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‘Go do journalism’: How the nonprofit investigative newsroom Shomrim is changing Israel

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Twelve million documents. More than 40,000 mentions of the word “Israel.” Some 565 Israeli politicians and executives implicated in possibly nefarious deals. Ten blockbuster stories detailing those deals, published by virtually every Israeli news outlet, 72 times and counting.

Welcome to your guided tour of the Pandora Papers, courtesy of Shomrim, the nonprofit Israeli investigative-journalism outfit that is about to celebrate its second birthday. Shomrim — the name is Hebrew for “The Guardians” — is an organization I’ve been inspired by since its creation, and its work on Pandora as part of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists is a milestone achievement.

So I Zoom-chatted this week with Eyal Abrahami, the editor-in-chief, and Alona Vinograd, CEO, about what they’re doing and why it’s so critical to the health of Israeli society.

Eyal started working at the Jerusalem Post in the 1990s after his Army service as an intelligence officer because, as he put it, “it was a terrible winter in Jerusalem” and “I didn’t want to go to university.”

He was a clerk, but got a few small reporting assignments, and “it was so much fun” that he “wanted more.” He later became an editor at Kol Ha’ir (Voice of the City), a beloved Jerusalem weekly often likened 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 put it, “the minute I finished I understood that I don’t want to be a lawyer — unless it’s the good kind.” She ran the nonprofit Movement for Freedom of Information, suing the government for access to records on sexual abuse in the Army, salaries of public officials, municipal governments — “basic, basic things that are so obvious in the U.S.,” she said — and later worked at the Israel Democracy Institute.

Then Laura and Gary Lauder, Silicon Valley philanthropists, went looking to create an Israeli version of , the groundbreaking nonprofit investigative newsroom that has racked up six Pulitzer Prizes since it began publishing in 2008.

The Lauders enlisted Yoel Esteron, former editor-in-chief of Kol Ha’ir, founder and publisher of Calcalist — and, now, chair of Shomrim’s board. When he reached out to Alona, “I told him, stop looking, don’t talk to anyone else, I want this, I want this, I want this.” Eyal was “at a restaurant in Thailand with my kids” — and between jobs — when he got the call.

“It’s a dream comes true,” Eyal said of Shomrim. “Go do journalism. You don’t have to mess with the advertising department, and you don’t have to fight with the H.R. people about, I don’t know, spending too much money and stuff, just go and bring the stories.”

Following Shomrim's investigation, the Pandora Papers have now been published by virtually every Israeli news outlet.

Following Shomrim’s investigation, the Pandora Papers have now been published by virtually every Israeli news outlet. Courtesy of Shomrim

It’s not as simple as it sounds. Shomrim started working on the Pandora Papers in January, feeding names of public figures — Knesset members, CEOs of big companies, other powerful people who make headlines — into the humongous database.

“We get thousands of results,” Eyal said. “When you get those results, you simply download the documents, put them in a file, telling yourself you’ll be back to check them, to read the files one day, because the files can be dozens of pages. You have to read the whole thing, which is a big pain in the ass.

“Many times you only get a clue to the story, you don’t get the headline in the middle of the document,” he continued. “For the next couple of months, all the journalists did was to read the papers, to sit day after day and to read those papers, which is, I have to say, a terrible, terrible way to make your living.”

Until you find stuff. Shomrim revealed that Nir Barkat, a Likud Knesset member and former mayor of Jerusalem, had holdings in a company registered in the British Virgin Islands to avoid taxes; maintained direct ownership of shares of companies he said he had put into a blind trust; and transferred shares to his brother, in apparent violation of Knesset ethics guidelines.

Shomrim also discovered that Haim Ramon, a former Israeli Justice Minister, used a company registered in Cyprus to make a deal with Austrian billionaire Martin Schlaff — who Israeli authorities had sought to question in political-corruption investigations — on a project that has debts of 50 million euros.

It found that family members of Benny Steinmetz — an Israeli businessman who has been investigated, indicted or convicted in at least four countries — looked into transferring trust funds to the Cook Islands, another tax haven. And that Arnon Milchan, the Hollywood producer who is a key witness in former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial, held assets and an art collection in the Virgin Islands.

The individual stories are complicated, especially if you’re not steeped in the Israeli news map. But together, they say something serious about the loopholes and shortcomings in governance and finance across Israel. Think of it this way: 565 Israelis were in the Pandora Papers, and 617 Americans — though the U.S. has 36 times the population.

“The vast size of using tax havens in this country is just crazy,” Eyal said. “We found a guy that owns a restaurant in Tel Aviv who registered it in a tax haven on the British Virgin Islands. Why? Why, for gosh sake, did he bother to go to all of this headache? Just because it was an option to save a few bucks in taxes. I was shocked, I didn’t know it was that common.”

This kind of reporting requires patience — and money. A Shomrim researcher and reporter worked full-time on Pandora for seven months; two other journalists for four months; and lawyers reviewed every word before publication. Shomrim’s 2021 budget is $1 million — from the Lauders and other foundations. “More leads and stories are coming our way,” Alona said, “and we need more journalists to work on our stories, we need more money.”

The Pandora Papers -- main headline in Calcalist

The Pandora Papers — main headline in Calcalist Courtesy of Shomrim

We need more money for investigative reporting everywhere, including at the Forward. But Israel is a particular opportunity. Unlike the U.S., where two-thirds of the population struggles to name even a single Supreme Court Justice, Israel is a place where the news is part of the social fabric, integral to daily conversation across 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 never-ending news cycle can often feel a mile wide and an inch deep.

News outlets are constantly churning out headlines, but journalists rarely get the time to dig into complicated stories, unearth the public records and conduct scores of interviews that create the truly high-impact accountability work that communities need.

That’s probably why so many Israeli outlets — newspapers spanning the political spectrum, from Haaretz to Israel Hayom; all the major TV and radio networks; and more than a dozen online publications including three that serve Haredim — published the Pandora stories.

“When we came with a big story, they simply hugged us,” Eyal said. “The took the story, they didn’t ask too many questions.”

“We knew we were the answer for something that was missing in Israel,” Alona said of Shomrim. “Because we are bipartisan, because we’re not for profit, because we’re NGO, we are clean and they can take it from us. The only thing we care about is the truth, the details, the facts — and even if it takes us longer, like eight months, to work on something, we have to create some kind of hub that will enable it, because it’s nowhere in Israel now.”

Actually, it’s at — and in 72 places across the Israeli media landscape. So far.

Watch: Forward Gala

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Event: Is Anti-Zionism Antisemitic?

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I’m moderating a conversation with two brilliant thinkers and writers, Bret Stephens of The New York Times and Peter Beinart of Jewish Currents. It’s a Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center event, and you can attend in-person (!) or online. Register now.

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