Remembering the First Lady of Hebrew Journalism

A memorial evening on the subject of journalists in politics will be held tomorrow on the 10th anniversary of the death of Hanna Zemer, the legendary editor of the now defunct daily Davar.

Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
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Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich

It looks likes a classic Israel Broadcasting Authority program from the 1970s. Around a large horseshoe-shaped table sit several guests exuding self-importance. It's a group of newspaper editors and jurists, and the program, called "Dilemma," deals with the way they confront issues of ethics and journalism. Uri Avneri fills a pipe during the broadcast, and others send up clouds of smoke from the cigarettes they are holding while formulating their answers. The young and energetic moderator, Yaron London, moves frenetically among the interviewees, sits on the table and interviews his guests at point-blank range.

Among them one in particular stands out. She is the only woman at the table, well groomed and well spoken, and the question on which she is deliberating captures everyone's attention. Hanna Zemer, the editor of Davar, becomes the center of the discussion. She asks herself and her colleagues questions and replies authoritatively, and for long moments all eyes are focused on her. Even for a spectator observing decades later, the description "greater than the newspaper she edited," by journalist Nahum Barnea, one of her proteges, definitely seems understandable.

This coming March will mark a decade since the death of Zemer, who was undoubtedly the first lady of Hebrew journalism. For almost 20 years she edited Davar, the newspaper of the Histadrut labor federation, revolutionizing it and the entire Israeli press along with it. In her honor there will be an evening tomorrow (Thursday ) at the Beit Sokolov journalist's house in Tel Aviv, in which, in addition to speeches in her memory, there will also be a discussion of the switch by journalists to politics. It was organized by Dr. Shulamit Zuta, Zamir's daughter, along with journalists Tali Lipkin-Shahak, Nahum Barnea, Amir Oren, Niva Lanir and Aliza and Etti Yudkovsky, the wife and daughter of the late Dov Yudkovsky, who was Zemer's colleague and friend.

During the evening itself Ilana Dayan will interview Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich on this issue, and a panel will discuss it. Participants will include journalists, journalist-politicians and politicians: Nahum Barnea and Hanoch Marmari, Merav Michaeli and Nitzan Horowitz, and Roni Bar-On. Tali Lipkin-Shahak will be the moderator.

At a large wooden table in the home of her daughter Shulamit Zuta, a pile of documents and albums awaits. They include correspondence, for example with prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin (who affectionately called her "Hannaleh," despite their political rivalry ), several albums full of photos of Zemer with Israeli and world leaders, and notebooks written in a dense handwriting, with notes she made for a book that she didn't manage to write.

The notes are written sparingly for the most part, and cause the reader to regret that she didn't have time to complete her book. Sentences such as "Eventually Golda [Prime Minister Golda Meir] told me that in her youth, although she wasn't pretty, she had great success with men," or others in which she reminds herself not to forget what the chancellor or the foreign minister or another familiar Israeli VIP told her. Zuta says that she intended to write the book in such a way that it would include her professional experiences interwoven with the Zionist story of the state in formation.

Exemplary journalist

And in fact Zemer's life, at least her professional life, seems to have been interwoven with the story of the country. She was born in 1924 in Bratislava, then in Czechoslovakia and now Slovakia, as Hanna Haberfeld. When she was 18 years old she was certified as a teacher and after years of flight during the Second World War, she was imprisoned in 1944 in the Ravensbruck concentration camp. She was married the first time in Europe, to a man named Milan Zomer (the source of her Hebraicized name ), but after immigrating to Israel in 1950 the two separated.

It's an almost symbolic parting: Zemer came on a visit to Israel and fell in love with it, and here began chapter two of her life. After a year of teaching in an elementary school she began working as a reporter in the simplified Hebrew newspaper Omer. She was a diligent parliamentary correspondent and later became the correspondent for Davar as well. Until 1967 she was a political reporter and a columnist, and then became the deputy editor.

Three years later she was appointed the paper's editor-in-chief, the first woman to serve in such a senior position in the Hebrew press. Yitzhak Ben-Aharon, the director general of the Histadrut at the time, later said that he had chosen her "in order to bring in new blood. She was a productive and successful columnist, and I thought that Davar was in need of a shake-up in a fresher and more independent direction. Less a reflection of a political party and more an independent reflection of workers."

Zemer apparently succeeded in her mission. Barnea explains: "Davar had the image of a party newspaper, which is both correct and incorrect. The Histadrut was the owner, in other words, the ownership was public. The fact that there wasn't one owner or one body ensured freedom."

He tells, for example, about an article published in the paper during the strike by the Ashdod Port workers that paralyzed the country in the 1970s. The workers asked for a salary increase, but the headline was: "Thus said Moses: Don't work hard," a sentence Barnea heard in the port.

"The entire tone was mocking and the Histadrut secretary went crazy," he says. "It was an anti-socialist article in his newspaper. From her I didn't hear a word."

Zemer was considered a scandalmonger in articles that she allowed for publication or wrote herself during the years when she edited the paper. She had dovish views, supported a Palestinian state, and in light of that too, there was friction between her and politicians and wheeler-dealers. In an interview on her retirement she explained: "I don't believe that it's possible to be the boss of an editor and a journalist. Journalism was meant to be free. Golda used to call and begin 'I don't understand why you have a headline like that.'"

Barnea says that during the 1970s Davar published a series of articles about corruption in oil production in Sinai, which aroused an uproar in the country. One day Zemer was contacted by then-Justice Minister Haim Tzadok, who was also a close friend of hers, who said: "I have a question: When will it end?" The government didn't know how much material the paper had, and didn't want to respond until the reports came to an end. Later a government commission of inquiry was established to investigate the affair.

Barnea adds: "She wasn't only a journalist, she was an exceptional teacher of journalists. She was surrounded by young people, in terms of age and experience, and she spurred them to be more daring and to achieve more. She herself knew how to get people to talk, and it was a pleasure to see her do so. Everyone knew her: generals, chiefs of staff and politicians. There was a sense that you were in the junior league and you were fortunate to meet one of the stars of the national league. It was particularly wonderful because she was always so open, there was no sense of awe. She was my teacher, a wonderful teacher."

Zemer published two books: "God Doesn't Live Here Anymore," about Jewish communities that were wiped out in the Holocaust, in 1995; and "Half Tea, Half Coffee," a collection of her columns, in 1969. She died of a heart condition and in 2008 a street in Tel Aviv's Bavli neighborhood was named after her.

Among the story fragments described in her notebooks, one sparingly described story - which would be scandalous by today's standards - stands out. It is about a visit by Zemer to Ben-Gurion. Barnea, then a very young reporter, came to interview the Old Man, and she, already a veteran and respected editor, accompanied him. Even before the conversation began Ben-Gurion asked "Have you always had such fair hair?" And that is not the only example of the treatment she sometimes received.

No feminist

In her pictures Zemer always looks well groomed and elegantly dressed. Her daughter recalls a story about the manager of the Davar staff in Jerusalem, who when Zemer was annoyed used to joke about her "monthly nerves." And Zuta adds: "Although she was covering the Knesset at the time, when there was a major event he used to tell her, 'Hannaleh, go and get some coffee. I'm covering this.'"

Similar remarks continued to be heard when she presented a program on television and radio, despite years of experience. Then-MK Yosef Burg once told her before a broadcasted interview: "Why does a public figure come to an interview? For the same reason you go to the hairdresser - in order to look a little prettier."

Golda Meir told her once during an argument that she (Meir ) was the one being paid to think.

Zuta - who was born of her mother's marriage to David Zuta, whom she also divorced - claims that Zemer was not especially bothered by gender issues. Perhaps she embodied a feminist spirit. She certainly advanced other women - for example Tali Lipkin-Shahak, whom she appointed as the first female military correspondent in the country - but the issue was not a cause for her.

"My mother was an important woman in a masculine environment, and that's something that was widely discussed," says Zuta. "Of course she was aware of that and of course she chose to appoint the first female military correspondent, and that was recognized as a feminist act, although I have no doubt that mother strongly believed in her and thought that she was the best choice for the job. I think it's totally wrong to refer mainly to her feminist writing, which was almost nonexistent. Throughout the years they tried to turn her into a symbol on this issue, but mother didn't consider herself a feminist. She didn't object of course, but she wasn't very interested in it. There were other things that were important to her, diplomatic and political matters."

Was she afraid of being labeled?

"No, it simply didn't interest her. She wrote about West Bank Arabs, immigration from the Soviet Union, the Lebanese issue, Holocaust survivors and Jewish communities the world over. Of all her thousands of articles, I doubt that's there's even a double-digit number about gender. She wasn't being evasive, she simply didn't take much interest in it."

Hanna Zemer. The first lady of Hebrew journalism, an important woman in a masculine environment.Credit: Uzi Keren
An illustration from Hanna Zemer's book

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