The Untold Story of Haaretz's First Days

The manual printing press, the feminist article by Jabotinsky and the resignation that jolted the paper's staff. A return to the early days of Haaretz, on the occasion of the centenary of its founding

Mordecai Naor
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Haaretz's Jerusalem office.
Haaretz's Jerusalem office.Credit: The Zionist Archives

Joy reigned in Jerusalem on Wednesday, June 18, 1919: For the first time in two years a daily newspaper in Hebrew was available. The Great War had ended seven months earlier, and the city was still licking its wounds after four arduous years, filled with hunger, disease and arrests. Notices on the preceding days announced the appearance of a new daily paper: Hadashot Haaretz (“News of the Land [of Israel]”).

The first copies went on sale close to midday and were snapped up immediately. A few readers who waited next to the printers helped in operating the manual printing press, as Shlomo Zaltzman, the paper’s manager, recounted in his memoirs. Toward evening the first copies reached tiny Tel Aviv, and there, too, they sold like hotcakes. The paper didn’t make it to most of the other Jewish communities in Palestine until the next day.

Hadashot Haaretz inaugurated a new era in the annals of the press in the Land of Israel. It continues to appear today under the name Haaretz, and this week marked its centenary. However, the history of Haaretz also has a prehistory. About a year and a quarter before the first copies were printed, its progenitor appeared in the form of News from the Holy Land, the Hebrew-language version of The Palestine News, published, however surprising it may sound, by the British Army.

In late 1917, the British captured the southern part of Palestine, including Jaffa and Jerusalem, from the Turks, while the latter continued to hold the country’s center and north. To provide information to the tens of thousands of soldiers who were in Sinai and southern Palestine, and to the subjects under their rule, the British put out a weekly newspaper called The Palestine News. It was published in no fewer than six languages: English, Arabic and Hebrew, as well as in three Indian dialects, for the thousands of Indian nationals seconded to the British expeditionary force. The first issue of the Hebrew edition appeared on April 4, 1918 (cost: “one Egyptian piastre”). After one issue, the name was shortened, the word “holy” being deleted – the British discerned that that designation was attributed to the land only in the Hebrew version.

Old news

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

News from the Land, whose editorial staff was in Cairo, was published weekly for exactly one year. Some of its issues were augmented with a literary supplement edited by the writer S. Ben-Zion. After the war ended, the British closed down the newspapers, while putting their licenses up for sale. The Zionist Federation decided to buy the Hebrew-language edition and civilianize it – but, as usual, was short of funds. Chaim Weizmann, then the rising head of the Zionist movement, sent an urgent cable to the businessman and philanthropist Isaac Leib Goldberg, in Russia, requesting that he purchase the license.

Goldberg’s response was positive. A few weeks after the closure, he arrived in the country with Shlomo Zaltzman, who had experience in publishing Jewish newspapers in Russia, and the paper was placed at his disposal. His idea was to publish it as a daily in Jerusalem under the name “Haaretz” (The Land). The British balked at a name that seemed overly “Zionist,” and as a compromise one letter was dropped from the original Hebrew name: Instead of News from the Land, the new name would be News of the Land. The subhead described the essence of the new paper: “A daily newspaper for matters of life and literature.”

Goldberg received a dowry from the management of the military weekly: the subscription list. The first issues of the paper under the new publisher carried a prominent notice: “All subscribers whose whose renewal date had not passed when the newspaper was transferred [to the new owners], will continue to receive the newspaper Hadashot Haaretz as per their account.”

Over the next few weeks, Goldberg and Zaltzman created the editorial board. As editor-in-chief they chose Nissan Turov, a teacher and the headmaster of Levinsky Teachers College and an editor of educational publications. Among the members of the editorial staff were some of the leading intellectuals of the Yishuv, as the pre-1948 Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine was known: Moshe Smilansky, Mordechai ben Hillel Hacohen, Yitzhak Epstein, Abraham Ludvipol and also Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who afterward founded the Zionist Revisionist movement. An important plus for the paper was the agreement of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the reviver of the Hebrew language, and his son, Itamar Ben-Avi, both of whom had spent the war in the United States, and returned to Palestine to assist with the new newspaper.

The first daily edition consisted of eight pages in a broadsheet format of 30 x 45 centimeters. It contained numerous articles, but few news reports. Still, readers learned that people in Tel Aviv were bitter about the price of housing, with rents having “risen to a height that does not exist anywhere and is not compatible with the sources of livelihood in the Land of Israel.” According to another report, the soldiers of the 39th Hebrew Battalion of the British army, stationed in Sarafand (now the IDF’s Tsrifin base), weren’t fluent in Hebrew and were taking a special class, one of whose lecturers was the officer Ze’ev Jabotinsky. A lengthy report on the back page dealt with the mysterious death of Aaron Aaronsohn, one of the most prominent figures in the Yishuv. He was killed when the small military plane he was traveling in from London to Paris crashed in the English Channel. The fact that this had taken place five weeks earlier wasn’t mentioned in the report.

The Haaretz office in Jerusalem.Credit: The Zionist Archives

Resounding resignation

Within a short time of its founding, the newspaper endured two major crises. The editor, Dr. Turov, decided to leave after less than a month. His name as editor disappeared as of the 23rd issue (July 14, 1919), replaced by a list of six “regular contributors” whose names appeared prominently on the first page: Yosef Luria, Jacob Fichman, Abraham Ludvipol, Shmuel Perlman, Mordechai ben Hillel Hacohen and Moshe Smilansky. For the next four and a half months, the collegium of contributors whose names appeared on the front page, headed the paper, while the name of the publisher, Goldberg, was noted on the back page. Turov’s resignation was ascribed to his poor health, but the truth came out in his memoirs, published years later. “I felt that I had fallen into a trap,” he wrote. “Promises made to me were not honored. I did not get the required help. The technical means of printing were extremely primitive.”

An even more resounding resignation came in the form of an announcement by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and his son in mid-July that they had decided to launch a daily newspaper of their own. They formed an editorial board within a few weeks, and the first edition of their publication, Doar Hayom, appeared on August 8, 1919. The editor-in-chief was the son, Itamar Ben-Avi.

According to Ben-Avi’s later explanation, there were two reasons for his and his father’s resignations. First, Hadashot Haaretz was not a newspaper, but “a journal edited by authors.” To illustrate, he noted that one evening while he still worked for the paper, he happened to be in the main post office in Jerusalem, where he saw a cable from London addressed to British military headquarters in Palestine. The cable reported an unprecedented aviation achievement: Two English fliers had for the first time crossed the Atlantic, from Canada to Ireland. Ben-Avi rushed to the newspaper and asked to stop the presses, so he could insert the thrilling news. Zaltzman, the manager, refused; In his view, the report could wait for the following issue, and in any case no reader in the country would find the report in another newspaper.

The second reason had to do with the paper’s language. Ben-Eliezer and Ben-Avi wrote in “Jerusalem” Hebrew, but the copy editors were from the “Russian” school of Hebrew, which to the reviver of the language and his son resembled Diaspora Hebrew. They insisted that their style remain untouched, but their demand was rejected.

Itamar Ben-Avi looked back unfondly at his short stint with Hadashot Haaretz. He offered his opinion in an emphatic comment that he repeated on numerous occasions during the following decade: “Haaretz is indeed a decent newspaper, but it’s not a newspaper. Doar Hayom may not be decent – but it is a newspaper.” (He was referring to the editorial in the first issue of Hadashot Haaretz, which stated that the public in the country “yearned for a decent newspaper”; in the same vein, they sometimes ridiculed Haaretz as “the decent newspaper.”)

Without intrigues

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

Although it was a daily, Hadashot Haaretz did not appear every day. Most of the printer’s employees were ultra-Orthodox, and were very strict in their observance of Shabbat and the Jewish holidays. Thus the Saturday evening shift was sometimes understaffed, causing the cancellation of the Sunday edition. During Sukkot of 1919, the printers refused to work on the intermediate days, and as a result, the paper wasn’t published for 11 days.

There was no electric power in Jerusalem back then, and the printing press was operated manually by several stout fellows. Fortunately for them, the press run was not large – no more than a few hundred in the initial period – so that after two hours of work, the paper, which ranged from four pages on weekdays to six pages on Friday, was ready for distribution.

Three weeks after the appearance of the first issue, the writer Yosef Haim Brenner analyzed its achievements and its weaknesses in an article he published under the pseudonym B.Y. in the weekly Hapoel Hatza’ir. He gave the paper credit for one great virtue: It was not printing sensationalist, “yellow” journalism; and also, in contrast to other newspapers, he wrote, with no irony intended, it was not eager to publish “scintillating reports from the four corners of the world… piquant news, intrigues, events and wonders.” It was good to see, he wrote, that Hadashot Haaretz was not emulating most of the world’s newspapers, and especially the Yiddish press in the United States. “A good newspaper,” Brenner averred, “needs to take note of all of life’s spectacles, all the solitary facts that constitute the course of life, and illuminate them from a healthy, bright and humane point of view. Without exaggerations, without hyperbole and without ulterior motives.”

Brenner gave Hadashot Haaretz in its initial period a grade of good-minus, or as he put it, “Good issues, or more accurately – not bad.” In his opinion, the editors kept their distance from “journalistic negativism,” and there were no unfounded reports, in contrast to the “curiosities” that characterized the prewar Jerusalem dailies – Herut of the Sephardim and Haor of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda – “of unblessed memory.”

“All the issues that have appeared to date have been free of the vice of the yellowness that now dominates almost all the world’s press,” he added. “Everything there [in Hadashot Haaretz] is measured, tactful, without shouting, without fabrications, forgiving.” He opined that, “There’s no need to pay overmuch attention to the complainers in the public; our public will always come up with complaints.”

On the negative side, Brenner cited several shortcomings in the newspaper, and called for their removal. “The majority of the articles and the feuilletons are weak, unfinished,” he wrote, and added that the paper lacks “a courageous inward voice.” He also complained about a number of “inexcusable slips of the pen.” He had praise for one of the paper’s contributors – Itamar Ben-Avi – though probably not of the kind that pleased him. Brenner wrote that he was pleased that “in the meantime Ben-Yehuda’s son has learned Hebrew… and what he writes is readable.”

Haaretz's staff in the '30s. The editor-in-chief, Moshe Glickson, is in the center.
Haaretz's staff in the '30s. The editor-in-chief, Moshe Glickson, is in the center.Credit: The Zionist Archives

Graphic design and anticlericalism

The front page during the first period was divided into two parts: ads on the right, a feature article on the left. News, reports and the rest of the articles were usually consigned to the inside pages. The articles were written by some of the leading intellectuals of the time: Moshe Smilansky, Daniel Auster, Mordechai Ben Hillel Hacohen and Jabotinsky. The latter sometimes used his own name and in some cases signed as “Altalena.” He is also credited with making a graphic contribution. Zaltzman related that before the appearance of the first issue, a contest was held among the members of the editorial board and their confidants to design the best logo. Jabotinsky won.

Ze’ev Jabotinsky was undoubtedly the most vigorous and colorful member of the editorial board. His colleague Kadish Yehuda Silman, observed that “his writing is as a sharp sword, his style is new, unpolished, like a drill and a [carpenter’s] file. He is the only one whose articles even the Hebrew reader in the Land of Israel – that nosy, furious critic! – finds stimulating.”

One example illustrates this point well. In late 1919, during the endless discussions about the regulations and composition of the Assembly of Representatives of Palestine’s Jewish community, a stormy debate erupted over voting by women and the possibility of their being elected as delegates. The ultra-Orthodox circles were adamantly opposed to either possibility, and the Mizrachi movement of religious Zionism also objected to the latter. One compromise suggested was for women in religious areas to vote in separate polling stations, and for Haredi men to be given the possibility of voting on behalf of their wives.

Jabotinsky fiercely opposed preventing or downscaling voting by women. “In the political sense,” he wrote, “we received – or, more accurately, gave ourselves – a blow whose results we will feel both here and abroad, not only in our internal world but also in our battle against the Jewish and other opponents of Zionism. For some years our adversaries have been shouting that a Jewish regime in the Land of Israel must be a clerical one that subordinates life to the burden of religion… We told the people of the wide world that Judaism is a nation and not a religious community, and that among us, as in every other enlightened nation, one can be counted a member of the nation even if he has nothing to do with religion.

“But what has happened lately?” he continued. “We have wiped out this defense, we have surrendered to clericalism in its darkest form, to bans by sages whom no one in the world outside of Mea She’arim has even heard of, or to the scientific essay by Rabbi Kook, the chief rabbi, a typical piece by an external student with half an education that’s half-digested. We have capitulated to clericalism that fights against equality for women.”

Haaretz's printing staff, 1923.
Haaretz's printing staff, 1923.

Jabotinsky came to Haaretz every day for a few hours. He wrote, edited and also assisted with technical tasks. Every few days, an article by him would appear on social, political, cultural or literary issues. He served as a foreign correspondent on his trips abroad; from London he promised the paper “100 words by telegraph – six times a week.”

Yet despite everything, he was an opposition figure on the editorial board during the first years. He objected especially to the “personality cult” surrounding High Commissioner Herbert Samuel and to the “Ussishkiniada” – referring to repeated references to the head of the Zionist Commission, Menachem Ussishkin. He parted with the paper when he became active in the Zionist Executive in London.

The route to Haaretz

Toward the end of 1919, the publisher, Isaac Goldberg, reshuffled the editorial staff. He chose one of the six members of the collegium, Shmuel Perlman, as editor-in-chief. The names of the other five “regular contributors” vanished, leaving only Perlman’s name. Nor was this the only change. The word “Hadashot” above the word “Haaretz” also disappeared, and from that day to this, for almost 100 years, the paper has been called Haaretz. To advise readers of the change, a statement in large, bold font appeared at the top of the front page: “From the beginning of December our paper Hadashot Haaretz will appear under the name Haaretz.” That statement was reprinted every day until January 8, 1920.

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

The paper was published in Jerusalem until December 31, 1922, and from January 1, 1923, it moved to Tel Aviv. Goldberg, the founder and first publisher, resigned, and a cooperative that was established divided the ownership among the journalists, the printers and management.

The editor-in-chief for the next 14 years was Moshe Glickson, a prominent editor and translator in Russia and later in Palestine. He ran the paper fearlessly, and consolidated its status as the newspaper of the centrist circles, judicious, businesslike, with an aversion to sensationalism. In the 1920s, the paper clashed frequently with Doar Hayom, a right-wing, sensation-mongering paper that had the largest circulation in the country.

The leading intellectuals of the period continued to write for Haaretz, now including Haim Nahman Bialik and S.Y. Agnon, but its economic situation was dire. The cooperative was disbanded and now the affluent Cohen family, from Germany, entered the picture. Glickson knew one of the sons, David Cohen, who had been at university with him in Switzerland. Initially the Cohen family offered financial support, which included the construction of the paper’s headquarters on Mazeh Street in Tel Aviv, and the refurbishing of the printing press. Afterward, a company was set up, in which David Cohen and his brothers held most of the shares; Aaron Cohen, David’s nephew, was appointed general manager of the paper.

Following a few years of prosperity in the Yishuv and for the paper itself, the situation deteriorated due to the fear of war, not least because of Fascist Italy’s activity in the Horn of Africa, and the eruption of the Arab Revolt in Palestine in 1936. Looking for a buyer for the paper, Cohen approached Salman Schocken, a businessman he’d met in Germany, who was also a Zionist leader, philanthropist, book publisher and the owner of a large Judaica collection.

Schocken bought the paper in 1935 and began implementing a number of changes. Glickson retired in 1937, and Schocken groomed his eldest son, Gershom, to be the next editor-in-chief. After acquiring know-how in journalism and publishing in the United States, Gershom Schocken took over as chief editor and publisher in 1939. He retained those positions for 51 years, until the day of his death, in 1990. That’s the longest anyone has ever been chief editor of a paper in Israel, and maybe in the world.