Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post duel over democracy

It wasn’t a border dispute so much as a margin dispute. More to the point, it was the highly-flammable material between the margins that fueled last week’s clash over press freedoms and democracy between two of Israel’s most influential newspapers.

Compared with the leading Israeli daily Yediot Aharanot (published only in Hebrew and with a weekday circulation of 350,000), the dailies Haaretz (50,000 per weekday) and The Jerusalem Post, (a mere 15,000 per weekday) are not the biggest players on the Israeli media market. But both Haaretz and The Post command an influence beyond their numbers in Israel. Must-reading among visiting diplomats and journalists, the weekly international edition of The Post, and the two papers’ English Web sites draw large numbers of American Jews, thereby informing the Middle East debate within the world’s largest, most powerful Jewish Diaspora community. So when Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken floated the charge that Israeli press freedoms where in jeopardy, word washed up on American shores.

Several American publications picked up the story, and it was easy to see why. Schocken, considered by many to be a mild mannered liberal, was apoplectic. “To declare Israel today as a democratic state is equivalent, though with certain differences, to the definition of South Africa during apartheid as a democratic state,” he said. In a state this oppressive, Schocken flared, “it is doubtful that the press will want to fulfill its mission as the watchdog of something not especially valued.” This was caustic stuff. Even the conservative press in Israel, largely desensitized to outbursts of extreme liberalism, couldn’t help but wince.

It recovered quickly. In The Jerusalem Post, where pans of Haaretz appear regularly enough to qualify for their own section, Schocken’s comments were written off as just another of Haaretz’s extreme left twitches. “The certain differences Schocken glosses over are of course crucial,” huffed a column by Daniel Doron, president of the think tank Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress. “When Israel deprives some Palestinians of certain rights,” he argued, “it is not a total denial based on racist ideology, as is the case in apartheid. It is a temporary and partial denial common during war.”

But Schocken had plenty of ammunition for his case. He cited a study by the Israeli Democracy Institute, an independent research association, which monitors the condition of Israel’s political system. The IDI’s findings, released on May 22nd, asserted that Israel suffered from something termed a “formal democracy.” That is, a democracy with low political participation, high social inequality, and general instability. As evidence, the study noted some social conflicts (tensions between Jews and Arabs), some statistics (23 percent of Jews don’t think democracy is the best form of government), and some scattershot conjectures. Among these was one Schocken seized on: a decline in the freedom of the press.

In fact, this wasn’t news. For years, newspapers on both sides of the political spectrum have railed against the glut of special interest groups in the Knesset, each vying for a share of government funding. Like Haaretz and other papers on the left, Israel’s conservative press has long derided this proliferation of pork barreling as un-kosher, even undemocratic. This was well-trodden territory. By comparison, Haaretz’s freedom of press charges where fresh blood in the water.

According to The Post, Schocken’s squawking was further proof that Haaretz, a Zionist stronghold at the time of its founding in 1919 by a group of Russian journalists, had strayed too far to the left. Now that the right-wing Likud Party controlled 80 percent of the Knesset, the paper was acting out its frustrations. “They (Haaretz) like to complain a lot because their agenda is not being accepted,” scoffed one Post contributor in an interview. “It’s ludicrous,” he added. Alex Safian, director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting, (CAMERA), also pointed to the shift in Israeli politics as Haaretz’s real issue. But as Safian noted, “That’s democracy in action.”

Last week wasn’t the first time that Haaretz became the target of right-wing wrath. Haaretz reporters working in the Palestinian territories, for example, are perennial sources of controversy. While reporters from most Israeli newspapers are banned from the territories, Haaretz reporters are welcome; a privilege the paper pays for by submitting to a certain amount of self-censorship. This is a problem, critics say, because it turns Haaretz into a megaphone for the Palestinian Authority (PA); the paper will savage the Israeli Defense Forces’ every transgression while ignoring the brutality of the PA.

Haaretz has vigorously defended its reporters. In a lecture he gave last fall at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Schocken argued that the paper’s reporting from the Palestinian territories provided “the relevant truth as nearly as it may be ascertained,” and was crucial to “the ability of Israelis to make decisions about their destiny.”

Even Haaretz’s own staff conceded that some criticism of its coverage was understandable. This seemed to be Managing Editor Hanoch Marmari’s point when he addressed a conference for international newspaper editors last year. As violence against Israelis intensified, Marmari reasoned, “some of our readers have found it difficult to accept an Israeli reporter who shows sympathy or even compassion for Palestinian casualties.”

But critics, many of them with Jerusalem Post bylines, haven’t been satisfied with this non-concession. What about Amira Haas? they ask. Indeed, Haas, a Haaretz reporter based in Gaza, is a go-to bad-apple for those interested in pillorying Haaretz. Haas achieved infamy in 2001, when she wrote a story about Palestinian “eyewitnesses” who claimed to have seen the Jewish community of Hebron celebrating the shooting of a Palestinian by spitting on his corpse and hooraying. They even passed out candy, she wrote. It was a disturbing story. Just one problem: it never happened. Television cameras at the scene exposed Haas’ story for a fake, and a Jerusalem court convicted her of lying with malicious intent, fining her $60,000. Since then, Haas, who did not respond to requests for an interview, has been used as conclusive evidence to discredit Haaretz reporting.

For their part, critics of Haaretz at The Jerusalem Post, aren’t exactly models of journalistic morality. Once a loyal champion of the liberal Labor party, The Post took a hard rightward turn in 1988, when it was remade to reflect the conservative-nationalist agenda of its new owner, Hollinger Inc. When that editorial agenda was thrust onto The Post’s news pages, it alienated many of the paper’s longtime reporters. “The problem at The Jerusalem Post is that politics enter news coverage, choice of stories, language, often in ways they might not even begin to realize,” says a former Post employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The paper, says the ex-reporter, often gives disproportionate amount of type to organizations that share its conservative views. This can result in reporting that’s downright irresponsible: the paper might give short shrift to a scholarly scientific study while spotlighting quack research prepared by a think tank with the right politics. “Its weird,”the reporter says, “but that’s The Jerusalem Post.”

By American standards, the open partisanship of such influential daily newspapers might be alarming. But the idea of newspapers as bastions of truth and objectivity is a uniquely American pretense, CAMERA’s Safian explains. The Israeli press, he says, is modeled largely on British tabloids, for which a cheeky political outlook was a time-honored prerogative (It’s no coincidence that Conrad Black, The Jerusalem Post’s owner, also owns the U.K. tabloids The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph.). Moreover, in Israel, the daily paper has always been considered the most effective instrument for advancing the message of a political party, and, as an Israeli writer once said, “to make sure the party’s followers received the ‘correct’ educational guidance.” To apply American standards to the Israeli press, Safian warns, would be misguided.

Can a free press really survive in this politically-saturated climate? Sure, Safian says, one only has to adjust the definition of “free press.” What’s more, he says, a broad spectrum of political ideas from across the political spectrum might be the best remedy for Israel’s ailing democracy. As for Schocken, asked by Aufbau for his response to critics at The Jerusalem Post, the Haaretz publisher responded, “I’d rather not argue with The Post. They are entitled to their view, I am to mine.” As long as that’s the case, freedom of the press in Israel would seem assured.