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.
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.)
Then there is Rosner’s blog, a landfall for hardliners inside Ha’aretz‘s liberal archipelago. In the wake of Hamas’s Gaza takeover in June, Rosner suggested (in a piece written with Aluf Benn) that the idea of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might be ditched in favor of a Palestinian confederation or autonomous region comprising Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan. Such an alternative, Rosner wrote, “can be viewed as part of the search for a solution, but also as a whip being held over the head of the hesitant [Palestinian Authority President] Abbas.” It was a brazen proposition even within the Washington Beltway, where the goal of Palestinian statehood is embraced across much of the political spectrum.
Rosner, who worked as an editor at Ha’aretz before moving to Washington, acknowledges his minority status at the paper but says he is no outcast. “As an editor,” he says, “I’ve had to justify my decisions to colleagues, but the dialogue was always professional. I don’t agree with most of the paper’s editorials and neither do a lot of readers, but they subscribe anyway because it is so good.”
Ha’aretz is privately owned and is not obliged to declare its finances, though it is thought to be at least modestly profitable. Its English-language website attracts more readers than both the Hebrew-language print and online editions. Its business section, The Marker, is hugely popular and has helped to boost growth of fully paid subscriptions by some 15 percent over the past few years. At a time when most papers are shutting overseas bureaus, Ha’aretz is expanding its presence in New York and California.
As a newspaper that succeeds with smart reporting and good writing, Ha’aretz is a model worthy of emulation for a troubled news industry worldwide. But to evaluate it only as a good business plan misses the point. Unique among national newspapers, Ha’aretz is both public forum and chronicle of a religious and political movement that has, for good or ill, transformed a region and consumed the world. If the paper has a bias, it is less its liberal sensibility than its appeal to the possible–like Yitzhak Rabin’s “calculated risk” for a negotiated peace–over the reflexively negative of our post-9/11 world. By creating a home for opinions and values that are at odds with its own, Ha’aretz radiates security in its identity and convictions. And by supporting dialogue with Israel’s enemies, it projects confidence in the Jewish state’s ability to coexist with its neighbors as just one rational actor among many. At a time when the Zionist movement appears to be content with exchanging one ghetto for another, Ha’aretz insists on an Israel that is of the world as well as in it.
“We have an obligation be a factor in Israeli democracy, to play a role in the Zionist enterprise,” says Landau. “We can’t trim our sails. This is the reason we exist.”