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A reluctant reader: 'Haaretz,' paywalls and liberal Zionism

One Palestinian journalist’s meditation on being forced to pay for Haaretz, the only paper he can rely on, but one that also espouses a nationalist ideology he cannot accept. ‘I’m fated to be a reluctant reader — and a reluctant citizen.’

By Hakim Bishara

‘Desire Dehau Reading a Newspaper in the Garden’ by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

It’s morning and I desperately need the news. Where I live, one needs to know what awful things to expect outdoors before leaving the house. I often think of those people who have a favorite newspaper of choice. They develop an easy kinship to the paper: “Have you seen my newspaper?”, they ask around the house; “I’m here, just reading my newspaper”, they shout from the garden. They meet their favorite paper every morning expecting it to inform, enlighten and at times amuse them. True, they might be critical of some writers, alert to some trends, but in general they trust their paper. If it is a serious relationship, they subscribe. That way, mornings are never completely bleak and coffee is never lonely. And isn’t that nice? How I envy them, those people who look forward to leafing through the Sunday paper or casually entering their favorite news website during the day, just to check what’s happening.

It’s morning, and I need a source to rely on. Without much thought, I type my way into the Israeli Haartez news website. Yes, I’m a Palestinian, but I live in Israel and I need to know the inner workings of the political and social structures here. Nevertheless, the task of jigsawing a fundamental — however relative — truth falls solely on my shoulders. How can I possibly trust the Israeli news? But then again, how can I do without them? Relying only on the local Arab press, poor, bitter and disenfranchised, is below the needs of my disposition. You cannot fully perform the role of the victim while living in the belly of the beast. So, it is morning and I enter the Haaretz website, “The paper for thinking people,” as its slogan reads. But what has long become a default choice, a habitual and involuntary tapping of my fingers on the keyboard, is now blocked by an unequivocal demand for commitment. Just like its role model, The New York Times, Haaretz decided to charge money for a subscription to its website. A dilemma now hovers above this helplessly passive pattern of consumption.

I scroll to see a special column written by Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken defending the restriction of free access to the website and advocating the subscription model to readers. Schocken claims that buying a subscription “is beyond a commercial contract. It’s also an important investment in the future of quality journalism in Israel; independent journalism that puts the public’s interest first, and in the case of Haaretz advances social, cultural and democratic values and protects them as much as it can.” Beyond the mere consumerist choice of subscribing or not (the price is not unfair), more substantial questions arose as I entirely re-examinated my relationship with this newspaper; I am, admittedly, a devout reader — whether a pleased one or not.

A word on Mr. Schocken is necessary before examining his bombastic praises of his own publication’s journalistic merits. Mr Schocken, the grandson of Haaretz founder Salman Schocken, oftentimes prides himself as being the patron of the free independent press in Israel. In an interview to The New Yorker, he once described it as “a cross I have to bear.” But Schocken, a reticent gentleman of European origin, is a business mogul in local terms with much cash and influence. In recent years, the Haaretz Group has been a profitable business by all indications. Schocken and family own a business conglomerate with a lucrative portfolio comprising Haaretz (the third biggest newspaper in Israel), a vast network of local tabloids, several websites, a magazine, a successful printing press, a publishing house, a slew of real estate assets and a mammoth art collection.

It is not beside the point that a shrewd businessman as he is, Schocken never lets righteousness stand in the way of a good deal. In 2011, Schocken Groups sold 20 percent of Haaretz’s shares to Russian billionaire Leonid Nevzlin for NIS 140 million. Nevzlin is wanted for extradition by the Kremlin for allegations of fraudulent abuse of Russia’s oil resources. Like several other Russian oligarchs who fled to Israel to avoid justice in Russia, he seeks legitimacy through lavish philanthropic donations and by discreetly forging close ties with politicians. Interfering in the newspaper’s content was never Nevzlin’s intention. His investment in Haaretz was designed to clear his dubious public image. Haaretz took the cash and made him Kosher.

Earlier in 2006, the Haaretz Group sold 25 percent of its shares to German publisher M. DuMont Schauberg, grandson of the founder of Cologne-based publishing company Kurt Neven Dument, with an estimated value of 25 million euros, reflecting a 100 million euro valuation of the Haaretz Group. Dument’s father was a member of the Nazi party in the Third Reich. His major publication, the Koelner Zeitung, was at best complacent with the Nazi regime’s propaganda. It may all be legitimate, but it does cast a chilling shadow over Schocken’s unobstructed moralism.

I might not be the target audience for Mr Schocken’s appeal: suggestively liberal Zionist, concerned about Israel’s future and anxious about its propensity to self-destruct. That constituency seems to be dwindling itself, judging by the general mood in Israel and the results of the past few elections. The shift of public opinion is vividly engraved in my memory.

I was a student in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem when the second Intifada (aka the Al-Aqsa Intifada) burst in flames. I remember the suicide bus bombings in my vicinity, the painful capital punishments on the other side, the fear, the tension and being occasionally stopped by the police just for being a ‘usual suspect.’ I should mention that in those days I was a proud Haaretz subscriber. Those awful bloody years between 2000-2005 shifted the entire political scale in Israel to the right. While Haaretz remains a relative refuge from its belligerent center-right alternatives, it too can fall silent when the guns roar. Such was the case during the second Intifada, the Second Lebanon War and the wars against Gaza. Haaretz is in its essence a liberal Zionist publication, profoundly conservative in many ways.

Like all media outlets in Israel, the paper is subject to a government and security-apparatus censorship on security issues, fortified by self-censorship. And although it is not as nationalistic as in its counterparts, the language Haaretz uses consistently fails to be unbiased. One stark example is the almost exclusive use of the passive voice in headlines, defying common editorial rules when reporting the killing of Palestinians (e.g. “A Palestinian killed by IDF bullets” versus when an Israeli is killed, “A Palestinian murdered an Israeli citizen”). The psychology behind that scrubbed language is not hard to understand – the national neuroses, the hysterical use of force, the collective denial, the pride, the arrogance and the ancient wounds. I try to neutralize its desired effect. Eventually, I find myself reading the news with a twitched face until I can no longer continue reading.

If I were to summarize the editorial stance of Haaretz, I would say that it calls for the end of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and for a two-state solution, primarily to discharge Israel from the moral hunchback of controlling more than 1.5 million Palestinians. Once the Palestinians are left to their own devices, Israel can then focus on the task of promoting an egalitarian society based on the tired notion of “respect for the other” (like in any banal children’s book, the Palestinian joins the African and Asian work immigrants in being the “other”). It’s a classic liberal thought that fails to understand its shortcomings. On that account, the newspaper maintains a token leftist column or two, a token feminist column and a token Arab writer with a weekly column. All very mainstream and mellow while xenophobic mayhem rages across the country.

And so, non-mainstream thought is rarely given a place in Haaretz. A proposed solution of a bi-national state, to mention a significant case in point, is outcast to the realms of the unthinkable. A Jewish-Arab state is presented in Haaretz only as a dystopian scenario that must be prevented with a quickly drawn two-state solution. It all corresponds with the publisher’s worldview, who when answering criticism from the Right for being “anti-Zionist,” vowed against the idea of a bi-national state or even the toned down notion of a “state of all its citizens.” Apologetic and vainglorious at the same time, he dubbed Haaretz as “Zionist through and through.” It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to claim that a truly open-minded debate would be more plausible with Jewish settlers than with the decadent mainstream left or the more hypocritical centre-left.

I’ll never be the ideal Haaretz reader as much as it can never be my ideal newspaper. Yet we’re bound in chains together in this small piece of land. If I could only switch off my mind, leave all historical contingencies aside and be a proud Israeli; then I could have the luxury of happily spreading my newspaper on the kitchen table, scattering the supplements around the house and clumsily forgetting the front page in the car. Right now, the best I could bring myself to do is to sign up for a free trial version for the undecided. Unable to take the train but unable to jump off of it, I’m fated to be a reluctant reader — and a reluctant citizen.

Hakim Bishara is a Palestinian freelance journalist and scriptwriter living in Israel. He has worked over the years in the Israeli and international press and was involved in several documentary films, including: Palestine the Lost Bride (AlJazeera), The Heart of Jenin (Eikon) and The Great Book Robbery (2911 Foundation). 

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    1. Danny

      I had the same misgivings about Haaretz’s new payment model. On the one hand, I like the content, and find some of the op-eds to be great, if not brilliant (Yossi Sarid never fails to amaze me with his astute observations about pretty much everything that happens in Israel; his most recent op-ed about Peres is case in point).

      But – I cannot bring myself to pay for this newspaper. Even though it is by far the best newspaper in Israel (which is not such a great accolade considering the most popular newspaper is Sheldon Adelson’s Bibiton), it is still just a news source – one of many.

      With so many free options all over the internet, from Huffpost to Yahoo to Uri Avnery’s blog to +972, it just doesn’t make sense to pay for news.

      Reply to Comment
    2. XYZ

      Interesting how you all feel you have to read a newspaper that is close to your ideology. I don’t know if you realize it but Ha’aretz is frequently dishonest and slanted in pushing its ideological line. It also is very pessimistic. A good example is Yossi Sarid who has never said a good word about anyone that I have ever seen. Everyone he mentions, including Israeli society at large is “stupid, moronic, idiotic, bad, greedy, etc, etc” so no wonder you “progressives” enjoy reading him.
      Ha’aretz represents more or less the MERETZ-HADASH minority ideology and generally (but no always) panders to that line. Yes, right-wing newspapers also do the same but aren’t you interested in how the majority thinks, or do you read a newspaper in order to make yourself “feel good” even if what they write is incorrect and slanted? I am “right-wing” and I do most of my reading among left-wingers (like 972) to understand how they think.
      BTW-did you know Shocken has the Ha’aretz printing plants print the two largest pro-settler, right-wing newspapers-B’Sheva and Makor Rishon? A buck is a buck, after all.

      Reply to Comment
      • Danny

        Yossi Sarid is probably the most honest man in Israel, bar none. As a politician he sucked because he actually acted according to his principles and ideals, unlike most others who abandon theirs as soon as they’re elected.

        He tends to be pessimistic because he “calls ’em as he sees ’em”. He has a sharp tongue and a quick wit, and writes with elegant and humorous prose.

        He probably should have been a poet rather than waste 30 years of his life in that cesspool called the knesset.

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    3. Kolumn9

      Do what the rest of us who don’t want to pay Haaretz money are doing and steal the news and editorials from them. Most of their content is available on mobile without a subscription. In your browser you can download plugins that mimic mobile (such as User-Agent Switcher on Chrome) and make your browser pretend to be a mobile android browser.

      So, you don’t like the liberal egalitarian model for Israel that Haaretz is promoting. You don’t go into it but it basically sounds like you are bothered by the idea that Israel will continue to exist. What pray tell are the shortcomings of the classical liberal model? Is it that in that model you are treated as just another citizen like everyone else? That does sound terrible.

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      • Oriol2

        I considers he doesn’t like the liberal model because, at least according to his own opinion: 1) It doesn’t address the real problems; 2) It cannot be applied successfully to an ethnic state like Israel, so a “liberal Zionist” is inherently fake.
        I think that both points are open to discussion, but, please, make an effort to discuss with the real man and with his real ideas, not with some convenient caricature. You know perfectly well that he isn’t against the liberal model because in it all citizens are (theoretically) equal. I should add that, even if Israel you are for the continued existence of Israel -and even if you are not going to believe it I am also for the continued existence of Israel- it is at the very least expectable for a Palestinian to be against it.

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        • Kolumn9

          Nope, don’t understand. 1) What problem does it not address? 2) Different argument entirely since he dismisses the liberal model.

          We both seem to be making assumptions here. What does he have against the liberal egalitarian model which promises equal rights to all? He certainly seems to dismiss it so I can only imagine that he sees fit to demand special rights.

          Based on his article it is a safe bet that he wishes to see Israel cease to exist. I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t point that out nor any reason why I apologize for calling him out on wishing to see my country destroyed.

          Reply to Comment
          • XYZ

            It should be pointed out that there isn’t a single “liberal democratic” Arab state. Every single one defines itself as a ethocentric state (“The Syrian Arab Republic”, “The Arab Republic of Egypt”, and including the Palestnians) and with Islam as the state religion with a major if not sole role in determining the basis of legislation which inevitably means discrimination against non-Muslims. Thus, I don’t believe that he really thinks there can be a “liberal democratic state’ in the Middle East

            Reply to Comment
          • tomakrypodari

            Well, Arabs have suffered under colonial regimes and policies, and nationalism is expected (and when being anti-colonial it can be progressive) and used as a tool to rally the wider public towards some common goals.

            Their failure is to a large extent that of failed anti-colonial efforts, of committing themselves to the “strategic partnerships” that Israel and USA favor, of assuming the model of “strongmen politicians” that use authoritarianism to counter the aspirations and the will of their people.
            Israel and its allies have long and hard contributed to the disheartening political condition of these states, because “democracy” is good only when it fits their interest and dangerous when it goes against them.

            I don’t think Israel is too keen to see the popular will of Arab citizens expressed in government policies, is it?
            So it will support the anti-democratic, dictatorial, and even fundamentalist regimes willing to work with it to keep it that way.

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    4. aristeides

      When Haaretz began to restrict its content, I soon learned that I could do without it pretty well.

      I registered for the 10 free articles, but I often don’t get all 10, and in the meantime they take the opportunity to send constant spam. I hate to think what they’d inflict on paying subscribers.

      This isn’t a Haaretz-specific problem, it’s common to all.

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    5. yo mo

      First, as far as I can tell, everyone has to pay not just Palestinians. If he objects to Shocken engaging in business deals to maintain the paper then he should be pleased to pay. Second, arguments for one state are not barred from this paper -eg http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/time-to-be-single-minded.premium-1.517887. Third, what’s the deal with “shrewd businessman as he is, Schocken never lets righteousness stand in the way of a good deal” Glad to see he is staying away from stereotypes. He should read one of the many newspapers run by failed businesspeople.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Richard Witty

      The liberal sensitivities are the right ones as far as I’m concerned.

      Respect for the other is a good. I would hope that Palestinians would adopt it for the Jewish minority that is still determined to remain Jewish and live in the Palestinian majority West Bank. (After the establishment of viable and vibrant Palestine.)

      The significance of Zionism to the Jewish people, is that it is the ONLY place that is Jewish majority.

      While I assume that you regard yourself as more specifically Palestinian than Arab, the pan-Arab and pan-Islamic wave does propose to dilute Jewish life.

      We don’t necessarily want to be diluted, but desire to struggle to form our identity as distinct.

      My best is a good neighbor to a good neighbor, not the mystery of “classic liberal thought that fails to understand its shortcomings”.

      Proudly liberal.

      Reply to Comment
    7. carl

      ‘Those awful bloody years between 2000-2005 shifted the entire political scale in Israel to the right’: agree about ‘awful’, disagree about the ‘shifting’…it was already shifting much earlier

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        Have to agree with you on that one – first suicide bombing attacks took place quite a while before the 2nd Intifada was initiated.

        Reply to Comment
    8. aristeides

      They did it again. The counter on the site said I’ve read 8 articles out of 10. I see another I want to read. They block it with a notice to subscribe to read more.

      This is just petty, but irritating enough to make me not want to do what they want me to.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Victor

      I enjoyed this piece and appreciate the author’s perspective, but would also like to point out that he need not be a “reluctant citizen”.

      As an immigrant myself, and with no malice implied, I’d like to remind the author that there are some 200 nations in the world for him to explore (and two Palestinian-administered territories) where he, with varying degrees of effort, could perhaps feel more comfortable.

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    10. Dima

      Hey 972mag, how long are you willing to tolerate such racist slurs by “The Trespasser” on your website?

      »Well, since “non-Whites” invested about 0.001% in modern science and culture, I would not call it “racism”«

      »Since you won’t be able to prove that entire modern civilization was not created by Whites (including Ashkenazi Jews), G-d is unlikely to curse me for telling the truth.«

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        Racist slurs is what one uses to describe people or groups of people.

        These are just racist opinions, because way more than .001% of science nobel prize winners are non-white. It is at least 5%.

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    11. sh

      Must say that this is one of the times when I agree with XYZ. My favourite paper for years was the Guardian Weekly not because I agreed with everything in it, but because it was challenging, reasonably generous on subjects I like, low on sport and brought topics I’d not normally look for to my attention. Unfortunately delivery here was tardy and when, over the years, the paper became less in-depth I didn’t renew my subscription. I quite like reading Hamodia from time to time – agreeing with it or not isn’t an issue.

      I too decided not to pay for Ha’aretz because you can find its news elsewhere and get hold of the opinion pieces as described by others here. Every once in a while I buy the paper edition, which more often than not reminds me why I don’t miss it that much.

      Mr. Bishara, you can read the latest news on Ynet and Arutz 7 too before you leave home in the morning. It is nice having a newspaper you’re comfortable with, but in the absence of such, there are other options for keeping abreast of events.

      Reply to Comment