Chaim Yavin
Author Chaim Yavin Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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Over Masakh (Mr. Television )

by Chaim Yavin. Yedioth Ahronoth Books (Hebrew ), 408 pages, NIS 98

"Mr. Television" is more than an autobiography, much more. Chaim Yavin knows how to tell not only about himself, but about the entire history of public broadcasting in Israel. This book can be recommended not only to students who are interested in matters of media and politics - in essence, the battle for influence - but also to the broader circle of students of history, who will learn about important episodes in current events. Yavin's memoir is to a great extent the story of our lives.

Born in 1932 in Germany as Heinz Kluger, Yavin immigrated to Palestine the following year with his parents, with whom he spoke German until their dying day. Yavin was a good kid when he was growing up in Haifa, and turned into an overall good guy as an adult. True, he was "Mr. Television" and a winner of the Israel Prize, but he feels that he was not "spoiled by flattery."

I like people who have been awarded laurels but remain unsure of themselves; maybe what they have are crowns of thorns. That's what happens when an only child, who from infancy carries on his back a large knapsack full of Kinderstube - culture from a "good home" - has a teaspoon of yearning shoved into his mouth from birth: "In my mother's eyes I was never good enough, and that has lasted all my life. Negative criticism always brings me back to the question of whether I really am worthy or whether I'm a total failure."

Yavin's autobiography is characterized above all by personal honesty. Though he recognizes his own worth, he doesn't let himself off easy. Yavin sees himself as merely a public servant who wants to return home every day with a clear conscience. Referring to the predecessor of the Labor Party, he writes: "I'm a Mapainik, a bit of a sabra, a bit European, I believe in compromise as a way of life, I'm in favor of mediation." Elsewhere in the book he adds: "By nature I'm not a real leftist."

"Mr. Television" is the story of a man from the political center who eventually became a reluctant leftist and gradually got used to being labeled as such. It didn't happen to Yavin alone. It happened to quite a number of people who underwent a metamorphosis when they could no longer "stand on the sidelines in light of the injustice that we caused" the Palestinians, "that we are causing them." At a given moment they decide to shed the "objectivity" that they have held on to all their lives, "to go out into the world without concealing my opinions and emotions, and with an unequivocal statement in favor of freedom, justice, equality, peace."

There are people who wise up all at once, for reasons that are not entirely clear; they may even write a confused and embarrassing book about it, riddled with contradictions, in a pathetic attempt to explain themselves. Yavin is different. His sobering up is gradual and prolonged, full of indecision, and is therefore more natural and human and less pretentious and artificial, and most of all, more credible and less obsessive. He had eyes that saw and ears that heard, unlike all the crybabies who saw the light only after seeing and hearing nothing for decades. Why hear if you can close your ears? Why see if it's much more enjoyable and effective to close your eyes? When exactly did Yavin's sobering-up process begin? It seems that even the author has a hard time determining that. Perhaps it was with the well-known raised-eyebrow incident. Yavin explains that during a broadcast of Channel 1's "Mabat" nightly news program, which he anchored for 40 years until retiring in 2008, "I raised an eyebrow at the end of a speech by [prime minister Menachem] Begin. Some time later, Yoram Ronen came to interview the prime minister. Begin posited a condition: The interview would be broadcast in full, without editing, and if Mr. Yavin made a funny face, his face would stay that way."

'Would I hurt you, Mr. Yavin?'

Then a hue and cry arose. The Labor Alignment denounced "the violent Begin," Yavin writes, "and Yossi Sarid asked a question in the Knesset: 'Will Begin knock Mr. Yavin's face out of joint by himself, or will he send the Likud thugs?'" Look, even I am suddenly part of Yavin's memories.

Begin later regretted his statement, and when he next ran into Yavin, he patted his head and told him in a conciliatory tone: "What happened to them, Mr. Yavin? They totally lost their sense of humor. Would I hurt you? After all, I like you."

Or perhaps the moment of sobriety came during the days of the first Lebanon war, when, as Yavin writes, "everyone is being carried away by the current, and anyone who stands against the current is considered a defeatist." Channel 1, the state-sponsored television station, silenced anti-war statements one after the other under the "steamroller of political censorship." Then Yavin began to doubt whether it was at all possible to be a civil servant and a journalist simultaneously. "It's a contradiction in terms," he admits to himself in the personal diary he kept back then, whose existence he reveals for the first time in the book. He gave up on being objective but still made an effort to be balanced, though he wondered at the time whether even that entailed turning a blind eye to many problems and was therefore unethical.

Yavin is a good man, and this is what's good about him: He has no pretenses, doesn't try to pass himself off as someone else, and doesn't boast of accomplishments that aren't his own. He used to believe, "like most members of my generation," that a Palestinian state would mean the elimination of the State of Israel. With his keen instincts, he understood in time that the settlements were bad for Israel. But his opposition to the settlements was "passive," as he puts it. "I thought it was a passing phenomenon," he explains, "that the government would evacuate the settlers in the end. I behaved like a civil servant, maintaining objectivity, not getting involved in politics. This is the price I paid during most of my career: toeing the line, arrested development, a mental state that does not allow for thinking that is opposed to the consensus."

It's impossible not to admire a man like Yavin, who doesn't try, foolishly, to burnish his own biography, or history in general, to suit himself, and who is frank in his portrayal of a civil servant who suppresses his own beliefs. In public broadcasting, a place where there were not many people who acted like human beings, Yavin does not presume to have always acted like a human being himself, but at least he was tormented by doubt.

When panicky workers held a demonstration to protest Yosef Lapid's emasculation of Channel 1 - as Moti Kirschenbaum, then a prominent figure at Israel Television, put it at the time, Lapid had "prostituted the Israel Broadcasting Authority" he headed - Yavin sat alone in his office and asked himself: "Am I not betraying my co-workers? Had I acted according to what my heart told me, I would have rushed out to the demonstration, but there was a rational consideration here, a cold and practical calculation that I shouldn't sever the connections I still had with Lapid and the board of directors. In the end I went outside and stood alongside the demonstrators, identifying with them but maintaining a distance from them."

Yavin is not a hero; he is an anti-hero. But his soul-searching is precise, with no false notes - and above all, he is a mentsch, a star whose radiance did not cause him to lose his humanity, who was and remains a yekke, who has made a point of emphasizing that he did not change the world through television, but that television changed him. "In accordance with the dictates of my heart," he writes, and his heart was always in the right place.

Now, finally, he is a free man. In the two excellent documentary series he has made, "The Land of the Settlers" and "ID Blues" (about Arab society in Israel ) he is saying what he thinks for the first time - though he adds that he is no "professional leftist." Yavin says he is convinced of the connection between terror and the settlements, writing, "The starting point of the series was that the settlements are the reason for terror." He feels as though he has been released from the prison of journalistic objectivity on state-sponsored Israeli television.

We can only hope that he won't exchange one prison for another. Anyone who thinks that Channel 1 is the only media outlet to toe the line dictated by big business and government is mistaken. The herd instinct is a plague afflicting the country, from which it suffers every time the national anthem begins to play. It's not easy to survive on reality TV, and if it takes too long to sober up, it could end up being too late.

I recommend this book not only to students and beginning journalists, but to all who think that they have already learned everything and know everything - and maybe especially to them. "Mr. Television" has some surprises in store.

Yossi Sarid is a regular columnist for Haaretz.