Israel’s Gadfly

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

Robert Hirschfield September 4, 2009

Haaretz 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. 

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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