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David Landau, Former Haaretz Editor-in-chief, Dies at 67

Landau joined Haaretz in 1993, founded its English-language edition in 1997 and served as editor-in-chief between 2004 and 2008.

David Landau
David Landau Alex Levac

David Landau, former editor-in-chief of Haaretz and founder of its English-language edition, passed away Tuesday in Jerusalem at the age of 67.

Landau, who was born in Britain, immigrated to Israel in 1970 and worked for 20 years at The Jerusalem Post, as both diplomatic correspondent and managing editor. In 1990, he led an editorial staff walkout in protest over political interference by the paper’s new owners.

Landau joined Haaretz in 1993 and in 1997 became the founding editor of Haaretz English Edition, considerably raising the newspaper’s profile internationally. He served as Haaretz editor-in-chief from 2004 to 2008, and continued writing columns for the paper until last year.

Landau was also the longstanding correspondent of The Economist in Israel, and the author of a biography of Ariel Sharon and other books on Israeli current affairs.

“David Landau’s untimely death is a very great loss, not just for his family and his many friends, but also for Haaretz and for journalism in general,” said Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken. "As a Haaretz staffer for many years, and especially during his tenure as editor-in-chief, David made an enormous contribution to the paper as an enlightened Zionist intellectual, a liberal in the full sense of the word and a believing Jew, and he demonstrated that there is no inherent contradiction in these things."

Moti Milrod
Moti Milrod

“When I offered him the job of editor-in-chief, David responded: That’s impossible; I’m not one of you. I asked: What do you mean, you’re not one of us? And he answered: I wasn’t raised on what you were raised on, my education in Britain was different, my attitude toward religion is different. But he became the paper’s editor, bringing his own unique qualities and his own unique baggage to the job, and he was a great success."

Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn added: “David was a reporter through and through, always on the hunt for a better story. He guided the paper through the Gaza disengagement and the Second Lebanon War, guided by his moral compass, seeking to end the occupation ... Our joint trips with the prime minister’s entourage were among the best in my years of covering the diplomatic beat. David led us to big scoops on the way.”

Former President Shimon Peres, who collaborated with Landau on two books, described him as “a rare combination of an individual – religious in depth and liberal in breadth.”

He added, “It is a great joy to meet such an exceptional individual, one who shuns contrivance, does not try to avoid the issue or be evasive, and is not frightened of the truth ... To know such a person is a privilege.”

The funeral will take place at Har Hamenuhot Cemetery in Jerusalem on Wednesday, January 28 at 4:00 P.M.

First brush with journalism

Born Maurice (Moshe) David Landau on June 22, 1947 in north London, his grandparents were Ger Hasidim, a heritage he treasured; but his parents, Yardena and Noach, believed in both modern and religious education. They were also staunch Zionists, sending their son to the Bnei Akiva youth movement and Hasmonean Grammar School.

Landau’s first brush with journalism was as a boy in Willesden where the family lived by a major road leading out of London. He often phoned the local newspapers, supplying first details of road accidents, earning 10 shillings for each tip.

In 1965, his parents sent him to the ultra-Orthodox Slabodka Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, but he chafed at the strict discipline and after a year transferred to the more easygoing Hebron Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

Landau’s introduction to journalism was to be a baptism of fire. In May 1967, as tension grew in Israel over impending war with Egypt, his parents implored him to fly back home. Landau’s blunt response was “not bloody likely.”

As most men were being called up for reserve military service, he sought volunteer work and by coincidence was drafted to work on The Jerusalem Post, which was struggling to publish its daily edition with a depleted staff. His first role was translating into English the list of emergency pharmacies; one night when he slept over at the newspaper’s offices, the building was shelled by Jordanian artillery.

With the Six-Day War still raging but to all intents and purposes already won by Israel, Landau joined a press pool visiting the newly captured Old City of East Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron. Caught up in the wave of euphoria that swept through Israel and much of the Diaspora, he was to notice only later on the triumphalism, and the dismissive and high-handed manner in which Israelis treated the Palestinian population of the occupied territories. Forty-one years later he wrote: “I remember vividly the intoxicating sweetness of that (pseudo-) messianic moment. Now it tastes like ashes.”

Before he could continue on his political journey, it was back to Britain, where he studied law at University College, London, and in 1969 married his childhood friend Jackie Walker. A year later, they immigrated to Israel. David joined The Jerusalem Post staff, while Jackie pursued a career as a remedial skills teacher, specializing in educating the blind.

The couple’s home on Tel Hai Street in Old Katamon was for decades a gathering place for journalists, politicians and rabbis, as Landau’s career both in the Israeli press and as a correspondent for international news organizations prospered.

‘Heretical’ views

Landau’s first formal position on The Jerusalem Post was as night editor; two years later he was appointed diplomatic correspondent. By then he was already harboring “heretical” views, as he realized that Prime Minister Golda Meir, despite her statements to the contrary, had little intention of relinquishing the territorial gains from the Six-Day War to achieve peace.

Ironically, it was to be under a Likud government that Landau reported on the peace agreement with Egypt and scored his crowning scoop: the first interview by an Israeli journalist with President Anwar Sadat. At the end of the long interview, Landau recited the traditional Jewish blessing for being in the presence of a king, thanking God “who gave of His glory to flesh and blood.”

Later on, as diplomatic correspondent in the mid-1980s, Landau was one of a small circle of reporters routinely briefed by Prime Minister (and then foreign minister) Shimon Peres, on his doomed attempts to embark on peace talks with King Hussein of Jordan, in defiance of Peres’ national-unity coalition partner, Yitzhak Shamir.

The connection with Peres continued when Landau co-authored his autobiography “Battling for Peace” (1995) and worked with him on “Ben-Gurion: A Political Life” (2012). Landau’s close ties to Peres were an anomaly at The Jerusalem Post, whose reporters typically worked outside the charmed circle that journalists on the Hebrew papers inhabited.

Following his appointment as managing editor, Landau modernized The Post’s news operation and hired young, ambitious reporters both fluent in English and well-grounded in Israeli life. Joanna Yehiel, a veteran editor on the paper, recalls that “for the first time we felt we were a real Israeli newspaper.”

The news in late-1989 that The Post was to be bought by Hollinger Inc., a Toronto-based media group led Landau to believe he would now have the budget to realize his plans for the paper. But his hopes were quickly dashed as the new publishers tried to impose a right-wing editorial line on the paper, often bypassing Landau and other editors to pressure reporters directly.

When The Post’s staff learned that publisher Yehuda Levy was trying to force out editors Ari Rath and Erwin Frenkel and replace them with a like-minded journalist, a group of 40 senior editors and reporters, led by Landau, tendered their resignations. Levy accepted them immediately and ordered them out of the building.

Stuff of legend

“The Jerusalem Post walkout” would become the stuff of legend, but at the time, the journalists had nowhere to go. “I felt terrible,” Landau said years later. “I was responsible for their livelihoods.”

After years of legal battles, the former Post journalists won compensation. And as efforts to set up a new liberal English-language newspaper foundered, Landau began to believe that his journalistic career was over. He considered embarking on a second career as a lawyer, but the pull of his chosen profession was too strong.

For years Landau had maintained close connections with the ultra-Orthodox community, and one of the first publications to offer him work after the walkout was Machane Haredi, the weekly newspaper of the Belz Hasidic sect. After 24 years of writing in English, he laboriously penned his first columns in Hebrew. A few months later, the daily Maariv offered him the post of senior diplomatic commentator and he became one of the few journalists to cross the English-Hebrew divide.

At the same time he was working on his first book, “Piety and Power: The World of Jewish Fundamentalism,” a detailed exploration of the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel and the Diaspora. Maariv had by then fallen on hard times. Landau worked there for two years – and then came the offer from the Hebrew newspaper he most admired.

Perfect match

Landau and Haaretz were a perfect match both politically and professionally. His decision to take the relatively low-level job of night editor was motivated both by a lack of options and his long-held desire to work for the paper. After a year he was promoted to the editorship of the daily features supplement, but a much more significant development was already in the works.

Haaretz was in talks with the (then) International Herald Tribune about publishing an Israeli edition that would be distributed with an English version of Haaretz. Landau was the natural candidate to serve as founding editor of this new venture: It was formally launched on September 1, 1997.

Haaretz English Edition remains to this day Landau’s most significant contribution to Israeli journalism. With the encouragement of Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken, Landau determined from the outset that the English edition would not “soften” its coverage and criticism of Israeli society, or of the policies and actions of its government, for the paper’s international readership. “The objective is to reflect as much as possible Haaretz’s core,” he said in an interview.

Landau hired dozens of new English-speaking employees, including some who had walked out of The Jerusalem Post seven year earlier, to build the new journalistic venture. To this day, Haaretz English Edition is still very much cast in Landau’s image.

Charlotte Hallé, the paper’s current editor, who began her journalistic career under Landau during that period, says that “A lot of us learned our trade from him on the newsroom floor – how to sniff out stories, work our sources and write with flair. He was an uncompromising teacher – generous with colorful criticisms and stingy with compliments.”

While Landau was establishing the English edition on the international scene and holding a commanding presence at editorial board meetings, hardly anyone in the newspaper offices on Tel Aviv’s Schocken Street saw him as a future editor of the main Hebrew title. Though admired by many, Landau, with his booming, heavily accented voice, bushy beard and black kippa, was deemed an eccentric and slightly otherworldly figure.

When Amos Schocken first approached him about the top post after the resignation of long-serving editor Hanoch Marmari, Landau was as surprised as anyone.

Religious man at secular helm

When he took up the editorship on February 12, 2004, there were many who found it difficult to believe that a such a secular institution could have a deeply religious man at its helm.

The next years were to be tumultuous. Like print newspapers elsewhere, feeling the bite of the Internet on its profits and readership, Haaretz struggled to safeguard its standards and values while adapting to a radically changing media climate. At the same time, the newspaper fought to articulate its unique voice as Israel endured series of profound traumas – disengagement from Gaza, the Second Lebanon War, and a realignment of the political order under Ariel Sharon and his successor, Ehud Olmert. Meanwhile, damaging allegations of corruption emerged regarding both men, often on Haaretz’s pages.

Within the liberal wing of Israel’s media there was a deep dilemma over the degree to which Sharon’s and Olmert’s wrongdoings should be covered while they were leading a historical shift within Likud, toward acceptance of territorial compromise with the Palestinians. Landau leaned toward the camp that felt that as long as Sharon was leading the way to a more moderate diplomatic outcome, he should be protected. Or as he said countless times – “there are a thousand much bigger injustices being carried out by Israel every day in the West Bank and Gaza.”

Despite his personal views, however, Landau allowed himself to be overruled and Haaretz led in the coverage of high-level corruption, hiring journalists who had been prevented from reporting about it in other publications. While strenuously supporting the pullback from Gaza, Landau also made sure the paper highlighted the human tragedy of the 8,000 Israeli settlers forced to evacuate.

While holding fast to Haaretz’s core liberal and secular values throughout his editorship, Landau deepened the coverage of less traditional subjects in the paper, such as those in the religious and settler communities and the Jewish Diaspora.

Landau never shied away from controversy, even when it led to fierce personal criticism. When remarks he had made in September 2007 during a closed meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in which he bluntly said he wished for the U.S. administration to “rape Israel” into making territorial concessions to the Palestinians, he did not back down, admitting that “I did say that, in general, Israel wants to be raped — I did use that word — by the U.S., and I myself have long felt Israel needed more vigorous U.S. intervention in the affairs of the Middle East.”

Evolution and an OBE

Landau’s editorship lasted four years – an evolutionary period in which the paper made a difficult transition to the editorial management of a new generation of journalists. In April 2008, he handed his post over to Dov Alfon, but his relationship with Haaretz remained close and he regularly contributed opinion pieces.

Meanwhile, he resumed work on the biography of Ariel Sharon, published to critical acclaim in early 2014. He returned to his previous job as Israeli correspondent for The Economist, writing an in-depth report on the condition of Jews around the world under the title “Alive and well.”

“We will all miss David immensely at The Economist,” said John Micklethwait, editor-in-chief of The Economist, calling him “clever, funny, politely provocative and enormously kind. David had the same strengths as a journalist. He had a great gift for empathy, for understanding others’ points of view.”

Despite living in Israel for the past four-and-a-half decades, Landau remained deeply attached to the country of his birth, and was particularly pleased when in June 2014, it was announced that he was to be appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his services to peace and relations between Israel and Britain.

His visit to London the following month to receive the honor at Buckingham Palace was Landau’s last trip abroad. When meeting Prince Charles, who gave him the award, Landau took the opportunity to urge the British royal family to change its unofficial yet longstanding policy of not making official visits to Israel.

In 2013, an inoperable tumor was discovered in Landau’s brain. Although he continued working, he found his pace and vigor rapidly decreasing; but his views remained as trenchant as ever.

Landau is survived by his wife, Jackie, his children, Dan, Emuna and Chani, and eight grandchildren.