Ha'aretz, Israel's Liberal Beacon
No subject, it seems, is too sensitive for Ha'aretz to take on--including the "blood libel." The publication in Italy early this year of Bloody Passovers: The Jews of Europe and Ritual Murders, by academic Ariel Toaff, provoked a furor over the book's suggestion that there could be some truth to at least one blood libel--an alleged murder of a child in 1475 by the Jews of Trent, who may have then used the victim's blood to bake matzo for Passover. While most of the Israeli media shied away from the controversy, Ha'aretz weighed in with a lengthy piece about the book and the state of academic freedom in Israel, a tongue-in-cheek history of the blood libel and its modern iterations, a scholarly but sobering essay on how the blood libel has been used as a trigger for anti-Jewish pogroms and a profile of Toaff's father, the former chief rabbi of Rome, who condemned the book and chastised his son for writing it. (The book was eventually pulled from the shelves by the publisher.)
The letters came pouring in, says editor Landau, who along with Schocken and the paper's section editors spends much of his time answering heated written responses to Ha'aretz coverage or engaging angry readers over the phone. "I can't say in all honesty whether we would have broken that story if we had it exclusively," Landau says. "But once the Italian press broke it and it was in the public domain we just applied regular journalistic principles. It's very rare that we sit on a story." (Landau admits he withheld news in late 2004 of the drug-related arrest in Peru of the daughter of the Israeli ambassador to Britain. Entreated by the ambassador to exercise restraint, Landau and his editors agreed to delay publication while embassy officials negotiated for his daughter's release. The understanding was overtaken by events, however, when the young woman won a beauty contest held by her fellow inmates, and the story was carried by the Associated Press.)
Ha'aretz correspondents praise Landau, a former reporter himself and an English-born Orthodox Jew, for giving them the freedom to define and interpret their beats. He recruits from Israel's best feeder papers and Army Radio, which is respected for its tough reporting, and puts them to work in the paper's boiler rooms, like the night desk. "You need a year of indoctrination," says Benn. "And during that time you always hear the senior editors saying, 'That's not the way it's done here.' There is a lot of pride in the culture."
Levy, who says that somewhere in the Ha'aretz newsroom is a thick file of subscription-cancellation notices inspired by his coverage, says he is less constrained in his punditry than most columnists are in the United States and Europe. While working in Gaza early this year with a French film crew that was making a documentary about him, Levy declared on camera that the Gazans' plight made him ashamed to be an Israeli. "A few days later," he says, "I got a call from the producer, who said he couldn't use the quote for fear it would upset the Jewish lobby in France. That would never happen at Ha'aretz, particularly under David Landau."
Ha'aretz's core readership--the 65,000 Israelis who take the paper in Hebrew and the 15,000 or so who read the English edition--are among the country's elite. Surveys reveal Ha'aretz subscribers to be predominantly Ashkenazi and in their 40s, with above-average levels of income, education and wealth. "Never trust Ha'aretz as a true reflection of the average Israeli newspaper reader," says Shmuel Rosner, the paper's right-of-center chief US correspondent. "For many Israelis, Ha'aretz is like The Nation. People who read it are better educated and more sophisticated than most, but the rest of the country doesn't know it exists."
Landau insists, however, that Ha'aretz's readership is no more monolithically liberal than is the paper itself. Its opinion pages make room for conservative thinkers, politicians and policymakers, including such rightist luminaries as Israel Harel, the former chairman of a prominent settlers' group, and Moshe Arens, a former Likud Party minister and Israeli ambassador to Washington. In a February opinion piece, Ha'aretz's military correspondent, Ze'ev Schiff, sternly rebuked Jibril Rajoub, a former Palestinian Authority intelligence chief under Yasir Arafat, for remarking that the Arabs will one day regain all of historic Palestine. Such a "Hamas-style declaration" from a senior Fatah member like Rajoub, Schiff concluded, was proof that the Palestinians must eradicate extremists in their ranks as a condition for peace talks. (The legendary Schiff, who had covered his beat "since the Boer War," jokes Landau, died in June at 74.)