Gideon Levy, can you express yourself freely as a journalist in Israel?
Haaretz Authors' Edition / Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa and Gideon Levy discuss media censorship and the Mideast conflict.
This article is part of a special edition of Haaretz, to mark Israel's book week.
I met Gideon Levy in Hebron five years ago, when we both went for the same reason - to find out about certain Arab families who were being harassed by Israeli settlers. He is a very committed journalist, who in his articles, reportage and columns expresses his views - usually critical of the establishment and the government - with clarity, honesty, talent and courage. I want Gideon to help me to understand the most contradictory and fascinating passion of the world today - Israeli society.
First question, Gideon: Do you think that in spite of the fact that your views generally go against the current you can express yourself freely as a journalist in Israel?
"Absolutely, yes. I don't want to exaggerate about it, because the fact that I can express myself freely should be taken for granted. It shouldn't be a big deal because we claim we are a democracy, but it should be admitted that as far as I am concerned, for almost any Jewish citizen of this state freedom of speech is total. And many times I use it to explain, abroad and here, that my voice is important, also to show that there is an alternative voice in Israel. That Israelis are finally not speaking only in one voice, in one choir, and that after all the talk about me causing damage to Israel, which is very common in Israel, the big enemy of the people, they forget one thing - that one day of heavy bombing in Gaza does much more damage than all the Gideon Levys put together. But yes, I feel free to write, to express anything that happens."
Would you say then that in Israel there is total freedom of expression and that the media reflect daily exactly what is going on, without any kind of censorship?
"Absolutely not. The media are the biggest collaborators. The media in Israel, most of them, are the biggest collaborators to the occupation. There is no censorship in Israel, almost none. There is something that is much worse than censorship, self-censorship, because in self-censorship there is never resistance. Were it government censorship, there would be resistance, but this is self-censorship. This is a tyranny of ratings, the tyranny of those who want to please the readers, the tyranny of selling newspapers and not bothering the readers with things they don't want to read. Many journalists and many newspapers and television stations in Israel forgot, or never knew, what the role of journalists is. It's not only to please the readers. So in this sense, I think that if one day a historian will go the archives and read the Israeli media, for example about Operation Cast Lead, or the occupation as a whole, he will not understand. He will not understand what happened here, because he will see that a dog - an Israeli dog - that was killed in Cast Lead was on the front page of the most popular newspaper in Israel, and in the very same day there were tens of Palestinians killed, they were on page 16, in two lines. And this is systematic, the Israeli media are dehumanizing and demonizing the Palestinians, and by doing this they are really the biggest collaborators with the occupation."
What you are saying I think is valid for not only Israel but probably all modern democracies in the West, the banalization and trivialization of the media. I've seen it happening in Israel and daily, in every possible manner, in the United States, France, Britain, Spain. Curiously, probably only in Third World countries the media are much more serious, less prone to entertaining readers rather than giving an objective description.
But I think it is much more critical in Israel because the issues at stake are much more crucial for the future. If the media in Sweden...
"A more general question..."
Israel is, from a social and economic perspective, a very great achievement. Sixty years ago there was nothing here and now you have a culture that works, very rich, prosperous, modern. Despite the wars and all the social problems Israel has grown and improved in an extraordinary way. It has integrated people from all over the world into a very complex and diverse society. But the same society that produced this miracle is so inept at solving the Palestinian problem. That's the biggest mystery.
"So much talent, so many achievements, so much courage I would say. And yet, when it comes to the official religion of Israel - security - we are all prisoners of conscience, which we never really examine. Maybe we need to start there .... It's no longer about building a state, it's about making it more just .... It's not about existence now, it's about justice. And this gap has not been breached. We still think we are building those outposts of the beginning of Zionism."
Why do you think Israeli society has been evolving - or regressing, if you prefer - toward the right and the left has been shrinking systematically for the last 10 or 15 years?
"I think first of all that it says something about how solid the left was before, that it could collapse so easily, so maybe there wasn't much left even 10 years ago. It was very easy to get elected when there was Oslo, when there were all those romantic promises. Two reasons why the left collapsed: 1. Ehud Barak succeeded in spreading the lie that there is no Palestinian partner, and 2. The exploding buses and suicide bombs in 2002, 2003."
"Terrorism. It really smashed the whole left camp. In its first real test the left failed, totally."
If you had to say, of all the problems and challenges that Israel is facing, what's the worst or most difficult to resolve, what would you say?
"To change the minds of the people, to make them understand that the Palestinians are human beings like us. Until this happens nothing will change, and this is the hardest because we are facing 40, if not 60, 100 years of brainwashing, dehumanizing, demonizing. This is the most complicated thing to do."
Uh huh. And now the last question.
Please describe the kind of Israel you would like to see in 20 years.
(Laughing ) "Me as prime minister, like you as president of Peru, meeting in Switzerland and discussing literature. Could it be any better than this?"
"So let's go for it."
Let's go for it.
"OK, we have a deal."
The writer is the author of dozens of books, including "El viaje a la ficcion," published in Spanish in 2009.