The People vs. Haaretz

The English edition of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in Jerusalem last week. Credit Abir Sultan/European Pressphoto Agency
The English edition of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in Jerusalem last week. Credit Abir Sultan/European Pressphoto Agency

Haaretz is an Israeli newspaper. Admired by many foreigners and few Israelis, loathed by many, mostly Israelis. Read by few, denounced by many, it is a highly ideological, high-quality paper. It has a history of excellence. It has a history of independence. It has a history of counting Israel’s mistakes and misbehavior. It has a history of getting on Israel’s nerves.

Still, it is just a newspaper. The story of the people vs. Haaretz — that is, of a great number of Israelis’ growing dislike for the paper — is worth telling only because it tells us something about Israel itself: that the country’s far left is evolving from a political position into a mental state and that the right-wing majority has not yet evolved into being a mature, self-confident public.

Consider an incident from mid-April. Haaretz published an op-ed by one of its columnists. It made a less-than-convincing argument that religious Zionist Israelis are more dangerous to Israel than Hezbollah terrorists. And yet, the response was overwhelming. The prime minister, defense minister, education minister and justice minister all denounced the article and the newspaper. The president condemned the article, too. The leader of the centrist party Yesh Atid called the op-ed “anti-Semitic.” Leaders of the left-of-center Labor Party called it hateful. The country was almost unified in condemnation.

Of course, not completely unified. On the far left, a few voices supported the article and the newspaper. Some argued that the article was substantively valid. Others argued that whether the article was substantive or not, the onslaught on Haaretz is a cynical ploy to shake another pillar of the left — maybe its most visible remaining pillar.

If there is such ploy, it doesn’t seem to be working. Last week, on the eve of Israel’s Memorial Day, a day of somber reflection, Haaretz was at it again. One article by a leading columnist explained that he could no longer fly the Israeli flag. Another seemed to be calling for a civil war. These are not exceptions; they are the rule for a newspaper that in recent years has come to rely on provocation.

Its provocations aim to serve its ideology. Haaretz and its core readership are fiercely opposed to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, to the government’s support for settlers there, to the government’s recalibration of the High Court, to Israel’s state-religion status quo and to other conservative trends.

Four factors have converged to make Haaretz more annoying to Israelis today than ever before. First, the country is less receptive to a left-wing agenda as most of its citizens tilt rightward. Second, the country feels it is under an unjustified and hypocritical international siege and so is less forgiving when Israelis are perceived to be providing Israel’s critics with ammunition. Just recently, Jewish Israelis ranked “left wingers” as one of the groups contributing least to Israel’s success. Third, Israel’s left is very small, and also feeling under siege. Fourth, the left’s frustration with Israel makes it bitter and antagonistic. It makes it more prone to test the patience of other Israelis by upping the rhetorical ante in its criticism of country, leaders and groups.

The result of this increasingly provocative discourse is often pathetic, at times comical and occasionally worrying. Haaretz irks the majority of Israelis by giving voice to preposterous descriptions of what Israel is or does (“fascism,” “apartheid”), and the majority and its leaders never fail to take the bait and fly into a rage. It is a childish game and, in the long run, Israel loses. Its quality newspaper of coherent dissent, necessary in a pluralistic society, has become a platform for juvenile contrarianism. Its left-wing opposition, to which Haaretz gives voice, has become synonymous with needless antagonism; public debate has been made blunter and less constructive; the public is angrier and less tolerant of dissent.

Tempting as it is, the story of the people vs. Haaretz is not a story of a country whose public is no longer willing to tolerate debate. It is a story about a group within Israel that is losing its ability to communicate with the rest of society and have any chance of influencing its future. It is a story about a group within Israel that finds its relief in provoking the rest of us until we snap.

I worked at Haaretz for more than a decade, as features editor, head of the news division and, for three years, chief United States correspondent. My stint in Washington ended in 2008 when my employment was terminated. But I always valued Haaretz’s independence from dogma and its professional excellence, even though I wasn’t always comfortable with its ideological bent. The fact that I no longer consider it a must-read paper is probably for the same reason most Israelis are uncomfortable with it: Haaretz still employs good journalists, and on some of the issues these writers make strong cases, supported by evidence. But all in all, reading Haaretz in the last couple of decades is increasingly an exercise in anticipating a nearing demise.

The paper gets many specific stories right, but it gets the larger arc of Israel’s story wrong. It tends to paint a bleak picture of Israel’s actions, and it goes overboard in predicting grave consequences for Israel that rarely materialize. It tends not to notice that Israel today is a country more powerful militarily, economically and culturally than it was when the newspaper and its circle of loyal readers began explaining how almost every choice that the country is making is wrong.

And maybe that’s the source of Haaretz’s frustration: It is not that Israel does not listen. It is that Israel does not listen and still succeeds.

Shmuel Rosner is the political editor at The Jewish Journal, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and a contributing opinion writer.

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