Somewhere deep in the Ha’aretz archives lies a photograph of a 14-year-old Gideon Levy posing atop an abandoned Syrian tank. The Six-Day War had just ended, and young Levy and his parents were on a tour of the freshly occupied West Bank. His photo, Levy says, ended up in the pages of the newspaper that would eventually employ him, though that is the least—and the least painful—of the many attending ironies. Now 57 with a heavy, falconish face, Levy is hard to picture as a boy. It’s harder still to imagine his expression. Was he gleeful? Puzzled? Somber? Was he trying to look brave?
Levy has been writing for Ha’aretz for nearly three decades. In recent years, he has settled into a stable if uncomfortable role as Israel’s latest Amos, admired and despised for thumping his staff twice each week to admonish his compatriots for the crimes committed in their names—and by their sons and neighbors—just out of sight on the other side of the wall. When that photo was taken in 1967, though, Levy was not yet the bête noire of the Israeli right—and just as often of the Zionist left—but, in his words, a "good boy" from Tel Aviv. The child of refugees—his parents fled Europe in 1939—Levy grew up in an environment that was not political except in the most conventional ways. As Levy said in an interview with the Irish journalist David Cronin earlier this year, "I was totally blind…a typical product of the Israeli brainwash system." That day on the West Bank, he was as carried away as most of his compatriots in what he has called the "nationalistic tsunami" that followed the 1967 war. It did not seem odd that he saw no Palestinians in Palestine, only white sheets of surrender hanging from the balconies. To the extent that he thought about them, he imagined that Palestinians must be grateful for the Israeli presence, but he didn’t think about them much. "The Palestinians themselves were nonentities," he said in another interview. "They didn’t exist."
Levy’s transformation would be gradual. He suffered no lightning-bolt revelation, no fall from an ass. He received his journalistic training while serving at the Israeli Defense Force’s radio station, hardly an environment that encourages dissent. In that capacity, he witnessed things that troubled him: settlers destroying olive groves, checkpoint soldiers harassing Palestinian women. But he dismissed these incidents as unfortunate exceptions to an occupation that was generally humane. "It took me a long time to see that these were not exceptions," Levy said. "They were the substance of government policy."
On the local political spectrum, Levy was a liberal, and thoroughly mainstream. He took a job in 1979 as press officer for then–Labor Party head Shimon Peres. (In a column last year, he dismissed his old boss, now the Israeli president, as "a small man, devoid of any sense of justice…our beautiful and misleading face.") Three years later, Levy began writing for the left-leaning Ha’aretz. When he started to cover the Occupied Territories for the paper in 1982, he was, he says, still "totally ignorant, totally brainwashed." But he slowly began to view the occupation as the central drama of Israeli society, a narrative all the more important because it was so thoroughly repressed. "I always brought exclusive stories because almost nobody was there," Levy has boasted.
By the time Israeli troops opened fire on the taxi carrying Levy to the West Bank city of Tulkarm in 2003, his transformation was complete. As he tells the story, soldiers manning a checkpoint directed his driver toward an army base outside the city. Without warning, soldiers at the base opened fire on the car, focusing their fire at the center of the windshield. "They shot it like someone else lights a cigarette," Levy said at the time. "And they do it on a daily basis." Had the taxi not been bulletproofed, Levy says, he would not have survived. And had he been Palestinian, he knew, the incident would have passed without notice. Instead, Levy was interviewed on American TV and received a personal apology from the minister of defense.