Israel's New Left Goes Online
In mid-December a young Palestinian named Mustafa Tamimi was struck in the face with a tear-gas canister fired from an Israeli armored vehicle. It happened during one of the Friday protests, a weekly event in West Bank villages like Nabi Saleh, where Tamimi lived; he later died from his wounds. In the ensuing battle over culpability—so much of which took place, like everything else these days, on Twitter—a number of English-language bloggers challenged Israeli military spokespeople about the event, again and again, and kept the story of Tamimi’s death in the news.
Readers of the New York Times Lede Blog, which picked up the Twitter war over Tamimi, may have noticed that in recent months a number of “journalists and bloggers” have served as the source for events like these, the protests and tragedies, cultural battles and political conversations, that are taking place in both Israel and the occupied territories. What might not be immediately clear is that these bloggers are almost all drawn from one site, an eighteen-month-old webzine called +972. The name refers to the country code used to call Israel (and, not incidentally, the West Bank) from outside the country; it is a number that has no political affiliation, no historic connection and no space on the political spectrum. It simply represents the geographic space. That suits the bloggers of +972 just fine.
Born in the summer of 2010 as an umbrella outfit for a group of (mostly) pre-existing blogs, +972 steadily morphed into something more cohesive. The site is now an online home for more than a dozen writers, a mix of Israelis, binational American- and Canadian-Israelis, and two Palestinians, all of whom occupy, if you’ll forgive the term, space on the spectrum of the left. What that means is that though the writers of +972 are, purposefully, uniformly progressive (they are all avowedly against the occupation), they have differences: they disagree with one another about exactly how to change the status quo; they disagree over how to incorporate the need for social justice in Israeli Jewish society into the debate about Palestinian rights. And they regularly argue among themselves over subjects generally taboo not only in the mainstream US media—a one-state solution to the conflict, for example—but also in Israel.
Indeed, as wrangling in the United States over Israel-Palestine has become more and more cartoonish (Republican candidates promising to summarily move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, and denying the very existence of Palestinians; blogs and organizations labeled anti-Semitic for daring to breathe a word of criticism toward Israel), this start-up news site is challenging mainstream Israeli and foreign journalists to fill the lacuna in their coverage of the conflict and upending the conversational status quo about the future of the Jewish state.
Because it is written primarily in Israel, +972 is unencumbered by the careful dialogue we have cultivated in this country, and yet because it is written in English, the site enables American (and international) readers to see just how constrained our opinions have become. That said, +972’s original tag line, “Independent commentary from Israel & the Palestinian territories,” quickly added the word “reporting” (and shortened to “Israel & Palestine”) as it became increasingly clear that these writers, all of whom earn their living elsewhere, are not merely armchair gadflies but also on-the-ground reporters inside Israel and on the other side of the 1967 borders. As Aziz Abu Sarah, a Palestinian contributor, told me, “The first time an ambulance is stopped at a checkpoint, it gets reported; the second, third time, it doesn’t get reported. +972 tries to make sure people don’t get used to it, that it’s not OK.”
The idea for a blog came to Noam Sheizaf, 37, +972’s editor in chief and CEO, after covering the 2008 American elections for the Israeli daily Maariv. Sheizaf saw how important the blogosphere had become to political journalism in the States; he believed the medium was useful, though not yet well used in Israel. “Also something about the political conversation in Israel, in 2008, felt really stuck,” he told me. “Israel was sort of like this island dealing with questions no one cared about and looking away from the real, existential political issues that it needed to face. It was as if there wasn’t a political conversation going on about anything. There wasn’t a serious conversation on the economy, and there wasn’t a serious conversation on the occupation.” At the time, he launched a personal blog called Promised Land. Simultaneously, and separately, a handful of other Israeli writers were doing the same, establishing critical blogs, in English, outside Israel.
Sheizaf is magnetic, intellectual and articulate. The same is true, I discover, of the handful of other +972 writers and editors I spoke with last summer in Tel Aviv and in the fall when some of them came to speak in New York and Washington, DC: Dimi Reider, a St. Petersburg–born writer; Yossi Gurvitz, whose Hebrew-language blog recently got him into trouble with the Israeli police for “incitement to violence”; Lisa Goldman, a Canadian-born translator and writer; Yuval Ben-Ami, who writes surreptitiously political travelogues about discovering his own country (he was detained not long after we met for trespassing into areas of the West Bank where Israelis are forbidden to roam); Dahlia Scheindlin, a consultant for nonprofit groups, pollster and academic; Shir Harel, an American-Israeli who grew up in New Jersey and is now the +972 site manager; and Aziz Abu Sarah, a Palestinian human rights activist who lives half the time in America, directing a conflict resolution center at George Mason University, and half the time leading “dual narrative” tours of Israel (his brother was tortured in an Israeli prison and died at 19, not long after he was released). I also spoke, by phone, with Larry Derfner, a more recent addition to the team. Derfner, who came on board when the Jerusalem Post dropped his column after he suggested in his blog that Israeli policy and practice might inspire Palestinian terror, is an outspoken critic of the incessant drumbeat for war with Iran. Derfner and Scheindlin are closest to the mainstream left, while others veer toward radical, but +972 gives each blogger a place to both vent and expose, debate and parry.
As Goldman explained to me, Sheizaf is responsible for financial and administrative matters, and for bringing in new contributors (recruits are then voted on by the group and can be rejected). Otherwise, there is no hierarchy. Two rotating editors [recently changed to one editor] copy-edit and do a light legal sweep on each story. But, she said, “ninety-nine percent of the time, the editors don’t touch our copy beyond correcting typos. If they see something that needs to be changed for legal reasons, they’ll notify the writer before making the change. Editors send out story suggestions and ask if anyone’s interested in writing about them.” There are no assignments as such.
Though they are not all young—the median age is around 35, with writers who go well north and well south of that—the contributors represent something of a generational shift in liberal-left thinking. They do not question the right of Israel to exist (it is an Israeli site, after all), but most +972 writers believe that the Zionist experiment, while largely successful, strikingly failed to consider what two peoples on one land really meant for the future, let alone what a longstanding occupation would mean for Israel and its people. The writers are fringe; don’t be mistaken. But they are on the whole far smarter and more nuanced than most who attract that label.
The site takes for granted certain positions about which most Americans are, at best, unsure. In one of the most-read posts of 2011, Sheizaf wrote about the Nakba (catastrophe), as Palestinians refer to the 1948 war, commonly called in Israel the War of Independence. “Even after the New Historians of the nineties made the term Nakba a part of modern Hebrew and proved that in many cases, Israel expelled Palestinians from territories it conquered in ‘48, we were engaged in the wrong kind of questions, such as the debate on whether more Palestinians were expelled or fled,” he wrote. “The important thing is that they weren’t allowed to come back, and that they had their property and land seized by Israel immediately after the war (as some Jews had by Jordan and Syria, but not in substantial numbers). Leaving a place doesn’t make someone a refugee. It’s forbidding him or her from coming back that does it.” In another widely read post Joseph Dana (who has since left the magazine) not only challenged well-known names in liberal Zionism, like Gershom Gorenberg and Bernard Avishai, charging them with ignoring the Palestinian perspective; he bashed the very idea of liberal Zionism. (His colleagues on +972 then critiqued his critique.)
Also among the most read posts of 2011 was a story by Dimi Reider, one of the younger writers, chastising the left for not condemning the slaughter by Palestinian militants of the Fogel family in the settlement of Itamar last spring, who were killed simply because they were settlers. To not decry this brutality “demonstrates,” he wrote, “that despite political awareness and commitment to human rights and international law, our community has yielded to one of the most common afflictions of a conflict area, and dehumanized an entire community, consciously or subconsciously rendering it [a] second-class, semi-legitimate target for brutal violence.” (Commentary magazine picked up this post, admiringly.) Reider says he just wanted to start a conversation. “I don’t think I fit into any existing political party in Israel,” he told me. “I don’t think many of the +972 writers do, either. I think we are all part of a process of redrawing the Israeli political map.”
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In the years after the horrors of the second intifada—once the terror had calmed, the dead were buried and the ”security” wall went up—reporting over the so-called Green Line, otherwise known as the 1967 borders, changed dramatically. That is to say, it all but dried up. Yitzhak Rabin and the spirit of Oslo that he inspired were both dead; the right wing controlled the prime minister’s office and, increasingly, the Knesset. Israeli society was deeply traumatized by the waves of suicide bombings. Many hoped for nothing but quiet, and real peace seemed distant, unattainable, perhaps not even worthwhile. The peace-seeking left sputtered and wandered in a desiccated landscape of diminished support.
Even before the much-ballyhooed “death” of the left, many younger journalists had only ever seen the Israel–Palestine conflict in the context of the intifada. “They don’t know anything but the occupation and checkpoints and settlements, and it’s like yesterday’s news,” Akiva Eldar, a Haaretz columnist and an éminence grise of the Israeli liberal establishment, told me. “They know that when they offer the editor another story on a new settlement, a new outpost, atrocities, it doesn’t sell newspapers. And since the Israeli media, like everywhere, is in deep trouble, especially print…they give the public what they want to hear. And people don’t want to hear not only about the atrocities and what is going on in the West Bank; they are not even interested in the peace process.” They want, he continued, to “feel good” about the government. “They feel good with the narrative,” he said, one that claims “we are the good guys. And [that] we offered everything [to make peace].”
Oren Persico, a journalist with the watchdog site Seventh Eye, which offers a daily critique of the Israeli media, agreed. “What was once obvious is actually rare,” he said. “Haaretz is the only one actually trying to do any journalism in the occupied territories, and if you are looking for a left perspective on anything economic, you won’t find it anywhere.” Further, he confirmed, “the commercial press doesn’t want to touch the occupation with a stick, because it doesn’t sell. It alienates the Jewish public. People don’t want to know.”
The media-watchers’ concerns are born out by numbers: Israelis, on the whole, favor more mainstream (and conservative) publications like Yediot Aharonot and Maariv over Haaretz, which has a big readership in the United States, in no small part for its liberal views and its strong English-language site. But Haaretz, let alone +972, is distinctly not the norm: in 2007 the Israeli media world was upended by the introduction of the free newspaper Israel Hayom (Israel Today), an unabashedly right-wing, pro-Netanyahu daily that many believe helped him retake the prime minister’s office in 2009. Funded by casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who has disavowed the two-state solution, publicly and aggressively dressed down those who would aid the Palestinians (including AIPAC) and poured millions into the Super PAC that propped up Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign, by 2011 Israel Hayom had surpassed Yediot as the most read newspaper in the country. The paper is deeply entwined with the current government; one of its columnists was recently exposed as being on Netanyahu’s office payroll.
It’s not just newspapers that have changed; Israeli youth have moved steadily to the right in the years since the second intifada. A Friedrich Ebert Stiftung poll from 2010 showed that a majority of 15- to 24-year-olds favor a continuation of the status quo over an invigorated peace process; they would also choose a Jewish state over a specifically democratic one.
That said, in the past two years or so there has also been what Dahlia Scheindlin calls a “reawakening” of the left, and it is in the context of this awakening that +972 was born. To some degree the rebirth came with Solidarity, a movement formed in support of Sheikh Jarrah, an East Jerusalem neighborhood where Palestinian families are being forced from homes they have lived in for decades, which symbolizes for some the housing inequities and citizenship problems in Israel. Solidarity, which began in 2009, has grown to encompass a more general anger over the occupation. Some years earlier, groups of Israelis began participating in the West Bank Friday protests by Palestinians against the wall, the trajectory of the wall and confiscation of agricultural land, which Sheizaf and his former co-editor Joseph Dana wrote about for this magazine [see “The New Israeli Left,” March 28, 2011]. It was partly that environment that led Sheizaf and the other writers to band together.
They did so with a savvy eye to the medium and to aesthetics: +972 is clean and well designed, liberally sprinkled with video and sharp photography. Witty caricatures of each writer accompany the stories. It is so lovely to look at, the site appears more moneyed than it is, or, rather, it appears the site has some money. It does not; +972 exists almost entirely as a volunteer project, though you’d never know it from the amount and variety of its posts. The art, and the legal aid that keeps it from being sued in the fraught Israeli political environment, is provided entirely pro bono. That last point is important. After the Knesset passed a law last summer banning language that might encourage a boycott of Israel—a crackdown connected to the BDS, or Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement—+972 editors had to insist that their writers never call for boycott, lest the magazine be sued. They couldn’t survive it, financially.
The magazine is structured as a nonprofit, and almost everyone works for free. Until early February it had received only two grants, one from the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Israel (for 6,000 euros) and one from the Social Justice Fund at the New Israel Fund (for $10,000), which enabled some of the editors to travel to the United States and lecture on their cause. They accept donations from readers, and they would like larger grants, as thus far almost no one has received any compensation for their work. As this story went to press the magazine received a one-year, $60,000 grant from the Social Justice Fund, a “one-time investment,” according to fund director Aaron Back, “that can help support the site becoming a sustainable operation,” as well as a $10,000 grant from the Moriah Fund. (That Böll Stiftung grant was attacked by the right-leaning NGO Monitor, which accused the German grant makers of funding a “one-sided” and “distorted” view of the conflict. Böll stood its ground.)
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The magazine is hardly beyond criticism. Many mainstream Israeli journalists, including some who write for Haaretz, remain for the most part skeptical. Or they take issue with what they consider +972’s all-or-nothing perspective—in other words, because the occupation is wrong, does that mean the Palestinians are always right? Gershom Gorenberg, a stalwart of the left for decades, is reluctant to criticize the site or its writers. Like others I spoke to, he did not want to appear to be feuding with +972, especially since he supports what it is doing; but he told me, “If you just say ‘This is bad’ and ‘Israel is being bad,’ it’s too easy to slip into the position that doesn’t understand that, well, there’s two sides…. I do think that, historically, there are some really bad things the Palestinians have done and bad choices they’ve made that have contributed to the way things are now. I don’t go along with the idea of relieving them of any responsibility for the situation. As an example, I think that choosing the tactic of suicide bombings in the ’90s, and particularly after 2000, set them back for years and destroyed possible Israeli support for the two-state solution. Should I not say that? Should I stick to the party line?” You won’t find much of that perspective in +972.
“The Palestinian problem is a human rights problem disguised as a diplomatic problem; this was Israel’s greatest success, making it look like a geopolitical issue,” Sheizaf told me this past August. We were eating pasta at Pappa’s, a cool, decidedly not kosher little Italian eatery near the open-air Shuk Ha’Carmel in Tel Aviv. “I think one of the reasons I am writing in English,” he said, “is that I fear Jewish American liberals betrayed Israeli liberals. Jewish American liberals are not on our side.
“[Most Americans] will only support my liberalism to a certain degree. When I fight for the right of an Arab woman to become a doctor, you will stand by and donate to the New Israel Fund. But if I say ‘Jerusalem is an apartheid city,’ which it is—Jerusalem is the worst place in the world in terms of citizenship laws—American liberals get goosebumps.”
I told him use of the word “apartheid” often just shuts down the conversation. To which he replied, “The problem is that you then shut down reality…. it is important to be in context. I don’t use apartheid just as a slogan. In the West Bank you can say the situation is temporary and there is a Palestinian Authority, but we have annexed Jerusalem and have declared it to be our country forever. But we did not annex the people. Jerusalem has a population, two-thirds of which has every right and one-third without any rights. How is this not apartheid and ethnic segregation? So invent whatever word you want.”
It’s difficult to hear but, for the most part, not strident. Said Scheindlin, “We criticize a lot. It’s a sign of healthy society.” Goldman, a founding editor, said that at the outset “we were looking for an intelligent conversation. Haaretz is a translated product—it is not written originally in English, and it doesn’t cover the West Bank well.” Goldman first arrived in Israel as a liberal and idealistic 17-year-old. “I saw more symmetry in the conflict then than I do now.” She covered the 2005 Gaza disengagement, and 2008–09 incursion into Gaza known as Operation Cast Lead, and then started going, week after week, to the West Bank protests. “So +972 is my platform. There is a question—are we influencing anyone? I don’t know.”
In Israel some say the answer is no, or at best, not yet. “I think they are good people with the right motives. I don’t want to sound as if I have something against the people running +972,” said Shmuel Rosner, a blogger and conservative writer. But Rosner, like others I spoke with, doesn’t like the inference in the stories he has read that Israel is always wrong, always “dark,” he said. “I think +972 is not the place to reach people who come to be informed. I think it is a place for people with an already set view to come and be even more convinced that they are right and the other side is wrong. It is group therapy more than information.” Akiva Eldar and liberal feminist writer Merav Michaeli both told me they believe Israelis simply haven’t heard of it, and aren’t reading it. “They are not relevant,” Michaeli said bluntly. In fact, according to the +972 editors, the vast majority of its readers are outside Israel—about 40 percent from the States and only about 20 percent from Israel-Palestine. The rest are scattered around the world, with a healthy number coming from Arab states.
Indeed, in Israel the kind of journalism +972 is doing is difficult, unpopular. And yet the online arm of Channel 2, the major mainstream TV station, chose the site as one of the top blogs of 2011. That’s because the writers were doing hard work before recognition came their way. Take the case of a young woman named Jawaher Abu-Rahmah. In early 2011 Gurvitz, Sheizaf and Goldman wrote story after story showing how Abu-Rahmah’s death was the result of inhaling copious amounts of tear gas at a demonstration in the West Bank town of Bil’in. Sheizaf and Goldman wrote eyewitness accounts; Goldman highlighted how the demonstrations often turn violent, and how tear gas is used liberally, with impunity; and then Gurvitz followed up with a piece about the IDF’s shifting versions of the story. That series, too, was picked up by the New York Times’s Lede Blog. The work was careful, methodical, and +972 didn’t let the story go; it changed how the mainstream media covered it.
“+972,” says the Social Justice Fund’s Aaron Back, a longtime liberal activist in Israel, “is outside the normative paradigm thinking about social life and issues in Israel, but not so ultra-left that you can’t hear them or speak to them. They are challenging to the American reader, but they challenge preconceived notions…in a way that doesn’t make you turn away. That’s not easy to do, and they don’t always hit it every time, but largely they do. That’s a real asset, and that’s something you don’t have sufficiently from Israel.”