Writing in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Aluf Benn, editor in chief of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, surveys the Israeli landscape and concludes that recent transformations are rendering “the largely secular and progressive version of Israel that once captured the world’s imagination” obsolete. Benn notes that “Israel was always in some ways a fantasy,” though one with foundations in reality. Today, however, “that reality has changed, and the country that has replaced it is profoundly different from the one its founders imagined almost 70 years ago.”
I recently spent 10 days in Israel, where I spoke with Benn about the current state of the country as well as that of Haaretz—which New Yorker editor David Remnick, in a lengthy 2011 article, termed “easily the most liberal newspaper in Israel and arguably [its] most important liberal institution.” Though Haaretz is often compared to The New York Times in terms of its stature, the analogy worked only when the center of Israeli society was secular and socialist. Today it is neither, and Haaretz represents an increasingly beleaguered opposition that is both Jewish and democratic in a country that is now Jewish if you’re an Arab and democratic if you’re a Jew.
Haaretz, however, appears to be in far better shape than the Zionist left for which it speaks. After a significant restructuring in 2012, the newspaper is now profitable enough, with a stable editorial staff of about 250 people. In a remarkable statement of self-confidence, Benn says he has no idea what the editorial budget is, and he is no less ignorant about why Russian and German investors have joined the famously left-wing Schocken family to help finance it. (Almost no American newspaper editor enjoys such isolation from financial pressures.)
Like the Times, Haaretz boasts a profitable paywall as well as an expensive subscription for its print edition. It provides its elite Israeli readership and the global audience for its English-language edition with an extremely nuanced and unsparing picture of Israel and the occupied territories. It also sponsors conferences, like the one in New York City last December at which Israeli President Reuven Rivlin gave the opening address.
But what Haaretz lacks is just what the Israeli center-left lacks: a compelling counternarrative to the one put forward by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and company, which is slowly and systematically undermining both Israeli democracy and any realistic hope for a two-state solution. As Benn explains, “At Haaretz, we are trying to ring the alarm bell for freedom of speech, and we are the only ones who bother to report about the occupation.” But it is fair to say that most Israeli Jews, who make up approximately 75 percent of the country’s population, do not much care.
All things considered, most Israeli Jews are pretty happy these days. The economy is humming along nicely. The shekel is stable. Unemployment is extremely low. The biggest complaint one hears is that realestate prices are skyrocketing in Tel Aviv (an influx of French Jews buying second homes is often blamed as a key cause).