as part of investigations into the political corruption – on a project that has debts of 50 million euros.
He revealed that family members of Benny Steinmetz – an Israeli businessman who has been investigated, charged or convicted in at least four countries – have considered transferring trust fund in the Cook Islands, another tax haven. And that Arnon Milchan, the Hollywood producer who is a key witness in the corruption trial of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, owned assets and an art collection in the Virgin Islands.
Individual stories are complicated, especially if you are not steeped in the Israeli news map. But together they are saying something serious about the gaps and shortcomings in governance and finance across Israel. Think of it this way: 565 Israelis were in the Pandora Papers and 617 Americans – although the United States has 36 times the population.
âThe wide use of tax havens in this country is just crazy,â Eyal said. âWe found a guy who owns a restaurant in Tel Aviv who registered it in a tax haven on the British Virgin Islands. Why? Why, for goodness sake, did he bother to go through all this headache? Just because it was an option to save a few dollars in taxes. I was shocked, I didn’t know it was so common.
This type of relationship requires patience and money. A Shomrim researcher and reporter worked full time on Pandora for seven months; two other journalists for four months; and the lawyers reviewed every word before publication. Shomrim’s 2021 budget is $ 1 million – coming from the Lauders and other foundations. âMore leads and stories are coming,â said Alona, âââand we need more reporters to work on our stories, we need more money.â
We need more money for investigative reporting everywhere, including the Forward. But Israel is a special opportunity. Unlike the United States, where two-thirds of the population struggles to appoint even a single Supreme Court judge, Israel is a place where news is part of the fabric of society, an integral part of everyday conversations in the world. all sectors – which is wonderful for journalism and for democracy.
But it’s also a place of intense journalistic competition and ever-shrinking resources, so coverage of the endless news cycle can often seem wide and deep.
The media constantly grab the headlines, but journalists rarely have time to dig into complicated stories, unearth public records, and conduct dozens of interviews that create the high-impact accountability work communities need.
This is probably the reason why so many Israeli media – newspapers covering the political spectrum, from Haaretz to Israel Hayom; all major television and radio networks; and more than a dozen online publications, including three in the service of the Haredim, published the stories of Pandora.
âWhen we came up with a great story, they just hugged us,â Eyal said. “They took the story, they didn’t ask too many questions.”
âWe knew we were the answer to something missing in Israel,â Alona said of Shomrim. âBecause we are bipartisan, because we are not for profit, because we are NGOs, we are clean and they can take it from us. The only thing that interests us is the truth, the details, the facts – and even though it takes us longer, like eight months, to work on something, we have to create some kind of hub that will allow it, for it’s nowhere in Israel now.
In fact, it is at hashomrim.org – and in 72 places in the Israeli media landscape. Until there.
Watch: Gala Ahead
Speaking of independent nonprofit journalismâ¦ it’s been an important week for us here in America’s oldest Jewish journalism – our biggest annual fundraiser and a truly great celebration of storytelling. The best thing about a virtual gala (besides being able to attend it in your pajamas) is that if you missed it, you didn’t.
Click on here to hear stories, music and comedies from the great Etgar Keret, Miz Cracker, Taffy Brodesser-Akney, Gili Yalo, Brivele, Allen Lewis Rickman, Yelena Shmulenson, Daniel Kahn (and his son!), and how our archivist Chana Pollack helped David Duchovny regain his Yiddish roots.
It’s never too late to watch – or to support Jewish journalism.
Event: Is Anti-Zionism Anti-Semitic?
It’s a debate that only seems to be intensifying, with Sally Rooney’s refusal to let an Israeli publisher translate her latest novel into Hebrew, and Sunrise DC’s boycott of a voting rights rally this weekend. due to the involvement of three Jewish groups that support Israel.
I host a conversation with two brilliant thinkers and writers, Bret Stephens from The New York Times and Pierre Beinart from Jewish currents. It’s a Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center event, and you can attend it in person (!) Or online. Register now.
‘Go journalism’: How nonprofit investigative newsroom Shomrim is changing Israel