The traveler who likes to orient himself in new surroundings by glancing through a sheaf of local newspapers is likely to find it tough going in Israel, even if he is up on contemporary Hebrew journalese; for the organs of a dozen political parties, and of a dozen immigrant groups of different backgrounds, all seem to have quite varying notions of what is newsworthy and why. Ernest Stock, who spent his first year out of the Columbia University School of Journalism working in Israel as a writer on the Jerusalem Post and correspondent for the United Press, offers here a brief tour through Israel’s journalistic maze, in which we learn a good deal about the press, and not a little about the new state and its politics.
In Israel today, as in no other country, the old dictum might well be changed to read, “Show me your press, and I will tell you what you are.”
First of all, in the churning melting pot that is Israel in 1952, to read a Hebrew newspaper at all is one unfailing sign that one is no longer a mere greenhorn but a full-fledged Israeli, a firmly rooted member of the community. If the newcomer is young and diligent, it may take only a few months until he has acquired enough linguistic proficiency to pass the threshold. But often it takes years, or it never comes to pass at all. For reading a newspaper requires far more skill than merely speaking the language. Everyday spoken Hebrew—not unlike spoken English—is a kind of “basic Hebrew” consisting of perhaps a hundred roots and a set of conjunctions, prefixes, and suffixes. In good newspaper writing several times that number of roots are employed.
Further, when you note what Hebrew paper the man sitting in the bus is reading, you can tell which one of the political-economic-religious groups that make up the many-stranded community he has aligned himself with—and nine out of ten Israelis, even among the newcomers, have not failed to make a choice. The bus driver who pulls Al Hamishmar out of his pocket between runs ipso facto belongs to Mapam and is probably reading all about “American imperialism.” The kibbutznik reading Hatzofeh is without doubt a member of a religious settlement, and the woman who leaves Kol Ha’am behind her on the train is no less a Communist than her counterpart who leaves the Daily Worker in the New York subway. A reader of the independent Ha’aretz, on the other hand, demonstrates his adherence to the middle classes, or else he does not consider that the output of his party press offers a sufficiently balanced diet.
Israel’s wide spectrum of daily papers, ranging all the way from farthest right through the sober, thoughtful center to the extreme left (with an offshoot in the direction of religion), mirrors the turbulent, many-sided kaleidoscopic Israeli scene—the bewildering diversity of political convictions; the tension and acerbity that pervade public life; and, happily, in some papers at least, the wry humor with which Israelis are still capable of viewing their toils: as when Uzi, Ha’aretz’s irrepressible adolescent commentator, announces that a new tax on auto owners for the use of municipal water in their radiators will be followed shortly by a tax on bathers for use of the city’s sewage at the beach. The press reflects, too, Israel’s hunger for contact with the world abroad, and, most recently, for the strengthening of the ties that connect it with America. The Friday supplements, equivalent to Sunday editions in the United States, carry entire pages of articles translated from the New York Times, the Herald Tribune, Newsweek, and Time, along with selections from the British, French, and sometimes the Russian press. Reports on Israel which appear in American papers are often cabled in full to Tel Aviv and published there the next day.
For the past year, the press has also been an index to the deterioration of morale under the pressure of increasing shortages. The note of triumph that was once the dominant theme has given way to criticism, exhortation, and at best a cautious optimism. News of major crime, once a rarity, has become commonplace. In 1949 a rape-murder case in Tel Aviv still caused a sensation which lasted for months; today only slightly less serious crimes create barely a ripple. And the letters-to-the-editor columns are an endless series of grievances and complaints.
Eighteen daily newspapers are published in Israel; their total circulation, according to a UNESCO survey released in 1951, is close to 250,000. This figure in itself does not stamp the Israeli as the voracious reader he is reputed to be (New York’s eight million inhabitants buy over five million papers daily), but it must be remembered that Israeli newspapers are expensive—ten cents a copy—and therefore one copy may serve a number of readers. Many communal settlements subscribe to but one or two copies of a paper, but dozens of members read it on the bulletin board or in the common reading room. Moreover, because of the shortage of newsprint, papers have not been able to increase their press runs since 1949, and circulations have therefore remained all but static. All papers are permitted only a single edition of four pages daily, except on Fridays, when six or eight pages is the rule.
Six of the dailies are foreign-language papers—two German and one each Arabic, French, Hungarian, and English; together they account for somewhat less than 100,000 of the total circulation. In addition, scores of semi-weekly, weekly, and monthly journals are published in a dozen languages, among them Yiddish and Polish. Many of these journals are politically subsidized and frankly intended to influence new immigrants in the direction of a particular party.
Among the Hebrew dailies, the two most widely read are both independent. Ma’ariv (“Evening”), with the largest single circulation in Israel, is an afternoon tabloid edited according to a formula long successfully applied in the United States, making liberal use of large headlines, photographs, signed columns, attacks on the government, and a measure of all-around sensationalism; the guttural cry of the tiny Yemenite newsboys—“Ma’areev!”—has become as much a part of the street scene in Tel Aviv as the cry of the muezzin in the Moslem cities across Israel’s border. (The Jerusalem Post recently asked why the newsboys seem to be getting smaller and smaller. Answer: It is a publishers’ trick to make their papers appear larger.) Founded in 1948, Ma’ariv sells more than 40,000 copies and has far outstripped the older afternoon tabloid, Yediot Achronot (“Latest News”). Ma’ariv’s editor, Dr. Azriel Carlebach, an erudite former rabbinical student, is probably the most astute journalist in Israel today; his paper makes money (not a mean feat in Israel, where less than 15 per cent of all newspaper space is given over to advertising), and his staff is the highest paid among the country’s 275 registered professional journalists. Although some of Dr. Carlebach’s colleagues tend to dismiss Ma’ariv as “not a serious newspaper,” the more detached observer sees in it proof that independent journalism has a future in Israel.
Equally impressive is the success of Ha’aretz (“The Land”) which has a circulation of about 25,000 (while the circulation figures supplied by the various party papers are notoriously inaccurate, Ha’aretz is able to furnish figures that are certified by reliable audit). Read by men and women of all shades of opinion, Ha’aretz is frequently called the New York Times of Israel and enjoys the respect accorded to a national institution. Actually, its prototype is more likely to be found elsewhere: less benign and a good deal more warm-blooded than the Times, Ha’aretz manages to be urbane and dignified in the tradition of the great journals of Berlin, Frankfort, and Vienna of a bygone era. Like them, Ha’aretz can be long-winded and ponderous in one column (its editorials often read like economic treatises by a college professor), entertaining in easy feuilleton-style in the next.
Ha’aretz’s independence consists not in its not having any political views—a virtual impossibility in Israel—but in its not being the organ of a particular party. It is decidedly on the conservative side by Israeli standards, and in last year’s elections supported the General Zionists: the editor, Gershon Schocken, explained that the paper, though not unreservedly behind the party’s free enterprise policies, felt that a stronger conservative party was needed to counterbalance Mapai. Unlike Haboker (“The Morning”), the organ of the General Zionists, Ha’aretz shows considerable sympathy for the cooperative and collective sectors of the economy. Its criticism of the government is moderate in tone and, what is more, usually based on solid ground. In this as in other respects, Ha’aretz brings to the Israeli scene a touch of that sweet reasonableness which is so wanting in many areas of the politics-ridden country.
On Fridays, Ha’aretz features a literary page which both for the level of its contributions and the range of its interest is second to none published in the United States. The appetite of the Israeli reader for news of the intellectual and artistic worlds is limitless; to satisfy it, Ha’aretz, like its contemporaries, resorts frequently to translations from papers abroad. It also has its own correspondents in those capitals which are of prime importance to Israel, and last year sent its most talented young reporter, Arieh Gelblum, on a tour of the Western world.
Not far behind Ha’aretz among the morning papers is Davar (“The Word”), the organ of Histadrut and an institution in its own right. During most of the twentyseven years of its existence, Davar was the labor daily in Israel and fought—as its editors would put it—in the vanguard of the pioneering element. After the split of the Israeli labor movement into two major parties, Davar, condemned to straddling the fence, began to lose its cutting edge. The left-wing Mapam set up its own paper, Al Hamishmar (“On Guard”), while Mapai, in need of an organ with which to counter the stinging thrusts of the Mapam mouthpiece, went into business with an afternoon daily, Hador (“The Generation”). Davar continues to speak for labor in general—a function which has since become somewhat of an anachronism. The paper is of course still widely read among Histadrut stalwarts, and the old-timers among them hold it in deep affection. But to the outsider this labor paper—a trade union paper, more nearly—without polemics and without the urbanity of a Ha’aretz, appears a trifle dull. Much space is given to organizational news, to labor news from abroad, to eulogies of labor figures and observances of anniversaries, and to the kind of theorizing which the sabra generation irreverently describes as Tzionut—“Zionistics.”
Some say that Davar has never been the same since the days of its founder and first editor, Berl Katznelson. After Katznelson’s death, Salman Rubashov (now Shazar) was Davar’s editor for a spell; he later became minister of education in the first Ben Gurion cabinet. At one time, years ago, Moshe Shertok (now Sharett) served as an editor. At present the paper is run by a board which is part Mapai and part Mapam in its composition. Davar’s printing plant is the most up to date in the Middle East. Recently Davar perfected a process permitting the linotype setting of Hebrew characters with vowel markings (usually omitted) and began to publish a voweled edition for immigrants called Omer (“Speech”). From Davar’s presses also come a weekly children’s newspaper, a monthly journal for women, and an illustrated weekly, D’var Hashavua (“The Weekly Word”). Davar also has a literary section of high merit which regularly features rhymed comments on the current scene by the gifted poet Nathan Alterman.
A well-edited literary section also distinguishes Al Hamishmar, the Mapam daily, though it is often overweighted with social significance and socialist doctrine. Here a review of Habimah’s production of Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro is apt to regret that “Habimah does not stress the social aspects of this play” or to reproach the director for “ignoring the historic light shed on the hero and on the events of the period, and bringing into prominence instead the essentially entertaining elements of the play.” Doctrine and dialectics also figure heavily in the paper’s editorials, which, on the domestic side, oppose the government, and are vehemently anti-Western in dealing with world politics. Most American visitors, if they could read Hebrew, would be astonished at the bitterness of the paper’s attacks on the American government. It sees the bogey of American imperialism the world over and pictures the United States as engaged in unending plots against Israel. According to Al Hamishmar, the dispute last spring over the Huleh drainage was welcomed, if not actually engineered, by the United States as a means of “maintaining tension for the sake of widening the gulf between Israel and Syria and subjecting both to the mercy of American policy.” On Prime Minister Ben Gurion’s visit to the United States, the paper remarked that it was “another phase in the process of integrating Israel in the imperialist bloc which is preparing for war.” All this would spell out the Cominform line almost to a T, were it not that the paper in the same breath chides the Prime Minister for failing to “implant in American Jewry a feeling of duty toward the homeland.” With a tenacity that is not without a certain quixotic pathos, Mapam still clings to the belief that Stalinist Communism and Zionist nationalism are quite compatible, and its newspaper baits America’s foreign policy on one page while calling for unlimited immigration (financed with American money) on the next.
Even further to the left is Kol Ha’am, the Communists’ “Voice of the People.” Its tone is a good octave shriller than that of the Mapam organ, but its circulation is considerably lower. While Al Hamishmar is reported to sell between 6,000 and 8,000 copies, Kol Ha’am prints no more than 2,000, and at one time copies were distributed free among new immigrants. The paper’s chief claim to distinction has been the libel suit brought against it by Mr. Ben Gurion, who sometime in 1949 decided that he was being called a traitor to his country once too often. The suit dragged on almost interminably, with the Prime Minister himself taking the witness stand for five hours at a time, until last summer a verdict of guilty was handed down by Israel’s juryless courts. Kol Ha’am was fined 150 pounds and ordered to publish the judgment in two successive editions.
Although this was the first instance in which the Prime Minister was the plaintiff, libel suits are a frequent hazard of Israeli journalism, and they would be even more frequent if Israeli lawyers were as quick to detect a libelous phrase as some of their specialized American colleagues. One interesting suit was brought early in 1951 against Herut (“Freedom”), the organ of the rightist Freedom party, by an agricultural collective near Haifa. Herut had published a report by its Haifa correspondent that the settlement had expelled from its midst an old woman whose son, a member of the settlement, had been killed in the war with the Arabs. The correspondent added that he had seen the woman “lying in the street, with blood spouting from her mouth.” The headline to the story referred to the incident of the concubine in Gibeah (Judges 19), one of the strongest descriptions of wickedness in the Bible. During the trial, it was brought out that the correspondent had not in fact witnessed the incident, and that his report was considerably less than accurate. A colleague came to his defense by testifying that even the best reporters sometimes write in the first person about something they have not seen themselves, but the court awarded damages.
Among the remaining Hebrew dailies, Hatzofeh (“The Observer”) mirrors the views of the more liberal religious parties (Hapoel Hamizrachi and Mizrachi), while the ultra-religious Agudat Yisrael and Poalei Agudat Yisrael each publish a daily of their own in Jerusalem, Hakol (“The Voice”) and Hamodia (“The Announcer”). Both of these are small in format and limited in circulation and scope. Hatzofeh, on the other hand, takes a lively and quite often enlightened part in all issues, domestic and foreign. Occasionally the paper waxes overzealous in playing its role of guardian of the public morals, as when it condemned the folk dance festival held annually at Kibbutz Dalia because, it asserted, the pleasure enjoyed by the spectators was not simcha shel mitzva (“joy of fulfilling religious obligation”), citing various Biblical texts to prove that the inhabitants of Ephraim, where Dalia is situated, had always been partial to idolatry and other ungodly ways.
The outsider who is not himself committed to any one point of view will find in almost every one of the party publications something to enlist his sympathy. Hatzofeh’s appeal for the primacy of Jewish spiritual values in the state makes ample sense; so does the General Zionists’ insistence in Haboker that the country’s division into economic sectors and the class differences that result should be done away with; and Al Hamishmar strikes a responsive chord when it urges a return to pioneering and more settlement on the land. Only when such views as these are elevated to the status of cure-alls for all the social and economic ills that beset the country does one accustomed to a less partisan press tend to demur.
But the average Anglo-Saxon in Israel (the term “Anglo-Saxon” is used to designate Jews from the English-speaking countries) is rarely able to follow the vagaries of the party press. He will rely for his news on the English-language Jerusalem Post—the only daily of importance that appears in the capital. Founded in 1933 by Gershon Agronsky (now Agron), the paper was known as the Palestine Post until Independence Day 1950 when it went along with a widespread Israeli custom and changed its name. At the beginning of its career the Post catered mainly to the bureaucracy and military, but in the later days of the Mandate it adopted a stinging anti-British policy. On February 1, 1948, its plant on Hasolel Street was partly wrecked by an explosion in which two employees were killed and three others maimed. According to the official version, the culprits were Arabs. Among Jews, it was rumored that British Army personnel were responsible.
Wherever the truth lies, the bombing testified to the power that was the Palestine Post in the last days of the Mandate. The paper was hated by British and Arabs alike, but with the Jewish population it enjoyed tremendous prestige. Not the least factor contributing to that prestige was the presence on the staff of a non-Jewish ex-British official who wrote a column under the pseudonym of David Courtney. Day after day, Courtney’s “Column One” blasted away at British policy with brilliant logic, deadly sarcasm, and a consummate mastery of the King’s English. During the siege of Jerusalem, Courtney worked miracles for the population’s morale, and his name became a symbol of the justice of the Jewish cause.
Some weeks ago, a six-year-old who had been playing near the Post’s reconstructed plant came running home with the cry, “Father, they’re bombing the Post again!” The boy had heard a crash, but this time no dynamite was involved. A reader had smashed the windows of the press room with stones, shouting, “The Post is for Ben Gurion, Mapai, and Mapam!”
Today the Post is outspokenly for Ben Gurion and Mapai (hardly for Mapam), and, as the inevitable price, it has slipped from its Olympian heights into the melee of partisanship. Many of its readers belong to the middle-class element from Central Europe and have long since parted ways with the paper’s policies; but they continue to read it faithfully as a reliable medium of information in a language they know how to read. (The two German papers each appear on but a single sheet on weekdays and are frequently late with their foreign news and deficient in local coverage.) David Courtney’s influence also has waned; his column now deals almost exclusively with world affairs, and here his views are still those of the left-wing liberal of the early postwar period, scarcely touched by the events in Eastern Europe and Korea. Courtney’s ideas are often in conflict with the Post’s pro-Western editorials; he has said that he prefers to “concentrate on the follies of the West” and to leave it to others to “concentrate on the sinfulness of Moscow.”
But the Post has gained in influence in one important respect since the state was established: it now serves as the mirror of Israel’s daily life to the diplomatic corps and to the ever growing number of non-diplomatic visitors. It is studied as carefully in the Russian and French legations as in the United States embassy; few diplomats accredited to Israel, if any, read Hebrew. For those who are interested in keeping up with the opinions of its contemporaries, the Post prints each day a summary of editorials in the Hebrew press. And plans are said to be under consideration to publish a weekly airmail edition for subscribers in the United States.
Although the Jerusalem Post’s relation to Mapai is more tenuous than that of the party organ, Hador, it has the reputation of being well informed on government moves and policy. The New York Herald Tribune’s Kenneth Bilby was exaggerating when, in his book New Star in the Near East, he called the Post the “servant of the government,” but it is common knowledge that its columns are sometimes used by the Foreign Office to get ideas or reactions across to one or the other of the foreign emissaries. The Post also has the most complete coverage on news from abroad, especially from America (it is the only paper in Israel to pay attention to baseball scores, and even publishes brief accounts of World Series games).
The Americans on the Post’s lower-echelon staff are not so involved in the political scene as their Hebrew-writing colleagues and therefore manage a certain degree of detachment which shows up now and then in a clever headline, in a “box” featuring an incongruous incident, or in the whimsical “Keeping Posted” column.
By contrast, the reporters and editorialists of the party press are for the most part men who served their apprenticeships as much in the maelstrom of party politics as in city rooms and editorial offices. They are deeply committed to their papers’ points of view, and their perceptions are inevitably colored. Tel Aviv newspaper offices have none of the nervous beat-the-deadline atmosphere so familiar to movie-goers, but in one respect they are more lively than their American counterparts: the Israeli newspaperman feels personally involved in the events he reports, and newspaper offices are the scenes of earnest discussions on issues of the day. The parliamentary correspondent of Ha’aretz once said to me, “I love this Knesset of ours as a young man loves his bride”—a far cry from the cynics of our Congressional press galleries.
Nor are the Israelis affected by that obsession with “facts” which causes American editors to insist that the spelling of each name be checked and double-checked before it goes into print. A good bit of material in their press is based on pure speculation. Among favorite subjects for crystal-gazing have been the intentions of the powers with regard to the Middle East (does the United States wish to see Israel included in a Mediterranean pact?), chances for peace or war with Arab states, especially with Jordan, and the reported differences between President Truman and the State Department over policy on Israel. Some of the most convenient pegs on which to hang “think pieces” of this sort are provided by the comings and goings of foreign dignitaries, such as the UN’s Trygve Lie, Britain’s General Sir Brian Robertson, or America’s George C. McGhee. Often the speculation and prognostication is signed by a “political” or “diplomatic” correspondent; some of it is simply attributed to the ubiquitous “reliable sources.” When the Vatican was taking a vigorous interest in the internationalization of Jerusalem, the press focused its attention on the person of the French consul in that city and soon had him tagged as the unofficial eye and ear of the Pope in the Holy City. He was also suspected of being the key figure in an effort on the part of France to recoup her traditional position as protector of the Holy Places. When it became known that M. Neuville was planning a trip to Italy in the summer of 1950, the Jerusalem correspondents were quick to suggest that he was going to confer with the Pope about the future of the city. The consul finally gave a luncheon for the press at which he explained that he merely planned to attend a meeting of paleontologists in Florence. An ardent Palestinographer, he spent the rest of the press conference propounding his theories on prehistoric Palestine.
Despite the bitter partisanship of the party press, a basic single-mindedness can be discerned in Israel’s dailies when they sense a threat to the country’s prestige or territorial integrity. The Huleh dispute was a case in point. In such an instance, the non-partisanship of the party organs would have surprised even a Senator Vandenberg. There was absolute unanimity on the score that the Huleh region and its development were of vital importance to Israel and that there must be no giving in to Syria’s show of force, just as earlier there had been a chorus of resounding “no’s” when the UN voted to internationalize Jerusalem. The same single-mindedness prevailed for more than three years in favor of unlimited immigration. Ha’aretz was first, late last year, to raise doubts as to the wisdom of letting the flood continue unchecked in the midst of economic crisis.
Another common denominator is the satisfaction shown over all evidence of progress in the country, from the addition of a new merchant vessel to an increase in the output of tomatoes. On the anniversary of independence last spring, the papers all took time out to review the achievements of the past three years. The theme was the same throughout, though with characteristic variations. Ha’aretz, taking the broad and sober view, called attention to the difficulties yet to be overcome in the economic, cultural, and social spheres, and urged one and all not to relax their efforts. Davar, ever conscious of its pioneering role, took its cue from the establishment of two new settlements on Independence Day and urged the Jewish Agency to set as its goal double the present number of villages. Al Hamishmar warned that the country must preserve its hard-won independence and castigated a statement by Ben Gurion on the affinity between Israel and the United States as a step in the wrong direction. Haboker, long disturbed by the class consciousness which it believes is being fostered by the labor parties, urged the country to rise above the dissensions which threaten it from within. Hakol, the Agudat Yisrael organ, emphasized that political liberation was not an end in itself and deplored the fact that Israel had not made use of its freedom to come close to ancient Jewish tradition. Herut, on the other hand, paid tribute to the underground struggle which had preceded independence (and in which its followers in the Irgun had played a prominent part). Herut being the one party which still covets Trans-Jordan, the paper recalled that there are still “areas of our homeland” which await liberation. Kol Ha’am, finally, published a manifesto by the Israel Communist party calling for “true independence.”
On such days the impression that here are the organs of so many separate societies, each fighting a separate struggle of its own, gives way to the realization that there is, fortunately, a strong underpinning of solidarity after all. Israel would be a dull place, indeed, if unanimity were suddenly to become the rule in its press, and the diversity of printed views is a fine measure of its air of freedom. But a little more solidarity, on more frequent occasions, would still be an encouraging sign.