Haaretz at 100: Always Critical, Always Independent

The paper has never hesitated to take up unpopular positions and confront both the government and readers

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The Haaretz office in Jerusalem.
The Haaretz office in Jerusalem.Credit: The Zionist Archives

Tel Aviv’s real estate problems still fill plenty of pages in newspaper business sections in June 2019, just as they did in Haaretz’s first edition, published on June 18, 1919, a hundred years ago. Following “the excessive rent demands by Tel Aviv landlords,” the paper wondered “How far the danger of profiteering can go if a remedy against it is not created in time.” The reporter warned that rent in Tel Aviv and its environs “has risen to a level that doesn’t exist anywhere and is not suited to the sources of livelihood in Eretz Yisrael.”

Haaretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper, was at first called Hadashot Haaretz and described itself as “A non-party daily paper about literature and daily life.” Reading it 100 years later one finds that most of the issues that preoccupied the Yishuv – the Jewish community in pre-state Israel – at the time are still relevant today. Along with local problems, there are reports about anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe; under the headline reading “National Mourning” surrounded by a black frame, a lamentation was published about the fate of the Jewish people: “Millions of Jews are subject to hands of small nations like sheep to slaughter and there is no shield or savior.”

The summer of 1919 was a crossroads of historic changes. A year and a half earlier the British had issued the Balfour Declaration with the promise to set up a national home for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel – then Ottoman Palestine. Shortly after that the Turks surrendered to the British and Gen. Edmund Allenby entered the gates of Jerusalem.

The Haaretz office on Maze Street in Tel Aviv, in the '30s.Credit: State Archives

Haaretz had its origins as a British military newspaper aimed at Jewish soldiers. Ten days after the paper was started, the Treaty of Versailles was signed, formally ending World War I. Soon after, the British began to assume control of Ottoman Palestine; Haaretz emerged as a daily paper when Lithuanian businessman Isaac Leib Goldberg bought it from the British army. Goldberg made the purchase after receiving a telegram from Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow, who asked him to take up the national mission of starting a newspaper for the Zionist movement.

As such, the first issue of the new newspaper expressed the Zionist worldview of its editors: Haaretz, it was promised, would be “The voice of all those who carry the flag of our national revival at the grave hour of transition from the Zionist dream to the practical, actual life in the ‘national home’ about to be built.” This approach continued during the subsequent decades. The Haaretz archive is full of celebratory headlines and flowery language, with quotations from Jewish sources and references to the Holocaust. “The vision of generations is coming true: The State of Israel has been established,” the paper reported in 1948. “After 60 hours of the Israel Defense Forces’ glorious campaign: Jerusalem’s Old City, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula are in Israel’s hands,” it wrote in 1967.

Gradual criticism

A very long time passed before the Zionist motif started fading from Haaretz’s pages. Prof. Giora Goldberg, a political scientist, examined dozens of editorials published by the newspaper ahead of Independence Day, from the founding of the state until the beginning of the 21st century. The trend was clear: During the state’s first decades, it was impossible to find even a smattering of criticism of the government in the pages of Haaretz (which had since changed owners a few times and moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv). In 1950, for example, there were explicit militaristic references in the Independence Day editorial: “Our state arose out of a political struggle and a bloody war. The hostile forces that wanted to stifle the Jewish Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael still exist and new schemes are being hatched. We cannot live in this country if we won’t know how to raise, educate and train new generations of young soldiers.”

The first edition of The Palestine News, a weekly published by the British Army, April 1918.

Two years later the newspaper declared that “There is no higher form of existence for a nation than this form” of state, and it even praised the military parade, “which succeeded in clearly demonstrating the power of the army itself.” A year after that, Haaretz adopted a particularly national and religious approach, writing that the establishment of the state is “the great miracle of our day, equal in its miraculous power to the miracle of the splitting of the sea and the miracle of Chanukah from times past.”

After the Sinai Campaign in 1956, the newspaper wrote, “We owe thanks to the IDF, which proved its strength in a brilliant operation.” Three years later it wrote, “The victims were necessary ... and all the people alive because of them should recite the lament that came to us from ancient times, ‘How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished!’” In 1963 the editorial said that had it not been for the “battles that exacted such a high price,” it would have been impossible to “continue the chain of Jewish history.” The State of Israel was described as “The fulfillment of yearnings to which the people remained loyal throughout the years of exile,” and Independence Day was a holiday “meant to ensure our continued national existence.”

After the Six-Day War, Haaretz described the IDF parade as follows: “The IDF demonstrated its strength in the victory parade in Greater Jerusalem.” But while the editorial line remained hawkish, immediately after the war the newspaper began publishing articles that criticized the occupation and called for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Indeed, the first post-war editorial said, “It is only natural that in view of the lengthening lines of graves of those who fell for the realization of our right, we will hear the voices of those who are skeptical, not about the right itself, but about whether the price invested in defending it is worth it.” But on this point the editorial board made it clear that its own position had not changed: “Time dulls the living memory of the Holocaust, but in the end there is no other answer. Our life is here, this is our place, and we’re not leaving here again.”

It was only later, as relations with Egypt began to warm, that Haaretz editorials began to use the word “peace.” “Belief in peace [is] the will of the fallen,” the paper wrote in 1978. Six years later, after the first Lebanon war, an Independence Day editorial addressed the sense that Israel was losing its belief in the justness of its path. “Israel today, on the day of its celebration, is a community beset with doubts about the necessity of its most recent war … and within it there are more than a few who are asking whether our national existence, as it is, is worthy of the price exacted in return. There is purpose in doubts. They reveal awareness of the errors and sins we’ve committed as a people.”

In 1985, Haaretz argued for the first time that the fallen had died for an unjust cause, in an editorial entitled, “Anguish on Memorial Day.” By 1988, one could see the influence the first intifada was having on the editorial stance. “There are clouds darkening the bright and encouraging picture … The victory in the Six-Day War is more than we can digest … ruling over a million and a half Arabs against their will is incompatible with the principle of national freedom for every nation, which the Zionist movement relied upon.”

A year later the newspaper backed singer Chava Alberstein, a supporter of the Palestinian struggle, to light a beacon on Independence Day. “How long with the cycle of fear, the pursuer and the pursued, the batterer and the battered, when will this insanity stop?” asked the editorial board, quoting Alberstein’s song “Had Gadya.” The next day the editorial expressed understanding of the Palestinians, who “Are not prepared to accept Israeli rule over time … political insight requires us to find a way to base Israeli security, besides on the strength of our weapons, on dialogue with this Arab community.”

Was and will be political

The front page of Haaretz's first edition, June 18, 1919.

Returning to the first issue, in the editorial one finds a manifesto that could still be studied in journalism schools today, and reading it transcends the limits of history, especially in the shadow of the case of alleged quid pro quo between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes.

“For now we will avoid exaggerated promises and try to give the Hebrew community in this land and abroad that which we can provide at this time: A modest, not particularly large daily paper, but one that is unrestricted and serious and seeks to faithfully fulfill its obligation, recognizing the great responsibility it is taking upon itself,” it says. The newspaper also promised to be “fair,” “free of all bias,” and “to stand entirely on its own”– not subject to outside influence.

In the editorial Haaretz also addressed the question that has preoccupied newspaper editors to this day: To what degree of freedom of expression is the newspaper obligated. “We are not ignoring the great difficulty there is in seeking to resolve the many complex questions that grate on our Jewish world,” the editorial board wrote. “But our desire is to examine the various opinions that prevail in different parts of our Zionist camp from a national and general standpoint, and to evaluate them in a fair and impartial manner. This aspiration will, we hope, help us put things truthfully and direct public opinion toward the correct path.”

Yet the editorial included a reservation: “It’s self-understood that despite this our newspaper will not be a ‘free platform’ for every idea or opinion, because just as on the one hand there are minimum standards for the outward look of printed items, which must be organized literarily in a fitting manner, there must especially be a limit to ‘freedom of opinion’ that cannot be exceeded in a newspaper whose general approach is governed by a program.”

Throughout the years, Haaretz has remained independent of external intervention. Its editors and owners have changed a few times, but the paper has preserved its defiant and critical line, and never hesitated to take unpopular positions and confront both the government and its readers; it supported the separation of religion and state and promotes civil rights, freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Unlike some of its rivals, Haaretz was never a party-affiliated newspaper.

In 1928, then-editor Moshe Glickson wrote that the paper “did not take upon itself to be the mouthpiece and advocate for any class of our classes or party of our parties.” He added, “The paper comes to meet the public’s needs, but it isn’t here to do its bidding, be dragged after its inclinations or stir up its feelings … Haaretz wants to be a bridge between the different parts of the nation, between the parties, ethnic groups and classes, but it doesn’t want to flatter any one of these parts or cover up its mistakes and shortcomings.”

Gershom Schocken, the paper’s editor and publisher from 1939 until his death in 1990, added another aspect. “Haaretz has never been a neutral newspaper. Haaretz has always been and will continue to be a political paper, which takes a stand on most of the questions that concern the Israeli public,” he wrote in 1977. “What seems to be causing readers quite a bit of confusion is that Haaretz does not formulate its positions based on a party line.”

That same year, Haaretz journalist Dan Margalit uncovered First Lady Leah Rabin’s illegal dollar account, while Avi Valentin documented the rise of organized crime in Israel and published the “List of 11” – the country’s top criminal bosses. Four years later Yoel Marcus revealed the plan of Menachem Begin’s government to initiate a war in Lebanon. In 2005, Marcus was the first to document Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan. In the years that followed, Haaretz reporters Gidi Weitz and Uri Blau published tough investigative reports of senior figures – among them Sharon, Ehud Olmert, Avigdor Lieberman and Netanyahu – that led to police investigations, trials, and prison terms.

Over the years Haaretz has expressed its identification with various parties, from Meretz and Labor to Likud (when it supported, for example, the policies of Netanyahu as finance minister). But unlike other papers, it always allowed divergent opinions on its pages and never boycotted the ideas of anyone who could express them articulately in writing. So it was when Amira Hass justified throwing stones at Jews in the West Bank, and when Gideon Levy accused Israel Air Force pilots of “evil, cruel and abominable acts,” and when Yossi Klein wrote that people in the national-religious community were “more dangerous than Hezbollah.” Naturally some of these opinions have generated and continue to generate strong reactions from readers.