Ha'aretz, Israel's Liberal Beacon
The daily editorial meeting at the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz is a sacred, if sometimes rancorous, noontime ritual. It takes place in the editor's office, which like the rest of the newsroom is embellished with avant-garde paintings from the art collection owned by the Schocken family, the paper's publisher and owner. Debates are freewheeling and nonhierarchical, the way early kibbutzniks might have argued over crop rotations. With the meeting convened by editor David Landau, the dozen or so deputy editors and senior writers haggle over what should be the lead editorial for the next day's edition and on which side of the issues Ha'aretz should array itself.
Occasionally, the debates end in a draw. One day last February, for example, participants argued for two hours over whether Israel's head of prisons should be appointed police commissioner despite a history of disciplinary offenses and a criminal trial that ended in his acquittal. The meeting concluded with a hung verdict, and the next day's editorial was unusually cautious and equivocal. More recent debates have focused on whether Israel should break ranks with the Bush Administration and pursue peace negotiations with Syria. Ha'aretz favors such a dialogue, though not as robustly as some staff members would like and despite opposition from others.
"The noontime meeting is where senior people ventilate," says Landau, who came to the paper fourteen years ago not long after leaving the Jerusalem Post when it was bought by conservative media mogul Conrad Black. "The rank and file may view it with sarcasm and cynicism, but beneath that is a grudging prestige of membership in such a vibrant spectrum of opinion."
In Israel, spirited debate was once a cultural imperative. Now it is a rare, if precious, resource, as is Ha'aretz and its emphatic liberal consciousness. Though Palestinian suicide bombers and Hezbollah rocket attacks have all but muted Israel's high-decibel, hydra-headed politics, there is Ha'aretz, arousing and provoking with its pro-peace apostasy. Not only does the paper challenge its readers; it makes money doing it. The depth, passion and wit of its reporting recalls the best of the long-extinguished Washington Star or Britain's once-sassy Independent. The paper routinely scoops its larger rivals, the tabloids Yediot Ahronot and Ma'ariv, particularly when it comes to US-Israeli relations, and it is the closest thing the Middle East has to an indispensable read. (It is also the only major Israeli daily with an editorial page; in June Yediot Ahronot dropped its editorial section and, like Ma'ariv, now restricts itself to signed opinion pieces.)
Ha'aretz's opposition to Israel's most controversial policies--the occupation of the West Bank and the incarceration of Gaza behind a fortified wall, the systematic discrimination against Israel's Arab citizenry, last year's war in Lebanon--makes it a life raft for anyone who despairs of the Jewish state's rightward lurch but who is too afraid to criticize it openly for fear of being tarred as an anti-Semite, an appeaser of terrorists or a self-hating Jew.
"Israel is in a coma," says Ha'aretz senior writer Gideon Levy, bête noire of Ha'aretz critics and patron saint to its most loyal readers for his relentless campaign against the occupation. "There was a time when you'd ask two Israelis a question and you'd get three opinions. Now you get only one."
Like museum curators who deny a national treasure to a marauding foe, Landau and his staff preserve Israel's tradition of dissent from the demagogues of our Age of Fear. When Ha'aretz's coverage of seismic events has triggered a wave of subscription cancellations--most notably for its empathetic reports of Palestinian suffering in the early days of the second intifada and its condemnation of Israel's invasion of Lebanon last year--publisher Amos Schocken has struck back with defiant editorials. When American academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt were slandered last year for their article in The London Review of Books, which alleged a pernicious influence over US Middle East policy by the so-called Israel lobby, Ha'aretz ran an editorial that condemned the "McCarthyite policing of academia" as "deeply un-Jewish." Last September, when violent clashes erupted between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza, auguring the climactic split that would come in June, Ha'aretz correspondent Amira Hass ruled them the inevitable result of "the extended experiment called 'what happens when you imprison 1.3 million human beings in an enclosed space like battery hens.'"
Reportage like that regularly places Ha'aretz and its correspondents--several of whom have their own columns on the opinion page--in the cross-hairs of conservative pro-Israel groups as well as ordinary Israelis and members of the Jewish Diaspora. "Talkback," the reader-response feature in Ha'aretz's online edition, boils with largely negative and often hostile commentary. Aluf Benn, the paper's diplomatic correspondent, says he is routinely characterized by readers as a "Nazi Jew-hater" (he is also treated to "Nazi Occupier" from the pro-Palestinian side, he says). Senior Ha'aretz correspondent Tom Segev, author of the books 1967 and One Palestine, Complete, says the most extreme messages he gets often come from American Jews. In response to a story he wrote during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, one US reader remarked: "I don't know if your mother slept with Hitler knowingly or if he raped her but I can tell you are a Nazi."
"It's bizarre," says Segev. "You think you're writing for some intelligent people, but there are some real weirdos out there." Nevertheless, Talkback is closely followed by Knesset members as an invaluable measure of the Israeli viscera.