For other profiles of olim hadashim, see our ‘Olim Profiles’ category
Simona Weinglass is a name that will be familiar to many who keep up to date with goings on in Israel. The Times of Israel investigative reporter broke the now famous ‘Wolves of Tel Aviv’ exposé on the goings on in Israel’s binary and forex industry.
Although she doesn’t post on Facebook groups about lemons, we deemed her worthy enough to be the follow-up to our inaugural interview with Jerusalem’s latest and most unusual influencer. Despite it being Purim, Simona and I were both stone-cold sober during this interview. We thus — somewhat sadly —had a very serious conversation about journalism and the role it has to play in Israel and why Israel needs a better public discourse.
Weinglass was born in Romania (who knew?), grew up in the United States, and spent her high school years in Israel. She moved to Israel after college in the United States.
Firstly — as a failed journalist now working on the dark side (communications, for those unfamiliar with the industry lingo) — I had to ask Simona whether she would advise olim to consider this as a career, particularly the investigative specialty she works in.
While Simona had only good things to say about the Times of Israel, Israel’s leading online news source (where she works full time as an investigative reporter), she was candid about the fact that breaking into journalism in Israel isn’t for the faint of the heart
“It’s a very, very small niche,” Simona says, referring to investigative journalism, adding that journalism itself “isn’t a growth industry” (who knew?).
That sounds to me like a very diplomatic way of saying that the industry is tanking or has tanked but that if you’re crazy enough you just might succeed at getting a foot in the door. But Weinglass, whose reportage consists of a lot of exposés related to corruption, says that there are also ways in for the fortunate of circumstance.
“If you’re willing to work for little money or are in the fortunate circumstance that you have somebody sponsoring your time in Israel you might be able to break in,” she says. (I should add to the list: or if you’re flexible enough about renting arrangements. A friend of mine spent a year living on a barge in London and now does very well for himself.) For those so determined, we’ll carry a piece on where to find the best ramen deals in Israel soon. Rich relatives, I’m afraid, we can’t help you with.
“Israel Lacks A Self Correcting Mechanism.”
Weinglass also laments the fact that Israel doesn’t have what she calls a “self-correcting mechanism” which is to become the main theme of our conversation. She thinks that investigative journalism would be a great cause for well-disposed benefactors to donate to (readers: hint, hint).
“The problem with investigative journalism in Israel — actually anywhere for that matter — is that it’s not going to develop organically. Market forces don’t incentivize journalism.” I ask Weinglass what she thinks about the state of journalism in Israel today — both the Hebrew and English language variants.
Weinglass says that while there is plenty of what she calls “light” journalism, the more probing kind which she would like to see receive more funding is comparatively thin on the ground. “We need more investigative journalism in Israel,” she says. “There is a lot of light journalism, a lot of gossip, a lot of churnalism, which is rehashed press releases, and publications promoting a specific agenda.”
As Weinglass also notes, the conflict tends to cast a long shadow over any Israel-related coverage, both in Israel and abroad, eclipsing discussions about what it’s actually like to live in Israel that would otherwise make it into the news cycle. “So much of the coverage here is focused on geopolitics and the conflict,” she says, “And not focused on corruption.” (If you didn’t get it, fighting corruption is like Weinglass’s thing).
Music to my ears, Weinglass also pushes back on hasbara at a few points during our conversation (in case you didn’t hear, I’m not a fan.)
She takes issue with the commonly articulated view that Israel has a “PR problem” and if it could only mobilize an army of spin doctors less people would dislike it. (An easy rebuttal to this is the fact that Israel already has an “army of spin doctors” making its case on Twitter and elsewhere. And yet people continue to take issue with its policies.)
“I think that most people outside of Israel don’t particularly care about the country,” Weinglass says. “But you have a few that do care and who think that the best way to support it is by only writing nice things about it. That doesn’t help. Perhaps at the margins it does. But it doesn’t help to address any of the real problems here that need to be fixed. It’ll just patch them over.”
Weinglass also suggests that this pervasive hasbara mindset stymies the kind of self-reckoning process that she feels is badly missing. “Some people are in this kind of defensive mode all the time,” she says. “It’s hard to look at aspects of life in Israel that are not related to the conflict. And it’s also hard to do what any healthy democratic society does which is to criticize and try to fix itself. Israel seems to largely lack a self-correcting mechanism,” she opined.
Name: Simona Weinglass
Made aliyah from: USA
Lives: Tel Aviv (we think)
Occupation: Investigative journalist with the Times of Israel
Likes: Journalism (we’re guessing that edgy people might have some beef to pick with Simona so to add to the sense of intrigue here we’re purposefully divulging little about her – including a headshot. We are cryptic. Simona is cryptic.)
Because she keeps mentioning it, I ask Weinglass what she envisions these mysterious self-correcting mechanisms would actually look like in practice (were they to exist). A partial selection from her suggestions: “Firstly you need robust journalism that would expose, say, corruption,” she says.
“You would have civil society organizations who would call out various forms of wrongdoing and lobby against it. And there would be shame and stigma against those who behave in immoral or corrupt ways.” What Weinglass envisions sounds, to me, like making the existing institutions in Israeli society more robust. But also encouraging a collective process of reckoning.
Weinglass’s reporting — particularly the Wolves of Tel Aviv piece —shone enormous light upon the murky world of forex and binary. One imagines it would now be hard for an oleh to list that upon their resume, to an international employer, without feeling a pang of embarrassment. Perhaps that process needs to extend to some of the other dubious companies and industries domiciled in Israel that we discuss later.
Should Olim Become Activists?
Weinglass says that many olim are likely to come face-to-face with this corruption the moment they first step foot in the job market. “Many olim come here and encounter corruption in business practices. If you’re coming here from somewhere that is less corrupt than Israel that can be a bit shocking.”
As examples of the kind of disreputable practices olim face, Weinglass cites bad landlords and employers that don’t pay full salaries. (I regale her for a moment with the story of my landlord ripping out my toilet). Weinglass points a finger here at shitat hamazliach — the toxic reason everyone is terrified of being a freier — but says that the longer olim stay in Israel the better they typically become at navigating these sometimes unsavory dynamics.
We move onto what Weinglass’s positive vision for aliyah would consist of.
She believes that olim have the ability to graft enormously beneficial changes onto Israeli society. She cites the environmental movement in Israel which she says was largely nurtured by olim. Weinglass is blunt on this point: “I think that if olim come here and see bad behavior and bad business practices that they should be disgusted by it. Change isn’t going to happen right away. But as these olim acclimate to life in Israel they should be going out to protest these things.”
Weinglass has interesting things to say about the job market for olim here, dominated by high-tech — a sort of Israel-ism that often seems, to me, to mean “any company that’s halfway decent and is likely to pay you more than 10K NIS a month.” While some but not all of the activity in forex and binary has moved abroad or gone further underground (Weinglass and the Times of Israel’s reporting, of course, deserve some credit here), Weinglass says that the jungle is far from cleared.
At this point in the interview, I interject my own belief that there’s a tranche of Israeli “high-tech” that flies under the banner of technology but which is … rather shady indeed. All that glitters in the high-rises of Ramat Gan isn’t glass … or gold (or forex or binary). Alas, like Weinglass, I can’t be more specific in my allegations (we had to skimp on the defamation insurance when setting up the site). But when I offer a few examples she makes what I’m talking about seem like child’s play.
“You have Israeli companies involved in selling arms to essentially anybody that buys,” she alleges, adding further that some of these companies are involved in activity that is either illegal or questionably legal (she cites the crypto space and green card lotteries as examples of the latter).
In the class of company I was referring to — the tech companies that look a lot more legitimate than they are but which don’t sell weapons systems — Weinglass says that some of these companies even have roots in crime.
“Your average oleh’s boss might be a middle class boss from Ramat Gan” she says. “But his boss’s boss might, in some cases, be part of a crime gang.” Weinglass says that it’s almost inevitable that so many olim become swept up in activity that may be tinged with criminality, although she doesn’t blame the individual immigrants.
The Danger Of Being Sucked In
“High tech is kind of like a vortex that sucks them [olim] in,” she says. “But I believe there’s an embarrassing percentage of olim that are working in organizations that are connected in some ways to scams.” she says.
Based on my own experience doing due diligence on some companies with very slick websites but questionable business models, I suggest that a hubris has developed around the world of Israeli high tech — that anything that makes money is celebrated and few are prepared to ask uncomfortable questions about whether or not those revenue streams are, if not legal, then legitimate and conducive to Israel’s good image. Weinglass pushes back “I think it’s more that people don’t even think to ask the questions,” she says. “The public discourse in Israel is incredibly superficial. People don’t even know.”
Weinglass thinks that, in many cases, olim are primed not to look for indications that their potential employer might not be wholly legitimate (although definitions as to what that may mean are clearly subjective). “Many olim come here with rose tinted glasses,” she says. “They associate Israel with Judaism. Judaism is a religion. It’s beautiful and has beautiful principles. And they think that because Israel’s a Jewish state all these warm and fuzzy concepts are automatically transferred onto it. But it’s not the case.”
Weinglass contends that olim in some professions are more likely to be sucked into working for a dubious company than others. “Your average doctor coming here probably finds legitimate employment in a health maintenance organization or a hospital. But someone who say works in sales or marketing … that person may have to be more careful.”
What can be done about all this?
Weinglass admits that for many olim this is a battle that may be best deferred for at least a few years. “If you’re making aliyah you have to worry about yourself first. But there’s a systemic problem here. If one day you’re in a position to do something about it and see the bigger picture, then olim should do that. Become activists. Advocate for change.”
And — with much pleasure — I’ll give the last word to this: “if you want to give money to really help Israel, give it to those working on enhancing Israel’s self correcting mechanisms and give it to independent journalism. Consider doing that rather than giving your money to hasbara. It has enough money. And it often seems counterproductive to me. I think that by and large hasbara is not going to help fix Israeli society.”
Want to learn more about Simona?
- Binary options fraud – journalist Simona Weinglass’ story (Times of Israel video)
- Episode 14 – Behind the Scenes of Binary Options with Simona Weinglass (TNJB podcast)
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