David Landau: Mentor, Friend and Shield Against Complacency

Marking the 30th day after Landau's passing, Peter Hirschberg recalls the indelible imprint the former editor of Haaretz English Edition left on the lives of many.

Peter Hirschberg
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Former Haaretz editor-in-chief David Landau
Former Haaretz editor-in-chief David LandauCredit: Moti Milrod
Peter Hirschberg

In the first few days after succeeding David Landau as editor of Haaretz English Edition, a decade ago, I was confronted with a crisis. A young staffer, left unsupervised on the night desk, had written a potentially libelous caption about a rabbinical leader that found its way into the newspaper. I went to David, who by then was immersed in his new position as editor-in-chief of Haaretz, to seek guidance.

It’s your problem now, he grinned. That was David – surprising, direct, mischievous and ultimately inspiring. It was his way of saying: I’ve passed the baton on to you. I have confidence in you. Now run with it.

David, who died last month at the age of 67 after battling cancer for almost two years, left an indelible imprint on the lives of many people. I am fortunate to be one of them.

On more than one occasion, he reached in – sometimes with disarming bluntness, other times with infectious enthusiasm – and influenced the trajectory I was on. I can still hear his booming voice down the line as he stood on a rocky outcrop on the Golan Heights, after I had already left Haaretz and he was no longer the editor, chastising me for procrastinating over a job opportunity.

Conversations with David were never predictable. My job interview, when he plucked me from relative obscurity to come work with him at Haaretz 15 years ago, was no different. He sat on the grass overlooking the Haas Promenade in Jerusalem – wearing a collared shirt, shorts and white socks pulled up high – and spoke about everything but the job. My mind was made up long before that meeting ended.

David demanded rigor. Not just factual accuracy but intellectual honesty. If you fell short, he could be biting in his criticism. And he could dispense tough love, the type I encountered that first week as editor of Haaretz English Edition.

But he also knew how to praise. It was never a mundane “good job” or “nice article.” It was done in a way that affirmed and energized.

Print those articles you’ve written and go show them to Hanoch, he would say, referring to Hanoch Marmari, then the paper’s editor-in-chief. Or, why was your story so short, I wanted to read more. The ultimate compliment he could bestow was that an article had met with his wife Jackie’s approval.

David’s intellectual clarity and dexterity dazzled us all. His iconoclasm rattled some. His outspoken criticism of what he saw as an overly interventionist Supreme Court was one example. It put him in a small minority at the newspaper he edited.

For young reporters, David’s willingness to think “heretical” thoughts was intoxicating. If he could so brazenly debunk conventional wisdom, we could too.

Even though he led a very public existence, David had a deep capacity for intimacy. It was this quality that drew so many people to him.

So did his capacity for self-doubt, and his ability to acknowledge it. This was never more evident than when he was asked by Amos Schocken to become editor of Haaretz. We were sitting in his office when Amos knocked on the door one day. It was unusual for the paper’s publisher to come downstairs to the offices of the English edition. I quickly left.

Amos had come bearing a courageous offer – that David should assume the helm at his newspaper. David was incredulous. This isn’t natural, he said. I’m not one of them. It can’t work.

It did. To many, it seemed incongruous – a deeply religious Jew at the helm of a devoutly secular newspaper. But David inhabited many worlds and moved seamlessly between them. For him, there was no contradiction between chairing an editorial meeting at Haaretz and a few hours later studying Talmud. Between being an observant Jew and a left-wing, pragmatic Zionist. Or harboring a deep skepticism of non-Orthodox Judaism and attending my daughter’s bat mitzvah in a non-Orthodox synagogue.

Experiences weren’t allowed to pass by undigested. After praying on the balcony of our apartment building in Hong Kong, David was elated. I would never have done that while traveling in Europe, he said, alluding to a deepening hostility there toward Jews. Here, in Asia, I feel completely comfortable praying in public.

When we met in July, the ravages of cancer were evident. But David was sharp that day. And, as always, candid. We spoke for several hours. It was a different conversation. Less about politics or religion or the plight of the Jewish people. More about mortality.

I sensed then that it may be the last time I would experience the gift of his company. It was. But David will always be with us, keeping us humble, shielding us from complacency and reminding us that it is love and friendship that infuse our lives with meaning.

Peter Hirschberg is Asia Investigative Editor at Reuters, based in Hong Kong.

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