The Journalist Who Witnessed Israel's Entire History

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Yoel Marcus.
Yoel Marcus.Credit: Yanai Yechiel
Yotam Reuveny
Yotam Reuveny

The last time I had seen Yoel Marcus was more than 40 years ago. I was a young editor with Haaretz, he was a well-known columnist. Of all the paper’s columnists, he was the only one who took the trouble to come down to the press room in order to make sure that his column fit on the page. We still used lead type then, and the veteran layout man, Rosenfeld, would chuckle and say, “A page isn’t made of rubber. Even Brigitte Bardot can only give what she’s got.”

When I learned that Marcus was to be this year’s recipient of the Sokolow Prize for Journalism, for lifetime achievement, I couldn’t help but wonder how the person whose writing sanctified the present was living now that he had stopped being a working journalist. And so, four decades letter, I set off to meet him once again.

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An entire lifetime had passed since our last encounter. I doubted that he would even recognize me in the street. I came to his home, on a quiet street in Tel Aviv’s old north.

For a moment, I was stunned: It was the same person I remembered, and yet a different person too, someone on whom time has left its mark. He is still the same Yoel Marcus – elegant, curious, the man with the amazing memory, who marvels, no less than I, at the digital recorder I have brought with me, something that in our day we could only have dreamed of.

One item in the room that serves him as an office in his apartment is a humidor. In the old days, he would come to the press room with a cigar, but now he doesn’t smoke much. He still drives, and he has a collection of eyeglasses, whose prescriptions have changed as his health has changed, and in accordance with the regulations of the licensing authority. Some 12 different pairs of them sit on a chest, gazing at each other, at me, at Marcus.

He arrived in Israel from Turkey at the age of 11, in 1932, alone, via Youth Aliyah, in the wake of a family crisis. He attended school at the Kibbutz Yagur youth village, near Haifa, an institution that wasn’t really religious, but was affiliated with Hapoel Hamizrahi of the Yekkes – Jews from German-speaking countries. He didn’t have it easy as an adolescent, but he adapted and became hardened, even if he went on sleeping with his mother’s picture under his pillow, continually dumbfounded at the bizarre turn his life had taken.

After seeing combat duty in the War of Independence, Marcus looked for work. He knew he wanted to write. He started working as a journalist in 1950, writing for newspapers that are now shadows from the past: Herut, Hador, Davar, Zemanim.

Yoel Marcus, left, with David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir at the nighttime launch of the Shavit 2 rocket in July 1961.Credit: Reproduced from Bamahane

While still in his youth, Marcus began adhering to a principle that has continued to serve him his entire life, when it comes to communicating with others: first of all – information. He’d always had the feeling that he wanted to talk with his mind, do things with his mind, and therefore was meticulous about writing articles that contained information, were brief and were spiced with a little humor. The secret, he tells me, is brevity. Up to 600 words per column. No fewer, and, more important, no more.

He would divide his columns up into numbered “comments,” which were firmly rooted in the present. As someone who’s doesn’t really in live in the present, or in spite of it, I wanted to hear what Marcus had to say, from the perspective of his age, about time.

“Time?” he responds. “Time is a philosophical concept. I can’t respond to philosophical questions.”

Marcus is one of the last remaining witnesses to the entire history of the state, from its establishment, in 1948, until the present. The person sitting opposite me knew David Ben-Gurion, flesh and blood.

On one occasion, Marcus published a report in Davar about a meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, at which then-Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett spoke. He had the minutes of the meeting, and quoted from them. The next morning, he received a call from Yitzhak Navon, who was then Ben-Gurion’s secretary. “Yulik” – that was what he called Marcus – “listen here. If you got the minutes from us, how is it that you write things that Sharett didn’t say, and only attack Ben-Gurion?”

Marcus didn’t know what Navon was talking about. He’d copied straight from the minutes, and he didn’t remember having written anything about Sharett. He went down to the print room, found the item and discovered that someone had added a few lines, as editors frequently did.

His secret, he tells me, is brevity. Up to 600 words per column. No fewer, and, more important, no more.

Ben-Gurion asked to meet with Marcus. “I got there and was immediately ushered into the office,” he relates. “Ben-Gurion is sitting there, I’m sitting across from him, and Yitzhak Navon is sitting at the same table on the side. And then Ben-Gurion says to me: Are you sure? Yes, I told him. He takes a piece of paper and writes a letter to Shorer [Haim Shorer, editor of Davar, the newspaper of the Histadrut labor federation]. ‘Grave forgery,’ he headlined it. ‘A grave forgery was committed today in Davar, when 26 lines were added to Yoel Marcus’ article.’”

He counted the lines and the words?

“Yes,” Marcus smiles. “‘A grave forgery. And I demand that you correct it and ask for Yoel Marcus’ forgiveness on the front page for forging his article.’ Navon interrupted and said, ‘Ben-Gurion, listen, he’ll get fired.’ And suddenly Ben-Gurion took off a shoe, like Khrushchev, and exclaimed: That won’t happen here.” Back at the newspaper offices, on Sheinkin Street, Marcus says, he passed by Shorer’s door. “And he’s shouting, ‘What? From him I have to ask forgiveness?’”

Marcus had a special relationship with Ben-Gurion. Along with other young reporters, he worked for a party paper, and like his competitors, he was always out for scoops. An opportunity was provided by the outbreak of the great crisis in 1959 between Mapai (the ruling party at the time, forerunner of Labor) and its ally Ahdut Ha’avoda.

Ben-Gurion again called in Marcus for a meeting. “He says to me, ‘You’ – he always spoke as though he knew me – ‘are you the one who publishes on the front page?’” Ben-Gurion then revealed to the reporter that Ahdut Ha’avoda had voted in the cabinet in favor of selling arms to Germany. It turned out that Ben-Gurion had taken advantage of a moment of inattention by Yisrael Bar-Yehuda, a minister from Ahdut Ha’avoda, who was dozing, to insert into the minutes, “We sold here, we sold there and we sold to Germany.” At the end, the ministers approved the minutes, and Bar-Yehuda, a member of the coalition, also voted in favor.

Marcus: “He wasn’t following the proceedings. Turned out he was asleep. That was a big scoop. Ahdut Ha’avoda went crazy.”

Yoel Marcus interviews Levi Eshkol.Credit: Reproduced from Bamahane

He writes slowly now, he tells me; it’s not for publication and it doesn’t come easily. First he does a draft and then he proceeds to compose the article, as he has done for years, directly on the computer.

There’s a difference of 20 years in our ages. I regard the present as a passing stage about which one needn’t get overly excited, whereas Marcus is totally faithful to it. The memory of the past, yes; yearnings, no. Marcus is king of the present.

The leaders’ health

How do you work with a prime minister? Were you on the initiating side?

“Look, those were different times,” he says, and with small, agile steps brings me an espresso. He says he tried, in his work, to be as close as possible to the source of the information, to the person making the decisions. “I never buttered up anyone. Golda Meir couldn’t stand me.”

What were your relations with her?

“She didn’t like my pieces, and I was one of those who had plenty of scoops.” In one important respect, however, Marcus was different from Meir’s other critics. “Everyone said she was the ‘only man in the government,’” he relates with unabashed pleasure. “So I wrote that it wasn’t so – she’s a genuine woman. A woman with her hates, her jealousies, she is the woman. The woman with all her negative sides.”

One day, Marcus continues, Meir “briefed the foreign correspondents at Sokolow House. I sat quite far back, so she wouldn’t see me. Next to me was someone who resembled me. He had white hair, as I’ve had from an early age. He got up to ask a question – in English, of course – and she said to him: Yoel Marcus, even if you speak English I will recognize you and I will not answer you. Everyone laughed, because they knew that the correspondent and I looked alike.”

Marcus did much to push for the public being informed about its leaders’ state of health. “I remember writing in an article that [Prime Minister Levi] Eshkol wasn’t exactly ill with a cold, and the editor called and told me: Marcus, that was the last day on which we could have published your piece. I asked him why, and he said: Eshkol is dead.”

He sinks into thought, and I feel uncomfortable for possibly having taken him unawares, even though we’d scheduled a time for the conversation. I remember the day of Eshkol’s death, in 1969. I was working as a loading supervisor for the Citrus Marketing Board in the Ashdod port. I remember how the gloomy news passed from crane to crane, from person to person, and thus we learned about the death of the man who is considered the best prime minister we’ve had in this country.

“You can’t hide things, you can’t say that he has a cold and suddenly he dies of cancer,” Marcus says about any person who serves as premier. “Things like that – I touched on subjects abutting politics and abutting political behavior – were one of the things the public liked.”

'You can’t hide things, you can’t say that the prime minister has a cold and suddenly he dies of cancer.'

A big storm erupted in 1981, when he published a facetious article in Haaretz about the hospitalization of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who had slipped in the bathroom and broken his leg. “The prime minister only jested and cracked jokes,” Marcus wrote. “He did not writhe in pain and did not grind his teeth in great suffering.” Begin sent Marcus a 20-page letter in response to the article.

Marcus gets up and shows me the paper, containing Begin’s full reply, which was published next to the paper’s editorial. In the letter, Begin describes at length how he fell in the bathroom, lay on the floor, and told his wife and daughter that they would not be able to lift him and should summon a security man. At his strict directions, Begin was placed on the bed on his right side, the way he had fallen; the hospital found that he had broken a leg. I also broke a leg, Marcus says, so I can understand the pain. “Afterward, I wrote that the prime minister, too, has a right to cry.”

The letter is dated December 1, 1981. The clear handwriting is that of Yechiel Kadishai, the head of Begin’s bureau, and only the signature is that of Begin. “Kadishai was afraid that I wouldn’t want to publish the story. I said, ‘Give it to me, I’ll publish it.’” Kadishai had only one request of Marcus: “Publish it without any changes.”

“It would never have occurred to me to abridge it,” Marcus says now. “I was afraid that Kadishai would tell one of Likud’s leaders about the item, and they would go to Begin, whom they already knew was sick, and ask him to ensure that nothing would appear in Haaretz. But Begin was smart, and said that he wouldn’t cut a word.”

On the Friday that the letter was published, Marcus recalls, radio stations in Israel and abroad broadcast it. “It was very long. They read it out part by part, with music in between. There was a meeting that morning between the editors’ committee and the defense minister, and I came a little late. When I entered, everyone clapped. It was very emotional.”

“It’s not something shameful,” he adds. “He fell, he broke a leg, but you could think that he enjoyed it, next he’ll ask to have his other leg broken, too,” Marcus says with that young smile that’s the trademark of the person who became the bearer of the news of Israeli leaders’ illnesses.

Yoel Marcus interviewing then-IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin. Credit: Reproduced from Bamahane

Two years later, Marcus published the story that was headlined “a sad departure from history,” which revealed Begin’s self-imposed solitude and his effective resignation from public life. The following day, Begin offered his official resignation from the premiership.

‘A world-class scoop’

Marcus is an affable person. It’s almost impossible to be angry at him when he says harsh things with a winning smile. But he also projects remoteness. One of “Begin’s worshipers,” he relates – because that’s how it was considered in his circle, idol worship – didn’t cotton to his journalistic work. “He told me, ‘Marcus, you know, I’ve served Begin from my childhood, I absolutely licked his feet. In the end he gave you the scoop of his life – and you’ve written against him for years.’

“It’s true,” Marcus admits. “I was never anyone’s loyalist. Everyone was loyal to his leader, but me, I just didn’t give a hoot for anyone.” He adds, “Because I had a connection with Begin, I was the first to tell the news of his resignation. He suddenly stopped coming to the office, and I published a report that he spent every day at home in pajamas. That he had effectively left political life. That was a big scoop, a world-class scoop.”

What guided you in that episode, and in your professional life as a whole?

“Good instincts,” he says. “From that point of view, I had good instincts. The important thing is not to be hooked. I really did attack Begin a great deal.”

Marcus was always there, in the center, and yet a bit to the side with his notebook. I keep reminding myself that I am with one of the last witnesses to the marvelous act of the state’s establishment.

“With Yitzhak Rabin I had relations of, how shall we say, political understanding,” Marcus says. “We were on good terms, but it was always very easy to get into a bad situation with these people. I was very readable, people liked to read me, so it was important for these people to be in contact with me.”

It was PR man Rani Rahav who paved the way for regular meetings with Rabin, Marcus notes. “One day we were talking, and he says, ‘Why don’t you give Rabin a call?’ I replied that he wouldn’t want to talk to me. Rahav called Rabin on another line and said to him: Yitzhak, Yoel Marcus tells me you’re not talking to him. I was stunned. And then Rahav arranged for me to meet with Rabin on Friday afternoons at the Kirya” – the defense establishment headquarters in Tel Aviv. “For a time the meetings went on like that.

'I never buttered up anyone. Golda Meir couldn’t stand me.'

“The first time I came to Rabin,” Marcus continues, “I said to him, Listen, let’s make it as though we didn’t meet, and I’ll write as though this is what Rabin is thinking. I’d done the same with [chief of staff and cabinet minister] Yigael Yadin in the past. In that way, I could insert information into my article [without actual interviews]. Foreign correspondents knew, and they would phone and ask me, as though I were some sort of authority.”

Relations with Shimon Peres were especially tense, Marcus recalls. “He belongs to the love-hate department. When I was with Davar, I couldn’t stand it that he gave the scoops to Maariv. That was unforgivable [from the party point of view]. Not to mention that he cheated me and also cheated the people of Israel." Marcus still rankles at the thought of the Shavit 2 episode in 1961 – an attempt to send an Israeli rocket into space, which was sold to the public as a sensational success – as it happened, on the eve of a Knesset election. Marcus was sent to witness the event in the dead of night as a pool reporter, the only journalist present. Peres, then deputy defense minister, “made me an accomplice to a crime in the Shavit 2 affair,” Marcus says. “The photographer cleverly shot from above, as though it was a huge missile that was being launched, but I, who was supposed to write for all the papers, wasn’t enthusiastic. I felt that something was wrong. I just couldn’t put a finger on it. Golda was there. I remember that after the launch, which was as ridiculous as a child’s rocket at Purim, she said: For this they woke me up at 3 in the morning?”

Marcus says that today, “it’s acknowledged that what I saw was some sort of small device,” and not a great aerospace breakthrough.

Not one paper published Marcus’ report about the launch. “I wrote with irony,” he says. “Peres was furious. ‘That’s not writing,’ he said. I told him: Listen, I’m a pool reporter. I’m not a reporter who works for you, and I’m not about to lend a hand to something that’s not right.”

What were your relations with him like after that?

“The relations remained tense. Occasionally I chose a ‘person of the year.’ One year I chose Peres, and wrote that he was actually the person who started the settlements. That infuriated him.”

Some weeks later, Marcus relates, “I get a phone call from him – he was by then president ... He says, ‘Hey, you bastard. I established the settlements? Me? I am the man of peace.’ You could hear that he was losing it. At the end he said, ‘Bastard’ and slammed down the receiver. That was the last time we spoke.”

Who doesn’t remember Sebastia – the West Bank settlement founded without authorization in 1975 when Peres was defense minister – I ask Marcus. And who doesn’t know about the funds that were channeled into the settlements? But Peres didn’t want to address that.

A note of anger enters Marcus’ voice: “I said to Peres, I don’t understand how you can deny it. Say that it’s true, I was there... You got a compliment, so be quiet.”

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, right, listens to his Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, during a session in the Knesset, March 2, 2005. Credit: AP

You got your biggest story from Ariel Sharon, who informed you about the Gaza disengagement plan in 2005.

“We really did have good relations,” Marcus says, “but the big scoop was thanks to television.”

Television?

“Yes. I came for a conversation with Sharon, via taxi from Tel Aviv, even though Sharon had offered to send a car to pick me up. The taxi waited for me [while we talked]. I was on the way back to Tel Aviv, to the paper, when his adviser called me and asked: Did he give it to you for publication? I said: He didn’t say it’s not for publication. Right away I realized it was a scoop, but I told myself: Don’t say ‘wow.’ Nothing. But it wouldn’t have made a difference. It was clear that Sharon intended for it to be published. I learned that he was about to declare it in a meeting of Likud MKs that afternoon. At that moment, I thought: There goes the scoop, because it’s going to be on television this evening. If he announces it today, I’m only in the next day’s paper. In the taxi I started to write down what I had heard.

“At the paper, I spoke with the editors, Hanoch Marmari and Yoel Esteron, and suddenly Marmari said: You know what, let’s publish it on the Haaretz website. I said: That’s an idea. I wrote a sensational report quickly, and we published it. Within minutes it was in the headlines around the world. I started to get calls from The New York Times and other papers: Give us the [full] story. But I didn’t give anything, because my English isn’t ... And I didn’t want to screw myself, you see? It was a major scoop, and to this day, it’s my biggest scoop.”

What do you think of the disengagement now, from a distance of time?

Marcus weighs his words. “I think it was important. It wasn’t properly appreciated. The settlers got screwed, but it was an act of leadership.

“Sharon was a piece of work. For example, he would call in the diplomatic correspondents for briefings. He would say: You’re not allowed to publish this. Afterward he would call me and tell me the same thing over the phone. He’s in Jerusalem, I’m here. Once, while driving, I stopped to listen and write down what he was saying. And then he asked: Will it be [in the paper] tomorrow? I told him: Yes, it will be in the paper tomorrow. But what about the diplomatic correspondents, who were told not to publish this? The editor, Marmari, said – we’ll publish both of you, you and the diplomatic reporter. This way no one can come to him with complaints.”

In '83, Marcus revealed Begin’s effective resignation from public life. The following day, Begin offered his official resignation from the premiership.

“I loved my job,” Marcus says. “There aren’t many people who love their job, but I did, I loved it very much. I always tried to come up with something new. I think I was a good reporter.”

Keeping it brief

What do you have to say about Benjamin Netanyahu?

“Netanyahu is a big failure. There have been people who wanted to persuade me that that wasn’t the case, but they didn’t succeed. He would call me from the United States, and when he got back to Israel he would speak to me and ask for my opinion about the situation. After he lost the election following his first term [in 1999], he stubbed out a cigar in the cake that had been prepared [for the occasion], and even the waitresses were stunned. In another talk, he told me: Yoel, you toppled me. On the other hand, [Haaretz publisher] Amos Schocken sent me six bottles of Grand Reserve wine.”

You excel in conciseness. How do you do it?

Marcus smiles with pleasure. “I have a mania – precisely because in Davar they wrote these incredibly lengthy pieces, and I didn’t go past 600 words: 520, 580, that’s it. The long articles covered half a page, like the one on Begin, but that’s very rare. For example, about the Lebanon War. I wrote a tremendous article [in Haaretz] and signed it, ‘By the father of a soldier in Lebanon.’ My son really was there, poor guy, at the time. And the article appeared everywhere in the world, it’s just unbelievable. Like my report about Begin’s end.

“I had scoops in the articles. Not a prattling article, there was always a news item. People knew, including the night editors, who would always say, If there’s a Marcus article, read it carefully, there might be a news item hidden in it.”

Yoel Marcus.Credit: Yanai Yechiel

Did the paper always back you up?

“One time there was a meeting with the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, [Mordechai] Motta Gur. It was on the record, and I just wrote: Better a silent chief of staff than a talking chief of staff. It was due to appear on Sunday. But the [military] censors killed it. Gershom Schocken [the paper’s publisher from 1939 to 1990] spoke to the chief censor. He explained to him that it was a public appearance by the chief of staff, and that a journalist has the right to form an impression from what he hears. What did the censor say? ‘But Yoel Marcus presented him as dumb.’ It’s quite possible that I depicted him as dumb, but Schocken, who always had balls, just published it even though it had been blue-penciled. Haaretz was fined.”

You actually consider yourself a reporter, not a columnist.

“I am a reporter. In the end, I am not a think-piece person.”

I glance at the paintings and other pictures on the walls of his study. “Here,” Marcus says, “you see drawings that were published in Haaretz. Except for the middle one, the one with the colors. That one, I painted. There was a stage in my life when I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a painter or a journalist. I knew how to do caricatures, I could paint portraits, and I would paint the person who was speaking.”

Was there a crisis that made you stop writing in Haaretz?

“No. I just felt that it was enough. And no, I don’t miss it. I wrote enough.”

Do you think about death?

“Sometimes, but not much. I thought about death more when I was young. And even when I was a boy in Turkey, and I heard my mother talking to an aunt about someone who died, and I was really afraid of it. Now death doesn’t occupy me.”

Yotam Reuveny is a poet and a journalist, whose latest novel (in Hebrew) “Ashdodim,” is a nominee for the 2017 Sapir Prize in Literature.

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