There are journalists, including some prominent and well-known ones, who learn about distant lands and foreign peoples from casual conversations with taxi drivers. A chance exchange with a Manhattan cabby last fall taught me a few things I did not know about my newspaper and myself. The Alexandria-born driver, a veteran of the Egyptian navy, revealed that my colleagues and I at Ha’aretz were not speaking into a void. After he discovered my identity, he adamantly refused to take any money from me. Abe said that he had been a loyal reader of mine for years, and this was his modest way of expressing his esteem for a journalist who charges him up on a weekly basis with some hope for peace in the region where he was born.
Among the thousands of hate-mail messages I receive from people on the Israeli right wing, and the venomous talkbacks that Jewish Americans submit through the Ha’aretz website, the occasional word of encouragement slips through from Arab readers, both from neighboring countries and from the West. At international conferences I get pats on the back from pragmatic Muslim intellectuals as well as from left-liberal Jews and non-Jews. But the Egyptian cabby’s warm words were the most precious gift I have received over the three decades–half of Israel’s age–during which I have written more than 2,000 articles.
Abe told me that in September 1979 he came to Haifa, the city where I was born, in Anwar Sadat’s presidential yacht. I recalled that shortly after that visit, a Palestinian journalist named Ismail Ajwa came to my office. He told me that he had just been released from a six-month administrative detention on suspicion of belonging to the PLO. Ajwa showed me bruises on his legs and claimed that after being beaten and humiliated by his interrogators, he was sent home with no charges pressed. I convinced my editor to pay for a lie detector to verify Ajwa’s claims. When the test showed that the journalist was telling the truth, we decided to publish the story prominently, together with the documents issued by the polygraph institute.
The critical exposé and the unusual use of the polygraph test garnered a widespread response in Israel and in the international press. The Knesset held a hearing on the affair, and Prime Minister Menachem Begin instructed the Ministry of Justice to open an investigation. When the investigation was concluded, the Attorney General dismissed two interrogators from the General Security Services and appointed a special committee to determine rules for permissible conduct in security interrogations. Not only politicians but also colleagues, including a few of my officemates at the paper, accused me of damaging the country’s reputation. Some went as far as to claim that I had harmed national security; they argued that the new guidelines instated as a result of the affair tied investigators’ hands and made it difficult for them to capture terrorists and foil terrorist attacks. Similar accusations have dogged me since the English publication last year of Lords of the Land (Nation Books), a book about the settlers that I co-wrote with Idith Zertal. The book, which has appeared in four languages (Hebrew, English, German and Arabic), recounts forty years of land grab in the occupied Palestinian territories.
The Israeli ambassador to a major European capital once told me that David Grossman, whose articles appear frequently in the local press, and myself were “ruining his job.” He complained that every time he attacked Israel’s critics for their “anti-Israeli” stances, as he put it, they would argue that our own articles were far more critical. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt cite me in their controversial book, The Israel Lobby, as one of the Israeli journalists whose criticism of the occupation is even sharper than their own.