From South Tel Aviv to the White House: The Inside Story of Haaretz English Edition at 25

The first edition of Haaretz's English newspaper was published 25 years ago, on September 1, 1997, offering English speakers a greater insight into events in Israel. And when it went online a few years later, the world started reading – including U.S. presidents

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Haaretz at 25: Seminal issues of the newspaper, plus the old website and the app version.
Haaretz at 25: Seminal issues of the newspaper, plus the old website and the app version.Credit: Photos: Feng Yu/ Artwork: Anastasia Shub

On September 1, 1997, on one of the biggest news days in history, the first Haaretz English Edition made its debut.

The night before, the tiny newsroom in the basement of the Schocken building in Tel Aviv was a bundle of jangling nerves as the small staff put the finishing touches on the slim publication that would nestle in the next day’s International Herald Tribune (the journalism powerhouse based in Paris and co-owned at the time by The New York Times and The Washington Post).

A story had just rocked the world: Princess Diana and her boyfriend Dodi Fayed had been killed in a devastating car crash while being pursued through Paris by paparazzi.

Matthew Kalman, who had just immigrated to Israel from Britain and straight into a job as a copy editor at the nascent publication, remembers black humor prevailing – with a joke running around the newsroom that the terrible tragedy “must have been a Mossad plot funded by Haaretz to boost sales of their first English edition.”

Initially, the new print publication that would be sold at newsstands, delivered to Herald Tribune subscribers and slid under the doors of rooms in five-star Israeli hotels, aspired to be a faithful recreation of Haaretz in Hebrew, albeit a curated version with only the most important articles and Op-Eds.

Haaretz English Edition represented the first time diplomats, new immigrants, foreign journalists and anyone else living in Israel who couldn’t read Hebrew could access a window into the internal Israeli conversation through a newspaper that crackled with criticism and debate.

“It felt incredibly exciting to be part of something so new and revolutionary,” Kalman recalls. “Until then, you only had the Jerusalem Post publishing in the English language. We believed that this marked the first time that an authentic Israeli Hebrew voice had been brought to the English-speaking public on a daily basis.”
The fearless leader of the new adventure was its legendary founding editor, the late David Landau – a British immigrant who worked for 20 years at The Jerusalem Post, first as its diplomatic correspondent and then as managing editor. Seven years earlier, in 1990, he had led an editorial staff walkout in protest over political interference by the paper’s new owners, after they moved its center-left editorial line firmly rightward.

The late David Landau, who launched Haaretz English Edition in September 1997.Credit: Alex Levac

Landau departed with high hopes of finding financial backing to launch a Post competitor that would employ at least some of the 39 journalists who had followed him out the door. After the walkout, they spent three months crowded into Landau’s attic producing model editions – but ultimately failed to find an investor.

In the ensuing years, Landau worked in various Hebrew-language publications, ultimately landing a job he was “thrilled” to receive, according to his widow Jackie Landau: front page editor of Haaretz, manning the desk at night and determining what would lead the paper.

“David had been proud of what he had accomplished at the Post, but for him Haaretz was the pinnacle of Israeli journalism,” she says.

Seizing an opportunity

The idea of bringing Haaretz to an English-speaking audience was born in the same city where Princess Diana lost her life.

Landau was set to travel to a conference in Paris, and Haaretz’s deputy editor offered to arrange a visit for him to the International Herald Tribune offices to network and see how their newsroom operated.

As Landau chatted with the editors, he learned that they were talking to English-language publications in various countries. They were exploring the idea of partnerships in which their newspapers would circulate together, providing national and international news in English in one package.

Seizing the opportunity, he suggested that they pursue this model in Israel – despite the fact Haaretz was not publishing an English-language edition at the time. So eager was Landau to move the idea forward that he pushed ahead of the others to make it happen in Israel first: Haaretz was the Tribune’s first international partner.

Ultimately, other newspapers around the world would consult with Landau when it came time to form their partnerships and learn the model he innovated for translating a daily newspaper on a tight deadline.

It was a natural fit, recounts Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken. The Hebrew newspaper had a strong reputation in the journalism world, had long been compared to The New York Times and was one of the first international newspapers to subscribe to the Gray Lady’s news service and translate its articles for readers.

Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken. "If it’s Haaretz, it’s no problem," Washington Post legend Katharine Graham said, he recounts of the birth of Haaretz in English.Credit: Erica Gannett for IRL Production

“The New York Times knew us and we knew them,” he adds. “I also heard that when Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham was consulted regarding the idea of having a partner in Israel, she said: ‘If it’s Haaretz, it’s no problem.’”

The project was hush-hush at first. Haaretz’s current Hebrew edition editor-in-chief Aluf Benn, who worked closely alongside Landau at the time, began noticing that Landau was “disappearing” into offices behind the Haaretz reception area “with people I didn’t recognize.”

When Benn asked what was going on, he was told it was a secret project and he should stay away from it. Shortly afterward, he adds, “I was told to keep it quiet but we were about to launch Haaretz in English.”

Many of those Benn didn’t recognize were Landau’s former colleagues from the Jerusalem Post. Soon he would hire numerous former Post writers and editors.

“We had all scattered, and he raked us up like leaves,” says Amy Levinson, who still works as a copy editor at Haaretz English.

Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn. "Suddenly I realized that Haaretz was a global phenomenon."Credit: Chandler West for IRL Production

A website, of sorts

A few years after the print edition began in 1997, the new publication made its debut on a growing phenomenon called the World Wide Web, during the early stages of journalism’s often bumpy transition into the digital age. (Perhaps typically for the format, no one appears to know the precise date was born, with “1999 or early 2000” being the best estimate.)

Naturally, the first online effort bore little resemblance to today’s dynamic website. “We could only post an edition once every 12 hours,” recalls Bradley Burston, who was Haaretz English’s first web editor, starting in September 2000. “So we would come in every morning, listen to the radio, read the papers, produce an essay that encapsulated the Israeli news. Sometimes we would interview Hebrew writers at Haaretz on some angle of the news and include that, too, and post it at noon. Twelve hours later, after midnight Israel time, we would post the translations from the print English edition – which, back then, took three hours to appear on the internet! This would be the Haaretz online edition for the next 12 hours – we couldn’t change anything.”

At that point, however, any web presence whatsoever was regarded as cutting-edge. For a foreign publication like Haaretz, which was respected in international journalism circles but little-known beyond that, it was transformative.

The combination of the print and web editions “catapulted Haaretz in front of the eyes of international politicians and diplomats,” says former Haaretz English editor-in-chief Charlotte Halle.

“They used it to gain insight into the internal Israeli conversation. The Jerusalem Post always kept a certain distance from internal Israeli debate; diplomats had been dependent on a few translated daily articles from the Hebrew press. And now they had a full newspaper’s worth of material that was translated for them instantaneously – all of the debate and all of the tensions. It was a paper written for locals, but immediately began being utilized by the international community to find out how Israelis felt and thought.”

Landau often admonished those working in the newsroom that they were there to help their English-speaking readers be able to talk about the same events and issues their Israeli counterparts were discussing at the same time – allowing them to be part of the conversations around the national water cooler.

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-President Barack Obama in 2014. Can you guess which one of them is a fan of Haaretz?Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

For Benn, whose editing positions were interlaced with two stints as the newspaper’s diplomatic correspondent, the difference was palpable.

The first time he did the job in the early 1990s, he was regularly snubbed by the U.S. press corps when they were accompanying then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher during President Bill Clinton’s first term.

“I remember asking a colleague why they were so snooty. He said it was because they were the journalists covering the world’s superpower and we Israelis were just a small part of their story,” he recounts.

Then, in 2000, after Haaretz had gone online, he returned to the beat and traveled with then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak as he tried to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

“I remember standing at the gates of the White House – we were all waiting there together as Barak met Clinton. Suddenly, one of them recognized me and asked ‘Are you Aluf Benn?’ Many of them came up to me and said things like, ‘We read you all the time. You’re our guide to what’s happening over there.’ The fact that they could read me in English completely changed their understanding of what we were doing. It was a true moment of awareness for me: suddenly I realized that Haaretz was a global phenomenon.”

Game-changing decision

The website continued to gain popularity and readership, until its management decided to take a major step in 2011. Together with the Hebrew digital edition, Haaretz online moved to a subscription model. Its editors determined that if it was charging international customers, it needed to provide content that would be expressly designed for them and target their interests.

“That decision was a game-changer,” says Halle, who was editor at the time. “We needed Haaretz online to be truly bilingual, and we received a budget to hire writers who could really speak both languages in the fullest sense – so they could explain what was going on in Israel to the world.”

Former Haaretz English editor-in-chief Charlotte Halle. "It was a paper written for locals, but immediately began being utilized by the international community."Credit: Erica Gannett for IRL Production

At the same time, Haaretz continued to translate the voices of its most critical and controversial columnists – a contribution that hasn’t always been appreciated.

“The fact is that Israel didn’t have an English-language opposition newspaper till we came along,” notes Simon Spungin, an editor at the paper who oversaw its online expansion in 2011. “It’s been challenging at times to be that voice.”

As Hanoch Marmari – Haaretz’s Hebrew editor-in-chief when the English edition debuted in 1997 – noted, translating the paper’s Hebrew content into English broke what had been a “hermetic seal” of intense criticism of Israeli policies.

The challenge grew as social media amplified Haaretz’s content, which is so frequently critical of Israel’s government and military. It heightened complaints by Israeli officials and advocates abroad that the publication was airing the country’s dirty laundry and handing ammunition to its enemies.

“We’ve always received complaints like ‘Why are all the neo-Nazis and anti-Zionists retweeting you?’” Spungin says.

But there is also evidence that Haaretz fills a key role in the combative arena of social media. Halle points with pride to an article published in 2014, in the heat of the Israel-Hamas conflict, titled: “Tiny island of sanity: There is only one major news site that both pro-Israelis and pro-Palestinians read.”

The article featured a color-coded graph constructed by data scientist Gilad Lotan, who arranged Twitter accounts according to how many connections they share. One side of the graph represented “pro-Palestinian” advocates, with the “pro-Israel” crowd on the other side.

While the vast majority of international and English-language media outlets clung faithfully to one side or the other, the article noted: “The standout here is Haaretz … while closer to the pro-Israel side, it clearly has a lot of pro-Palestinian followers. It’s fair to say that readers of Haaretz’s English edition include the only groups of people from the two sides who are reading the same news.”

Even more gratifying, publisher Schocken recalls, was the video shown at a Haaretz conference in the United States a year later.

“When we had our 2015 New York conference, we screened a video in which Barack Obama said he reads Haaretz in order to know what is going on in our region. That made it clear that the English edition has given Haaretz tremendous exposure and, I believe, has benefited Israel. Of course, there are those who disagree and say we’re defaming Israel by talking about its negative side.”

His response to the critics: “As soon as people stop doing bad things, we’ll stop writing about them – in both languages.”

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