Journalist Yehudaf Litani, who covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades for Haaretz, died Wednesday in his home in Hod Hasharon at age 78. He was one of the first Israeli journalists to expose the injustices of the Israeli occupation in the Palestinian territories.
Litani was born in Jerusalem in 1943 in the British Mandate of Palestine. His father, Chaim (Henrik) Leitazen, made Aliyah to pre-state Israel in 1939 from Poland, settled in Jerusalem and opened a gold- and silver-smithing workshop. His mother, Nechama, was from Jerusalem’s Patt family, who owned a café and bakery on Hanevi’im Street in the city.
Even in his youth in the 1950s, Litani demonstrated a humane approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. He organized a protest among his friends at Jerusalem’s Hebrew Gymnasium high school after their Arab friend Khalil, from the Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa in the capital, was not allowed to join the Gadna pre-military program.
Their protest worked. Prof. Shulamit Shahar, who taught at the high school, said of their demonstration years later: “Yehuda was the active spirit and catalyst of the whole story. They besieged the principal’s office, laid out their demand and it was accepted. Khalil went with them to Gadna activities,” she said.
Litani’s brother Danny said “the seeds of his activism were sown there, when he protested the injustice he saw later in the West Bank.”
In high school, he was in the Middle East studies track. He was drafted into the IDF in 1961 and served in the 8200 intelligence unit. After he was discharged from the army, Litani went to New York for a few years, where he studied advertising and worked in the Israeli consulate decoding messages. In a 2019 Haaretz article, Litani wrote that he was once called in urgently to the consulate late at night, to decode a telegram that arrived from the Israeli ambassador in Washington. It was addressed to Foreign Minister Golda Meir, who was in New York at the time, and Litani was given the task of bringing the telegram to Meir by hand.
“Our foreign minister was revealed to me in a nightgown, her black hair with white wildly strewn about,” wrote Litani. “Here was this famous figure standing before me, her face serious and lined with wrinkles. Here was the well-known, much-discussed nose. She held a smoking cigarette and invited me into the room. I brought an urgent telegram that was sent to you by ambassador [Avraham] Harman in Washington,” he told her. “Golda immediately answered: 'Urgent shmurgent, everything can wait!' and ordered him tea and chicken soup."
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When he returned to Israel, Litani studied Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and worked at the Kol Yisrael radio station and in television. In the early 1970s, he served as the spokesman of the military government in the West Bank, under the command of Maj. Gen. Rafael Vardi.
From 1972 to 1985, he covered the Palestinian territories for Haaretz, and later was also the paper’s diplomatic correspondent. Litani made a name for himself as a field reporter, and along with Danny Rubinstein, who covered the territories for the newspaper Davar at the time, he was considered an expert in the area.
“He revealed to Israelis an entire world that they didn’t know about,” said his brother Danny. His articles and stories shed light on new angles to the conflict, and did so in an innovative way. He met with Palestinian political leaders as well people on the street, and won great respect at the newspaper and among readers for his coverage.
In 1982, he published an article with the headline: “Trespassers at the border of the widow,” which described the injustice of the occupation in Hebron. “In April 1968, the labor minister at the time, the late Yigal Alon, visited Hebron, with the settlers who lived at the time in the Park Hotel. Alon gave them the blessing ‘Blessed is he who established the border of the widow.” The blessing is for building, or rebuilding, a community in the Land of Israel – similar to a woman who is left widowed and now returns to her home. “This week, in Hebron, I saw how the border of the widow is trespassed on, the orphans are harassed and terror and fear are cast on a family whose entire sin is that it lives beyond the fence of Kiryat Arba. The windows of the house of the Da’ana family were broken many times, twice a hand grenade was thrown at the house, and all this with the goal of dispossessing the family of its property,” he wrote.
In an article published in 1999 in the Seventh Eye newspaper, Litani accused Haaretz of preventing him in the early 1980s from writing about the torture a Palestinian from Jerusalem was subjected to by the Shin Bet security service. “One summer’s evening, in the early 1980s, a young Palestinian resident of Hebron came to the Haaretz office in Jerusalem and asked to speak to me. He told me about a harsh interrogation in the Shin Bet facilities in the military government building in Hebron,” wrote Litani.
After delving into the details, he said, “I didn’t believe most of the information he gave me at the beginning. I heard many stories before that – including from friends who served in the reserves in the territories and described to me down to the smallest detail physical abuse they were present for – but the horror that the young man spun outdid them all…Most of the details of the story were unimaginable for me. I simply didn’t believe that such things were possible of the Israeli rule,” wrote Litani.
But after he cross-referenced the story with his sources, Litani was convinced that it was completely true. But, in a meeting of the editorial management of Haaretz, “what became the target of the attacks at the management meeting was not the Shin Bet, but me,” he wrote. His friends in the senior editorial staff, “who knew how to convincingly present ‘liberal’ and bleeding heart positions in the articles they wrote, went out of their minds in that meeting to prove to the other participants that because he was so busy with Palestinians and Arabs, Yehuda Litani had become an Arab himself, with an overdeveloped eastern imagination. One of them even said that he understood me, because in order to cover the Palestinians I needed to identify with them, but the story I brought seemed to him to be ‘nonsense and primitive Arab propaganda.’”
Later he worked for the Jerusalem Post. One of the missions he was sent on was to cover the official visit of then-Finance Minister Shimon Peres to Poland in 1989, just before the fall of the Communist regime. “After 24 (!) shots of vodka and a rich meal, the man looked at his finest,” described Litani in a 2019 Haaretz article. “It seemed to me, who was younger than him by a few decades, that within a few minutes I should expect to physically collapse. I was yawning and dozing off, my eyes were red, my eyelids were sometimes falling shut involuntarily – I felt that my entire body was crying out for sleep, or at least a rest, and Shimon Peres was conducting a conversation with his neighbor as if the evening had just begun.”
The next day, wrote Litani, Peres collapsed. “Suddenly I saw him lying on the floor and the health minister bending over him and trying to help him. A Red Cross team arrived within seconds and Peres was rushed on a stretcher toward the elevator with the health minister in tow.” Later, after Peres received medical treatment, “suddenly we saw Shimon Peres in a wheelchair, white as chalk, leaving the treatment room. He motioned to us to come to him. When we came, he said quietly: I’m asking you not to write a single word about this! And not a word to [his wife] Sonia! Got it?” wrote Litani.
During the same visit, Litani wrote, then-Polish prime minister Mieczysław Rakowski was completely drunk by the time he finished hosting Peres, and began cursing the Jews: “You invented Communism... but the Polish people didn’t accept it… Yes, yes, it’s all because of you,” he wrote.
“Peres leaned over to me and whispered in my ear: Don’t say a word, he’s totally drunk and will regret everything he said tomorrow morning,” wrote Litani. “I’ll answer him something and we’ll get out of here. Don’t say a single word! Even though we also drank exactly like the Polish provincial secretaries and the head of their party, we were the only two sober people in the huge dining room… Shimon Peres got up from his chair and said a few polite words – thank you very much for an interesting evening, or something like that – grabbed me hard by the arm, and led me out to the corridor. When we went to the cloakroom, he muttered through his teeth: It’s strange, what happened this evening,” wrote Litani.
Alongside his coverage of the conflict with the Palestinians, Litani was also an expert in two other fields: Ireland and hummus. “Ever since I went to Ireland for the first time, I felt great attraction to and admiration for the Irish in the north, Catholics and Protestants both. Maybe because of their special situation, similar in a number of ways to our situation in Israel,” he wrote in Haaretz in 1995.
“The Irish poets and writers dealt with a situation similar to our situation, almost identical ‘materials’ in a different reality. But there the conflict began at the beginning of the 17th century, and they are old hands and more experienced than us, and it seems (and maybe I’m not objective) that the writers there are better than us at describing, with sometimes shocking honesty, the gloomy situation in which they are living. Maybe because of hundreds of years of conflict, maybe because of their different nature.”
He wrote a book about hummus: “Not on Hummus Alone,” (in Hebrew) which combined a survey of hummus joints with the food’s local history and culture. “When Arabs prepare hummus, it is usually better than the hummus Jews make,” he said. “It’s about history.” His brother Danny wondered in the film he made about him: “How can you come from a well-known Polish family with gefilte fish, to being a world-famous expert on hummus?”
Litani continued publishing his eye-opening articles in Haaretz in the 1990s and 2000s. He is survived by his wife Levana, who he met when she served as an officer in the military government, three children and grandchildren. His brother, Danny, is married to Tami Litani, who was the deputy editor-in-chief of Haaretz.