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.
In the years since, Levy has made it his exclusive mission—his "exasperating calling," as he puts it in the introduction to The Punishment of Gaza, a collection of his recent work—to document the grim and brutal facts of the occupation, to tell the stories he knows Israelis do not want to hear. He writes tirelessly and furiously, with all the bitter passion of the disenchanted. He writes as if trying to kill whatever might be left of his own illusions, as if trying to fill the empty West Bank streets he walked through so complacently in 1967 with faces, voices, stories. Week after week, he writes of entire families killed in IDF missile attacks, of sick and injured Palestinians who die at checkpoints waiting to cross into Israel for treatment. Levy spares no details. He wastes no ink in search of moral nuance. In a column published just after Rosh Hashana in 2007, he recounts the deaths of some of the ninety-two Palestinian children killed in the previous 365 days. (A year of relative mercy, it turned out.) "The first of them was buried twice," Levy writes. "Abdullah al-Zakh identified half of the body of his son Mahmoud in the morgue refrigerator of Shifa Hospital in Gaza." The rest of the boy’s remains could not be recovered until after Israeli forces withdrew. Several dozen children later, Levy ends the column with the words "Happy New Year."
His outspokenness has rendered him a pariah to many of his countrymen and Israel’s supporters abroad, a status he appears to relish. Ha’aretz, he says, keeps a file labeled "cancellation of subscription—Gideon Levy." It is getting "bigger and bigger from week to week," Levy says.
One of the incidents recounted in that New Year’s column would be the occasion for Levy’s last trip to Gaza. The IDF had attacked a school bus. Two children and their 20-year-old teacher were killed. In November 2006, shortly after the funeral held for the teacher (whose name, for the record, was Najweh Khalif), the government closed Gaza to all Israeli journalists on the pretext that it could not guarantee their security. The national media offered no real fight. "Instead of protesting," Levy notes, "journalists collaborate." The Strip is usually open to foreign reporters, but Israelis now have only secondhand access to what Levy calls "the largest prison on earth." Most of the essays included in The Punishment of Gaza were therefore written from the sidelines.
This is not the disadvantage it might seem. Levy’s real subject, even when he’s writing about events in Rafah or Khan Yunis, is Israel, its hypocrisy, the myths and delusions with which it cloaks itself. Life is good in Tel Aviv, "peachy" even. "Like Switzerland? No…better." The cafes and beaches are packed. The economy is booming, the occupation invisible and apparently cost-free. To this shiny nation—democratic, prosperous, confident in its righteousness—Levy holds up Gaza like a mirror. "Israel is the occupation. The occupation is Israel," he writes. This is who we really are, he says and says again. Gaza’s streets are thick with trash and sewage, but the real pollution, Levy says, is the moral kind, and it lies on the Israeli side of the wall.
In Levy’s Israel, "everything is tainted"—not just the military and state institutions but the teachers who fail to protest the closing of Palestinian schools, the engineers who build the fences and roads between the settlements, "the journalists who do not report, the artists and writers who remain silent." Levy names names: the usual rightist politicians as well as their abettors on the left who, despite their gentler rhetoric, prove murderous in practice; his liberal Zionist colleagues at Ha’aretz; and the internationally respected intellectuals (David Grossman, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua) who helped legitimate the 2008–09 attack on Gaza that left 1,400 Palestinians dead.
Levy’s moral vision has its blind spots. Gaza is not, after all, a mirror. It is Gaza, home to 1.4 million Palestinians, who rarely emerge from Levy’s writing as anything other than the objects of Israeli cruelty. To the extent that Levy’s explicit goal is to hold his own people to account ("Yes, it must be written. It must be shouted out"), this shouldn’t be an issue. But it does at times cause him to trip rather badly, as in a column from early 2009, in the midst of the Gaza assault, in which he writes that "the darkness into which we have plunged Gaza is nothing compared to the thick black darkness that has descended on Israel." Few Gazans would likely have agreed.
That assault and the overwhelming support it enjoyed in Israel pushed Levy fully into Old Testament mode. With the commencement of Operation Cast Lead, as the IDF labeled it, his rhetoric shifts in timbre. "Our hearts have become hard and our eyes have become dull," he writes in January 2009. "An evil spirit has descended on the land," he writes three days later. "Israelis know deep within their desensitized hearts that something terrible is burning beneath their feet, that a vast conflagration is threatening to burst through the thick, stupefying, contorting and obfuscating fog that covers them."
Levy is at his sharpest, though, when he throws off the sackcloth and devotes himself to the demystification of political language, to revealing the ways in which words are "mobilized in active reserve service" to hide the injustices of the occupation. Start with the "peace process," which Levy (in a 2009 essay unfortunately not included in this collection) calls "the great fraud—the best show in town," and which, he argues, has functioned for decades to provide shelter for everyone who stands to profit by keeping the conflict rolling. Forever en route to another photo-op negotiation sensation, "We talk and talk, babble and prattle, and generally feel great about ourselves; meanwhile the settlements expand endlessly and Israel turns to the use of force at every possible opportunity."
Then there is "security," that final-sum good of the new millennium that Levy calls "society’s true religion," as simultaneously omnipresent and unattainable as the great Ein Soph of kabbalistic doctrine. For the sake of this esoteric goal, Israel engages in something called "war" in Gaza and Lebanon. But what sort of wars are these, Levy asks, in which fighter jets bomb "unimpeded as if on practice runs"; tanks shell homes, hospitals and schools; and, in the case of Gaza, one of the best-equipped armies in the world fights "a helpless population and a weak, ragged organization that has fled the conflict zones and is barely putting up a fight"?
Levy goes on: "We ‘liberated’ the territories, ‘preempted’ the terrorists and ‘preserved order,’ the order of occupation; we consolidated the occupation with a ‘civil administration,’ being careful not to cause a ‘humanitarian disaster,’ jailed people in ‘administrative detention’…murdered with ‘rules of engagement.’" Does this sound familiar? It should—it’s our language, too, the vocabulary of the occupier, as useful to Bush and Obama as to Bibi and Barak. And Levy has words for us, Israel’s greatest friends. A million people read Ha’aretz in English online, after all, and fewer than 70,000 read the paper in Hebrew at home.
If Levy has lost hope that Israeli society can ever be awakened from its apathy, his optimism resides abroad, and particularly with us. Only pressure from the United States of the variety that Obama has not yet had the stomach for, Levy has written, will push Israel toward anything that might honestly be termed peace. And so, significantly, the first essay in The Punishment of Gaza calls for a different sort of international pressure. "It is not easy to call upon the world to boycott your own country," Levy writes, but only under the pressure of cultural isolation and economic divestment will Israelis "begin to understand, albeit the hard way, that there is a price to pay for the occupation."