Farewell to Haaretz and All Its Readers – but Especially American Jews

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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"Muslim and Jewish Solidarity" protest against the policies of President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu at Grand Central Terminal in New York City, U.S., February 15, 2017
"Muslim and Jewish Solidarity" protest against the policies of President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu at Grand Central Terminal in New York City, U.S., February 15, 2017Credit: MIKE SEGAR/ REUTERS
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

There is a certain clique of right-wing nudniks who get off on finding discrepancies between the Hebrew and English versions of Haaretz and spinning ridiculous conspiracy theories to explain them. I hope they have a field day with this, my final farewell article for Haaretz’s English edition, which will have very little in common with my parallel adieu in Hebrew.

Throughout my ten years at Haaretz, my thoughts and efforts were equally divided, more or less, between the two editions, but my heart was always with the English. My relationship with both editions was first and foremost professional, or so I hope, but with the English it was personal and, as I am discovering on the eve of my departure, emotional as well.

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I did my best to decipher a convulsing America for perplexed Hebrew readers, to translate an increasingly confounding Israel into comprehensible English and to concentrate on the crucial nexus where both countries meet. It is there that I carried out what I viewed as my most important, albeit arguably not purely journalistic, mission: covering American Jews, reporting on their concerns and predicaments, beseeching Israelis to take them into consideration and imploring American Jews themselves, especially the critical and disaffected, to stay engaged, if not with Israel itself then with like-minded Israelis.

American Jews were negligently ignored for far too long by Israeli politicians and journalists alike, notwithstanding recent changes for the better, which are mostly too little too late. If I was an exception to the rule, it is by virtue of personal circumstances beyond my control: I was born in Washington, D.C. and but for the fact that my father was an Israeli diplomat, would have been a full-fledged American Jew from day one.

I lived in the United States for eight of my first 12 years. This includes a four-year stint in Los Angeles, where I attended Jewish day school, was president of the junior congregation, no less, and can still conjure the unadulterated ecstasy that gripped me when the Los Angeles Dodgers swept the Yankees four straight in the 1963 World Series. My all-time most cherished possession has got to be my father’s business card, on which he got Sandy Koufax to scribble a personal dedication.

The American Jewish community is probably the most successful “diaspora” in Jewish and possibly general history, but Israelis are woefully and sometimes willfully unaware of its stellar achievements and success. The clear majority of American Jews adheres to the same liberal democratic values that were threatened by U.S. President Donald Trump and are under siege in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel.

After hopefully averting four more years with Trump, relieved American Jews who still care about Israel might rethink whether their top priority is to blindly back the policies of whatever government is in power there or to make sure their cherished values aren’t snuffed out in Israel as well. Many Israelis believe American Jews require their protection, but it could very well turn out to be the other way round.

As a journalist and as a Jew, I adhere to the axiom that honesty is the best and only possible policy. One of the main reasons for the growing disillusionment of American Jews, especially the younger generation, is the unbearable discrepancy between the idyllic Israel they were sold and their realization of reality on the ground.

Right wing loons who claim that Haaretz’s reporting distances American Jews from Israel have got it all wrong; in many ways, Haaretz and the few other outlets of its ilk are the last lifelines connecting Israel with a sizeable chunk of fed-up American Jews who are one step away from severing their ties completely. And it is an indispensable conduit to all the rest.

Chemi Shalev chats with Haaretz.com readers, February 13, 2014.Credit: Haim Taragan

I started my journalistic career 35 years ago at the Jerusalem Post under the always brilliant, often demanding and sometimes testy David Landau, who later went on to found Haaretz’s English edition. Landau infected me and his many other disciples at the paper with his endless enthusiasm for scoops and revelations, tenacious pursuit of facts and corroborations and total intolerance for mistakes and misrepresentations. Landau’s feverish newsroom, including his occasional ear-piercing rebukes of reporters and editors, was a dream come true for any aspiring journalist.

Despite its handicap of publishing in a foreign language, Landau made The Post into a force to be reckoned with by virtue of its numerous scoops and hard-hitting reporting. This may have been the reason why Netanyahu – the same one, of course – prodded David Radler more than 30 years ago to engineer the newspaper’s acquisition by Conrad Black and his Canadian Hollinger group, who promptly turned The Post from a widely-respected and quoted newspaper to a right-wing rag of no importance, as it remained during most of their 14 years of ownership.

Over the course of my career, I have personally witnessed and may have collaborated at times with the steady decline of Israeli journalism. After The Post I went to Davar, which the Labor Party and Histadrut shortsightedly closed shortly after I left for Maariv. Maariv sacrificed its journalistic integrity at the altar of a wiretapping scandal involving owner Ofer Nimrodi. And let it not be left unsaid, I even spent a few years at Sheldon Adelson’s Yisrael Hayom.

Whatever you think of him and his destructive donation to the demise of Israeli journalism, wouldn’t it be nice if the Jewish center-left, local or American, also had a billionaire or two willing to spend big on the press, despite the losses and hassle, with the added consolation that unlike the Las Vegas casino magnate, they would be contributing to the strength of Israeli democracy, not its erosion and to the freedom of the press, not its enfeeblement.

Like other newspapers big and small around the world, Haaretz had hardly come to terms with the loss of advertising revenue to television before it was blindsided by the free content on the Internet, robbed in broad daylight of its already diminished income by Google, Facebook et al., and then exposed to the vicious and malicious anti-media campaign conducted by Netanyahu and the nationalist right, for which Haaretz is a prime target. As with Trump, it’s not a fair and balanced media that Netanyahu is seeking; it’s the truth that he can’t handle and certainly doesn’t want his fans to hear.

One can’t but admire Haaretz’s tenacity. In many ways, sadly, it is Israeli journalism’s last man standing. As such, without getting too presumptive, its continued resilience and wellbeing is or should be a primary concern for Israelis, American Jews and well-wishers all around.

I certainly wish the newspaper well but would be far happier if it was suddenly confronted by one or two serious competitors likewise committed to honest and accurate reporting. As Herbert Bayard Swope, one of the 20th century’s greatest American Jewish journalists and the original inventor of the op-ed page, once wrote: “The first duty of a newspaper is to be accurate. If it is accurate, it follows that it is fair.”

Au revoir, dear readers, it has been a privilege and a pleasure. We’ll meet again, I’m sure, and hopefully soon.

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