The Last Truly Zionist Institution and Most Jewish Newspaper in the World

From its launch in 1919, Haaretz was never just about building the Jewish state. It was also about ensuring the state always lived up to its Jewish and Zionist ideals

Two members of Britain's Women's Auxiliary Air Force reading a copy of Haaretz in 1943.
From the collection of the Zionist Archives

You and I, dear reader, have no right to call ourselves Zionists. Or anti-Zionists. Unless, that is, you are over 80 and were actually alive and politically conscious in the era when Zionism was still undecided and it wasn’t clear if the Jews would have a sovereign state in their ancient homeland.

On May 14, 1948, that question was settled and Zionism became a reality in the State of Israel. End of. Since then, the question — or many questions — are over Israel’s policies, actions and changing character. Zionism is over. It won. Deal with it. Which is what we do at Haaretz. Every day.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 31Haaretz

Happily, this newspaper you are now reading, whether in print or online, can and strenuously does claim to be Zionist. This week, in case you missed it, Haaretz celebrated its 100th birthday.

>> We tried to find a picture of Netanyahu reading Haaretz. This is what we found ■ These were the top news stories in Haaretz 100 years ago

We are the oldest — and with the exception perhaps of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem — the only major Zionist institution left. Every other organization that calls itself Zionist today either lost its purpose once Israel was founded and needed to reinvent itself as something different, or else was born after independence and therefore the Zionist label is irrelevant.

But Haaretz, from its foundation in 1919, was never just about building our Jewish state. It was also about ensuring that the state always lived up to its Jewish and Zionist ideals. Or as our publisher Amos Schocken put it this week: “Fighting for the true Zionist vision of Israel.”

We are the last true Zionists, and it is a lonely but necessary job. It is not just Zionism, but also the epitome of journalism.

Any real newspaper is the antithesis of a consumer product. We expect our readers to subscribe and pay us so we can anger them daily and cause them discomfort. Even in the nonpolitical sections of the paper (those devoted to art, food and sport), we are busy critiquing and constantly pointing out failings.

Why buy a newspaper if it just ruins your morning coffee? Well, if we do our job right, you read and pay for us because you know we are making those in power even more angry and uncomfortable, on your behalf.

That is true of journalism in any democratic society, but it’s doubly true in Israel’s uniquely lopsided democracy, where too many feel for some reason — probably a particularly Jewish form of neurosis — that we still have to justify our existence, even though it is no longer in question; where a military occupation subjugates another nation of millions without rights; and where even those with a vote suffer from bleak inequality and an absence of many basic freedoms.

On the other hand, Israel — for now at least — has judicial accountability, a transparent, fair and robust electoral system and a free media, which on most objective scales are on a level with the best liberal democracies.

Haaretz’s critics sniff, “Who cares what they write? Only a tiny proportion of Israelis read them.” Their obsession with Haaretz proves that no matter what the readership numbers say — and they certainly show that much more than a tiny proportion of Israelis read us — they certainly care. And for good reason.

They care because Haaretz’s importance does not derive just from its individual readers but from the role it plays for the rest of the Israeli media, which looks to Haaretz to set its standards. And thanks to the international edition that you are now reading, they care because Haaretz doesn’t allow readers around the world to hold dangerous illusions about how far Israel still needs to go to measure up to the standards it set out for itself in the Declaration of Independence.

But Haaretz is not only the most important newspaper in Israel — it is also the most Jewish newspaper in Israel, or anywhere for that matter. It is the only newspaper appearing daily and constantly being updated online in the two languages of 90 percent of the Jewish people: Hebrew and English. Few realized that 22 years ago when Haaretz’s English edition was first published, but its founding editor, David Landau — whose 72nd birthday it will be this Shabbat — certainly did.

Haaretz has become the only newspaper of the entire Jewish people. And there could be no more Jewish newspaper than Haaretz’s English edition — the antithesis of hasbara and convenient certainties, imbued with Landau’s talmudic ethos of constantly questioning the accepted truths and harrying those in positions of authority.

Don’t get me wrong: I have plenty of hate for Haaretz. Practically every day, I detest at least half a dozen pieces in it and those who wrote them. Quite often, half the paper drives me out of my mind. And that’s just as an ordinary reader each morning, before I even start my day actually working for Haaretz (if you can call it work) and dealing with my colleagues. But I know that even if by a bizarre set of circumstances I were to become both its publisher and editor-in-chief, I couldn’t change any of that and would feel the same.

I know that Amos Schocken and Aluf Benn get up every morning and are aggravated as soon they see the paper as well. Just as their predecessors were. How could the only Zionist and most Jewish newspaper in the world be any different?