'Amos Schocken, Are You a Zionist?' A Q&A With Haaretz Publisher

Answering readers' questions on the Haaretz Hebrew website's 20th birthday, Schocken discusses the slaughter in Syria, freedom of the press, Netanyahu’s relationship with the media and the press' role in a changing world.

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Haaretz Publisher Amos Schocken answering readers' questions online, December 2016.
Haaretz Publisher Amos Schocken answering readers' questions online, December 2016.Credit: David Bachar

Q: Why does a newspaper that calls itself Haaretz, which means the land, referring to the Land of Israel, hate its own country? Are you a Zionist?

A: Zionism is a viewpoint that sees the national home in the Land of Israel as a solution for the Jewish people in the framework of a democratic, Jewish state. That has been Haaretz’s view since its establishment, and throughout the years it has been my view too.

Zionism’s purpose was to establish a safe haven for the Jews where they would be responsible for their own fate and no longer be a minority among other peoples dependent on the decisions of others. In light of the Jewish experience throughout history, this goal is entirely justified.

The press' role in a democracy is to monitor and criticize the people elected or named by the public to manage its affairs, as well as the government and public administration. The purpose of the criticism is to fix, improve and make Israel better. Haaretz writes critically about many things in Israel, including the government’s conduct (always specific criticism about defined topics), but it's clear that Haaretz does not hate Israel.

On the contrary. Haaretz writes so that Israel will be a better place, a place better run and not deviating from its founding principles or achievements. Incidentally, Haaretz was the only newspaper that supported the reforms driven by Benjamin Netanyahu as finance minister. As the entire media united against his economic policy, Haaretz supported it, even though his positions were unpopular.

Q: What's the newspaper’s position on what Israel should do about the massacre in Syria? I assume a paper like Haaretz should have a position on burning issues, just as important newspapers abroad do.

A: We recently had an editorial meeting about Syria. We tend not to write op-eds that can't offer possible solutions, and we don't write for the attention of other countries as global newspapers like The New York Times and The Economist do. Perhaps at the time we should have written that Israel should have offered to take in a certain number of Syrian refugees, and perhaps that might still be relevant.

Q: How far do you think the prime minister’s policy of fighting journalists who have certain political opinions will go?

A: I don’t think the prime minister’s battle is against journalists with certain political opinions . The prime minister discovered that the way to handle unpleasant information or problematic information about him that the papers reveal isn’t to answer the substance of the matter but to attack the journalist.

On the other hand, maybe Netanyahu is right. Anybody who says Sara Netanyahu harasses the household help instantly morphs into a quasi-traitorous leftist, even if he's a Likud voter with certain principles of proper administration. During the current term, the prime minister has lost all restraint. He feels he loses nothing by it.

Q: Is Haaretz profitable? What's the economic situation of newspapers around the world and how does it affect their independence when reporting? Can we rely on the press as in the past (e.g., Watergate)?

A: We lost a lot of money in 2012 mainly because of the drop in advertising following the social-justice protests. That year we took a lot of steps to cut expenses and create new sources of income. In 2013 we shifted to a modest profit, and since then Haaretz has been profitable not as in a strong, stable industry, but still.

It helps us that the company has no debt thanks to financial moves we made. But I can reassure you. In 2009, when we had significant debt, including to Bank Hapoalim, that didn't stop us from being the only Israeli newspaper to support the position of Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer and bank supervisor Roni Hizkiyahu that Danny Dankner couldn't continue as chairman of Bank Hapoalim .... And of course Hapoalim stopped advertising in Haaretz and put heavy pressure on us to repay loans (while lending another 50 million shekels [$13 million] to Maariv, which was in a far worse state than Haaretz).

IDB, a conglomerate that was controlled by Nochi Dankner, the cousin of Bank Hapoalim Chairman Danny Dankner, joined the fray and also stopped advertising in Haaretz. This has gone on for about four years. It didn't influence us: We pushed for reform in the cellular market, which sharply diminished the profitability of IDB group company Cellcom. We supported the social-justice protests, which hurt the IDB supermarket chain Super-Sol, and pushed to decrease economic concentration, with Nochi Dankner fighting against dismantling the IDB group with all his might. The rest of the press took the opposite position.

Q: Has there been criticism of Haaretz in recent years that you agreed with?

A: I greatly esteem the [Hebrew-language]culture and literature section edited by Benny Ziffer. He's the last editor left at Haaretz who was appointed by my father, Gershom Schocken, who died 26 years ago. His column on the back page of Haaretz's weekend edition could annoy me (though not always; some were funny, and I saw the value in subversive writing against the liberal consensus). I still don't know if those were Ziffer’s genuine opinions, positions he adopted in order to stand out, or opinions he adopted in retrospect because his column turned him into a sort of celebrity, which he liked.

In any case, I was more on the side of the public's criticism of the column and talked about it from time to time with the editor in chief, Aluf Benn. Aluf argued for the column on the grounds of the need to challenge or reexamine political correctness. I thought that even as such, the column wasn’t good enough, and sometimes its claims were so preposterous that even this goal, if it was Benny’s goal, wasn't achieved.

I never tell an editor, “Do this.” I may advise, I may state my opinion, I may nudge and repeat my opinion from time to time, but it's the editor who decides. By the way, I've often been wrong. There have been writers who did not impress me and I shared my opinion with the editor, but he believed in them or wanted to give them a chance, and they turned out to justify his position, not mine. When he saw that things had gotten a little out of control, Aluf decided himself to terminate Benny’s column.

Q: How can the paper’s survival be assured for the days and years to come?

A: I’m not sure the newspaper’s survival can be assured for “the days and years to come,” as you write, but efforts can be made to assure its existence for as long as possible. I must be clear: This effort won't succeed if the public does not share in it. The mission of sustaining a liberal newspaper in Israel that aspires to peace can only succeed if a large number of people decide to participate by subscribing to Haaretz, and convincing others to subscribe too.

Q: As a member of the intellectual right, I still enjoy articles in Haaretz. I'd like to know why we never read displays of empathy with, and favorable coverage of, people on the right, even if they live, heaven forbid, in the “occupied” territories. Their personal stories can also be very painful, can’t they?

I mean cases like detentions without trial by the Shin Bet security service, the murder of the Henkin couple in the West Bank, the murder of the head of the Otniel yeshiva, Rabbi Michael Mark, the murder of Rabbi Nehemia Lavi in the Muslim Quarter, and so on. All these were awarded little to zero coverage in Haaretz, and a tone of criticism far outweighed a tone of empathy.

A: Thank you for the appreciation of the articles in the paper. The truth is, maybe we are wrong in this, but we don't view empathy as the newspaper's role. Even when we write about the refugees, it's not out of empathy but out of what we see as obligatory in a country that maintains human rights.

As for your question, we covered the subjects you raised quite a lot. In the Haaretz weekend supplement a few weeks ago, we published a long feature on Otniel and its residents. After the arrest of [Jewish extremist] Meir Ettinger, we wrote an editorial condemning the administrative arrests [without trial] of Jews as of Palestinians. In a recent article about the omissions by the unit that investigates complaints by people questioned by the Shin Bet, we gave equal treatment to complaints from both nations.

Q: Why do you give a platform to the racist incitement, lies and nationalism of writers like Israel Harel and Moshe Arens?

A: Arens and Harel racist incitement? I really don't agree with you. Arens has been writing for years, consistently and forcefully, about the need to promote equal rights for Israel’s Arab citizens. Even if I don’t always agree with the content of their articles (and sometimes I do), in my eyes both are important writers, and it's interesting to hear what they have to say.

Q: Why don’t you fire Gideon Levy? What do you need the provocations from Mr. Levy’s school of thought for? Send him home and see how your subscriber numbers climb. There’s no other good newspaper in Israel, but I'm sorry to say that as long as Mr. Levy writes for the paper, it’s better to read only the foreign press.

A: I can understand people who recoil at Gideon’s sometimes inflamed and emotional style, and at his positions that seem extreme. But I think he's one of the most important journalists in Israel.

No other journalist has gone week after week for 30 years to the occupied territories and reported every Friday in his column “Twilight Zone” about the lives of Palestinians and their day-to-day life under the Israeli occupation. Acknowledgement of this reality led Gideon to the conclusion, which I share, that Israel is running an apartheid regime in the territories, and therefore his opinions, however extreme they sound, are actually basic democratic opinions.

It's the paper’s duty to its readers to report the true picture of reality, as far as it can. I think a media outlet in Israel that doesn't report on the reality of the lives of our nearest neighbors, and on Israel’s influence on their lives, is failing in its duty to its readers and viewers. So I see no possibility of dropping Gideon Levy. That said, every reader can decide for himself which articles to read in the paper or on the website.

Q: Are there writers at competing media outlets you’d like to recruit to Haaretz?

A: We've just been joined by Washington correspondent Amir Tibon, who was the diplomatic correspondent for Walla. I don’t want to name names for fear of hurting anybody I forgot, so let me borrow from the [20th-century fiction writer] S.Y. Agnon “My wife doesn’t like Rabbi So and So." My wife, who watches more television than I do, tells me that Ohad Hemo is an excellent reporter, Daphna Liel is excellent and Guy Peleg gets better by the moment.

Q: The New York Times recently announced an heir to the publisher. You’re more than 70 years old. How long? Who’s your successor?

A: Indeed, I think about the continuity, but I don’t have anything to say on that yet. Happily, the people leading the paper today are men and women younger than I am by at least 20 years, and many are younger than me by more years and a lot more years. They’ll do just fine without me.

Q: Do you manage to stay optimistic?

A: Do I manage to stay optimistic? Yes. Why? 1. Because I believe in mankind. 2. Because I’m a little flighty.

I'd like to thank all of you for joining me online in this conversation. I couldn't answer all your questions, but we focused on the main topics. We'll meet again on our website's 30th anniversary, or earlier, in two and a half years at the celebration marking the 100th anniversary of Haaretz's founding.