Commentary Magazine


Trashing Israel Daily

On April 2, an Israeli court convicted a member of the Palestinian security forces of the murder of 25-year-old Asher Palmer and his one-year-old son, Yonatan. The assailant had thrown a large stone through the windshield of Asher’s car, causing a fatal crash. By chance, that same day the West Bank settlement Yakir honored an Arab medic who had saved the life of a two-year-old girl after her mother’s car crashed in a similar stoning incident. The following morning, an Israeli newspaper carried a column by one of its star journalists implying that of the two Arabs connected to the crimes, the killer was the one who had acted properly while the medic was a sell-out.

According to the column, “throwing stones [at Israelis] is the birthright and duty” of Palestinians. This right, although perhaps not the duty, belonged not only to Palestinians living “in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza, but also within Israel’s recognized borders.” Fulfillment of the Palestinian “right and duty” was lagging, the columnist lamented, because it was insufficiently encouraged by Palestinian officials due to “inertia, laziness, flawed reasoning, misunderstanding and…personal gains.”

The newspaper that carried this column was Israel’s most prestigious: Haaretz. Like the New York Times or Le Monde or the prestige newspapers of many other Western countries, it is left-of-center. But Haaretz is more politically engaged than any of them. The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, approvingly calls it “easily the most liberal newspaper in Israel and arguably the most important liberal institution in [the] country.”

That Haaretz is critical of the government is an old story: “Golda Meir once said that the only government that Haaretz ever supported was the British Mandate,” Remnick wrote. But since the early 1990s, when management of the paper was assumed by Amos Schocken, it has moved further to the left—so much so that it has made itself a liability to the ceaseless struggle for survival of “the land” that its name evokes.

The author of the column exhorting stone-throwing was Haaretz’s leading correspondent in the Palestinian territories, Amira Hass. Her writings, together with those of two other reporter-columnists, Gideon Levy and Akiva Eldar, constitute the paper’s signature. Hass has chosen to make her home among the Palestinians for the better part of two decades; three years in Gaza, the balance in Ramallah. In a profile in the Independent, the sharply anti-Israel Robert Fisk adulated: “Amira Hass is among the bravest of reporters, her daily column in Haaretz ablaze with indignation at the way her own country, Israel, is mistreating and killing the Palestinians. Only when you meet her, however, do you realize the intensity—the passion—of her work.”

The passion, as she explains in a memoir, was imbibed with her mother’s milk: “My parents’ memories [were] told to me since my childhood and absorbed by me until they became my own….Holocaust survivors, Communists, southeastern European Jews living in Israel….My parents’ heroes were my heroes; the scenes engraved on their memories were stored in mine.” Her mother survived Bergen-Belsen, and Hass sees some kind of analogy in the plight of the Palestinians. She explains the core motivation of her work is to avoid indifference to suffering such as her mother observed in German women toward the plight of Jewish prisoners.

Her use of the expression “southeastern European Jews living in Israel”—rather than, say, “Romanian-born Israelis”—is not accidental. Her Communist parents’ refusal to embrace their new land was sufficiently demonstrative for Amira to grasp at a young age. “I was five when I asked them why they had come to Israel; after all, they had never been Zionists,” she writes. Even as the world changed, they apparently never reconsidered their ideological position, and she has remained as faithful to it as they did. She told Remnick in 2011: “I was what you call a ‘red-diaper baby.’ My tribe is Leftists, not liberal Zionists.” And as if to underscore the constancy of her views, she added a gratuitous swipe at a leading symbol of the Israeli peace movement—David Grossman, perhaps Israel’s foremost novelist. “David Grossman and the rest are always waking up too late. That is their hallmark—understanding too late.”

While taking a dim view of Israelis, Hass feels profound admiration for Palestinians. She contrasts the two peoples:

The Palestinians are heroes….To live this way and remain sane—that’s heroism….[T]he Israeli dictatorship over the Palestinians…is the champion of self-righteousness and arrogance [and] hypocrisy….Instead of going crazy with rage, the Palestinians know that these characteristics will hurt the Israelis themselves.

Anyone who has been harmed by the Israeli dictatorship feels alone, weak, angry and desperate. But every [Palestinian] family in its own way cultivates its humanity.

Every family? Given the hundreds of documented cases of “honor killings”; of murders of alleged “collaborators,” usually without proof; of killings and torture of Fatah members by Hamas and vice versa; given, too, the notorious brutality of the Palestinian security forces; the lionization of suicide bombers and others who take the lives of Israeli civilians; and the mass, spontaneous demonstrations of joy over the news of the September 11 attacks on America—given, in short, the abundant displays of egregious inhumanity, one can only conclude that Hass sees what she wants to see or what her ideological blinders lead her to see. This is not a sound qualification for a journalist.

Unsurprisingly, Hass’s reports have been challenged many times on the facts, often for taking Palestinian accounts at face value and also for twists of her own invention, as in her references to “Jewish-only roads” in the West Bank. There are no “Jewish-only” roads. Due to terrorist attacks, some West Bank roads are restricted to cars with Israeli plates, but these are open to all Israelis including Arabs and other non-Jews. Barring Palestinian vehicles from certain arteries may be harsh, but it is not racist, as Hass wanted readers to believe.

The second of the paper’s trio of columnists, Gideon Levy, boasts that “Noam Chomsky once wrote to me that I was like the early Jewish prophets.” But whereas the prophets’ hallmark was righteousness, and their goal was to summon Israel back to the true path, Levy’s hallmark is self-righteousness, and the Israel he describes is beyond redemption.

He numbers himself among “the lone few keeping the flickering flame of humanity burning” in the country, who for their pains are “accused, convicted and punished.” Naturally, he rages against the political right; but its members are not alone in villainy. “The political ‘center’ is hollow and imaginary,” he writes.  “The damage they do is no less serious…they are accomplices to a crime.” Israelis, he believes, are suffused with “racism.” If they reject this characterization, that is only because “most Israelis…are masters of the lie, denial and repression.” They “deflect their fears and woes onto the foreigner….That’s how it was in Europe in the 1930s, and that’s how it is with us now.”

Israel, in other words, is reminiscent of Nazi Germany. And if the country appears to be a democracy, that’s not because its people want it to be one. What Levy believes Israelis really want is to live in George Orwell’s 1984:

Let us imagine the dream-country of most Israelis—without criticism, neither from within nor from without. It speaks in one voice and is eternally united, with devotion and cohesion; all-Jewish, that goes without saying. It stands unanimously behind its government….There [are] no human rights organizations or peace movements, no nonprofit associations and no critical reports that are published here, or, heaven forbid, abroad. Its press never criticizes, never exposes, never investigates, publishing nothing but praise and admiration for the government and the state.

The pro-Israeli media-monitoring group, Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), has documented numerous factual errors in Levy’s reporting. He tripled the number of Palestinian casualties on one occasion, halved the number of Israeli victims on another, characterized Hezbollah fighters as “civilians” on another, and so on. Late in 2012, Levy embarrassed himself and his newspaper with a story that, in his telling, confirmed his dark take on Israelis. Haaretz carried a page-one headline: “Survey: Most Israeli Jews Support an Apartheid Regime in Israel.”

According to Levy’s report, 58 percent of Israeli Jews “already believe that Israel practices apartheid,” even while a large majority says it is satisfied with life in Israel. Most glaring, “69 percent objects to giving…Palestinians the right to vote if Israel annexes the West Bank.” This was the essence of the South African system: Blacks were citizens but not allowed to vote. Levy glossed his article in an accompanying column titled, “Apartheid Without Shame or Guilt.” Here he gave full throat to his “prophetic” voice. This survey, he said,

lays bare an image of Israeli society, and the picture is a very, very sick one. Now it is not just critics at home and abroad, but Israelis themselves who are openly, shamelessly, and guiltlessly defining themselves as nationalistic racists.

We’re racists, the Israelis are saying, we practice apartheid and we even want to live in an apartheid state.

Weaknesses in the story were exposed within a day, but not before Levy’s version had been echoed in the European press. For one thing, the poll had been commissioned and designed by a leftist advocacy group. When asked about the poll’s ideologically driven cast, a spokesman for the group replied: “So let the Right do its own poll to refute the results.” What was problematic about this was that the questions used the word apartheid in an unusual way. The pollster acknowledged that the term appeared to be insufficiently understood by respondents. But more important, the critical finding that 69 percent would deny Palestinians the vote if the West Bank were annexed to Israel was reported without its essential aspect—namely, that respondents opposed annexation. 

The poll did not ask directly about annexation except about annexing Israeli settlements. These cover less than 10 percent of the West Bank’s landmass, and every Israeli government has said that at least some would be annexed to Israel in any peace deal with the Palestinians. The real news in the poll was that a preponderance of Israelis opposed this. By a plurality of 48 to 38 percent, respondents said they were against annexing the settlements. If a plurality opposed annexing even settlements, then it is virtually certain that an overwhelming majority, had they been asked, would have opposed annexing the entire West Bank. Respondents were then asked the hypothetical question whether, in the event of annexation of the entire West Bank, they would favor giving Palestinians the vote. Sixty-nine percent said no. This implied nothing more than an unwillingness to live under Arab rule. It was, in short, a meaningless exercise.

Signing Anew, the activist group that designed the poll, had received key support from the New Israel Fund, a left-leaning philanthropic organization that draws prestige from the large sums of money it distributes and from serving as the channel for the Ford Foundation in Israel. The New Israel Fund hastened to disown both the poll and the group that sponsored it, and its spokesman took to the Daily Beast within a day of the Haaretz story’s publication to denounce Levy’s account: “[It] seems to amount to a misrepresentation of the data. The poll actually shows that Israelis want to separate themselves from the West Bank.”

Hass and Levy are unabashed about their ideological slant; Akiva Eldar, the third of Haaretz’s exemplars, expresses open pride. During the second intifada, the three were taken to task by Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, for failing the “lynch test.” That is, Barnea charged that they were unable to condemn Palestinian actions unambiguously, even when Palestinians lynched Israelis, as they had done to two reservists who got lost in Ramallah. He likened their devotion to the Palestinian cause to John Reed’s devotion to Bolshevism, saying their support was “absolute,” adding: “It does not derive from feelings about human rights but instead other motives. Some are prisoners of love of Palestine. Some of their hatred of Zion….They have a mission.”

In an article in the Nation in 2008, Eldar invoked Barnea’s accusation, and rather than deny it, he reveled in it. “I admit to being guilty as charged,” he wrote. “I am a journalist with a mission, and also no small amount of passion. Every Israeli with a conscience, in particular one who watches reality from up close on a daily basis, cannot write about the occupation from an objective observer’s neutral point of view.”

One of Eldar’s recurrent themes is to liken Israeli practices to South Africa’s apartheid. In 2004, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced plans for Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank, Eldar wrote: “South Africa will be very interested in the Israeli disengagement plan published yesterday. The political, military, and economic aspects of the plan for the Gaza Strip and the enclave in the northern West Bank are amazingly similar to the homelands, one of the last inventions of the white minority in South Africa to perpetuate its rule over the black majority.” In 2010, he wrote: “It is hard to find differences between white rule in South Africa and Israeli rule in the territories.” And in 2012: “In the territory under Israel’s jurisdiction a situation of apartheid exists. A Jewish minority rules over an Arab majority.”

Eldar also boasts that “John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt cite me in their controversial book, The Israel Lobby, as one of the Israeli journalists whose criticism of the occupation is even sharper than their own.” The book argued that American policy toward the Middle East was manipulated to Israel’s advantage and America’s disadvantage by the machinations of an immensely powerful “lobby.” To top it off, it accused American Jews holding high office of using their positions for Israel’s benefit. And what authority did they cite for this? None other than Akiva Eldar. They quoted his 2002 column in which he had charged that Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, who served in sensitive positions in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush “are walking a fine line between their loyalty to American governments…and Israeli interests.” 

Although Walt and Mearsheimer’s book sold enough copies to make them rich, it generally received harsh reviews in the American press, including from papers that are critical of Israeli policy. The New York Times Book Review, the daily New York Times (and International Herald Tribune), the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Foreign Affairs, among others, gave it bad notices. One paper, however, that gave it a favorable review was Haaretz. In fact, it did so twice. Walt and Mearsheimer’s effusion had been published first as a “white paper” that was widely criticized as scurrilous and anti-Semitic, although they claimed to be “philo-Semites.” Johns Hopkins University’s characteristically circumspect professor Eliot A. Cohen put the matter this way:

If by anti-Semitism one means obsessive and irrationally hostile beliefs about Jews; if one accuses them of disloyalty, subversion or treachery, of having occult powers and of participating in secret combinations that manipulate institutions and governments; if one systematically selects everything unfair, ugly or wrong about Jews as individuals or a group and equally systematically suppresses any exculpatory information—why, yes, this paper is anti-Semitic.

Haaretz’s response was an op-ed by Daniel Levy, a leftist Israeli living in the United States, that defended the “white paper” and attacked its critics. When the book came out a year later, Haaretz might have shown its own neutrality toward it by commissioning a review with a different take. Instead, the editors went back to Levy, implying endorsement of his views. For this second shot, they allowed him 3,000-plus words to amplify his polemic against Walt and Mearsheimer’s critics and to render this summary judgment: “This is a difficult and challenging book. It is also an important book that deserves to be keenly debated.”

As reflected in the editors’ decision to give favorable treatment to The Israel Lobby, Haaretz’s caustic attitude toward Israel is not limited to the Hass-Levy-Eldar trio. For example, columnist Merav Michaeli wrote in 2012: “Here in Israel, we…have the deepest contempt for peace. We scorn any idea of agreements or cooperation; we disdain all solutions that are proposed.” And in 2010: “Hatred and racism were always here; they are now emerging more loudly.” Another take on Israeli “racism” by columnist Niva Lanir suggested that Israel might be on to adopting its own Nuremberg Laws.

Haaretz does run guest op-eds from a range of opinions including those contrary to its editorial position, and it even has some regular columnists from the right side of the spectrum, rather than the left. But these are not sufficient to counter its dominant thrust. Remnick quotes a member of the paper’s staff who quipped that regular contributors Moshe Arens, a former Likud defense minster, and Israel Harel, once the leader of the settlers’ movement, serve as Haaretz’s “shabbos goys.”

Columns are one thing, reportage another. Haaretz continues to hold a leading position as a news source. It is, however, nearly impossible to maintain views with the passion of Eldar, Hass, and Levy without its coloring the paper’s coverage—especially when the views and passion are shared by the paper’s owner. The page-one treatment of Levy’s misrepresentation of the dubious “apartheid poll” was one example. Another example was a 2009 Haaretz exposé of alleged war crimes by Israeli soldiers during the 2008–2009 war in Gaza. 

As with Levy on the “apartheid poll,” a single journalist reported the story in news columns and simultaneously offered commentary in the opinion pages. In this case the journalist was Amos Harel (not to be confused with rightist columnist Israel Harel). “Israeli forces killed Palestinian civilians under permissive rules of engagement and intentionally destroyed their property, say soldiers who fought in the offensive,” read Harel’s lead. The accounts came from a group of soldiers who gathered at the invitation of the head of a pre-military academy who had recorded and then leaked their recollections. Naturally, the story echoed throughout the international news media with the help of the New York Times, which picked it up the next day on its own front page.

Harel assured readers that “the soldiers are not lying, for the simple reason that they have no reason to.” And he drew a broad generalization from their accounts: “It seems that what the soldiers have to say is actually the way things happened in the field, most of the time.”

The next day, accompanying more excerpts from the soldiers’ discussion, Haaretz ran a second opinion piece by Harel, this one criticizing the army for its initial reaction. The military had revealed that the man who had organized, recorded, and leaked the soldiers’ meeting had served a month’s military imprisonment for refusing an order to guard a religious ritual by settlers in the West Bank—and he might have an ideological ax to grind. Plus, a spokesman reported that the soldier who had recounted the most explosive incident—the deliberate shooting of a mother and two children—had been summoned by his brigade commander to whom he had explained that he had heard of such an event but had not witnessed it.

Harel suggested that the army was remiss in releasing these bits of data challenging the accuracy of the report, and he took a shot at the response of news outlets other than Haaretz: “It is disappointing—if not surprising—to see the enthusiasm with which major news outlets adopted IDF claims.” Haaretz carried another Harel story two days later, headlined “Testimonies on IDF Misconduct in Gaza Keep Rolling In,” but the article itself reported no testimonies whatsoever. It contained only quotes from a film clip of a blustery pre-action security briefing and Harel’s own assertion that “a number of officers told Haaretz…that the testimonies [in the original report] did not surprise them.” The officers were not named.

Twelve days after its first revelation, Haaretz reported that the military had completed its formal investigation and concluded that the reports of killings were all based on rumor. The military advocate general “said it was unfortunate that the soldiers, who discussed their Gaza experiences in [a] private…session that was later leaked verbatim to the media, had been careless about accuracy.” What had made the story sensational was the report that soldiers had attested to egregious misconduct that they had committed or seen firsthand, but there turned out not to have been a single case of that from this group.

Even a couple of days before the military investigation ended, the New York Times had run a lengthy story intended to counterbalance its initial report and revealing the questions that had arisen about the soldiers’ assertions. Haaretz did not run anything similar, although it did carry a moving piece by its correspondent Anshel Pfeffer, making clear his own anguish when the paper’s stories damage Israel’s international standing. Noting that the paper had “never made a secret of its opposition to the occupation,” he explained that “for the last 40 years, Haaretz has seen the promotion of this debate as its central role.”

But should a newspaper, especially one that purports to be a country’s newspaper of record, have a role that comes before reporting the news fairly, objectively, honestly? And has Haaretz aimed merely to promote a debate? The answer to the latter question was embodied in the person of David Landau, who edited the paper’s English edition starting in 1997 and then the Hebrew from 2004 until 2008. In 2005, when CAMERA, emailed Haaretz to request that it correct Amira Hass’s references to “Jewish-only roads” in the West Bank, an assistant editor inadvertently sent back a message that had been intended for internal circulation at the paper. The misdirected email read, “We have a quasi ‘policy,’ on orders of David [Landau], to ignore this organization and all of its complaints, including not responding to telephone messages and screening calls from [its] director.” Landau justified his position by claiming that CAMERA had a “vendetta.” But even if this were so, and there is no evidence that it was, the issue was whether or not CAMERA’s complaints were valid. In this case, for example, they clearly were.

Landau caused a stir in 2007 when fellow journalists revealed, and Landau later confirmed, that he had told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at a private dinner that Israel was a “failed state” that needed to be “raped” by the United States in order to make peace with the Palestinians. Landau also vented his dim assessment of Israel in a 2010 column, saying: “Israel has slid almost inadvertently a long way down the slope that leads to McCarthyism and racism.” Going even further by allusion, he added: “As history, both ancient and more recent, teaches us, there is another component in the inculcation of a whole society with xenophobia. It’s the big lie.” By ancient history, he explained he meant Pharaoh; the reference to “recent” history was left unexplained, but the term big lie was an obvious allusion to the Nazi regime.

The person primarily responsible for Haaretz’s adversarial stance toward Israel was not, however, Landau but rather the paper’s owner, Amos Schocken. He had inherited it from his father and grandfather, and the legacy seems to have included an ambivalent relationship with the Jewish state. His grandfather, Salman, who had fled from Germany to Palestine, had been, according to Remnick, a supporter of Brit Shalom, an organization of Jews favoring a bi-national state rather than a Jewish one. The paper passed to Salman’s son, Gershom (née Gustav), who once wrote an essay about the need to remove the religious prohibition on intermarriage so as to encourage the emergence of a homogeneous Israeli nationality to supersede those of Jew and Arab. This seems to have been regarded as a kind of signature idea of his, since Haaretz chose to reprint it in order to memorialize him on the 20th anniversary of his death. Gershom’s son, Amos, acquired the paper upon his father’s death in 1990 and has given it editorial direction since then.

Occasionally, Amos Schocken has contributed opinion pieces, such as a 2007 column that commemorated the state’s 60th anniversary by urging that it replace its national anthem, Hatikvah, because it speaks of the Jewish people’s longing for Zion and thus is impossible for “an Arab citizen [to] identify with.” In 2011, he devoted a lengthy column to the problem of “Israeli apartheid,” which he said was shielded by “the power of the Jewish lobby” in the United States, and, apparently oblivious to the irony, he accused his political adversaries of resorting to “slander.”

Schocken’s main impact, however, comes from his management, not his columns. The first editor he chose was Hanoch Marmari. In The Jewish State (2000), Yoram Hazony sharply criticized Marmari as a post-Zionist, instancing an essay in which Marmari had called for repeal of the Law of Return, which grants automatic Israeli citizenship to any Jew who immigrates. But the second intifada evoked a patriotic response in Marmari that set him and Schocken apart. As bombs slaughtered Israelis in buses and pizzerias, Marmari shaped coverage sensitive to the national mood, prompting Schocken to “complain…to our editor that he was taking too much account of the readers,” as Schocken himself put it, realizing the paradox. Marmari’s take on their rift was similar: “Amos was displeased because I was less radical than him. I felt the paper might derail itself to the point of irrelevancy.” Marmari was fired and replaced by Landau, who seemed akin to Schocken in his radicalism. But even Landau in the end proved not radical enough. He explained to Remnick:

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.

Landau was replaced in 2011, but this time Schocken did not look for someone even more radical. Rather he promoted one of the paper’s longtime reporters, Aluf Benn, who did not have as sharp an ideological profile as his predecessors.

If Schocken intended by this to change the direction of Haaretz, that has not been apparent in its pages. Perhaps he concluded that he could set the tone as publisher without needing an equally opinionated editor. Thus, when Hass’s exhortation to rock-throwing caused an uproar in Israel, Schocken himself took to the airwaves to defend her point. “Sometimes you have to fight violence with violence,” he allowed.

When observers call Haaretz “liberal,” they are using that label in an expansive way, as when American journalists apply it to the likes of the unrepentant former Weatherman Bill Ayers. There is, of course, a camp in Israel that might be called “liberal,” as we Americans usually use that term, or more aptly, moderate left. It is centered in the Labor Party and includes a fluid array of other parties close to Labor that are critical of some or many of the West Bank settlements and that favor more forthcoming terms in negotiations with the Palestinians than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to offer. Historically, it might be said to include as well the original Peace Now movement that formed in 1978 to pressure then Prime Minister Menachem Begin not to miss the chance for peace with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and that protested against the extension of the 1982 war in Lebanon all the way to Beirut and the carnage that followed.

But Haaretz under Schocken’s direction and exemplified by Hass and Levy and Eldar represents something else again: the Israeli version of what has been called in America the “adversary culture.” In Israel, in addition to Haaretz, it includes also such “new historians” as Ilan Pappé and Avi Shlaim, such advocacy groups as B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, and such public intellectuals as Uri Avnery, Avraham Burg and Meron Benvenisti. This culture rests on a worldview that finds one’s own country to be the embodiment of all that is wrong and evil, akin to apartheid South Africa or Nazi Germany or any other symbol of unredeemed villainy. Do Palestinians throw rocks that kill Israeli infants? They are, per Schocken, only “fight[ing] violence with violence,” or only, per Hass, doing their “duty.” No doubt, were Israel not to harm them first they would be as humane and pacific as their brethren in the surrounding countries.

America’s adversary culture has mostly wafted off into the ether, and with the last existential threat to America having disappeared with the Cold War, who knows or cares whether traces of it are still to be found? Israel, on the other hand, is, alas, not yet beyond existential threats. And for those who wish its destruction, Haaretz has made itself a source not only of ready ammunition but also of encouragement and even justification. 

About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a frequent contributor to Commentary, is a fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He has just completed a book on how the world turned against Israel, to be published by Encounter in 2014, from which this is adapted




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