October 2, 2002

Looking Behind Ha'aretz's Liberal Image

A new Israeli web-site, supported by two major settlers' sites from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is dedicated to the holy cause of "encouraging and supporting the employment of Jews only". It is already listing dozens of Israeli firms that do not employ "Gentiles". In the first months of the Intifada, Israeli racists initiated a boycott of Arab shops and restaurants; now, employment of Arabs is targeted. Let's keep the inevitable historical analogies for another time; the point I want to make now is, that most of you haven't heard of this web-site. Right?

The site is neither confidential nor is it my discovery: I simply read about it in the Hebrew Ha'aretz a few days ago (24.9.02). But most of you could not. Why? Because this item was left out of Haaretzdaily.com, the English version of Ha'aretz.

Haaretzdaily.com is not Ha'aretz

Is this a mistake? An exception? No it is not. Ha'aretzdaily.com is not a full translation of the Hebrew paper; it's a selection. It often omits certain items, certain columns, that Ha'aretz does not find "suitable" for foreign eyes, like the report I just mentioned.

Another way to achieve the same hidden bias is by "nationalistically correct" translations. For example, when Hebrew Ha'aretz read (2.7.02): "Recent reports about Egyptian intentions to develop nuclear weaponry WERE APPARENTLY THE RESULT OF ISRAELI PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE AND do not match intelligence information in Jerusalem, according to a senior Israeli official", the English translation simply omitted the words I've capitalised.

Or, quoting an Israeli officer on the use of Palestinians as "human shields", the English version read (16.8.02): "Before the search [in a Palestinian house] we go to a neighbour, take him out of his house and tell him to call the people we want out of the next door house. [...] The neighbour does not have the option to refuse to do it. He shouts, knocks on the door and says the army's here. If nobody answers, he comes back and we go to work." Sounds pretty harmless? – Just because the last sentence is a "nationalistically correct" translation of the following Hebrew sentence: "If nobody answers, we have to tell the neighbour that he will be killed if no one comes out."

Ha'aretz, Not What You Thought

Of course the "nationalistic correctness" of Ha'aretz is not confined to its English version. In the last two years which saw both the Intifada and the launching of its English on-line edition Ha'aretz has taken a sharp turn to the nationalistic right.

A lecture delivered at the end of May by its editor-in-chief is worth reading to understand that. In the lecture, at the 9th World Editors' Forum in Bruges, Belgium, Hanoch Marmari seems to have had two objectives: one was to affirm Ha'aretz's liberal image as a serious, "global brand" quality-paper: quite understandable considering his function and audience. But the other objective, just as apparent, was to discredit allegations of an Israeli massacre in Jenin. Typically, it's this second issue that Marmari introduces first, at the very opening of his lecture: "First, the good news: Abu Ali's nine children are alive and well as well as children can be among the ruins of the Jenin refugee camp. Please deliver this news to all of your friends".

The two objectives serving the paper's image and serving Israel's propaganda are highly interwoven; which of them prevails? Denying the massacre cannot contribute to Ha'aretz's reputation; whereas Ha'aretz's reputation is quite essential for denying a massacre in Jenin, as well as for disseminating other official Israeli positions.

Reporters

The best "proof" given for Ha'aretz liberalism is its critical journalists, the best-known of which is Amira Hass: it is no coincidence that hers is the only name mentioned in Marmari's lecture. Amira Hass is indeed a superb journalist whose work is utterly invaluable. She deserves every bit of her global reputation, and more. But let's put things in proportion. Hass is not the only journalist in Ha'aretz. She is "balanced" by, say, Nadav Shragai, who reports on the Israeli settlers with unconcealed sympathy, or by Amos Harel, who mainly quotes Israeli military sources. If those three perspectives the Palestinian, the settlers' and the army's diverge, you can imagine which of them will make it to the front page, headline or editorial.

Again, the controversy over Jenin is a good example: the very day that Amira Hass, visiting the scene immediately after the operation, carefully reported that one could not say at that stage whether a massacre had taken place, Ha'aretz editorial (ab)used her evidence to claim categorically that "There was no massacre in Jenin", as its heading read (19.4.02). By the way, the headline of the undervalued daily Yediot Achronot that day was: "Israel in a Propaganda Offensive: 'There was No Massacre in Jenin'": a responsible piece of journalism, reporting the government's propaganda efforts rather then joining them like Ha'aretz's editorial did.

Op-Eds

As far as columnists are concerned, Ha'aretz naturally prints right-wingers as well as left-wingers. This does not mean that "anything goes": though several op-eds and editorials criticised the Israeli conscientious objectors, no op-ed supporting them was ever allowed: that's as far as liberalism goes. Moreover, the past year saw several liberal and left-oriented columnists leave (leading sociologist Baruch Kimmerling, critical economist Ephraim Reiner, Aviv Lavie's excellent media criticism) or reduced (Meron Benvenisti). Ever more columns are written by rhinoceros like Ari Shavit, who was critically left-wing in the past and moved to the other end once the Intifada broke out, or by Amnon Rubinstein, retiring Knesset Member for Meretz, whose columns count Israel's blessings and attack any criticism from the dovish end. In a recent column, Rubinstein badly distorted a letter published in the Guardian by Nigel Parry and Ali Abunimah, American pro-Palestinian activists; when the two asked to publish a response, Ha'aretz typically refused.

Ads

Not less revealing is the advertisement policy of Ha'aretz. When an Israeli death-squad had assassinated the Palestinian colonel Khaled Abu Khiran (14.5.02), Ha'aretz refused to publish a condolence ad by the Arab-Jewish Partnership group Taayush that stated that Abu Khiran "was executed without trial by the State of Israel". The reason given for the refusal was that Ha'aretz did not want to turn its condolence ad page into a place for political expression. But Ha'aretz has no problem publishing the standard condolence ad of the Government of Israel after every terror attack, stating the victims were "murdered by Sons of Evil": this does not sound like a political statement in Ha'aretz's ears.

Framing

Sometimes, framing an item is enough to divert or even subvert its message. The Guardian recently published an impressive interview with Britain's chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. In an unprecedentedly strong warning to Israel, Professor Sacks argued that the country was adopting a stance "incompatible" with the deepest ideals of Judaism, and that the current conflict with the Palestinians was "corrupting" Israeli culture.

Ha'aretz (27.8.02) reported the Guardian interview quite faithfully; but it put it in a more "friendly" light. The eight paragraphs on the interview were followed by four paragraphs recycling an old interview, more suitable for nationalistic ears: "In an interview in Ha'aretz in January this year, on the subject of 'The New anti-Semitism,' Sacks launched a vehement attack on Muslims as the archetypal anti-Semites of the new millennium [...] Referring to the Intifada which erupted in September 2000, Sacks said that the Palestinian leadership was unable 'to acquiesce in Israel's permanence. They see Israel as a Crusader state'." Now that Sack's criticism of Israel is safely "balanced" by criticising the Arabs, he can be let in.

Caveat Lector

These are some of the more overt examples for Ha'aretz's very one-sidedly limited liberalism. The picture emerging from off-the-record talks is much harder. I have heard of censored op-eds, of suppressed book reviews, of editors reproached for publishing mildly critical stuff, of journalists fighting to insert a critical line.

All this may not be so surprising: in a society sinking into the ugliest forms of nationalism and racism, in a country actually run by the army behind an ever thinner fig-leaf of democracy, in a land where war crimes are rapidly turning from frequent exceptions to a legitimate rule, it would be a miracle if one medium-size newspaper remained an unaffected oasis of liberalism and free expression. Neither Ha'aretz staff, nor its readers, nor its advertisers live on an isolated island. However, too many people in- and outside Israel seem to believe in this miracle, and that's when it becomes dangerous. Ha'aretz should be taken for what it is: a Zionist Israeli newspaper, operating in a rapidly deteriorating society. Just as it reflects this society, society's deterioration is reflected in it. Expecting to get an objective, non-partisan picture of Israeli-Palestinian realities from Ha'aretz is a dangerously naive illusion; even more so from its retouched English edition.

– Ran HaCohen

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Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and grew up in Israel. He has a B.A. in Computer Science, an M.A. in Comparative Literature and is currently working on his PhD thesis. He teaches in the Tel-Aviv University's Department of Comparative Literature. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English and Dutch), and as a literary critic for the Israeli daily Yedioth Achronoth. Mr. HaCohen's work has been published widely in Israel. "Letter from Israel" appears occasionally at Antiwar.com.

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