Haaretz prides itself on being the conscience of Israel. Does it have a future? by David Remnick February 28, 2011
Amos Schocken, the paper’s patrician publisher and owner, is apt to tell disgruntled readers, “It seems that Haaretz is just not for you.”
In the early days of the uprising in Egypt, the Web site of the journal Foreign Policy published a list of the ten world leaders “who are freaking out the most.” Coming in first, ahead of all the nerve-racked autocrats who had reason to fear that the democratic fervor would spread their way from Tahrir Square, was the popularly elected Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. Since 1979, Israel has based its national-security strategy on a peace treaty with Egypt, a treaty that drastically reduced the prospect of regional war in the Middle East.
Rattled by the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, Netanyahu sent a cable to Israel’s embassies abroad, telling diplomats to advertise the constancy of Hosni Mubarak and caution against the alternatives. Shimon Peres, the Israeli President, gave a speech warning against a future Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood in power. And nearly all the country’s main media outlets—including Channel 2, the biggest commercial-television station, and the mass-circulation tabloids—described the news from Egypt in terms fraught with alarm.
The outlet that conveyed the greatest sense of equipoise, even optimism, was Haaretz (“The Land”), a broadsheet daily that is easily the most liberal newspaper in Israel and arguably the most important liberal institution in a country that has moved inexorably to the right in the past decade. The Schocken family, which has owned the paper since 1935, is not commandingly wealthy, yet it invests lavishly in the quality of a paper that is authoritative in its news columns, left-wing in its ideology, and insistently oppositional in its temper. Golda Meir once said that the only government that Haaretz ever supported was the British Mandate, before the birth of the state.
Dov Alfon, Haaretz’s editor-in-chief, tried to keep the tone of the paper’s Egyptian coverage cool, analytical, observant. “This country was submerged in paranoia, as if Iran were invading Egypt, as if the demonstrators in Cairo were Hezbollah,” Alfon, who was born in Tunisia and grew up in Paris, said. “Suddenly, on Sunday morning all the Israeli newspapers were running headlines like ‘A NEW MIDDLE EAST’ and ‘THE END OF MUBARAK.’ I was much more cautious. I was influenced by my childhood in Paris. I remember the posters in May, 1968, claiming revolution, claiming the end of de Gaulle, and parents at school claiming the end. A few weeks later, it was exactly the opposite.”
The Egyptian uprising posed a reporting challenge to Haaretz, as it did to all Israeli media. There are no Israeli news bureaus in Egypt, or anywhere else in the Arab world. Israeli reporters can get into Cairo quickly only if they carry a second passport. (Haaretz had a reporter in Cairo briefly in the late eighties, but he was thrown out of the country.) So when, in late January, Alfon watched the first street demonstration taking shape, he mobilized Anshel Pfeffer, a defense reporter in his late thirties who was born in Manchester and carries a British passport. Pfeffer has played a fireman’s role for the paper, covering the Mumbai terror attacks, the Russian-Georgian war, and swine flu in Mexico. He had just returned from the uprising in Tunisia, and now Alfon was asking him to bolt a vacation and go to Egypt.
Pfeffer was the first Israeli reporter to reach Cairo. He checked in at the Ramses Hilton, a five-minute walk from Tahrir Square, and, for the first few days, he spoke with as many demonstrators, soldiers, and other ordinary Egyptians as he could, taking in a spectacle that he compared to “a curtain going up on a secret world.” His first articles were straight reporting pieces. Because the regime had shut down access to the Internet, he filed “in the ancient manner”—by fax or by dictating his pieces to an operator in the newsroom in Tel Aviv. Egyptian secret police were in the hotel, but the staff members who sent and received his faxes, and heard him dictating in Hebrew, remained friendly. Pfeffer speaks some Arabic, but he felt that he was more effective on the street coming across “as an English twit.”
As a defense reporter, Pfeffer understood why a threat to the peace treaty with Egypt would cause high anxiety in the military command in Israel, yet he also saw that what was being broadcast and published at home did not reflect the reality in Tahrir Square. “The more tabloid populist side of the Israeli media was intent on searching for anti-Israeli, anti-Jewish manifestations,” he said. “Out of the ten thousand signs on the square, there were maybe two with a Star of David written across Mubarak’s face—and that was what was shown.”
Pfeffer wanted to make sure his readers understood that the demonstrations were in fact not anti-Israeli, and he wrote a column headlined “WHY SHOULD ISRAEL BE THE ONLY DEMOCRACY IN THE MIDEAST?” “The late Arab-American scholar Edward Said appears to have been right,” he wrote. “We’re all suffering from Orientalism, not to say racism, if the sight of an entire people throwing off the yoke of tyranny and courageously demanding free elections fills us with fear rather than uplifting us, just because they’re Arabs. . . . Doesn’t Egypt deserve democracy, too?”
The editorial pages, meanwhile, represented a wide range of views. Both the editor of the section, Aluf Benn, and the columnist Ari Shavit attacked Barack Obama for failing to support a crucial ally. Benn wrote, “Barack Obama will be remembered as the president who ‘lost’ Turkey, Lebanon, and Egypt, and during whose tenure America’s alliances in the Middle East crumbled.” Shavit, a liberal-centrist who has long been arguing for a reckoning with Iran, was Spenglerian in his gloom, writing that Obama’s failure to support a “moderate” like Mubarak, coupled with his failure to speak up for the democratic movement in Tehran, signalled nothing less than the decline of the West.
But the voices that predominated in Haaretz were in praise of the Egyptian democracy movement. Bradley Burston, a former Berkeley radical whose first job in Israel was as a shepherd, wrote a column thanking the Egyptians for jolting Israelis out of fixed ideas. “It is beginning to dawn on my people, the Israelis, that freedom for Arabs may have nothing to do with annihilation for Jews,” Burston wrote. “Here and there, people here are recognizing that the Arab world, and this grand nation which is its cultural epicenter, is vastly more complex than this view of a vast sea of blood-eyed fanatics barely restrained by the brittle dikes of a heavily subsidized corps of despots.” And, he insisted, “Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman”—Israel’s foreign minister—“increasingly resemble the rulers of unapologetically non-democratic Mideast regimes.”
Finally, the paper published an unsigned editorial reflecting the consensus opinion of the owner and publisher, Amos Schocken, and the editorial board:
Israeli leaders have always preferred to do business with Mubarak and his ilk, on the assumption that they would “preserve stability” and forcibly repress the radical forces seeking change in the region. This view led Israel to disregard the citizens of neighboring countries, viewing them as devoid of political influence in the best case and as hostile Israel-haters in the worst case. Israel viewed itself as a Western outpost and displayed no interest in the language, culture and public opinion of its immediate surroundings. Integration into the Middle East seemed like a trivial, if not a downright harmful, fantasy.
But that era was over, the editorial concluded. The time had come for Israel’s foreign policy to “adapt itself to a reality in which the citizens of Arab states, and not just tyrants and their cronies, influence the trajectory of their countries’ development.”
The Haaretz building, a low-slung gray-and-white concrete affair that could be mistaken for a warehouse or a factory, is situated on a street in southern Tel Aviv named for the Schocken family. The neighborhood is remote from the Bauhaus center of Tel Aviv high life, with little more than car-repair places and falafel joints nearby. The newsroom, like newsrooms everywhere, is filled largely with young people working in an ascending arc of urgency; the day starts with desultory phone calls, office gossip, and planning meetings, and the pace accelerates as deadlines approach. What is unusual about the Haaretz newsroom is the art collection. Amos Schocken is one of the country’s biggest collectors of Israeli art, some of it spectacular, much of it politically subversive. As you walk in the main entrance, you pass the split corpse of a pig, hanging from a meat hook. The animal is made of multicolored jelly-worm candies. “I’m not sure what it means,” Schocken told me, with his distinctively thin, enigmatic smile. There are slyly disfigured maps of Israel, paintings made of blown-up phone-sex ads, a portrait of David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and Moshe Dayan hovering over dead soldiers. Elsewhere there are Adi Nes’s homoerotic photographs of Israeli soldiers and, in Schocken’s office, a huge canvas, by the Palestinian artist Durar Bacri, of an Arab man and a goat. During the second intifada, a time of suicide bombings and military incursions, Schocken put up a painting, by David Reeb, of soldiers in combat, with the bitingly ironic banner “LETS HAVE ANOTHER WAR.”
Schocken is sixty-six, slender, and aristocratic in a German-Jewish way, both diffident and self-possessed. He is not evidently eager for approval, least of all from readers and advertisers. When he answers letters of complaint from readers, he is apt to write, “It seems that Haaretz is just not for you.” As a newspaper proprietor, Schocken faces all the familiar challenges of his peers around the world: a vanished classified-ad market, the uncertain profitability of Internet editions. His ideological focus, however, is distinct and unyielding. He is thoroughly committed to ending Israel’s forty-four-year occupation of East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank. He is also a singular force in Israeli journalism on issues such as free speech, equal rights for Israeli Arabs, the independence of the Supreme Court, and the exposure of military abuse. On the sixtieth anniversary of Israel’s independence, Schocken published an article saying that “Hatikvah,” the national anthem, should be changed, as its lyrics are about only Jewish aspirations. “How can an Arab citizen identify with such an anthem?” he wrote, and he went on:
Hasn’t the time come to recognize that the establishment of Israel is not just the story of the Jewish people, of Zionism, of the heroism of the Israel Defense Forces and of bereavement? That it is also the story of the reflection of Zionism and the heroism of IDF soldiers in the lives of the Arabs: the Nakba—the Palestinian “Catastrophe,” as the Arabs call the events of 1948—the loss, the families that were split up, the disruption of lives, the property that was taken away, the life under military government and other elements of the history shared by Jews and Arabs, which are presented on Independence Day, and now only on that day, in an entirely one-sided way.
Schocken is routinely bashed at home as a traitorous radical, a haughty “post-Zionist,” an aristocrat of old Israel, who overlooks Israeli security concerns and shows only disdain for the Orthodox, for the settlers, for all the non-Haaretz readers who live in provincial cities like Ashdod, Be’ersheva, and Ashkelon. “Schocken lives in a utopian fantasy world of thousands of Arab students studying in Israeli universities and thousands of Israeli students studying in Arab universities,” one columnist wrote in the Jerusalem Post.
Recently, I sat in on a session of the editorial board, which was meeting with Tzipi Livni, the leader of the centrist opposition party Kadima. Schocken was easily the least polite of Livni’s questioners. The press that month was filled with the news that dozens of leading Orthodox rabbis had signed a letter calling on Jews to refuse to rent or sell property to non-Jews. Schocken’s paper denounced the edict as racist (so did Netanyahu), and, during the meeting, the publisher repeatedly asked Livni why she didn’t say to the Arabs of Israel, “We stand with you.” Hard as Livni tried to filibuster, Schocken persisted. A few editors in the room smiled discreetly. They had seen this movie before.
Later, Dov Alfon laughed and said, “I think Amos was putting on a little show for you.” But then he added, “Of course, he is right—and he believes every word.”
There are many voices on Haaretz that confront the occupation, and every scenario of resolution has been rehearsed and argued there a thousand times. The most vivid and unflagging columnist on the issue is Gideon Levy, who for many years has been ferociously attacking the Israeli government for sponsoring the “criminal enterprise” of settlements, the Israeli Army for war crimes during the bombing of Gaza, two years ago, the Israeli media for “dehumanizing” the Palestinians, and the Israeli people for complacency in the face of injustice.
Levy, who is in his mid-fifties, told me that he comes from the “Israeli mainstream.” His father fled the Nazis in 1939 and spent six months on a refugee boat before landing in Palestine. As a youth, Levy was “a full member of the nationalistic religious orgy,” and even dreamed of becoming Prime Minister. From 1978 to 1982, he worked as an aide to Shimon Peres, a politician whom he now reviles for his role in the construction of settlements. Levy is easy to characterize as the most fashionable of radicals, and many do. He lives in the prosperous Ramat Aviv area of Tel Aviv—a neighborhood that, he points out, was built on the ruins of Sheikh Munis, one of more than four hundred Palestinian villages destroyed after 1948. Levy enjoys a kind of leather-jacket roué glamour in Tel Aviv and on the foreign lecture circuit. He is a regular on television. Even some liberals who concede the rightness of his cause and the grace of his prose criticize him for being a “one-trick pony,” a self-regarding scold, who ignores Israeli suffering and wins his loudest plaudits abroad. He has been called “Hitler’s grandson”—sooner or later, nearly everyone on Haaretz gets called a Nazi—and some have wished cancer on his family. He has been threatened in the market, harassed on the street, and shot at by Israeli soldiers. When he writes, for example, that the Qassam rockets fired at Israeli towns by Palestinian militants “have a context,” the denunciations are renewed. He does not care.
Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli invasion of Gaza, “wasn’t a ‘war,’ ” he says. “It was a brutal assault on a helpless, imprisoned population. I suppose you can call a match between Mike Tyson and a five-year-old boxing, but the proportions, the proportions!”
Levy makes reporting trips to the West Bank every week. He thinks of himself as forcing Israeli society to see. “The dehumanization of the Palestinians in the Israeli media allows the public to feel fine about it all,” he told me one evening in the newsroom. “With the assistance of the Israeli media, we’ve built a world of our own, in which all criticism of the Israeli government is anti-Semitism, in which ‘they are all against us, anyway’—which is not true. We are more spoiled than any state in the world.
“I see the territories as the dark back yard of Israel,” he went on. “It is now in an easy stage. The freedom of movement is much easier, less bloodshed, a better economy. But the occupation is brutal in the way that it governs the Palestinians in every field of their lives, from birth to death, from their currency to their I.D. cards. I will never forget the scene in the first intifada”—in the late eighties—“when at a checkpoint I saw a soldier checking the X-ray of an old lady, as if he will decide if she is sick enough to get to the hospital in the West Bank. This scene of this nineteen-year-old child who has the right to decide on her fate and plays God and looks at her X-ray without knowing a thing, just to humiliate her or give himself this power—those things can happen today, too.”
The Haaretz writer usually mentioned alongside Levy is Amira Hass, who has lived for three years in Gaza and thirteen in Ramallah—the only Jewish Israeli living in and reporting from the territories. Hass, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, grew up in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but, unlike Levy, she was an outsider. She never dreamed of being Prime Minister. Her parents were Communists. “I was what you call a ‘red-diaper baby,’ ” she says. Her Israeli friends are, in the main, on the left. “My tribe is leftists, not liberal Zionists,” she said. “David Grossman and the rest are always waking up too late. That is their hallmark—understanding too late.”
I’d met Hass before on reporting trips, and we agreed to go together to Nabi Samwil, which is on the site of a Palestinian village that was occupied in 1967. Nabi Samwil, the burial place of the prophet Samuel, is typical of the West Bank, where centuries of history and religious yearnings mingle and conflict. There is a crusader fortress and a mosque in Nabi Samwil. In 1971, the Israelis bulldozed the Arab houses, and a few Palestinians, Hass said, sold their land to Israel. On a cold, gray winter afternoon, Hass was headed there to collect material for a portrait of the village that she had been working on for months.
As she drove, Hass filled me in on the details of her career. After abandoning academia, she volunteered for a while on a labor hot line, run by an advocacy group for the rights of Palestinian workers in Israel. In 1989, when she was in her mid-thirties, she joined Haaretz as a copy editor, and in 1993, when the Oslo Accords seemed to augur a lasting peace, she went to live in Gaza, as a reporter for the paper. In what Hass calls a “folkloric” arrival, she entered Gaza in a car with forged Palestinian license plates made for her by friends in the Jabaliya refugee camp. “Gaza was intense, but it was easier in a way than the West Bank,” she said. “As a typical Eastern European Jew, I found Gaza to be a form of diaspora, a shtetl sort of life.”
In Gaza, Hass picked up a working knowledge of Arabic and wrote hundreds of dispatches on the texture of life under Israeli occupation. “My emphasis is that this is Israeli news,” she said. “I’m writing not so much about the misery of the Palestinian people as about the effect of Israeli policy. It’s not about ‘the poor Palestinian people.’ It’s about us.” She wrote about the obvious things—the battles, the suicide bombers and their families, the internal politics of Hamas and Fatah—but she also wrote stories about the dual road system in the West Bank, cases of depression in the Balata refugee camp, restrictions on food imports to Gaza, the concrete details of fragmentation and disconnection.
Hass pulled off the highway and started up the steep road to Nabi Samwil. From this one windswept hill, we could see Jerusalem and well beyond; the crusaders called it the Mountain of Joy. Hass stopped by a ramshackle store, where an old Palestinian man sold his wares—packaged food, detergent, candy. He was a source for Hass, and they talked for a while in Arabic about lost relatives, abandoned homes, the rude injustices of everyday life.
Apart from the settlers, Israelis rarely go to the territories, unless they have the obligations of a soldier or a journalist. When I asked Amos Schocken, Amira Hass’s greatest supporter on the paper, when he had last visited Ramallah, which is a fifteen-minute drive from Jerusalem, he said, “I’ve never been there.”
“Why not?” I asked. Ramallah is, in a sense, the capital of his outrage.
Schocken smiled. “I read about it in Haaretz,” he said.
As we drove north toward Ramallah, Hass mentioned that a few years ago she was almost fired. Editors at the paper had told me that she had started to file less frequently and that her reports were getting less fact-rich and more commentary-heavy, which was not her strength. Hass said that she had grown frustrated. “I got tired of fighting,” she said. “It was humiliating to go like a beggar from one editor to the next and hope I could get some attention for these stories.”
This is hardly an unusual conflict between reporters and editors, but it took on ideological weight. “During Oslo, the editors thought I was spoiling the party,” she said. “They ran the stories, usually, but they buried them, put them in the cellar, we say. During the second intifada”—after the collapse of the 2000 peace talks—“there were all those terror attacks, and Israelis did not want to entertain any facts that contradicted their emotions or the way they saw the world.”
Several years ago, Hass prepared the concentration-camp diary of her mother, Hanna Levy-Hass, for commercial publication. The book is a remarkable account of a Jew from Sarajevo who joined Tito’s partisans, was captured by the Nazis, and, in the summer of 1944, was put on a train from Montenegro to Bergen-Belsen. Levy-Hass used to describe to her daughter the sight of German women standing by the side of the road trying not to notice the sick and the dying as they marched to the gates of the camp. The image was ingrained in Amira, and she says that her work as a reporter is rooted in the “dread of being a bystander.”
“I don’t want to be seen as an exotic—the strange woman who lives with the savages,” she said. “I want to report—to see.”
After a discussion with Amos Schocken, in early 2008, Hass took a leave of absence. It didn’t last. That November, with the Israelis on the brink of sending troops into Gaza, she flouted Israeli restrictions and, carrying a Dutch passport from a long-over marriage, entered Gaza by sea, via Cyprus, on a “Free Gaza” boat, along with some British Members of Parliament. Under heavy surveillance, she filed stories from Gaza for three weeks, until officials from Hamas told her to leave—“for your protection.” Frustrated by having to cover the Israeli bombardment from outside Gaza, she eventually found a way back in, again illegally, through Rafah, on the Egyptian border.
That evening, after leaving Nabi Samwil, we drove through the checkpoints to Ramallah, where we settled down at a café for dinner. Ramallah is still hemmed in by Israeli military checkpoints and Jewish settlements, but no frequent visitor to the city can fail to note the effect of the Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, a technocrat who has brought in huge donations and investments from abroad; the city is richer and full of construction sites. For Hass, though, Ramallah remains a “five-star prison.”
Hass lives a disconnected life. When she goes to Tel Aviv, she sees the doctor and the dentist, stops by the newsroom to say hello, and that’s it. She cannot bear being asked idiotic questions about her life in Palestine. (“They ask things like ‘Where do you buy food?’ And I say, ‘In a store!’ ”) A mournful expression made her face sag. “If not for my left-wing friends, who are generally real activists—some have gone to jail—I wouldn’t manage,” she said. “Otherwise, when I’m in Tel Aviv, I feel like a zombie.” She has lots of Palestinian friends, but it’s clear that she is a visitor. When she tried to take Arabic at Birzeit University, she was rejected, and that hurt.
“In Ramallah, I’m accepted and I’m not,” she said. “For the bourgeois élite here, the presence of an Israeli Jew who can come and go as she pleases only emphasizes the privileges we have and they do not.” And she understands this. “This is a nicer Soweto, but it is still a Bantustan,” she said. “For my neighbors here in Ramallah, the sea does not exist. Jerusalem does not exist. I’m embarrassed to tell them that I am going to Tel Aviv and that I’ll be there in less than an hour.”
The poignancy of her journalistic life is that so many Israeli readers are dismissive of her—even some readers of Haaretz. The usual critique is that she is nakedly partisan, too leftist, too boring, banging on about the same thing. Taghreed el-Khodary, a Palestinian journalist who has worked for many years in Gaza, says, “All the Israelis I know on the right or in the middle—they don’t even read her. Which is tragic.” And yet Amos Harel, the chief military correspondent for Haaretz, told me one day while we visited the occupation headquarters in the West Bank, “The most sophisticated military guys admire Amira for her accuracy.”
As the evening grew late, I said to Hass that it must be extremely difficult to live as she does. She did not deny it. “Sometimes you’re so busy you forget how lonely you are,” she said. “On Yom HaShoah”—Holocaust Memorial Day—“I’m really lonely. On that day, a memorial siren goes off in the Jewish settlement of Beit El, nearby. But I cannot be with them. I cannot join them to commemorate the day, I just cannot. And here in Ramallah the siren doesn’t mean much.”
The patriarch of Haaretz was Salman Schocken, a department-store magnate from Germany who was so imperious that Hannah Arendt once called him “Bismarck personified.” Born in 1877, Salman Schocken was the son of a poor, unlettered owner of a drygoods store. He had only a grade-school education, but he was a relentless autodidact, consuming Goethe and Nietzsche even as he worked as a travelling salesman. In the Saxon city of Zwickau, he and his brother Simon started the first of what became one of the largest chains of department stores in Germany, offering quality goods at reasonable prices. As he began to make money, he accumulated a vast library of rare German and Hebrew books. This, as Schocken’s biographer Anthony David points out, was the seed of his true ambition. Like the merchant princes of the Renaissance, Schocken meant to put his stamp on his time as a cultural and political impresario.
After a tour of Palestine in 1921, he began to contribute to the yishuv, the Jewish pre-state community, helping to build the port of Haifa and Hebrew University. A decade later, Schocken created a publishing house, Schocken Verlag; he acquired the rights to the works of Franz Kafka and acted as a kind of Jewish Medici, sending money, and even food and clothing, to writers he valued. As he took a deeper interest in both the Zionist movement and his own Jewish roots, he published the work of friends like the theologians Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber, the Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem, and the novelist S. Y. Agnon.
In 1933, Hitler became chancellor, and Schocken landed in Palestine. Schocken never learned to speak fluent Hebrew, but he tried to assert himself as something more than a money pot for the Zionist movement. He was a sympathizer with the Brit Shalom faction, which supported a binational state with the Arabs. In his search for a political vehicle, Schocken began talks with Moshe Glickson, the owner of Haaretz, which had been in existence since 1919.
In 1935, Schocken bought the paper, with the intention of handing it over to his son Gustav (who changed his name to Gershom when he arrived in Palestine). He dreamed of re-creating a Hebrew version of the prewar Frankfurter Zeitung: sober, analytical, with a strong emphasis on high culture. He saw the paper as an instrument for the creation of a new society. The paper, he said, must help turn “servile underlings into human beings,” and guide readers “in their fundamental opinions so that they will unwittingly adopt our view.” Haaretz published the news alongside scholarly essays by Scholem and Buber; it serialized Agnon’s novel “A Guest for the Night,” in a hundred and thirty-nine installments. In 1942, one of the paper’s stars, Robert Weltsch, wrote a rare report on the slaughter of Jews in Poland and Ukraine; the same issue also included a poem by Goethe and tips for child care.
Salman Schocken never really found a home in Israel. In an era of Jewish nationalism, he was the ultimate cosmopolitan, living in hotels and houses from Scarsdale to Switzerland. He expanded his publishing empire, establishing Schocken Books in New York; at one point, he made Arendt the editor. But this seemed to bring him little satisfaction. Gershom Scholem wrote that Schocken was “a broken and miserable human being who has managed to antagonize everyone in America.”
To his children and grandchildren, Schocken was a withholding presence, content, on his trips to Jerusalem, to live among the books in his library. Amos Schocken’s sister, Racheli Edelman, who now runs the Schocken publishing company in Tel Aviv, wrote in Haaretz, “Grandpa was closer to his books than to his family.” When his sons tried to tell him something, he would sneer and say, in sarcastic German, “Grossartig, grossartig.” Big deal.
During a fifty-year marriage, Schocken was a restless philanderer, and when he finally left his wife he declared, “Now I am a free man.” Five years later, in 1959, he died alone, in a hotel room in Switzerland. The hotel staff found him in bed clutching two books: the stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Goethe’s “Faust.” Gershom Schocken told his son Amos that his father’s death was among the most liberating events in his life, rivalling his acquisition of a driver’s license. In later years, when Gershom Schocken published articles in the paper, it was often under a pseudonym that scarcely concealed his filial resentment: Ben-Dam was the name he used—the Son of Blood.
In mid-June, 1967, little more than a week after the end of the Six-Day War, while nearly all of Israeli journalism joined the country in what became a prolonged period of postwar exultation, Amos Elon, then a young reporter at Haaretz, travelled to Aqbat Jabar, a refugee camp near the West Bank city of Jericho. Elon was born in Vienna and had emigrated to Palestine as a child, with the rise of Hitler. He approached this assignment warily, sensitive to the mixture of surrender, resentment, and foreboding among the Palestinians. As he walked through Aqbat Jabar, a small crowd of Palestinians came out of their red clay huts and stood near their vegetable gardens, greeting him in Hebrew: “Shalom! Shalom!” Some had draped white cloths on their doorways as a signal of surrender to the Israel Defense Forces. They offered Elon coffee and conversation. Earlier, Elon had visited Gaza, which he found to be far tenser, a “psycho-pathological atmosphere of claustrophobia.” He wrote of a Norwegian study that compared the Palestinians in Gaza, first under the Egyptians, now under the Israelis, to inmates serving a life sentence. One refugee after another there spoke to Elon of a yearning to work, to leave, to breathe.
Elon’s reporting in Haaretz was a rebuke to the national euphoria. All over Israel, people were celebrating not only the lightning victory over Egypt, Syria, and Jordan but also the conquest of territory that had been in Arab hands since 1948. They went on pilgrimages to Biblical sites that previously had been impossible to visit: the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall; the Cave of the Patriarchs, in Hebron; Rachel’s tomb, in Bethlehem. In Elon’s eyes, Israeli society was in danger of glorifying force and allowing religious fervor to creep into politics. The newly occupied territories, he warned the readers of Haaretz in those dispatches, more than forty years ago, were a poisoned chalice:
Whatever the fate of the occupied territories in our hands at the moment may be—we can already do something with respect to the problem of the refugees who have remained in the areas under the control of the state of Israel. We have a moral obligation to do this. For on the backs of these people Israel’s independence was plowed and they paid with their bodies, their property and their future for the pogroms in Ukraine and the Nazi gas chambers. We owe a huge debt to these forlorn people, even if they were knowingly led astray, even if they, or their parents, blindly followed irresponsible leaders. They are victims of our independence.
Elon called the territories “detonators” bound to trigger an explosion. The top editors at Haaretz, including Gershom Schocken, decided to print Elon’s reports and warnings, but they did not all agree with them—not at first. Like almost everyone else in Israel, they saw the military victory as a miracle. Schocken had been among those who called on the Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, to bring Moshe Dayan into the leadership to direct the war, and now Dayan was the most prominent figure in the “pacification” of the occupied territories. Dayan used blatant colonial rhetoric, and religious leaders sanctified military conquest with messianic language; few saw the peril inherent in holding on to the territories.
As Elon wrote later, “It was said of the British Empire that it was born in a fit of absent-mindedness. The Israeli colonial intrusion into the West Bank came into being under similar shadowy circumstances. Few people took it seriously at first. Some deluded themselves that it was bound to be temporary. Those responsible for it pursued it consistently.” The settlement project, which grew at a terrific rate, even during the peace negotiations of the nineties, radicalized the Palestinian national movement. And the occupation itself undermined the reputation and the security of a state begun as a refuge for a scattered and oppressed people. In the early decades of Israel, the kibbutz exemplified its pioneering spirit; now the settlers laid claim to this mantle, and no Israeli government failed to pay them obeisance.
The gulf between Haaretz and mainstream political opinion only widened in the nineteen-eighties. During the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war, when Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his defense minister, Ariel Sharon, broke their promises of a limited incursion and sent troops deep into Lebanon to crush the P.L.O., the paper took a strong position against the government. Hundreds cancelled their subscriptions and wrote angry letters to Gershom Schocken, accusing him of betraying the Army and the state. During the first intifada, in the late eighties and early nineties, the paper also took a strong stand in favor of Palestinian rights. Haaretz published casualty reports that defied the Army’s official count; it ran editorials expressing sympathy with the political fervor behind the rock throwing in the streets. The paper’s stand was now clear.
The Schocken family’s politics were, and remain, left-wing on matters like the Palestinian issue and civil liberties, but the Schockens have always been free-market advocates, a difficult position in a country where democratic socialism was, for decades, in the ascendancy. The family was especially opposed to the domination of labor unions, such as the Histadrut, which exercised tremendous power over Israeli businesses. In the early seventies, the economics editor of the paper, Avram Schweitzer, told Amos Schocken that “the building exists for the sake of the printers.” Profits were thin, and the unions stood in the way of hiring younger men and women who could operate new, computerized presses. “We were paying old-fashioned protection money,” Schocken recalled one night over dinner in Tel Aviv. “I decided that this was not the way I wanted to live my life. At that point, thirty per cent of my life was spent negotiating with unions.” During these negotiations, Haaretz routinely faced work slowdowns and strikes. While his father was still running the paper, Amos started three aggressive city papers, Kol Ha’ir and Hadashot, in Jerusalem, and Ha’ir, in Tel Aviv; all were non-union shops. In 1984, when printers and union journalists besieged a Schocken printing plant and tried to prevent distribution of Hadashot, Schocken used helicopters to airlift copies of the paper to their distribution points. Finally, the family came to an agreement with the printers, and was able to adopt new technologies that the printers had resisted. The Schockens also gained the right to hire and fire any new employees.
In 1990, Gershom Schocken, who had ruled Haaretz for more than half a century, died, of liver cancer. Amos Schocken’s sense of loss was profound. His father had been a distant, formal man—“I don’t remember us kids sitting on his lap the way my kids sat on ours”—but not the frigid martinet that his grandfather had been. At the shiva, a grand occasion in Tel Aviv circles, Hannah Zemer, the editor of the liberal (now defunct) newspaper Davar, approached Amos and whispered to him that he should become the next editor.
Schocken said nothing. He felt a sense of inadequacy in the newsroom, his father’s realm. He was more at home in the world of international business. Between 1968 and 1972, he lived in the United States, first studying for an M.B.A. at Harvard and then serving an apprenticeship at Fairchild Communications, in New York. After finishing his Army duty, he went to work at Haaretz, but on the business side. He was not as learned as his father, and he had no skills as a professional journalist. He installed his father’s deputy, Hanoch Marmari, as editor and, not long afterward, appointed himself publisher and chairman.
It was soon clear to Schocken’s staff that he had acquired all the essential values of that rare breed—the media owner whose priority is the integrity and independence of his paper’s journalism. “When I was young, my father had a falling out with his brother,” he recalled. “Haaretz published a negative story about an American-Israeli paper mill. My father’s brother was the chief engineer. My uncle felt that he should have protected him, and they didn’t speak to each other for a few years.” Many years later, when Amos was in charge, a similar incident took place. An architectural contest was being held to design the new Prime Minister’s office. One of the competitors, it was revealed, was not professionally certified. The architect in question was Hillel Schocken, Amos’s brother. Amos got a note in his mailbox saying that the editor did not want to publish the particularly embarrassing article on the subject. Amos was left with only one option: Haaretz gave the article prominent play, under the headline “VETERAN ARCHITECT WITHOUT A DIPLOMA.”
Amos Schocken began attending meetings of the editorial board in 1992, the beginning of a period when the fortunes of both the country and Haaretz seemed buoyant. The prospect of a final peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians coincided with rapid growth in the high-tech sector, the end of government monopolies, the privatization of the banks, a drop in the budget deficit, an influx of tourists, near-zero inflation—and a newspaper fat with advertising.
“During Oslo, Haaretz was at the center of public opinion,” Schocken said. The paper was not only in tune with a broad swath of its readership; it was also in a position to expand, and it added immensely to its coverage of business, real estate, technology, culture, and life style. Its design and layout became more modern. This was no longer the stolid paper of Salman and Gershom Schocken. Within a decade, Haaretz had tripled its pages and its staff; circulation went up by fifty per cent; and, in 1997, in partnership with the International Herald Tribune, it added an English-language edition. Suddenly, a newspaper that was known only to readers of Hebrew was being quoted all over the world as “the New York Times of Israel.” The English-language Web site became a powerful international instrument. David Makovsky, a former diplomatic reporter for the paper and now a policy expert in Washington, told me, “When I go to the Arab world, the first thing an Arab foreign minister will say is ‘Did you read Haaretz this morning?’ They know everything about Israel from Haaretz.”
When Schocken visited the newsroom of the Washington Post, he asked a top executive how many people were on the editorial staff. “Too many,” the executive moaned. Schocken realized that the Post’s staff was minuscule compared with his. Haaretz’s editorial staff was forty per cent of the Post’s while it had only ten per cent of the circulation—three hundred journalists for a newspaper with seventy-three thousand readers. But, despite its outsized costs, Haaretz was flourishing.
Leave it to Amira Hass to signal the end of the party. In the spring of 2000, when a final rapprochement between Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat seemed possible, she went to Boston to collect an award at Faneuil Hall and, by way of an acceptance speech, told everyone that the negotiations would end in failure and political convulsion. She was right. The second intifada soon commenced. Ariel Sharon replaced Barak as Prime Minister. Now the news from Israel was of suicide bombers, military reprisals, and disillusioned and terrified populations on both sides. The high-tech bubble burst. The tourist trade vanished. Schocken said at the time, “Maybe the only growth area in the labor market is security guards at the entrance of every store, restaurant, or office building.”
Haaretz covered all the terror attacks, but many Israeli readers, who now feared for their own security, were enraged that the paper continued to cover the Palestinian point of view. It carried, without fail, Danny Rubenstein’s features from East Jerusalem, Amira Hass’s detailed reports on the daily life of occupation, and Gideon Levy’s columns of outrage. The letters decried a lack of national feeling and sympathy; Schocken was called “anti-Jewish,” “anti-Zionist,” and, inevitably, a “Nazi.” The paper began to lose thousands of readers to Yedioth Ahronoth and Maariv, tabloids that were determined to be sources of national solidarity and consolation.
During the second intifada, Amnon Dankner, who had once worked for Haaretz and now edited Maariv, wrote of his former paper, “Is it wrong to ask of reporters in a country that is in the midst of a difficult war to show a little more empathy for their people and their country?” Ben-Dror Yemeni, the editor of Maariv’s opinion page, called Levy one of the “propagandists for Hamas.” And a popular novelist, Irit Linur, wrote an open letter to the paper, saying, “Haaretz has reached the point where its anti-Zionism has become stupid and evil.” She went on, “I have reached the conclusion that you and I don’t live in the same place. A large and growing proportion of the reports and articles in your newspaper stink of the foreign press, which regards the State of Israel as a different, distant, and repulsive territory.”
Inside the newsroom, the atmosphere was only marginally less tense. The editor, Hanoch Marmari, was already privately at odds with Schocken over a business Web site that Schocken had decided to start, without consulting him. (“This was the first crack in the level of trust between Amos and me,” Marmari says.) Now Schocken and Marmari were arguing about the tone of Haaretz itself. They clashed in editorial meetings, with Marmari insisting that they were being coldhearted toward their own readership.
“It was also the constant dilemma: How do you edit a newspaper when your readers are on edge, and at the very end of their nerves?” Schocken recalled in a speech. “To what extent do you take this factor into your editorial decisions? We had in Haaretz the unbelievable situation when I, the publisher, complained to our editor that he was taking too much account of the readers—and he retorted, ‘I have a suicidal fanatic for a publisher.’ ”
In less stressful times, Marmari and Schocken had disagreed without incident. One night in the summer of 1997, Schocken noticed that Marmari, like every other editor in the world, was planning to lead the paper with the death of Princess Diana. Schocken loftily objected, saying, “This doesn’t seem very Haaretz.” Marmari informed the publisher that if they did not lead the paper with the Diana story they would distinguish themselves as fools. Schocken backed off. But during the turbulence of the second intifada no one ever backed off. The battles were frequent and legion. Marmari felt that Schocken was undermining his management of the paper.
“The integrity of the editorial staff was damaged,” Marmari told me. “There was a practical split between me and Amos. The editor lost his sovereignty.” Oddly, it was a conflict in which the editor seemed more concerned about alienating readers than the proprietor did. “Amos was displeased because I was less radical than him,” Marmari said. “I felt the paper might derail itself to the point of irrelevancy. Haaretz has the talent and the skills of the New York Times, but sometimes it becomes marginal and even ridiculous. . . . During the worst terror attacks, people were really terrified. I had to tell the staff that we could not just count the dead and injured and mourn the Palestinians. We also had to show empathy to the Israelis, regardless of who might be right.”
The paper’s managing editor, Yoel Esteron, wrote an editorial that defended Israel’s decision to act forcefully against terror; Amos Schocken disagreed. “Amos was advocating a far-left approach, an extreme-left approach to the Palestinian problem and many other issues,” Esteron told me. Not only was Schocken alienating readers—“it was against his own newspaper’s business interests.”
Gershom Schocken’s three children—Amos, Hillel, and Racheli—make up a majority of the board of directors, and Esteron and others told me that Racheli, in particular, criticized her brother repeatedly for spending too much money. “She was always shouting about staff and spending money and sending people abroad, saying, ‘You can use Reuters,’ this kind of bullshit,” Esteron recalled. Amos Schocken admitted, “My sister thinks I could run the business a little better. She thinks the paper is too big and that we have too many employees.”
In 2004, Schocken replaced Marmari with David Landau, a former editor at the Jerusalem Post. Landau, who was born in England, considered himself left-wing, somewhere in the range of the typical Haaretz staffer. But, in a newsroom dominated almost completely by secular Jews, he was an outlier. He wears a yarmulke and keeps the Sabbath. Unlike Marmari, Landau had no problem with Schocken’s strategy to put more and more resources into the new business section, which is called The Marker. Under the leadership of a young, hyper-ambitious editor named Guy Rolnik, The Marker brought a new, more youthful audience to Haaretz—one at least as interested in the high-tech industry as it is in the Palestinian issue—just as the worldwide newspaper crisis hit. The Marker, which can be bought separately, has helped save the paper. Rolnik has been especially good at publishing investigative pieces on what he calls the “Israeli oligarchs,” a small group of billionaires and their families who control much of the national economy.
But, while Landau conceded Rolnik his independence, he wound up having the same sort of political disputes with Schocken that his predecessor had. “I don’t want to see Amos compromise his ideals and values, but I do believe—and here is where I am out of kilter with the spirit of the current paper—you can give these political positions without alienating whole swaths of Israeli society,” Landau said. “You don’t have to soft-pedal your stance on the kind of racism or xenophobia or fascistic trends that are worryingly engulfing parts of Israeli society, but you can do it without casting yourself as antagonistic. There is a need in the paper’s rhetoric for a greater sophistication and empathy. The goal is to make the newspaper a place where people are being challenged but are also made to feel welcome.”
Amos Schocken’s anxieties and fever dreams resemble, in part, those of Donald Graham and Arthur Sulzberger. He cannot predict with absolute certainty that Haaretz will survive, that there will be a paper to pass on to the next generation. Schocken says that he and his brother and sister “did a good job of not blowing the place up after my father died—sometimes you see families where it all breaks loose after the founder dies. You wonder how it will be with the next generation. For us, I don’t know.” When I asked him if the family possessed the sort of cash reserves that would help protect Haaretz, and insure its independence, Schocken said that he would use the word amimut—ambiguity, opacity—which is the tactic the Israeli government uses when it deflects questions about its nuclear arsenal.
It is hard to see how the base of readers can grow. The secular, liberal readers who are willing to pay more than eight hundred dollars a year for a subscription live mainly in the greater Tel Aviv area and have a modest birth rate. The settlers read Makor Rishon, and the ultra-Orthodox read Hamodiya. “Middle Israel” reads Maariv, which is declining; Israel Hayom, a free tabloid that is owned by the right-wing casino magnate Sheldon Adelson; and Yedioth Ahronoth, which is owned by the Mozes family and is the dominant paper in the country.
The Mozes family—the Murdochs of Israel—is led by a mysteriously recessive figure, Arnon (Noni) Mozes, who is sometimes referred to as the most powerful man in Israel. With a circulation of more than two hundred and fifty thousand, Yedioth may be the biggest newspaper in the world relative to population outside of North Korea. It has a penchant for screaming headlines and sensational stories, but it also carries the work of the most influential columnist in the country, Nahum Barnea, and arguably its best investigative reporter, Ronen Bergman. (“Sometimes I think if I just hired those two guys all my competitive problems would be over,” Dov Alfon said.) The Mozes family also owns a group of local life-style magazines, a Web site called Ynet, a Russian-language paper, two printing plants, a publishing house, modelling agencies, and various cable outlets. Yedioth’s politics are all over the map, and it seems to place the greatest value on shifting with its readership.
Ideologically, Schocken has disdain for Mozes and Adelson, but he has startled his colleagues with a willingness to do business with both of them. In 1990, needing cash, Schocken secretly took a loan from the Mozes family. In 1998, he built a printing plant north of Tel Aviv, and his biggest printing client is Adelson’s right-wing giveaway. Adelson is an American who speaks no Hebrew but has tremendous clout in Israel. Schocken is unfazed. “In what way is it different from Salman Schocken buying a newspaper in Israel?” he said, with a shrug. Schocken allowed that Adelson does not seem terribly well informed, particularly about the Palestinians. At their most recent meeting, he brought Adelson a gift: a copy of Walid Khalidi’s “All That Remains,” a history of the hundreds of Palestinian villages that were destroyed or absorbed into Israel after 1948.
Schocken even prints Besheva, a weekly read mainly by religious settlers in the West Bank. When he went to an Independence Day gathering in the settlement of Kedumim, the atmosphere reminded him, at first, of “the good old days of the kibbutzim.” But when the mayor, a notorious firebrand named Daniella Weiss, spoke, he said, “it was like a lunatic asylum all of a sudden.”
In the eyes of the Haaretz journalists, there is a deep division within Schocken, between the businessman, cagey and even ruthless, and the idealist, who hardly cares that his convictions are so distant from the center of Israeli public opinion. “Amos is a complex man,” Dov Alfon told me, “both a political radical and a strikebreaker, a real lefty and at the same time the scion of an aristocratic family, and a bit of a snob about it, who thinks Haaretz is not for everyone.”
In 2006, Schocken sold a twenty-five-per-cent share in the Haaretz Group to a German publishing enterprise, DuMont Schauberg, which has a Nazi past. As we left a restaurant one night and headed to his car, I asked if it bothered him that so many people accused him of “selling out to Nazis.”
Again the enigmatic smile.
“Look at my car,” he said. Schocken drives an Audi. “Germany is an ally of Israel now. Almost too good an ally.”
He opened the door and got in.
Aluf Benn, Haaretz’s opinion editor, is trim and quick, and his bald head gleams like a polished bean. His job is to maintain a sense of rigor and balance in his pages, while preserving the over-all sense of an opposition paper. An experienced diplomatic reporter, he is also an editorial envoy, dealing not only with the likes of Hass and Levy but with columnists well to his right, like Yisrael Harel, a leader of the settler movement, and Moshe Arens, a hawkish former defense minister. (One staffer called Harel and Arens the paper’s “shabbes goys.”)
Benn is well schooled in the history of the Israeli-Arab conflict, but, unlike Alfon and others at the top of the masthead, he says that the dominant problem of Israeli society is not the Palestinian question but the drift toward tribalism—a drift that, incidentally, bodes ill for the paper. “Look at it politically,” he says. “Thirty years ago, after the 1981 election, the two major parties”—Labor and Likud—“had almost all the Knesset. Now there are many more small parties. The seculars are more secular, the national religious people are more both, and the Arabs are more explicit in their political expression. The ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs are coming out of their villages and towns, and they also want their share of the pie. With the Russian immigration in the nineties, you had an influx of people who saw themselves as more developed than the absorbing society. They tripled the number of doctors, engineers, and chess players. They are very secular—many are not even Jewish by rabbinic law—and they changed society, too. This is the center of the political debate. ”
A glance at the paper made it clear that Benn had a point. There were articles about the conflicts between secular and religious populations; about demonstrations in Tel Aviv demanding civil rights for African immigrants; about powerful rabbis making racist statements; about the addiction to cheap foreign labor (“The streets of south Tel Aviv look like a slave market in the morning,” one article began).
Earlier that day, I’d attended an editorial meeting at which a liberal rabbi and a textile magnate came to discuss their plan to get Orthodox schools, which receive state funding, to teach boys subjects beyond the Torah and the Talmud. “The people who came in today are concerned with a society torn apart,” Benn said. The Israeli educational system is fractured: there are state schools, which are secular; state religious schools, which are identified with the settlements; independent ultra-Orthodox schools, which teach boys only religious subjects; and Arab schools, which are mainly poor.
Benn runs countless columns on the Palestinians, the settlements, and the future of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but when the degree of “cross-border fire” is low, as it is now, the discussion fades. Israelis talk about their internal problems, as if the conflict had somehow disappeared behind . . . a wall. “In periods like today, do you see any Palestinians?” Benn said sarcastically. “No one goes to Jenin and Nablus. So where are these Palestinians? They are aliens, nonexistent people. The issue is seen as something to clear with the United States.”
Since the talks between Arafat and Barak collapsed, a decade ago, mainstream public opinion in Israel has become a paradox: majority support for the idea of a two-state solution, but a generalized distrust of Palestinian intentions. Middle Israel feels that it left Lebanon, in 2000, and got rockets from Hezbollah; left Gaza, in 2005, and got rockets from Hamas. The peace camp, despite occasional demonstrations and displays of vitality, is depleted. And so where Haaretz fits into the Israeli future is a serious question.
There is a price for writing your mind, in Israel as elsewhere. Zeev Sternhell, a historian of the origins of fascism, nearly paid the greatest price of all. Sternhell is in his mid-seventies and teaches at Hebrew University. Almost the entire staff of Haaretz lives in Tel Aviv or its northern suburbs. Sternhell, a regular columnist, lives in the Old Katamon district of Jerusalem.
One morning this winter, Sternhell greeted me at the door of his modest apartment. He was born in Poland to an affluent secular Jewish family. After Operation Barbarossa, the family was sent to live in the ghetto. As a small boy, Sternhell saw other children falling dead from the trees after Nazi soldiers spotted them hiding there and opened fire. When he was seven, the Nazis took his mother and sister to a concentration camp, where they died. An uncle smuggled him to Lvov, in western Ukraine. For the remainder of the war, he lived in hiding in the house of a Polish Army officer; he pretended to be a Catholic, serving as an altar boy. The end of the war did not erase the terror: Sternhell remembers a Polish woman shouting at Jews, “Filthy animals, you came out of your holes, too bad they didn’t finish you off!” When he emigrated to Israel, in 1951, at the age of sixteen, the transformation was, he says, “metaphysical.” In Europe during the war, Sternhell told his Haaretz colleague Ari Shavit, the Jews “were human dust. They were people who were shot in a way that cats and dogs are not shot. . . . And now, just a few years later, the Jew becomes a full and complete being.”
Sternhell told me that he became increasingly radical in the nineteen-eighties, during the war in Lebanon and the first intifada. “Our basic failure in 1967 was not to understand that what was good and legitimate until 1949 had ceased to be after that,” Sternhell told me. “Why was it O.K. to settle the upper Galilee and not the Golan? Why Ramla and not Ramallah? That was the basic question. If Zionism is the conquest of the land, what is sacred about the Green Line?”
Sternhell was one of the founders of the Peace Now movement and has been both celebrated and denounced for his fierce columns in Haaretz on the anti-democratic trends in Israel. In 2008, on the sixtieth anniversary of the state, Sternhell won its highest honor, the Israel Prize, and the announcement infuriated settlers, who claimed that he supported armed insurrection. Sternhell did no such thing, but he had written in Haaretz that Palestinians had no recourse other than armed resistance. “My intention was not to say that they could kill civilians,” Sternhell recalled. “No. The important thing is that I said the settlers’ movement was both illegal and illegitimate, and the Palestinian resistance to settlements was understandable.”
At around 1:30 A.M. on September 25, 2008, Sternhell went to his front door to lock it before going to bed. As he opened the outer door, a pipe bomb exploded. He and his wife had just returned from Paris, and so the hall was filled with luggage, which shielded Sternhell from the worst of the blast. He suffered only minor injuries. “The nasty thing in that story is that this was pure terror,” he said. “It could have been my wife or my younger daughter, who brought us in from the airport.” A year later, the police arrested a religious Florida-born settler named Yaakov (Jack) Teitel, who was tacking up leaflets in an Orthodox neighborhood of the city praising the murder of men at a gay bar in Tel Aviv. The police discovered that Teitel had also killed a Palestinian shepherd in the West Bank and an Arab cabdriver.
Sternhell sees the attempt on his life as a symptom of anti-democratic tendencies in Israeli political life. In his view, fully a third of the Knesset is “infected” with such views, and he compares the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and the interior minister, Eli Yishai, the leader of the religious party Shas, to the extreme nationalists of Europe. “The last time politicians holding views similar to theirs were in power in post-World War Two Western Europe was in Franco’s Spain,” Sternhell said.
“I still am a Zionist—a super Zionist,” he went on. “That has never changed for me, you know. If I didn’t want to keep Israel as a state of the Jews—a state in which the Jews are a majority and enjoy sovereignty—I would have lived elsewhere. I came here when I was sixteen because I wanted to participate in this story. This was a Jewish renaissance. And I wanted to be part of that. That was the meaning of Zionism for me. If the result is to be the end of the Jewish state, by the creation of an apartheid state or even of a binational state, both of these solutions are unacceptable. This would be the end of it.”
In the last years of his life, Amos Elonlived with his wife in a villa in the Tuscan hills. He’d left Haaretz; he’d left Israel. In an interview with Ari Shavit, he explained why he now lived in exile: “Nothing has changed here in the last forty years. The problems are exactly the same as they always were. The solutions were already known back then. But no one paid attention to them. And I found myself repeating them. I found myself saying the same thing all the time. . . . I was a lone voice in the wilderness.” Elon died in Italy, in 2009, an exhausted intellectual.
Some readers and former staffers who have grown disenchanted with Haaretz believe that, in a sense, the paper has become an aging exile in its own land. “There is a community of readers around Haaretz who think that if it disappears that essentially means that Israel is going down the drain,” said Shmuel Rosner, a former head of the news division and a former chief U.S. correspondent, who was fired after Landau was replaced. “The people who feel that way are richer and more educated than the rest, but also older. I don’t think the new generation feels this. There aren’t that many young people who think they can’t live without Haaretz.”
Rosner, who is decidedly more conservative than his ex-colleagues, rails against Haaretz, but, like so many former staffers and current rivals, he concedes that it is still the most authoritative paper in the country. Nahum Barnea, the popular columnist at Yedioth, spent a long time describing to me how “out of touch” Haaretz was with public opinion, but then admitted that he begins his morning with it, not with his own paper.
In a small and tribalized country, Haaretz is an unlikely survivor—defiant, heterodox, oppositional, unafraid to investigate everything from an Austrian billionaire suspected of bribing Israeli politicians to the military’s abuses in Gaza. Since taking charge of the paper, three years ago, Dov Alfon, who started out as a cultural correspondent, has raised the investigative metabolism of the paper. The complaints can be vehement. Read the Talkbacks under the columns on Haaretz.com; they’ve got to be among the most vicious on the Internet. But “for many readers Haaretz is not a newspaper—it is something more,” Alfon told me one afternoon as we ate lunch. “I get readers writing in saying, ‘If Haaretz closes, it won’t make sense to live in Israel anymore. The disappearance of Haaretz would kill the democratic state and the self-critical state.’ There is not one journalist on the staff who says, ‘What am I doing here?’ We have a mission—to tell the truth to the Israeli public and explain the consequences of these truths. I’m not even sure all of our subscribers want to hear that.” Later, he added, “Haaretz alone cannot guarantee Israeli democracy.”
But it can try. After Anshel Pfeffer returned to Israel from Egypt and Mubarak fell, he wrote a scathing column comparing the Muslim Brotherhood favorably to several influential right-wing rabbis who spout anti-Arab venom and have considerable power in the Knesset. The Brotherhood’s aims are “abhorrent,” he wrote, “but it is the duty of Egyptian democracy supporters to fight them. Our job is to deal with our own religious fundamentalists and their despicable views.”
The fate of Haaretz, its future and its independence, depends absolutely on Amos Schocken. “Amos is a very private, discreet, careful man, and his personal commitment to the paper is total,” David Landau, who is now at work on a biography of Ariel Sharon, said, “but he is aware that he is only a link in the chain. He cannot leave the next generation bereft of its fortune. His over-all strategy is quality. He believes that you create a niche market, and, in doing so, you strengthen the loyalty of your readers and the advertisers and create a sense of belonging in them. It is not a mass product.”
In the nineties, when Schocken was trying to conceive a slogan for a marketing campaign, he suggested “Haaretz: Not a Newspaper for Everyone!”
The advertising executives looked at Schocken as they might have regarded a deranged intruder.
They finally settled on “Haaretz: Not What You Thought.”
One night, when Schocken and I were talking in his office, I asked him if he ever imagined what the effect would be if Haaretz folded or if he had to sell it to an owner with different principles. He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. His impassive expression, though, never changed. “The ability to publish a newspaper that does not serve any outside agenda, except what its editors believe, is in the best interests of the country,” he said. “If we weren’t around, it would be . . . sad.” Finally, he could not resist a local metaphor. Sometimes, he said, shouldering the burden of Haaretz “is like carrying a cross.” ♦