David Landau and His Bid to Repair the World

The late editor battled every bit of egotism, whether of the settlers or the left. He had his faith behind him.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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David Landau
David LandauCredit: Alex Levac
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

I read the interview David Landau gave in 2005, immediately after Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, to Sivan Rahav-Meir and Yedidya Meir in their Hebrew-language book “Yamim Ktumim” (“Orange Days”). It was easy to imagine him espousing those thousands of pointed words, firing them out with enthusiasm, anger and humor in his thick English accent that always made people suspicious. How could he be so fluent and precise in Hebrew too?

Yes, he fired in every direction, but he also spoke about his religious world. When he discussed the phrase “repairing the world in God’s kingdom,” recited at the end of the three daily prayer sessions, he particularly came alive.

“I get more excited about these verses than any other verses of prayer. They give me a boost to continue with my day. They tell me: There is reason for hope, there is something to grasp on to, there is something to look forward to, there is something to imagine, there is something to aspire to.”

And that was the reason for working on a grand scale, speaking in big words, aiming high, with airs to be a journalist and repair the world in God’s kingdom.

Challenging the exalted rabbis

I carefully read that interview. It summarized the broad and reasoned worldview of a boss I had good reason to be in awe of. He was a tough editor, spewing advice and criticism, whether on the phone, in person by email or by any other medium.

But he was also encouraging and complimentary. He didn’t fear ambitious projects, he insisted on going beyond ordinary coverage and getting people to talk who didn’t normally talk. This included exalted rabbis.

He toured with us around the Gaza settlements, and later at the northern border during the Second Lebanon War. He demanded that we — and he too — understand everything in a wider context, one thing inside another, but without boasting. He was the one to burst every bubble, every opinion, every working assumption, every bit of egotism.

Arguing with the settlers up close

He demanded that I convey the thinking of every community I covered and detested the patronizing approach of “we’re all Jews” — we’re all obliged to reconcile with one another. In addition to knowing how to tell a good story, he demanded that wounds be scratched, discrepancies be found, ideology be confronted and truth be distilled — but not from a sociological or arrogant viewpoint. Rather, we were to understand that this was where we lived, that this was a story that needed to be told — to repair the world, perhaps.

He denounced the settlements, sometimes using religious reasoning, but he always insisted on quarreling with the settlers face to face. He demanded that free copies of Haaretz be sent to the people evicted from their homes in the Gaza settlements. He encouraged reporters to sit among them and disdained the left that debated with itself about itself by itself.

These are the lessons he left as a legacy. Israelis — including many of the people he worked closely with — had a hard time pigeonholing him. Was he religious? Was he ultra-Orthodox? So how was it he had such left-wing, critical views, and how did he reconcile this with his Zionist fervor?

Whenever he criticized anything, the Hasidism of his childhood came to the fore, including during the years of his illness. I recently facilitated an interview he gave to the ultra-Orthodox magazine Mishpacha; one topic was his religious worldview.

But he gave the interview on one condition: that he speak about his study of Hasidism, about his exploits with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, about his relationship with the rabbis who have headed the Gur Hasidic dynasty, and about his little synagogue.

And he demanded that the magazine give him one last chance to convince the ultra-Orthodox to reforge an alliance with the left.

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