David Landau Was in a Class of His Own

He was an Orthodox editor of a secular newspaper; British to his soul, editor of a Hebrew newspaper; he was a radical Zionist and a no less radical leftist, some of whose family lived in settlements, settlements that he regarded as a disaster.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Former Haaretz editor-in-chief David Landau
Former Haaretz editor-in-chief David LandauCredit: Moti Milrod
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

He was, apparently, the last of the editors in Israeli print media who kept a bottle of whisky in his cabinet and wore a tweed jacket; the last of the editors from the good old previous generation. I never met a person as full of contradictions as David Landau, who passed away Tuesday. I never met an editor so stormy and who instigated such storms. Only a great soul and a complex personality such as his could have contained all those contradictions and complexities and sustained an original and independent world – unexpected, unorthodox, conforming to no definition, to no cliché, defying any mold. In other words: courageous. Landau could not be branded; Landau was easy to fall in love with.

He was an Orthodox editor of a secular newspaper; British to his soul, editor of a Hebrew newspaper; he was a radical Zionist and a no less radical leftist, some of whose family lived in settlements, settlements that he regarded as a disaster. He was a true liberal who held a number of very conservative positions; he was the last of the British royalists in the State of Israel – a portrait of Queen Elizabeth hung in his study at home. He spoke Hebrew with a British accent and dreamed in Londonian English of a different Israel.

His appointment as editor in chief came as a surprise to many. Ostensibly he was not suited to Haaretz and Haaretz did not suit him. But his years as editor were good for him and good for Haaretz. There was never a dull moment around him; Landau knew how to sweep you away. He could be angry and grumble, as excited as a child, loving and hating in turn. He believed in Ehud Olmert and did not believe in the judicial activism of Aharon Barak’s Supreme Court. In both cases he remained in the minority at the paper whose editor in chief he was. Where do such things still exist?

The most important story he ever filed may have been the interview he conducted, together with the paper’s current editor in chief, Aluf Benn, with then-Prime Minister Olmert after the Annapolis conference. “Two-state solution, or Israel is done for,” screamed the headline.

“If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished,” Olmert told Landau and Benn. To his dying day, Landau identified with this statement. I believe this is his legacy.

I remember him from the market. Sometimes I stood in for him on weekends, when the phone line of the secular paper’s ultra-Orthodox editor was disconnected. Before the Sabbath he would phone me, as I was shopping in the market and he was full of ideas for Sunday’s editorial. Landau considered every word in the paper important, and believed somewhat naively in its impact. Years have gone by since then, the impact of the written word in Haaretz may have lessened, but every time I am in the market, I think of David.

The past year was a year of suffering and terror for him and his family. But the last time I saw him, at a modest party his Jerusalem friends threw for him when he was awarded the Officer of the Order of the British Empire medal by Prince Charles, he beamed with happiness. Landau was moved and happy that night, as I had not seen him for a long time, although illness was about to vanquish him.

In a video taken at the award ceremony at Buckingham Palace, Landau is seen talking for a few minutes with the prince. He was sharing with Charles one of the issues that had vexed him his whole life, the unofficial boycott the British royal house had imposed on Israel. There has never been a royal British visit here and that pained Landau greatly, he took it almost personally.

Prince Charles told Landau that he knew nothing about it and asked Landau to write him a letter. Landau wrote, and the prince still has not come – but if some day there is a royal British visit here, we will know that Landau’s royalist hand was in it. How like him to be moved by it, and how happy it will make him from the heavens, in which he believed.

I write these lines from my room in a British colonial guest house in Delhi, India. It is probably the most suitable atmosphere there could be in which to write about Landau, the editor I loved, the editor we all loved.

Farewell, editor, farewell David.

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