“Haaretz”, the Last Bastion of Jewish Opposition in Israel

“Israel is now closing in on a right-wing, religious, authoritarian revolution”, headlines the daily Haaretz the day after the Israeli legislative elections of 1 November 2022, which confirmed the anchoring of a fascist extreme right and the denial of oppression in Palestine. If the traditional left-wing forces have gone bankrupt, Haaretz, a liberal newspaper, maintains a consistent line of opposition to official policies. Investigation on a daily newspaper like no other.

Haaretz newsroom at 21 Shoken Street, Tel Aviv, July 24, 2019
Deror Avi/Wikimedia Commons

You arrive in Israel, buy a copy of Haaretz and spot this headline: “Throw the material in the well. Archives show the Israeli army conducted biological warfare in 1948.”1 Reading on, you discover that orders were given to poison the wells of Palestinian villages during the civil war which pitted the forces of the Yishuv (the Jewish colony in Palestine) against those of the native population in the period leading up to the creation of Israel on 15 May 1948. Conceived under the auspices of the future Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, and his future chief of staff, Yigael Yadin, the operation was called Cast Thy Bread2 and was intended to prevent the return of the Palestinians after they had been expelled. The archives show that General Yohanan Ratner requested a written order, which was refused. Yadin wrote to his subordinates that they should act “with the utmost secrecy”. Some first poisonings were carried out in April 1948 near Acre and in villages close to Gaza. In the end this not very effective tactic was swiftly abandoned.

Past crimes exposed

Haaretz, the Israeli “newspaper of record,” has unleashed a wild torrent of such revelations about the way Israel expelled the Palestinians from their lands. They are often based on the work of a young historian, Adam Raz, who in 2015 set up a working group, the Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research, known as Akevot, a name which means “traces” in Hebrew. Raz digs out the buried traces of the Israeli past, rubbed out by official historiography precisely to mask the facts hidden by its own heroic version. Raz publishes his revelations regularly in the columns of Haaretz.

The paper employs full time a journalist, Ofer Aderet, who follows the work of historians who are completely “deconstruction” the old official versions. Raz, who has produced several works including “Kafr Qasim Massacre” on the massacre at Kafr Qasim, has himself in recent years published in Haaretz or seen his work reported by Aderet in a series of incendiary articles on the Nakba, on hitherto unknown massacres, but also on affairs like the integration of the oriental Jews who arrived in the 1950s. “Neither Yedioth Aharanot (the country’s most-read daily) nor any other Israeli paper would have published these articles,” says the historian. “Apart from Haaretz, all the main media support the official version.”

But it is not only on the past that the paper uncovers what the others are hiding. On the present too Haaretz stands out with coverage unique in the country. “We are not afraid to tackle the most controversial issues. Nobody else regularly and systematically publishes the kind of information that we do,” says Hagar Shezaf, a young reporter covering the occupied territories. “For the past decade, a journalist like Nir Hasson has provided an exceptional chronicling of the Judaisation of Jerusalem and the incredible segregation of the Palestinians that it involves. It personifies the change the paper has undergone,” adds one of its international stars, Amira Hass, who has been covering the Palestinian territories since 1993.

This “change” tends in three directions, explains Noa Landau, deputy editorial director: “We are first and foremost a liberal paper” – in the Anglo-Saxon sense, leaning towards progressivism – “and clearly we pioneer information on the occupation of the Palestinians, the treatment of immigrants, and human rights.” How did this come about, with a paper which, after it was bought in 1933-4 by the Schockens (a family of rich German Jews who fled Nazism), was for long a vehicle for a proclaimed, politically centrist Zionism?

Colonial radicalisation of society

To explain this evolution, the paper’s journalists point to two converging tendencies: the constant reinforcement of Israeli colonisation of the occupied territories, and the radicalisation in a colonial direction both of Israeli society and of its political representation. These tendencies gradually pushed the paper towards active forms of “resistance” because of a feeling of a growing threat more to Israeli democracy than to the Palestinians. Amos Schocken, the paper’s managing director since 1992, personifies the moderate but unrelenting version of this change. He says today, “Yes, I am a Zionist. And if you believe in the Zionism expressed in Israel’s declaration of independence, you cannot accept the law on Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People, a law which has a fascist stamp.” Adopted in 2018, this “basic law” defines two categories of citizens: Jews, who have full rights, and the others (meaning the Palestinians) who, although citizens, do not. “It will lead us to disaster,” says Schocken. Haaretz has opposed the law on the Nation State since it first came before the Knesset in 2011.

It was also in 2011 that the current editorial chief Aluf Benn took over, but “the process of freeing speech relating to the Palestinians began under his predecessor (Dov Alfon, now editor of Libération)” says Gideon Levy, one of the most committed writers (he supports the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement). “For a long time it was impossible to say in Haaretz that Zionism itself implies Jewish supremacy. Under Benn, terms like ’war crime,’ ’apartheid’ and ’Jewish supremacy’ have become legitimate” in the paper. Hence the evident paradox: Israel’s rulers try to convince the whole world that using the term ‘apartheid’ to describe the regime imposed on the Palestinians is antisemitic, while inside the best-known Israeli publication, “there is a deep debate on the use of the term ’apartheid’, a debate which can only take place because it is based on a collective agreement that the right of free expression is sacred,” says Anat Kam, a young journalist on the Opinion section of the paper’s website.

There are many other changes alongside these semantic ones. “For a long time, we believed the occupation [of the Palestinians] would be temporary,” admits Aluf Benn. “Now it’s clear that it’s become permanent. Thirty years ago if a soldier killed a child, you could expect an enquiry. Now, the army covers everything up. There are no more enquiries. That explains the arrival of Breaking the Silence” – an NGO set up by army reservists witnessing the actions of the military in the occupied territories. That is also what led Haaretz to change: “Most of the papers publish nothing on the reality of the occupation. But we hold a unique position in this field.” Another important change: the handling of discrimination against Israelis of oriental origin has come a long way. Iris Leal, who contributes to the literary pages, calls herself the paper’s “duty Oriental.” Highly critical of the historical “blindness” of the Ashkenazi (East European) labour leaders towards the Oriental Jews, she writes most often on her favourite issue. “The vast majority of Haaretz readers are Ashkenazi, and therefore richer and better educated,” she says. “They respect me because I am from the left [implying, not because she is oriental]. Some readers in fact call me a bleeding heart, they write to me saying the Oriental question is old hat. They are almost always Ashkenazi.” But, she adds, “I have the support of the management, which insists that what has happened to the Oriental Jews, and is still happening, should be fully reported.”

She credits the paper for having prevented the affair of the Yemeni babies from being swept under the carpet. That affair, going back to the early 1950s, remains a very hot issue. Hundreds of babies born to parents mainly from Yemen and other Muslim countries were falsely declared stillborn and secretly given for adoption by childless Ashkenazi couples (including some death camp survivors). The debate has raged inconclusively for 50 years between those who denounce a “state crime” of unimagined magnitude, and those resisting an “imaginary fabrication”. Leal says Haaretz has opened its columns to those denouncing “fake news.” But Alon Idan, editor of the Debates pages who opened them to “discordant voices,” gave much space to those advocating the “state crime” thesis.

Editorial Arabisation

But undoubtedly the most spectacular change at Haaretz was certainly the beginning of “Arabisation” of its editorial staff. In 2000, Noa Landau launched the Haaretz 21 project, with the aim of recruiting (Israeli citizen) Palestinian journalists. “We couldn’t go on like that. We needed Palestinians on the staff for two reasons: to live by our principles, based on the equality of rights for Israeli citizens, and more importantly, to give our readers a view of the other, which the Israelis almost never get. Otherwise, for a Palestinian, there was no way to take up journalism in the Israeli system. We took in the first. Haaretz 21 is an incubator. The first class brought together 20 people, of whom five are now working on the paper.” The second will take place in a year’s time, with five or six new Palestinian journalists being taken on.

Sheren Falah Saab was one of the first chosen. She covers above all the society and culture of Israeli Palestinian citizens, in a way rarely undertaken by the press. Her stories are often published in the cultural supplement Galleria. Asked about her identity, she replies that it is “complicated.” Without renouncing her Israeli citizenship, she feels “sometimes Palestinian, sometimes Arab, and often both at once.” Moreover she is Druze, an identity which comes to the fore in certain circumstances. In short, she lives “the conflicts of identity of most of the Palestinian Israelis, in large part due to the policies Israel imposes on us.”

A Palestinian writing in an Israeli paper? At first, her friends regarded her with suspicion. Now, “it’s over,” and she also says she “doesn’t feel alien” at work. One of her latest articles, “The Tragic Life of Ghassan Kanafani,3 was about a man who remains a symbol of Palestinian resistance. Kanafani, a poet and a leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), was assassinated in Beirut on 8 July 1972 by Israeli commandos. Falah Saab devoted three pages to him in the weekly supplement, based on a book by the former journalist Danny Rubinstein. At the time, all Israel deemed the assassination of a “terrorist” legitimate. Today, he writes that Kanafani “had no bodyguards, he didn’t change locations, he didn’t even imagine that Israel might consider him a terrorist.” Sheren lays out the story of a man who one society sees as a monster and another as a hero.”None of that would be possible without the boss, Amos Schocken,“that progressive magnate frequently insulted by the Israeli right, just as George Soros might be by Trumpist circles in the US, says Gideon Levy.”If Yedioth Aharanot were to disappear, Israel would still be the same. If Haaretz disappeared, nobody would continue talking about the Palestinian territories, or environmental dangers, or the oppression of women.“Aluf Benn agrees.”Have we become the only pole of opposition in the country? In a certain way, yes. The question is,

Why has this come about? Is it a sign of fatigue? Apart from settlers and soldiers, people don’t go into the occupied territories. At the moment, an insurrection is being heavily suppressed in Jenin and Nablus. Neither the government nor the army is giving any explanation at all. But nobody is asking questions. The same goes for the perpetual Israeli bombings in Syria. The fact is that 15 years after the end of the second Intifada, most people have given up caring about what happens to the Palestinians.

“If exposing facts that nobody wants to know makes us unique, it’s also because quite a lot has changed in recent decades,” the editorial director added. The journalist Anat Kam put it differently. “Yes, Haaretz constitutes de facto the only opposition to the Israeli rulers, but that fact conceals another: the paper is preaching to the converted.”

A leftist critique

If Haaretz provokes often outraged reactions from most Israelis, the paper is sometimes criticised by alternative media opposed to the occupation, such as the news site The Hottest Place in Hell, or indeed the TV channel Democrat TV headed by Lucy Aharish, a Palestinian Israeli. But the most active site is Local Call and its English version, +972.com. Some of its journalists, and even more so its visitors, criticise Haaretz’s habit of maintaining a kind of moderation in criticising the actions of the Israeli authorities. Above all, the film director Anat Even notes, Local Call is the only “truly binational” media. Its writers and managers have names like Hagaï Matar, Orly Noy, Meron Rapoport, Yonit Mozes and so on, but also Basil al-Adra, Fatima Abdul Karim, Vera Sajraoui, Baker Zoubi, Samiha Houreini … in short, as many Palestinian journalists as Israeli.

Furthermore, critical voices are also heard inside Haaretz itself. Amira Hass is a correspondent in the occupied Palestinian territories and has lived there since 1993. “Today we publish articles and news which would never have appeared before, and we offer the Palestians media exposure which they don’t have anywhere else in the mass media,” she says. But she adds:

Haaretz gives the impression of doing a lot. Compared with others, that’s true. But so many more things are happening than what is reported, like the killing of children by soldiers, settler attacks on Palestinian farmers, or Israeli methods of taking control of land. With another ten journalists one might perhaps get there, if ratings4 permitted.

She also suggests that Palestinian society should get as much coverage as the daily clashes. Amira also takes aim at the “vocabulary” which is not distanced enough editorially from the official jargon. For example, if the number of shots fired by the Palestinians increases, the term “escalation” is immediately deployed by the military spokesman and then automatically reproduced in the paper. “But the acceleration of settlements, the most constant and aggressive process of all, is never called an escalation.” Another example: “The location of a Palestinian town or village is often described in the press, including Haaretz, in terms of its proximity to a particular settlement. That gives a false impression of coexistence and normality. Rather than saying that the town of Salfit is near to Ariel (a large Israeli settlement), I write that it is south-west of Nablus and that Ariel was built on its lands.” At the same time, she insists, at Haaretz we have a freedom of expression that does not exist elsewhere in the Israeli mass media, which all exercise a massive self-censorship" when it comes to the occupation and settlement activity.

International impact

So what impact does Haaretz have on its society? The journalists themselves differ somewhat on the question. Sheren Falah Saab believes it is possible to “move things along a bit.” She sees that in the messages she receives, even if they include a fair amount of insults (“I just ignore them”). Hagar Shezaf answers that “sometimes, you score a micro-success. You make the army modify a statement. But if I did my job in the hope of changing things, I think I would plunge into a deep depression.” Sadly, Gideon Levy thinks that the influence of his paper on Israeli society “is virtually zero.” By contrast, he adds, its international impact is currently waxing. The steady increase in sales of its English version (in cooperation with the New York Times) and in hits on its English website prove the point. Throughout the world, political leaders, businessmen, diplomats, academics, anybody interested in the Middle East “know that Haaretz is the only place to access reliable information.” Short of changing the international balance of power or preventing Israel’s diplomatic successes, the paper has become a significant factor in the continuing tarnishing of the country’s international image.

In the end, Noa Landau believes it is premature to draw conclusions about Haaretz’s evolution. In her view, its most important success has been to play a major role in obstructing government efforts to “eliminate the Nakba from public debate,” as Binyamin Netanyahu tried to do. But above all she believes that her paper’s most convincing success is not yet apparent, but that “Jewish-Arab groups are forming,” such as Standing Together, an association demanding equal pay for Jews and Arabs. “More and more people on the left understand that Israel has no future without taking Arab opinion into account. The trend towards working together, Palestinians and Israelis, is strengthening, and will continue.” Time will tell, but in any case, that is the direction in which Haaretz intends to keep pushing.

1Ofer Aderet, « Place the Material in the Wells’: Docs Point to Israeli Army’s 1948 Biological Warfare,» Haaretz, 14 October 2022.

2Quotation from the Bible, Ecclesiastes, 11:1.

3Sheren Falah Saab, « The tragic Life of Ghassan Kanafani», Haaretz, 11 October 2022.

44Meaning that the space given to a story on the site is proportional to the degree of interest already shown by readers for that subject.