A Newspaper's Mission

Extracts from a lecture delivered on September 12, 2002 by Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken to faculty and students at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Haaretz was awarded the School's medal of honor "in recognition of its long tradition of fiercely independent and balanced reporting under the most difficult of conditions."  (Click here for the report)

The last decade of the twentieth century ended in unpleasant surprises and disillusionment. But at the time, it seemed to be the best of times not only for the United States, but also for Israel.

The fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the USSR itself brought about a wave of immigration of Jews to Israel, increasing its population by almost twenty percent. Many of the immigrants were educated, industrious, ambitious and determined to overcome the natural difficulties of relocation and make their move a success.

The election in 1992 that brought the government of Yitzhak Rabin into power gave new political hope after a period of stagnation. The Oslo Agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in September of 1993 created a framework for conciliation and normalization of relations between Israelis and Palestinians after decades of hostility. It had tremendous effects on Israel: energies were diverted from defense to development, relations with many countries that previously shunned Israel blossomed, giving rise to international cooperation with Israel in many areas.

The growth of the high-tech industries and their ability to attract investment capital highlighted Israel's strength in this area. If you walked into a hotel lobby in Israel during those years you found it crowded with foreigners: businessmen, diplomats, academics from all over the world. The newspapers were full of help-wanted ads for the high-tech industries, and the business sections with ads for investment opportunities.

In addition, Israel moved vigorously during this decade towards a market economy. Privately owned, advertising-based commercial television was licensed for the first time in 1992. The government had issued tenders for cable television systems a short time before that. The government-owned, monopolistic telephone service was forced to open up to more competition. Major banks and other government-owned companies were privatised. Budgetary restraint reduced the deficits of the government and practically eliminated inflation in the Israeli economy. The result of all this was optimism and growth.

This decade was also good for Haaretz.

My father's Haaretz was a newspaper with opinions, with a view

Haaretz is the oldest surviving newspaper in Israel. It was established in Palestine in 1919 when the country was under a British mandate established after World War 1. Its founders were Zionists who came from Russia, and envisaged a serious newspaper dealing with all the myriad political, cultural and social issues accompanying the revival of Jewish life in the historic Jewish homeland. In December 1935, my grandfather Salman Schocken, a successful department store proprietor in Germany who had had fled Hitler in 1934 and come to Palestine, bought the paper from its original owners.

Salman Schocken was a Zionist with deep and wide interests and knowledge in philosophy, history, literature, poetry and art, both Jewish and general. These intellectual interests moved him to establish in Germany in 1926 a Jewish book publishing house: Schocken Verlag. In Palestine he was active in public affairs, until he moved to the United States in 1942. During his years in Palestine my grandfather was close to Brit Shalom, a small group that supported a policy of peaceful co-existence between Jews and Arabs and recognition of the national aspirations of the Arabs as well as of the Jews.

After the acquisition of Haaretz, my father, Gustav Schocken, then a young man of 24, was put in charge of the business. My father had left Germany one year before the rest of his family. He had been brought up in a Zionist home, and immediately after Hitler became chancellor in 1933, he concluded - he was 21 at the time - that there was no more future for Jews in Germany, and so left for Palestine. Looking after the business of Haaretz, my father soon discovered that what really interested him was the editorial aspects of the paper, more than its balance sheet. He made himself chief editor and publisher in 1939 and remained so for 51 years until his death in 1990, twelve years ago.

It was my father, Gustav Schocken, who turned Haaretz into a modern newspaper. His wish was to create a newspaper that would provide its readers with whatever information an active member of a modern democracy needs. He saw to it that the paper had broad coverage of politics, business, the economy, social issues and cultural affairs, and ensured that the coverage was of consistent high quality. He created in Haaretz an influential editorial page in which public issues were discussed. He cultivated journalists who specialized in their fields and became leading and authoritative writers, commentators and analysts. He made Haaretz a paper renowned world-wide for its quality and independence. Although Ha'aretz never was the newspaper with the highest circulation in Israel, its weight and influence in public affairs always substantially exceeded its circulation presence.

My father's Ha'aretz was a newspaper with opinions, with a point of view. It had a firm idea of what character the State of Israel, that had been established in 1948, should have, and it sought to develop policies and positions on the major issues of the time. In doing so, it took its cues neither from the opinions and predilections of the government of the day, nor from those of the majority of the public at any particular time - though it took care not to lose contact with either and maintained a constant dialogue with both.

The view that Ha'aretz had about Israel was that it should be both Jewish and democratic. That is, that it should strive to maintain a majority of Jews in the population, yet grant equal rights to non-Jews. That it should be advanced in its education systems, science and culture, and part of the modern western world. That it should be a place where human rights are at an advanced level, that its citizens should be free from religious coercion or any coercion whatsoever, that it should provide ample room for individual initiative and expression and foster a free market economy, and that it should strive to live in peace with its neighbours.

These views often resulted in confrontations between Ha'aretz and the government, or between Ha'aretz and parts, or even the majority, of the public. Ha'aretz had bitter debates with the government on economic issues. In the first 20-30 years of the state's existence, Israel's economy was rather socialist, with much of it centrally managed by the government. Ha'aretz sought to eliminate the hold of government on almost every aspect of the economy.

In taking this position, Ha'aretz not only was at odds with government policy, but also with the big industries that benefited from this policy. They, of course, were our readers and also our advertisers. When, ultimately, Ha'aretz's position came by and large accepted by the various governments since the late 1970s, the effect on the economy was extremely favorable.

Similarly, Ha'aretz took a principled position that religious conduct is a personal matter, and should not be enforced by law. In the first decades of the State, you could not go out to a movie theater on Friday night or Saturday, let alone buy anything in any store, since all were closed by law on the sabbath. Ha'aretz supported people who insisted on their right to do so. Likewise Ha'aretz supported civil marriage, civil burial, gay rights, the right to import to Israel meat that is not kosher, and many other such issues of human rights and individual choice. All this would often arouse against us people in the religious camp - some of them our subscribers.

In 1982, when Israel under Prime Minister Menahem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon went to war in Lebanon, Ha'aretz warned strongly against Sharon's plan to expand the goals of a limited military campaign into a large-scale war, the purpose of which was to create a new political order in Lebanon and replace the government there. We suffered at the time a significant number of cancelled subscriptions because of our harsh criticism of the government. The same thing happened again during the first Intifada, the Palestinian uprising in the late 1980's. Subscribers cancelled because we reported on the harsh measures and exessive force used by the Israeli army, and the suffering of innocent and not-so-innocent Palestinian civilians in this conflict.

The paper has espoused a land-for-peace solution since 1967

Ha'aretz's position ever since the 1967 war has been that Israel should espouse a policy of returning the occupied territories to the Arabs in return for peace. Ha'aretz realized that keeping the territories and allowing Israelis to settle there would impede a possible agreement. Even more importantly, keeping the territories endangered Israel's character as a Jewish state, by adding to its population millions of Arabs. Alternatively it endangered its democratic character - if it were to keep the territories but not grant equal rights to the Arab population. A vocal and politically strong minority of Israelis, the settlers in the occupied territories and their supporters, thought differently. They said the territories are part of God's promise to the Jews, and certainly part of the Jewish homeland from Biblical time.

This issue has been dividing Israeli society for more than 30 years, and Ha'aretz has had a pretty definite and consistent position about it for all that period. We were certainly against settlement in the territories and against the support the settlement movement received from the government and the public purse during much of this period. In fact, as early as June 1967, immediately after the war ended and the territories conquered, Ha'aretz wrote that Israel should keep the territories only as a trustee and return them as part of a peace agreement. On this issue, too, we found ourselves often at odds with some of our readers.

The Oslo Agreement changed this to some extent. The possibility of peace with the Palestinians moved many Israelis to support Oslo. Ha'aretz's position was suddenly almost at the heart of the consensus of public opinion. This probably had a positive effect on our circulation. There were other factors, external and internal, that made the last decade of the twentieth century good for Ha'aretz.

The competition moved to concentrate in the more popular end of the market. With about 70,000 copies a day and 100,000 on weekends Ha'aretz has a smaller circulation than its two major competitors. The largest is rather popular, aiming at the largest - and sometimes the lowest - common denominator. The second-largest was in the middle, until it decided to compete head-on in the popular market, thus leaving us more or less alone in the up-market sector.

Three internal occurences had an important effect on Ha'aretz in the 1990s. One was that we got rid of the labor unions. After a number of years of fighting and suffering slowdowns and strikes, we just won and got rid of them. Management got all the freedom to run the place and the editors had no union constraints on hiring and firing.

The move to modern technolgy in production, together with our getting rid of the print unions, reduced tremendously the cost of producing the paper. We now had more resources to develop the editorial product.

My father, Ha'aretz's chief editor, passed away in 1990 at the age of 78. A new chief editor Hanoch Marmari, 42 years old at the time, took over. While my father was sharp, alert and interested until his last days, his scope of interest narrowed. He really concentrated on what he thought to be the important issues, the big issues. This reflected on the paper. The entry of a young editor, with active interest in a wider range of issues, perhaps with greater familiarity and better understanding of Israel's multifaceted society, with a different approach to many issues, and with greater freedom to make changes, made Ha'aretz attractive to a growing audience.

When the Israeli economy prospered, our emphasis on business reporting drove us to substantially increase the number of business pages, thus attracting new business readers. We increased the number of pages dedicated to lifestyle and culture, we increased our sports coverage, we added weekly supplements devoted to real estate, books and the internet, as well as to high tech and what was called the new economy. Our new editor reinforced our editorial team with journalists with specific and deep knowledge in diverse areas: defense and the military, Palestinian politics and society, public health, environmental matters, law and many others. Our coverage of culture and lifestyle became more diverse: types of music that Ha'aretz never covered got editorial attention. A new book supplement added coverage of books which Ha'aretz had not written about before.

In a decade or so, we tripled the number of pages of Ha'aretz and the number of its journalists. Our circulation grew more than 50% and many of the new readers were relatively young. The increase in the number of young people with higher education in Israel in the 1990's also increased the number of potential readers for Ha'aretz.

In 1997 we formed a joint venture with the International Herald Tribune, the Paris-based international newspaper owned by the New York Times and the Washington Post. We print the Tribune in Israel and add to it an English version of Ha'aretz, translated daily from the Hebrew edition. The reader gets both papers in one package every day. The availability of Ha'aretz in English increased tremendously our worldwide reach.

During a visit to the Washington Post a few years ago I asked their President how many editorial staff they had. It turned out we had about 40% their number for a newspaper that is maybe 10% of their circulation. How do we do it? The subscription cost is high, about 35 dollars per month; editorial salaries are lower than in America; but the paper is rich in content and we make an effort to make it attractive, informative, sophisticated and as meticulously reliable as much as we can. In recent years we invested substantial amounts in a modern printing plant, and Ha'aretz has full colour on every page.

It is not always simple to change and maybe up-date a newspaper. For many of our readers we are part of their lives, a habit of decades. We had an uproar from readers when our editor replaced our television critic of many years standing. And we had uproar, and even some subscription cancellations, when we retired our editorial page cartoonist at age 78, after more than thirty years with the paper. We did it because we felt that the language of political cartoon has developed, and we should be in the forefront both in adopting the new idiom and in developing it further.

In May of 2000, I attended the 50th anniversary congress of the International Press Institute in Boston. On that festive occasion, the IPI board decided to grant 50 awards for outstanding achievement in the field of press freedom to 50 heroes of the past 50 years, selected among journalists, photographers, editors, publishers and broadcasters. One of the award winners was Ha'aretz reporter Amira Hass.

Amira has spent almost a decade living in and reporting from the Palestinian communities of the Gaza strip and the West Bank. The IPI award committee said that Amira's journalism had contributed in the most direct and meaningful way to the Israeli Palestinian peace process, by informing the public, without whose support no peace is possible. True as this may be, in Amira's few words of thanks at the ceremony, she said to the people gathered at Faneuil Hall in Boston: You think that there is a peace process going on in the Middle East. Let me tell you that there is none. As far as the Palestinians are concerned, since the peace process started, their lives have become even more miserable. The people see no benefit in the process, and eventually it will explode. She had been saying this in Ha'aretz for quite some time. Five months later it did explode. This was more or less the end of the best decade.

Some readers were incensed that we continued to cover Palestinian life under Israeli occupation

The peace process exploded after the failure of the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000. Many Israelis believe that the collapse of the negotiations meant the Palestinians are not really willing or able to reach an agreement that accepts the existence of Israel. The terrorist attacks by the Palestinians and especially the suicide bombers who have killed hundreds of innocent Israelis, men, women and children, have made the situation in Israel extremely tense. Israel's military retaliation has been tough.

The best of times ended for Israel in a cataclysm. War and terror replaced the peace process. Foreigners stopped coming to Israel and many left. Tourists disappeared and hotels had hardly any business. The collapse of the high-tech markets in the world dried up the flow of capital to Israeli companies. Many people lost their jobs. Help wanted ads in the newspapers diminshed substantially. Maybe the only growth area in the labour market is security guards at the entrance of every store, restaurant or office building. The Israeli economy shrank and lost its stability, we have been looking at our budgets constantly, reducing our expectations and downsizing.

Ha'aretz, of course, has reported extensively on the terrorism and its consequences. By and large we supported the government and the military in their actions to fight terror. But we never ceased to report, too, on the lives of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation and Israeli military actions. And we never stopped advocating an eventual withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories. Sometimes, our reporting brought the Palestinian point of view before our readers. It was not pleasant reading and for some of our readers it was hard to take.

A prominent Israeli best-selling author sent us a letter cancelling her subscription and accusing us of being foolishly and wickedly anti-Zionist. Her letter appeared in popular web sites and in one newspaper. The result was a wave of subscription cancellations. Readers accused us of being anti-Jewish, anti-Israel and anti-Zionist, of supporting terrorists and of dealing extensively with the suffering of the Palestinians but ignoring the suffering of the Israelis. They criticised us for publishing stories about vandalism and looting by Israeli soldiers during the military operations. They accused us of supporting refusal to serve in the Army.

All this happened back in May of this year, it was a wave that after a while disappeared. But the nervousness is still there. About two weeks ago we received an e-mail from a couple. After many years of loyally subscribing to Ha'aretz, they wrote, "we have decided to cancel our subscription. Since the beginning of the Intifada, we have suffered almost daily from reading reports and articles by Gideon Levy, Amira Hass and Akiva Eldar. But we stayed with you. Lately, however, Ha'aretz has espoused a policy of supporting refusal to serve in the Army. This reached its climax in a report about the Ben-Artzi family in last week's magazine. We think the refusal to serve in the Army, and the resonance and support that Ha'aretz gives it, undermines the essence of the existence of Israel. As parents of three children who serve in the Army (one as a regular, two as reservists), and who perform their duty out of feeling of loyalty and responsibility, we deem refusal to serve an illegitimate and immoral way to express a political position, and we refuse to be partners with an irresponsible newspaper that supports such phenomena."

I replied to their letter. "How can you conclude that Ha'aretz supports refusal to serve in the army," I asked. "The opposite is in fact the case. When the issue of refusal to serve came to the forefront of public debate, and advertisements signed by reserve officers and soldiers appeared in the press advocating refusal, Ha'aretz published an editorial specifically rejecting organized or mass refusal as a legitimate or feasible course of action in a democracy. Not only did we publish such an editorial, but five of our leading commentators wrote signed articles dealing with this issue. Four of them rejected refusal to serve, and only one (by Gideon Levy) supported such a course of action."

But, I continued in my letter to the couple, the story of those who refuse to serve is one that should be reported, and should be part of public debate. "I see no way not to write about the interesting story of the Ben-Artzi family, really the salt of the earth in this country, and about the refusal of one of its young members to serve in the Army."

So much for the exchange of letters.

Yonatan Ben-Artzi is a boy of 18, the age when all Israeli boys go for compulsory military service of three years. He announced his refusal to be drafted on the grounds of pacifism. Instead of being drafted he was to be sent to military prison.

Who are the Ben-Artzis? Yonatan's father, Matanya Ben Artzi, is a professor of mathematics and physics. He served in the Israeli Army, as did his three other children, the elder sister and brothers of Yonatan. He worked for 12 years at Rafael, the government authority responsible for developing sophisticated armaments for the Israeli Army. He did post-doctoral work at Northwestern University in Chicago. Yonatan' mother did her masters degree in the study of religions at Northwestern.

Matanya Ben-Artzi rejected the vision of Greater Israel right after the Six Day War. In 1980, when called for reserve military service, he refused to serve in the occupied territories and was tried, but was not sent to prison.

Matanya Ben-Artzi has a brother, Haggai. Haggai lives in Beit-El, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, in the occupied territories. Once, in the early eighties, Matanya went by bus to visit his brother. As the bus drove along, Palestinians threw stones at it, and there was some commotion. Arriving at the settlement, he asked his brother why the people there didn't travel in buses with shatter-proofed windows. The answer was: Out of principle, we travel the same way people do in Tel-Aviv, but we react differently. The reaction was revenge, taken on Palestinian villages in the neighbourhood. The next day Matanya read in the papers that the settlers had destroyed Palestinian cars and other property. He told his brother he would not visit him again, as he did not want to be an accomplice to all that. He has not gone there since.

Why do I tell you all this? I do not tell you this just because a Ha'aretz story about a young boy's refusal to serve in the Israeli Army, and about the support he gets from his parents, caused a subscriber of many years standing, whose children do serve in the army, to cancel his subscription. Nor do I tell you this because Matanya and Haggai Ben-Artzi have a sister, Sara Netanyahu, who is the wife of Israel's former prime-minister and would-be future prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which fact of course raises the question of what does the ex-prime-minister think of his nephew's refusal to serve his country.

I tell you this because this is Israel. Sometimes in one family you have extreme political differences, and the situation of war over the past two years in Israel has led people to take very determined and sometimes very extreme positions.

We have held many conversations and conducted copious correspondence with our readers on these issues. Many of them cited the reticence of the American press during the military campaign in Afghanistan, and compared it to our behaviour. A repeated complaint was that our description of the misery of everyday life of the Palestinians ignores the question of who is responsible for their misery. Had Arafat accepted Prime Minister Barak's and President Clinton's proposals at Camp David, everything would have been different. Another complaint that constantly cropped up was: How come Ha'aretz reporters Gideon Levy and Amira Hass are so sensitive towards the suffering of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation, but they never write about the suffering of the Israelis under Palestinian terror? I tried to answer personally every letter and many e-mails. On many occasions the subscriber replied, I wrote again. I went to meet groups of subscribers.

How do you edit a newspaper when your readers are on the edge?

It was not just a debate with our readers. Within our editorial board, the group of senior writers and analysts whose daily discussion results in the Editorial, the unsigned article expressing Ha'aretz's position, the discussion became polarized and sometimes angry. It was not just positions. It was also the constant dilemma: how do you edit a newspaper when your readers are on the edge, and at the very end of their nerves. To what extent do you take this factor into your editorial decisions. We had in Ha'aretz the unbelievable situation when I, the publisher, complained to our editor that he was taking too much account of the readers - and he retorted: "I have a suicidal fanatic for a publisher." Let me tell you that at times this was unpleasant, and not at all funny.

The editor maintained that however sure we are of our own position, and however determined we are to report on all aspects of our reality, we must not lose our relevance to our readers and our dialogue and contact with them. To his great credit, the editor, Hanoch Marmari, has succeeded over these two tumultuous years in squaring these impossible circles to a very large degree. Above all, he has succeeded in holding together, through trying times, our talented, disparate team of journalists.

A newspaper, in my thinking, has a mission, and it is not necessarilly to write according to the wishes, fears or beliefs of its readers. Our mission is to tell the relevant truth as nearly as it may be ascertained, and to tell all the truth as far as we can learn it. The conditions under which millions of Palestinians live around us, Israelis, are something we need to know about. This is a vital part of our reality. The way the Israeli occupation affects the lives of the Palestinians is an important part of the reality we must report on. The ability of Israelis to make decisions about their destiny will certainly improve if they have better knowledge, and maybe understanding, of the life, the thinking and the perceptions of our closest neighbours, the Palestinians.

Many people around the world who have an interest in the region frequently visit our web sites. During this present intifada, their number has soared. Furthermore, because of our availabilty in English, and perhaps, too, because Ha'aretz is considered a reliable source on the region, Ha'aretz is extensively quoted by foreign media, and in many cases pieces published by Ha'aretz are reprinted in newspapers all over the world.

This is a source of pride to us, but not always of unalloyed joy. When Ha'aretz reports about hardships inflicted on Palestinian civilians by the Israeli Army, their reports appear in Ha'aretz within the wider context of our conflict coverage in general and of Israeli actions against terror in particular. Of course we accept the need to fight terrorism, and to protect the lives of Israelis, and we support the Israeli army there, but we can still criticise the army if its conduct in any specific case is unwarranted. But when such report is taken by itself and reprinted in a European newspaper, the context is not there, and the conclusion of the reader there might be that in this conflict Israeli conduct is reprehensible, and even Israeli journalists say as much.

Should this affect our work? Should we take into account that we are not just a part of the Israeli press, but also to an extent communicating to the world about the conflict, sometimes in ways that we do not control?
This question comes back also when a subscriber cancels his subscription accusing us of smearing the image of Israel in the world.

A couple of months ago one of our senior editors refused to grant a book publisher the right (for a fee) to reprint in a book he intended to publish about the conflict some ten articles that appeared in Ha'aretz. He told me that the articles selected all supported one point of view, and if reprinted in this book, the reader would conclude this is the position of Ha'aretz.

I thought this was wrong. If we sell reprint rights, we are like a store. All our items are on the shelves, and the buyer can pick and choose. We cannot insert ourselves into the position of the editors of other products. So we gave the reprint rights. But the problem is still there and in my decision I certainly did not solve it. My feeling is that the only thing we can do about it is act as an Israeli newspaper writing for its Israeli readers in a professional way. We should not take into account derivative influences in other places because to do so might destroy our mission as an Israeli newspaper. Do we always act in this manner? I hope so but I am not sure; we are not completely immune to the feedback we receive from the outside world.

In the last analysis I hope we are discharging our responsibility in a reasonable and justifiable way. There were days of terror attacks when much more than half the news pages just reported about the attacks and the victims. Many important civilian issues disappeared. Yet we have made a deliberate and conscious effort to strengthen the quality of our treatment of these issues, and this serves us well when times are more quiet and we return to be a newspaper, not a newspaper in times of war.