David Landau, a Journalist Who Knew What Made Israel Tick

On the first anniversary of former Haaretz editor-in-chief David Landau's death, The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland recalls what made him such an unusual and valued colleague.

Jonathan Freedland
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David Landau with Shimon Peres
David Landau with Shimon PeresCredit: Yaron Kaminsky
Jonathan Freedland

If you’re looking for the mark David Landau left outside Israel, it’s best not to look for his name.

That’s partly because much of David’s international journalism was published anonymously. For many years, he maintained a side career as the Israel correspondent of The Economist, the prestigious London-based magazine that still observes the quaint convention of keeping its journalists unnamed. His work there was widely admired, and the discipline of writing weekly dispatches for a foreign audience no doubt helped ensure that Landau – for all his obvious devotion to Israel – remained capable of seeing his country as it looked to the outside world. The view was not always flattering.

But it went further than that. Over several decades, the smarter members of the foreign press corps in Jerusalem knew that a visit with David Landau was an essential part of their itinerary. He was a shrewd guide to the inner politics of the country, able to explain not just who was up and who was down, but what made this small, cramped noisy country tick. He saw both the surface and what lay beneath. Correspondents would sit, listen and take notes. Some of the shrewder insights into Israel life you might have read in the foreign press over the years probably originated in a (strictly kosher) lunch with Landau, even if they were credited to “a seasoned observer.”

In Landau, outsiders got an inkling of the dizzying complexity of Israeli society. Here was a leftist in a black kippa, instantly putting the lie to the simplistic equation of “right” and “religious.” Indeed, Landau was not a leftist despite his faith, but because of it. During Operation Protective Edge, in 2014, Landau cited halakha, Jewish law, to argue that when it’s certain that civilians will die as a result of one’s actions, the distinction between what is intended and unintended becomes meaningless and is “nullified.” Such reasoning made Landau a much more formidable advocate than the usual peacenik suspects. When he would speak before synagogues in London or New York, often confronting audiences hostile to his dovish message, he would soon have the upper hand: It was clear he was as frum, and steeped in Jewish knowledge, as the most hawkish hawk in the room. Any one thinking of branding him a self-hating Jew would not get very far.

Landau was an avowed Zionist, who nevertheless retained a passionate interest in the Jewish Diaspora. In 2012, The Economist devoted one of its extended Special Report supplements to Landau’s analysis of the state of “Judaism and the Jews,” under the headline “Alive and Well.” In an earlier Haaretz piece, he called for the creation of a global Jewish parliament, so that the Diaspora might have their say in the Jewish future, rather than leaving all the big decisions to Israel.

Perhaps most unexpected was David Landau’s enduring attachment to and affection for the land of his birth: Britain. Not for him the disdain for the old country affected by many of those who made aliyah. One hobbyhorse, mounted every time he met a new British ambassador to Israel, was his campaign for a member of the British royal family to make an official visit to Israel. The blessing of Britain mattered to him. Which is why he was so touched when he was honored at Buckingham Palace not long before his death, anointed as a member of the Order of the British Empire, no less.

But perhaps what struck the outsider most about Landau was his simultaneous fierce love of Israel and his willingness to criticize it when he saw it was going wrong. That came to a head in an 2007 episode which briefly made Landau the subject, not the author, of an international news story. In a private meeting, Landau – then the editor of Haaretz – told then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that it had always been his “wet dream” to see the United States “rape” Israel, in the sense of forcing the country into a peace settlement.

There was a furor of course. Landau did not deny the reports. On the contrary, he spelled out exactly what he had said. It was typical of the man. Direct and honest, no matter the cost to himself.

Remembering that episode now, it is a reminder of the great gap he has left behind. There are plenty who can denounce the occupation, no doubt about it. Just as there remain many who can explain Israel to the outside world. And others who can draw from the deep well of Jewish religious teachings and historical experience. And others still who have intimate knowledge of Israel’s ruling political circle. And others who understand, from the inside, the strange rhythms of the Jewish Diaspora. But one person who is all of those things? No. David Landau was one of a kind, his voice as missed now as the day it fell silent.

Jonathan Freedland is the executive editor, Opinion, of The Guardian.

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