Veteran Yediot Ahronoth reporter Sever Plocker published the following account on his Facebook page earlier tonight:
Professor Robert Conquest is one of the greatest living historians. He earned undying fame with the publication of his book on Stalin’s purges, “The Great Terror.” Last week, after a shameful delay, he got a kind of recognition from Israel: The Dan David award.
I asked for an interview. The organizers were glad and promised it’ll be exclusive. I asked after his health and was told it’s “not great”, but that an interview won’t be a problem. After the ceremony I felt somewhat doubtful and asked them again. They made inquiries and came back with with an affirmative. They then asked if I’d be angry if Prof. Conquest also met a journalist from Yisrael Hayom, who wishes to write on the historian’s literary works. This wouldn’t be an interview, the organizers stressed. I’m not sensitive about the exclusivity issue, and I agreed.
On the morning of the interview I heard Prof. Conquest cancelled a lecture at the university because he “slipped in the bath.” I was once again soothed by the organizers that the interview will take place. I came to his hotel room and met a 95-year-old wreck of a man. I won’t elaborate: I sat before him for close to an hour with an open notebook, asked questions and couldn’t get a single clear sentence out of him. The professor would try speaking quietly and immediately slip into an intricate, unique world of his own, looking for phrases, events and names. I’m not ashamed to admit I was close to tears. I made my goodbyes knowing I don’t have an interview, but that I’ve done a kind of a service to a great intellectual.
To my surprise, I read in the Friday issue of Yisrael Hayom a long, detailed interview with Professor Conquest. Not just any interview: The elderly professor told Yisrael Hayom everything Yisrael Hayom wanted to hear. That Israel is right on everything, that it’s good it annexed the Golan Heights, that its fears of Iran are justified, and so on and so forth. Two pages of an interview. I read and felt shamed: Despite my several decades in journalism, I failed in my attempt to interview Professor Conquest – and Yisrael Hayom succeeded. The very, very ill professor who, in his meeting with me couldn’t put a sentence together, appeared in the Yisrael Hayom interview to be an articulate speaker of elaborate answers and considerable knowledge of Israeli politics. And it goes without saying that according to Yisrael Hayom, Professor Conquest votes Likud.
The full Hebrew interview, by Dror Eydar, can be read here. Last week, Yisrael Hayom‘s star sports columnist Shlomo Scharf was suspended from the paper after writing a column on a game that took place while he himself was spotted and photographed at a pop concert.
Update: Eydar published his own reply, also on Facebook. Here it is in full (translated by Sol Salbe).
I hear that Sever Plocker of ‘Yediot Ahronoth’ tried to interview Robert Conquest but was unable to do so because the man was in his words ‘a wreck’. Between the lines one can discern a query as to how we in Israel Hayom succeeded where he failed. He also contended that according to the interview the man ‘votes Likud’.
It is nice to know that Plocker reads ‘Israel Hayom’. Emulating him is highly recommended. I understand that Plocker wanted to insinuate something regarding the interview’s credibility. Hmmm … this is laughable, because everything is documented. It is true that Conquest was exhausted. The man, aged 95, had just arrived on Sunday morning from San Francisco – quite a distance – and on that very evening he received the Dan David Prize. The next morning the organizers said that he was not feeling well, but would agree to an interview. I sat with him for about an hour and a half. Indeed, he was very tired, but his eyes were sharp and bright. He spoke very close to me. I spent one and a half week preparing for the interview. Consequently I was very focused in my questions and the verbal and conceptual interchange between us. The interview seemed to tire him out quite a bit and I stopped having obtained only a half of what I had craved.
Plocker arrived later. So Conquest was not at his best with Plocker. That is quite understandable, isn’t it?
As to the claim that Conquest is a ‘Likud voter’ – Well, Conquest is an intellectual with quite a conservative bent, and it is only natural that his comments would line up with the the current government’s direction which is also – surprise, surprise — conservative. In general, Conquest did not say anything unusual that he had not said in the past 70 years. You get a good gauge of his views from the only book of his that has been translated into Hebrew ‘Reflections on a Ravaged Century’ (Dvir, 2005), an amazing book that I recommend we all read and delve into.
As of Sunday morning, no recording of the interview was released.
UPDATE Sat 23/6: Eydar released a recording of the interview which, although not nearly as fluent as the printed version, certainly appears to confirm the main points. No comment from Plocker as of yet.