Israel’s Gadfly

Haaretz’s Gideon Levy bucks Israeli media to report on Palestinian suffering.

Robert Hirschfield

<i>Haaretz</i> columnist Gideon Levy.

Gideon Levy, Haaretzs man on the West Bank since 1982, is a throwback to the days when left-wing journalists put their lives on the line to report on epoch-defining struggles like the Spanish Civil War. He has had his car shot up by Israeli soldiers and U.S. tax dollar-funded weapons turned on him. The son of Holocaust survivors, Levy retaliates with words: Israel is not asked to give’ anything to the Palestinians. It is only being asked to return – to return their stolen land and restore their trampled self-respect.”

A member of the editorial board of Haaretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper, Levy, now 56, was an aide to Labor Party leader Shimon Peres from 1979 to 1982. He was to the left of Peres, a position he now classifies as something very mild.” Today he makes sure that his pariah status among the Israeli right is well-earned. 

Levy is like a political paleontologist who picks apart the bones of Israeli history. Returning recently, via the archives of Haaretz, to 1967, he referred to the time of the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors as the time of big lies: lies about the great danger that lay at our doorstep – a danger that was bogus or inflated – and lies about the territories that were temporarily liberated,’ ” to be used as bargaining chips for an ill-defined peace that we may not have really been aiming for even then.”

In the archives, he came across the words of Israeli journalist Amos Elon, now dead and sorely missed by Levy. They are words that ring with Levy’s own dark prophecy: They say that within six months there will be peace between the peoples of Palestine for the first time since 1918; or there could be a Vietcong movement in the large area between Jenin and Hebron. We stand now at a turning point. Temporary frameworks are giving way to permanent arrangements. Israel has yet to clarify for itself what it wants.”

You’ve said that as an adolescent you were part of Israel’s nationalistic religious orgy.” What did you mean?

I grew up in Tel Aviv. I was a product of the Israeli education system and the Israeli media. I was 14 when the Six-Day War broke out. Israel went through what I would call a nationalistic tsunami. I was part of it. Everyone was part of it. My parents were part of it. They were not very political. They supported the Labor Party. Everyone supported Labor in those days.

What were your views then on the Palestinians and the occupation?

I went with [my] parents on a tour of the West Bank after the Six-Day War, and had no memory of seeing any Palestinians. They were there, but we didn’t see them. We saw only their white sheets hanging from balconies. The Palestinians themselves were nonentities. It was not even about having an attitude or an opinion. They didn’t exist.

How did you get from there to where you are now: a journalist famous for ferociously speaking out for Palestinian human rights and a Palestinian state totally free of Israeli occupation?

It was a gradual process. There was no single incident involved. I didn’t suddenly see the light. When I first started covering the West Bank for Haaretz, I was young and brainwashed. My journalism school” was the Israeli Army Radio Station, which was not the kind of place to learn the truth about the occupation. I would see settlers cutting down olive trees and soldiers mistreating Palestinian women at the checkpoints, and I would think, These are exceptions, not part of government policy.” It took me a long time to see that these were not exceptions – they were the substance of government policy. I had failed to make that connection.

What are your thoughts on the Oslo Accords of 1993?

Oslo was one of our periods of hope, but it was a masquerade. Israel was never asked, and never agreed, to evacuate any territories or settlements. And the Palestinian leaders collaborated with that. They agreed to a deal [giving them administrative control over the urban areas of the West Bank] that did not include the evacuation of settlements.

Why do Israeli journalists shy away from writing about the day-to-day repression that is an inextricable part of the occupation?

It’s all about self-censorship. Journalists do not want to write critically of the occupation because readers do not want to read about it, and publishers and editors want to keep their readers happy. Since no one is really that interested in the abuses, they don’t get written about. Journalists are also part of the whole machinery of denial and justification and the closing of eyes that includes telling lies and collaborating with lies.

Some Israelis criticize you for writing the same kinds of stories about abuses over and over again.

That’s right. They don’t ask why the abuses continue to happen, they ask why I continue to write about them.

Wouldn’t you agree that the articles written by you and [Israeli journalist and Haaretz columnist] Amira Hass are proof that Israel, for all its faults, has a free, aggressive press?

We are under no pressure from the government. Journalists are free to write what they want. But back in the 50s and 60s, the media operated like a government information office. You had the unforgettable Editors Committee that used to meet regularly with the heads of government, with the Israeli Defense Forces, with the secret services. Information was shared with the editors that they refused to publish because it might harm the state. In that way, the media was made part of the process. I think today the media is playing an almost criminal role by cooperating with the occupation. If it hadn’t, the occupation probably wouldn’t have lasted this long.

When you are on the West Bank working, do you have run-ins with soldiers?

All the time. Once, soldiers raked my car with bullets. If it wasn’t a bulletproof car, we wouldn’t be having this conversation now. It happened in 2003. They didn’t know who was in the car, but they shot like crazy. It was a big story at the time. There are still many incidents. Soldiers still aim their weapons at me. But I can always get where I want to go on the West Bank. Even to Jenin in the worst days in 2002. Even if it meant going through fields to get there.

How do ordinary Palestinians relate to you? Do they know who you are?

Here and there, there is someone who knows me, who may have seen an article I wrote in the Israeli press. I speak mainly to grassroots Palestinians, who don’t usually know who I am, because they haven’t read what I have written, or seen me on TV. For the most part, I am treated very nicely, with great hospitality. Even by those who have lost their sons 24 hours ago, which always amazes me. Young Palestinians are astonished to see a Jew without weapons. All they see are soldiers and settlers. Here and there, especially when things are bad, you encounter anger, suspicion. There will be times when people won’t speak to Israeli journalists, but that’s very rare.

Are there stories you have written over the years that have made an impact on Israelis?

In 1989, I did a story about a Palestinian woman who lost her baby at a checkpoint. That was a big shock to people. It was discussed at a cabinet meeting. But that was a long time ago. It has become harder and harder to move people. The public has grown indifferent to the suffering of Palestinians under occupation.

In the article you wrote the day after Obama’s Cairo speech, you began by saying, Neither Tel Aviv nor Ramallah held their breaths…” and you went on to say, Both cities have already had their fill of nice, historic speeches.”

Yes. If the words won’t be followed by deeds, it’s just another speech. The real test is still ahead of us.

Yet it is clear from your article that you consider Obama’a speech highly significant.

Absolutely. He gave a new direction. He put things on the table, like the settlements being illegal, that hadn’t been on the table before.

Does the Israeli public believe that if the United States applied enough pressure, the settlements would be dismantled?

I think so. Israel depends on the U.S. in so many ways that saying no would not be an option if pressure was really applied.

Skeptics say, Very few people read Haaretz. What does it matter what Gideon Levy writes?” In what way does dissent like yours matter?

It matters a lot. Haaretz is an important platform. It is the newspaper of the Israeli elite. It has some influence. Because it has influence, it allows me other opportunities. I participate in a weekly debate program on TV. I am not saying we [dissenting journalists] change history, but it is hard for us to be ignored. Just making people furious is sometimes enough for me. 

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Robert Hirschfield is a New York-based writer who covers Israeli and Palestinian peace activists. He has written for The Progressive, The National Catholic Reporter and Sojourners.
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