Daniel Ben-Simon: Why I'm Leaving Journalism for Politics

Acclaimed Haaretz reporter on immigrating to Israel, life in journalism, and the jump to politics.

I don't know when it happened. Maybe on that day when the composition teacher was handing back eighth-grade essays. He went from student to student, making comments and returning graded papers. He skipped only me. We sat straight and tense, as befitted students at the Ecole Normale Hebraique boarding school in Casablanca, Morocco, considered the country's best.

I didn't know what to do with myself. Was the teacher about to humiliate me? And then he stood up and read my entire essay out loud to the class. It was about a classmate who had disappeared secretly from school, as if the earth had swallowed him, until I found out he had gone to the Holy Land with his family.

"I don't know what you want to be when you grow up," Solly Levy told me after reading my essay, "but if you'll pardon me, I suggest you become a journalist or an author." The idea had never before occurred to me, but after that, nothing could deter me.

Immigrating to Israel, and particularly the absorption experience, shaped my journalism, positioning me on the underside of Israeli society. I spent my first years here in the company of students whose choppy Hebrew attested to their incomplete integration. They were sent to agricultural boarding schools to acquire vocational skills. They studied welding, mechanics and farming. Only a few got to study academic subjects.

Shortly after being hired by Haaretz, I was invited to meet then editor in chief Hanoch Marmari. A year earlier, in May 1996, the newspaper Davar had closed, and I was thrown out of work. Davar's publisher, the Histadrut labor federation, was reinventing itself. Israel of the 1990s revered capitalism, and Davar had become a millstone around the new Histadrut's neck.

At that meeting, I proposed to Marmari that I cover rural areas and marginal groups in Israeli society. I brought with me miserable memories of my days in boarding school and life in immigrant towns. The 1996 election strengthened my drive to focus on distress: It revealed an Israel that was more a loose federation of tribes than a normal state. The well-to-do areas voted heavily for the left, headed by Shimon Peres, while the poor and downtrodden gave Benjamin Netanyahu's right a handy majority.

As a Haaretz reporter, I visited remote towns and godforsaken locales. I discovered another world, distant and scarred. Virtually two countries living side by side. I met native Israelis still struggling with their parents' difficult absorption. I met new immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia and elsewhere, sent to live in southern Israel and unable to find their place.

I was divided. I lived in central Israel, but felt tied to those far-flung places that seemed like the Third World. As the country got wealthier, the poor multiplied. I witnessed the market economy at work.

I entered journalism to help shape Israeli society. For years, I never missed an opportunity to turn a periscope on that other, invisible Israel. I used any available platform to warn of the increasing inequality and loss of solidarity. I am not sure I succeeded.

I cannot forget my shock upon learning that Kiryat Malachi, the town most harmed by the market economy, was about to grant then finance minister Netanyahu, honorary citizenship. In a shady political deal, Mayor Motti Malka granted honorary citizenship to the man who bankrupted his town. This and other incidents made me wonder: What power does the journalist have, and how much can he change the world? Investigative journalism could not keep pace with political corruption. In a single year, a prime minister, a president, a finance minister, a welfare minister and a minister without portfolio found themselves in the dock or under investigation.

Today, at 54, after 25 years as a journalist, I leave with a sense of both frustration and accomplishment. I tried to sound the alarm of worsening poverty, but the political system ignored it. At all the political conventions I covered, there was not one single discussion that did not relate to Gaza or the settlements or borders or Jerusalem or threats from Iran or Hamas or Hezbollah. The political system was enslaved to the external threat, real or imagined.

I feel I have not managed to help the weaker classes through journalism. Therefore, I leave the profession sadly but without regret. In recent months, as I told people of my plans, many found it hard to believe: Why politics? Why Labor? What's wrong with the media? Some wondered if I knew what I was doing, others questioned my sanity.

But mostly, I encountered apathy - which in politics, is cancer. Every meeting screamed gloom and frustration. Gloom at the situation of Israeli politics and frustration at the inability to change. People came to those meetings to scream to me about the country they have lost and their extinguished hopes.

That is not good. I covered the French election last year and saw hundreds of thousands in the streets and at the polls, an impressive act of living, breathing democracy. A similar spark is evident now in the United States. Only at home do we see democracy fading.

At every meeting, I heard metaphors from the battlefield: You'll be eaten alive. Eliminated, destroyed. That is how the Israeli public sees Israeli politics: ruthless, take no prisoners.

But I am jumping in anyway. To change. To influence from the inside. To shape a different agenda. To bring the public closer to politics. To pave the way for others. To signal that there is another way.

Because we have had too many wars, too many dead and injured. And because there is too much poverty, too much misery and too many young people with no future. I want to change that reality. So I am jumping in. I am sure that Solly Levy would understand.