David Landau: A Man Without Labels

For the formidable former editor-in-chief of Haaretz and founder of the Haaretz English Edition, who died this week, there was no contradiction between being an Israeli and clinging to your British roots

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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David Landau
David LandauCredit: Alex Levac
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

When I stopped wearing a kippa eight years ago, the one place I continued wearing it for a while was in the Haaretz offices, where I didn’t want to have to answer the inevitable questions. The first time I finally arrived bareheaded, I had just returned from snowy Moscow, and was suffering from a particularly bad cold. That day the paper was hosting the then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and I tried to slip into the meeting room unobserved. It didn’t help; the absence of that little fabric disc immediately became the subject of speculation.

Wheezing and coughing, I tried to evade the queries and took my place at the long table as our guest arrived and began her opening remarks. One colleague, however, thought my newly revealed heresy was more interesting than the latest developments in the peace process, and continued gesturing at my exposed cranium. When I tried to ignore her, she turned to our editor-in-chief David Landau, who was sitting between her and Livni, pointing at me and whispering urgently in his ear. He looked at her sternly and boomed out, startling the minister – “I don’t care about his kippa, he needs to see a doctor!”

David Landau, the former editor of Haaretz, founding editor of its English Edition, and to many journalists in Israel a friend, mentor and boss, was a man who put little store by labels – least of all on something as superficial as a skullcap, though he wore a big black one himself. It has been said of him that he contained many contradictions, but he wouldn’t have seen any of his beliefs or the different aspects of his personality and history as contradicting each other.

He shunned characterizations and lazy stereotypes and wouldn’t see them in others. He didn’t see why an Orthodox Jew should not be a staunch believer in human rights and abominate the occupation of another nation – and that certainly wasn’t Zionism to him. There was no contradiction between being an Israeli and clinging to your British roots, and no reason for an Israeli to feel he was any better (or worse) than a Jew living in any other country.

David was in no way blind to the terrible flaws that were long becoming evident in the country he had first come to and fallen in love with in 1965. He often railed against these flaws, the despicable treatment of minorities, the intransigence of successive governments over the peace process, the corruption of the religious establishment, with a vehemence that more than once got him into trouble. He didn’t see, though, why that invalidated his Zionism and Judaism in any way.

He was also the kind of person who would fight to get the viewpoint of those settlers and rabbis he so opposed into the pages of the newspapers he edited. He could go on a tour of Hebron with human rights organizations, and then leave the group to join the settlers for afternoon prayers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

In a society where everyone is automatically labeled and categorized in convenient political and religious pigeonholes, he was the true liberal, discerning between what were to him the fundamental issues and the fashionable causes.

Though this was an unpopular stance to take at Haaretz, he was no fan of the activist Supreme Court. When publisher Amos Schocken first offered him the editorship, in 2004, David warned him that this was one important issue on which he would not support the paper’s long-held position. He knew that this could be a deal-breaker, but he felt that he had to point it out.

His relationship with his publishers had not always been so collegial. Fifteen years earlier, he realized that he couldn’t continue working for The Jerusalem Post as the paper’s new owners veered sharply rightward, even though he knew at the time there was no other English-language outlet in the country where he could make a living.

It was his insistence that he could defy being categorized by his mother tongue that allowed him to overcome the English-Hebrew divide and continue his journalism, at the age of 43, in a language in which he had never written professionally before.

He was devoid of many of the complexes that haunt both immigrants and native Israelis, never feeling he had to prove himself more Israeli or more cosmopolitan. One of his proudest moments was accompanying his old friend President Shimon Peres on a state visit to Britain in 2008. He was infuriated when Peres’ staff left him off the official delegation list, despite his having written most of Peres’ speeches for the visit, especially when it meant that the staunch monarchist wouldn’t be there for the meeting with Queen Elizabeth in Buckingham Palace. He paid his own way to London, instead, and walking from a reception at the London Guildhall, we came to Britain’s oldest synagogue, Bevis Marks.

As we realized neither of us had been there before, we entered, but when he was told that there was an entrance fee, David immediately walked out. Instead he reunited with British Jewry over a plate of salt beef and greasy latkes in a kosher restaurant that since then has thankfully closed down.

Judaism to him was a living thing, not something to be put on display. But it was never a barrier either. He was often shunned by others, both religious and secular, who couldn’t deal with his directness and accept his views, but a dinner party at his and wife Jackie’s home would always be a diverse combination of Israelis and foreigners of every background imaginable. Quite often, they were people like themselves, who had transcended barriers.

David’s last column for Haaretz, written at the height of the Gaza conflict last summer, was the perfect example of his outlook. Examining the morality of Israel’s military strategy, he employed a talmudic argument to reach the difficult conclusion that much as Israel wanted to avoid the casualties among its own soldiers that would inevitably accompany a ground offensive, the level of civilian casualties suffered by the Palestinians from aerial attacks obligated Israel morally to send troops in on the ground.

In his last months, before the cancer spreading in his brain took away his capacity to write, he was making plans for one last book, or a collection of essays, in which he would recount how both Zionism and Judaism had been perverted and corrupted by those wielding God’s name in the service of an expansionist and immoral occupation, and chart a path to liberating those values and beliefs. It was to have been his vision of Israel and the Jewish people, one where people and actions would not be labeled by facile image and descriptions.

He failed to begin work on the book, but he succeeded in living his life by that code, as a man without labels.

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