A Decade of Working and Sparring With David Landau

Like a case of phantom pain, I wanted to consult him, but he was no longer there.

Shira Philosof
Shira Philosof
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David Landau
David LandauCredit: Alex Levac
Shira Philosof
Shira Philosof

In the spring of 2006, after being hired as David Landau’s research assistant, I started to read about the Sinai Operation. David, who had been editor in chief of Haaretz for two years by then, had committed to write a biography of Ariel Sharon. To my shame, much of the historical information was new to me. David razzed me for that – me and the Israeli education system, whose typical product I was, it seemed.

I’d met him before, at the end of 2001, when he hired me as an editorial secretary during his stint as editor of Haaretz English Edition, and later as his personal assistant on various interesting matters when he became editor of the Hebrew paper in 2004. That was when I began doing research and editing.

It wasn’t only in Israeli history that I failed, but also in civics and general history, and of course in all matters related to the Jewish tradition. Ah, and he also teased me over my English – Israeli that I was – and over my Hebrew, of course.

I felt not an iota of disrespect from his gibes; his barbed arrows were always fired as an equal. Though I had little experience in journalism, he invited me to take part in the grand biographical project he’d embarked on. He edited the newspaper and I went to the library, he managed editorial meetings and I visited the State Archives, he wrote an article and I spent hours perusing old video footage. And occasionally we met, usually in connection with an interview for the Sharon book. There were many interviews: with generals, ambassadors, secretaries, three prime ministers, three presidents and numerous politicians.

Perhaps because he wasn’t originally from here, David was capable of seeing the Israeli reality both as part of it and as an outside observer. Intensely critical, he dared to cast doubt on what I revered as absolute truths. His criticism seemed to me to contradict his religiosity, which I interpreted as being uncritical. That’s something we never talked about. But we did argue a lot. “She’s my sitra ahra [dark side],” was how he described me to one interviewee.

The book, which was published in English at the beginning of 2014, about a week after the death of its subject, is a distilled compilation of David’s qualities as a journalist, writer and human being. He succeeded in both seeing and showing the complexity of a figure like Sharon, whom people in David’s milieu loved to hate. The image of Sharon that emerges from the biography is not the one that many of us entertained. While we worked on the project, I attributed the fact that David dwelled on Sharon’s affable and positive sides to his having fallen in love with his subject – a process that seemed natural, almost essential, for a biographer. But David’s ability to see those sides, too, reflected a rare emotional and intellectual ability to accommodate complexities and contradictions, and to accept difference.

And again, perhaps because he wasn’t from here, his critiques also contained blind spots. David always had a sincere respect for politicians, no matter what views they espoused and how inarticulate they were in the media. It was clear that he really and truly believed that they had come to serve. That they were part of a profession and not a bunch of power-hungry, greedy opportunists.

In some of the interviews, I fidgeted uneasily in my chair. On the one hand, I felt an incessant buzzing in my head: Why doesn’t he savage these people? He was a respectful, attentive, almost gentle interviewer. On the other, out of humility: He’s David Landau, and I – who am I?

I was never able to guess in advance what impression he had formed, and it was rare that my impression abutted his. The excellent English spoken by one particular prime minister impressed him deeply, which was noteworthy. I, in contrast, told everyone who was willing to listen that I’d seen in the refrigerator of the kitchenette at party headquarters in central Tel Aviv, a 1.5-liter bottle of Diet Coke with lemon on which a large sticker was pasted: “Property of B.N.”

The Hebrew translation of David’s biography of Ariel Sharon has just come out. The book was part of my life for almost a decade, David was part of my life years before that. I had hardly managed to go over the translation without him. As in a case of phantom pains of an amputated limb, I wanted to consult but there was no longer anyone there. And then, more sadly still, after a time my hand no longer reached for the phone.

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