Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared in Hebrew at Mida, a publication of El Haprat, a nonprofit organization. It was then published in English in a new online publication The Tower. It is being republished here by permission. Erez Tadmor is a political editor at Mida Magazine.
In early April of this year, the controversial Haaretz reporter Amira Hass, whose coverage of Palestinian violence over the last decade has often prompted accusations of bias, caused a major stir when she published a column called “The Internal Syntax of the Occupation.” Most provocative was her claim that “throwing stones is the hereditary right and duty of someone under a foreign power”—words that appeared only a few days after Adele Biton, a 3-year old Israeli girl, was critically injured when a Palestinian threw a rock at the car her mother was driving, causing it to slam into a commercial truck.
In a Sunday interview with journalist Kalman Libskind of the radio station Galei Yisrael, Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken set out to defend Hass’s article. Growing flustered, however, Schocken ended up saying that moving to a settlement was a form of deliberately endangering the welfare of one’s children, something that in another context would trigger the intervention of social services. As for Hass’s sympathy for rock-throwers, Schocken refused to distance himself. “Sometimes,” he concluded, “you have to fight violence with violence.”
The method Amos Schocken chose to defend Hass’s article, and his defense of editor-in-chief Aluf Benn’s decision to publish the piece in full, sheds some light on the recent changes at the once-venerable Israeli daily. In a series of interviews conducted with current and former Haaretz employees, some of whom held high-level positions at the paper and most of whom still hold it close to their hearts, a consensus emerged to the effect that the paper is undergoing a process of major change that has led to a dramatic reduction in staff, a precipitous decline in journalistic standards, and a willful radicalization of its politics in pursuit of Internet traffic.
As Israel’s longstanding newspaper of record, these developments have raised important questions about the future of print journalism, especially in a country where a free and dynamic press has always been at the center of Israel’s democratic discourse.
For decades, Israelis have associated Haaretz with journalistic quality—or, rather, they’ve associated journalistic quality with Haaretz. The paper was known for its scrupulous editorship and for articles, reviews and columns issued in a Hebrew so highly styled and written in such a lofty register that it bordered on the literary—something that comes as no surprise considering the paper’s pedigree. Salman Schocken, grandfather of Amos and patriarch of the family that controlled the paper for decades, transforming it from an official administrative paper of the British colonial authority into a cultural institution, was also the founder of one of the world’s most distinguished publishing houses—Schocken Books, which published Kafka, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin and other literary luminaries of pre-war Germany.
Though it literally means “the land,” the Hebrew word haaretz is understood to refer to the nation, the country, and the State of Israel all wrapped up into one. And for three-quarters of a century, Haaretz in many ways was all that. It was Israel’s unrivaled national stage, and what played out in its news articles and opinion pages was Israeli public life itself. In this sense, it could be thought of as Israel’s New York Times—the difference being that the centrality of Haaretz to Israeli life was far greater than that of the Gray Lady in America, where a number of other stalwart dailies were able to successfully vie for readership and influence over the years. But although its circulation never approached that of the popular dailies Maariv and Yediot Aharonot, Haaretz had nothing that could be seriously spoken of as competition.
However, Haaretz has gone through excruciating times of late, much like the rest of Israel’s print-media industry. Recent months have seen major staff cuts, reports of a crisis between management and employees, the closure or downsizing of major supplements, and an oftentimes-inelegant shift in emphasis from print to digital.
But according to the employees interviewed for this article, all of whom refused to be identified out of fear of the impact on their careers in Israel’s small and insular media environment, the Amira Hass affair was a red flag not only for the Israeli public, but also for many on the Haaretz staff. As one former editor at the news desk put it:
Amira Hass’s article must be seen as the result of a conscious decision to radicalize the paper, to make it something shallow, sensationalist, and shocking, and to give it the image of a paper—really, a website—that is courageous and groundbreaking. At the end of the day, there is only one goal: To generate traffic. It doesn’t matter if the piece is good or bad, what matters is that it leads to website traffic.