Israel’s Haaretz newspaper lets novelists take on the news


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During what has been one of the toughest news weeks for Israel in recent memory, daily newspaper Haaretz has let novelists and cultural critics step into its pages. The invitations to Margaret Atwood, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Jonathan Safran Foer, Milan Kundera and others had already been scheduled to celebrate the nation’s book week. Book week it may be, but it is also a week that sees Israel facing international scrutiny over the deaths of nine activists attempting to bring aid to Gaza by boat.

Etgar Keret, known in Israel as a filmmaker as well as for his wickedly funny short stories, was assigned to interview Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On a good day, this might have been possible, but it wasn’t a good day; Netanyahu had just canceled a visit with President Obama in Washington. If Obama can’t get a meeting, what hope does a novelist have?


Not much. His piece chronicles his calls from his editor, the ebb and flow of trying to get an interview with an official, any official, during an international crisis. It reads almost like Vonnegut:

They said the interview with the commando wasn’t going to happen. But Netanyahu is going to give a press conference, they said. It isn’t definite yet, but really, he has no choice. ‘Give us just a few minutes to find out when exactly it’s happening.’ This time, they actually got back to me - and quickly. ‘Netanyahu won’t hold a press conference,’ my editor said. ‘The issues he could be asked about are critical to the country’s future, and it’s not appropriate for him to answer them off the cuff like that, still jet-lagged.’

Canadian Margaret Atwood, who accepted the Dan David Prize earlier this year under protest from Palestinian groups, used her space in Haaretz to write about her political perspective on Israel, and ‘the Shadow’ she found when she visited there.

The Shadow is not the Palestinians. The Shadow is Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, linked with Israeli’s own fears. The worse the Palestinians are treated in the name of those fears, the bigger the Shadow grows, and then the fears grow with them; and the justifications for the treatment multiply.

Jamaica Kincaid, who has also visited Israel, writes of what it is like to watch the news of the Gaza flotilla on television.

To go from channel to channel is to hear from the same people the same words and phrases: we were set up; they had weapons; they had sling shots and metal pipes and marbles; they used our guns against us; we were defending ourselves; international waters; a provocation; the fight against terror is not an easy choice; a hard choice; we had no choice; Israel should; Israel should not; Gaza, Egypt and Hamas; these people are not peace loving; we are a peace loving people.

Peruvian writer, journalist and politician Mario Vargas Llosa decided to ask questions. He interviewed Gideon Levy, Haaretz’s editor, writing, ‘I want Gideon to help me to understand the most contradictory and fascinating passion of the world today -- Israeli society.’

MVL: Would you say then that in Israel there is total freedom of expression and that the media reflect daily exactly what is going on, without any kind of censorship? GL: Absolutely not. The media are the biggest collaborators. The media in Israel, most of them, are the biggest collaborators to the occupation. There is no censorship in Israel, almost none. There is something that is much worse than censorship, self-censorship, because in self-censorship there is never resistance. Were it government censorship, there would be resistance, but this is self-censorship. This is a tyranny of ratings, the tyranny of those who want to please the readers, the tyranny of selling newspapers and not bothering the readers with things they don’t want to read.

Israel may be half a world away, but this doesn’t sound all that different from the complaints we hear in the U.S. about journalism and its decline.

The newspaper has offered an interesting opportunity: for novelists to take on serious political issues. Of course, foreign writers taking stances on Israel’s policies is bound to raising some hackles. But the newspaper’s most controversial piece may in fact come from Milan Kundera, and it has nothing to do with Israel. His piece is ‘Free Roman Polanski!

-- Carolyn Kellogg