When the English edition of Haaretz was first published in September 1997, Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister of Israel, for the first time. A quarter-century later, he looks likely to become prime minister again, for the seventh time.
But while Netanyahu continues to dominate Israeli politics, in many other respects – both positive and negative – Israel has significantly changed since Haaretz English first appeared.
The country is wealthier, more integrated into the region and into the global economy. Its society is even more diverse and more fractious. Its politics are more right-wing, reactionary and religious. Its relations with its neighbors are more conflictual (with the Palestinians), and more cordial (with the Gulf Arab states).
These changes have been chronicled in Haaretz English, and often vigorously contested and debated by its writers and op-ed contributors. For its largely overseas readership – many, if not most, of them English-speaking Diaspora Jews, especially American Jews – Haaretz English has been an essential medium through which they have followed Israeli news and current affairs.
Committed to journalistic independence – like Haaretz’s Hebrew edition, its much older and widely-respected sibling – Haaretz English has consistently delivered unvarnished reporting and unrestrained opinion, in stark contrast to the rose-colored hasbara (public diplomacy/propaganda) of the Israeli government, which is all too often echoed in much of the Israeli and Jewish press.
For some, including myself, reading its articles has frequently been a discomfiting, depressing and demoralizing experience, as some of our cherished (and convenient) beliefs about Israel have been consistently challenged and our once starry-eyed perception of the country gives way to a more realistic, and perhaps pessimistic, view.
As English-speaking Diaspora Jews have been increasingly able to access news and opinion from Israel (online Haaretz English readers are counted in their millions each month; its print edition in the late 1990s had an average circulation of about 10,000 copies), they have become more aware of Israel’s flaws, failures and follies, and consequently, many have grown more critical of the country and particularly its leadership.
The vociferous and often vitriolic debate about Israel that has developed among Diaspora Jews in recent decades, particularly within the American Jewish community, is undoubtedly partly a product of this greater exposure to less flattering descriptions of what’s happening in Israel or what its government and military are doing (especially to the Palestinians).
To be sure, Haaretz English is not solely or primarily responsible for the disillusionment of many liberal Zionists in the diaspora, and the gradual shift in Diaspora Jewish attitudes regarding Israel away from unconditional and uncritical support.
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Many additional, and probably more influential, factors and forces have been slowly undermining the traditional relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israel, once marked by deference to Israeli governments and acquiescence with Israeli policies, and eroding the old communal taboo against publicly criticizing Israel.
But Haaretz English’s generally critical coverage of Israeli politics and of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – during a period when other English-language Israeli news outlets (most notably, The Jerusalem Post) have often either ignored or excused Israel’s mistakes and misdeeds – has certainly contributed to the decline of “Israelotry” (as the late scholar Daniel J. Elazar aptly put it) among liberal Diaspora Jews.
While Haaretz English has helped foster a less romanticized and more critical view of Israel, and in doing so helped fuel a growing debate in the diaspora about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it has not driven Diaspora Jews away from Israel altogether.
The vast majority remain emotionally attached to Israel, and the minority who don’t declare that attachment are typically uninvolved in Jewish life and unlikely to read Haaretz or any Israeli or Jewish news outlet, even occasionally. Readers of Haaretz English, by contrast, are more likely to care about Israel—which is, after all, probably why they’re reading Haaretz in the first place.
For English-speaking Diaspora Jews, who tend to be liberal politically and religiously, reading Haaretz’s English edition might actually help sustain their attachment to Israel. Although they are often exposed to the ways in which Israeli governments, and most Israelis, don’t share their liberal values, they are also exposed to different Israeli opinions and internal Israeli debates that they may not otherwise be aware of.
Encountering generally left-wing Israeli perspectives, however marginal they are inside Israel, enables liberal and left-wing Jewish readers in the Diaspora to recognize or remember that Israel is not a monolith and its society is not politically homogenous, even if Israeli politics and public opinion has slowly shifted to the right since the collapse of the Oslo peace process and the outbreak of the second intifada.
By showcasing views that are often unpopular or controversial in Israel, therefore, Haaretz’s English edition reminds its readers that Israelis still hold a wide range of opinions and that there are at least some with whom which they share common values. This facilitates a continuing attachment to Israel among more liberal Jews in the diaspora, notwithstanding their criticisms of its policies and actions.
It also allows such Jewish readers, albeit passively and from afar, to engage with Israel as it actually exists, warts and all, rather than with an imaginary, idealized Israel.
Professor Dov Waxman is the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation Chair in Israel Studies and Director of the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Twitter: @dovwaxman