Thursday, April 1, 2010

A rare voice of courage: journalist Gideon Levy

A rare voice of courage: journalist Gideon Levy

Gideon Levy (Haim Taragan/Haaretz)

Gideon Levy is a rare voice of courage in an Israeli media generally
supine towards the political establishment. Since 1988, he has written
the "Twilight Zone" column for the Israeli daily Haaretz, documenting
unflinchingly the myriad cruelties inflicted on the Palestinian people
under occupation. In his new book Gaza, a collection of articles which
has just been published in French, Levy utters phrases that, by his
own admission, are considered "insane" by most of his compatriots. The
Electronic Intifada contributor David Cronin spoke with Gideon Levy
about his background and journalism.

David Cronin: You were born in Tel Aviv in the 1950s. Were your
parents survivors of the Holocaust?

Gideon Levy: They were not Holocaust survivors, they just left Europe
in 1939. My father was from Germany, my mother Czech. Both were really
typical refugees because my father came on an illegal ship, which was
stopped for half a year in Beirut by the British and only after half a
year on the ocean could it make it to Palestine. My mother came on a
project with Save the Children. She came without her parents directly
to a kibbutz.

My father always said he never found his place in Israel. He lived
there for 60 years but his life was ruined. He had a PhD in law but
never practiced it in Israel. He never really spoke proper Hebrew. I
think he was really traumatized all his life.

At the same time, he never wanted to go back [to Europe] even for a
visit. He came from Sudetenland, which became Czechoslovakia. All the
Germans were expelled.

DC: How did your parents' history affect you when you were growing up?

GL: I was a typical first-generation immigrant. When my mother used to
talk to me in German, I was so ashamed that she spoke to me in a
foreign language. Her name was Thea; I always said it was Lea. Thea is
a Greek name from mythology. It is a beautiful name but as a child I
always said Lea just to cover up the fact they were immigrants.

My father's family name was Loewy and for so many years I was called
Loewy. But then I changed it to Levy and now I regret it so much.

DC: Tell me about your military service in the Israeli army.

GL: I did my military service in the [army's] radio station. I was
always a good Tel Aviv boy; I had mainstream views; I was not brought
up in a political home.

I was at the radio station for four years instead of three [the
standard length of military service] but for the fourth year as a
civilian. It's a very popular radio station; the army finances it but
it is totally civilian.

I was totally blind to the occupation. It was a word I didn't dare to
pronounce. I was a typical product of the Israeli brainwash system,
without any doubts or questions. I had a lot of national pride; we are
the best.

I remember my first trip to the occupied territories [the West Bank
and Gaza Strip]. There were a lot of national emotions visiting
Rachel's Tomb and the mosque in Hebron. I didn't see any Palestinians
then; I just remember the white sheets on the terraces. I was even
convinced that they were happy we had conquered them, that they were
so grateful we released the Palestinians from the Jordanian regime.

DC: What was the turning point that caused you to criticize the

GL: There was no turning point. It was a gradual process. It started
when I started to travel to the occupied territories as a journalist
for Haaretz. It is not as if I decided one day, "I have to cover the
occupation." Not at all. I was attracted gradually like a butterfly to
a fire or to a light.

My political views were shaped throughout the years; it's not that
there was one day that I changed. It was really a gradual process in
which I realized this is the biggest drama: Zionism, the occupation.
And at the same time I realized there was no one to tell it to the
Israelis. I always brought exclusive stories because almost nobody was
there. In the first [Palestinian] intifada, there was more interest in
the Israeli media. But between the first intifada and the second
intifada, I really found myself almost alone in covering the
Palestinian side.

DC: Have you completely rejected Zionism?

GL: Zionism has many meanings. For sure, the common concept of Zionism
includes the occupation, includes the perception that Jews have more
rights in Palestine than anyone else, that the Jewish people are the
chosen people, that there can't be equality between Jews and Arabs,
Jews and Palestinians. All those beliefs which are very basic in
current Zionism, I can't share them. In this sense, I can define
myself as an anti-Zionist.

On the other hand, the belief about the Jewish people having the right
to live in Palestine side by side with the Palestinians, doing
anything possible to compensate the Palestinians for the terrible
tragedy that they went through in 1948, this can also be called the
Zionist belief. In this case, I share those views.

DC: If somebody was to call you a moderate Zionist would you have any

GL: The moderate Zionists are like the Zionist left in Israel, which I
can't stand. Meretz and Peace Now, who are not ready, for example, to
open the "1948 file" and to understand that until we solve this,
nothing will be solved. Those are the moderate Zionists. In this case,
I prefer the right-wingers.

DC: The right-wingers are more honest?

GL: Exactly.

DC: As an Israeli Jew, have you encountered hostility from
Palestinians during your work in the Occupied Palestinian Territories?

GL: Never. And this is unbelievable. I've been traveling there for 25
years now. I've been to [the scene of] most of the biggest tragedies
one day after they happened. There were people who lost five children,
seven children in one case.

I was always there the morning after and I would have appreciated if
they told me, "Listen we don't want to talk to an Israeli, go away."
Or if they would tell me: "You are as guilty as much as any other
Israeli." No, there was always an openness to tell the story. There
was this naive belief or hope that if they tell it to the Israelis
through me, the Israelis will change, that one story in the Israeli
media might also help them.

They don't know who I am. The grassroots have never heard about me;
it's not like I have a name there. The only time we were shot in our
car was by Israeli soldiers. That was in the summer 2003. We were
traveling with a yellow-plate taxi, an Israeli taxi: bullet-proof,
otherwise I wouldn't be here now. It was very clear it was an Israeli
taxi. We were following a curfew instruction. An officer told us: "You
can go through this road." And when we went onto this road, they shot
us. I don't think they knew who we were. They were shooting us as they
would shoot anyone else. They were trigger-happy, as they always are.
It was like having a cigarette. They didn't shoot just one bullet. The
whole car was full of bullets.

DC: Have you been in Gaza recently?

GL: I have been prevented from going there. The last time I was there
was in November 2006. As I mention in the foreword of my book, I was
visiting the Indira Gandhi kindergarten in Gaza the day after a nurse
[Najwa Khalif], the teacher in the kindergarten, was killed in front
of all her children [by an Israeli missile]. When I came in, they were
drawing dead bodies, with airplanes in the sky and a tank on the
ground. I just went to the funeral of the nurse. It was called the
Indira Gandhi kindergarten not because [assassinated Indian prime
minister] Indira Gandhi was involved but because the owner of this
kindergarten was named Indira Gandhi as an appreciation of Indira

DC: You have often talked about how you enjoy complete freedom to
write anything you wish. But do you get the impression that life is
getting more difficult for people with critical voices in Israel and
that the government is actively trying to stifle dissent?

GL: Me personally, writing for Haaretz, appearing on TV, practically I
have never gained such freedom. I'm appearing every week on Israeli TV
on a discussion program. There were years in which I had to be more
cautious, there were years in which the words "crimes of war" were
illegal, even in Haaretz. Today, those words are over and I'm totally,
totally free. No pressure from government or army -- nothing.

But for sure, in the last year there have been real cracks in the
democratic system of Israel. [The authorities have been] trying to
stop demonstrators from getting to Bilin [a West Bank village, scene
of frequent protests against Israel's wall]. But there's also a
process of delegitimizing all kinds of groups and [nongovernmental
organizations] and really to silence many voices. It's systematic --
it's not here and there. Things are becoming much harder. They did it
to "Breaking the Silence" [a group of soldiers critical of the
occupation] in a very ugly but very effective way. Breaking the
Silence can hardly raise its voice any more. And they did it also to
many other organizations, including the International Solidarity
Movement, which are described in Israel as enemies.

DC: Did you ever meet Rachel Corrie, the American peace activist
killed by an Israeli bulldozer seven years ago?

GL: I never met her, unfortunately. I just watched the film about her
last week. Rachel, James Miller and Tom Hurndall were all killed
within six or seven weeks, one after the other, in the same place in
Gaza, more or less. It was very clear this was a message.

DC: What do you think of her parents' decision to sue the State of
Israel over her killing?

GL: Wonderful. I saw them both when they were in Israel. They are
really so noble. They speak about the tragedy of the soldier who
killed their daughter, that he is also a victim. And they are so low-
key. I admire the way they are handling it and I hope they will win.
They deserve compensation, apologies, anything. Their daughter was

I participated in a film about James Miller, a documentary by the BBC.
James Miller's story is even more heart-breaking. There was a real
murder. They knew he was a journalist, he was a photographer, he had
his vest saying "Press." It was very clear he was a journalist. And
they just shot him.

DC: How do you feel about Israel's so-called insult toward the US,
when it announced the construction of new settlements in East
Jerusalem during a visit to the Middle East by US Vice President Joe

GL: I really think it is too early to judge. Something is happening.
For sure, there is a change in the atmosphere. For sure, [Israeli
Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is sweating. And the question is:
do the Americans have a clear program?

One thing must be clear: Israel has never depended so much on the
United States like it does today. Until now [Barack] Obama has made
all the possible mistakes. His first year was wasted. But still we
have to give them [the Americans] a chance because for sure there is a
change in the tone. But I'm afraid their main goal now is to get rid
of Netanyahu. And if this is the case, it will not lead anywhere.
Anyone who will replace him will be more of the same, just nicer. It
will be again this masquerade of peace process, of photo
opportunities, of niceties which don't lead anywhere. From this point
of view, I prefer a right-wing government. At least, what you see is
what you get.

DC: Spain, the current holder of the European Union's (EU) rotating
presidency, appears keen to strengthen the EU's relationship with
Israel. What signal would deeper integration of Israel into the EU's
political and economic programs send?

GL: I think it would be shameful to reward Israel now. To reward it
for what? For building more settlements? But I think also that Europe
will follow changes in Washington like it follows almost blindly
anything the Americans do.

DC: There was a minor controversy recently about the fact that Ethan
Bronner, The New York Times' correspondent in Jerusalem, has a son in
the Israeli army. Do you have any children in the army and do you
think that Bronner was compromised by this matter?

GL: My son is serving in the army. My son doesn't serve in the
territories but I have always disconnected myself from my sons. They
have their own lives and I haven't tried to influence them.

About Ethan Bronner, it's really a very delicate question. The fact
there are so many Jewish reporters, Zionist reporters who report for
their national media from the Middle East, for sure is a problem. On
the other hand, I know from my own experience, you can have a son
serving in the army and be very critical yourself. I wouldn't make
this a reason for not letting him cover the Middle East for The New
York Times, even though I must tell you that I don't see the
possibility where The New York Times' correspondent in Jerusalem is
someone whose son is serving in the [Palestinian resistance
organization] al-Aqsa Brigades, for example.

DC: What role can journalists play in trying to achieve a just and
lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

GL: There is an enormous historic role that the Israeli media is
playing. The Israeli media, which is a free media, free of censorship,
free of governmental pressure, has been dehumanizing the Palestinians,
demonizing them. Without the cooperation of the Israeli media, the
occupation would not have lasted so long. It is destructive in ways I
cannot even describe. It's not Romania, it's not Soviet Russia. It's a
free democracy, the media could play any role but it has chosen to
play this role. The main thing is about the flow of information. It is
so one-sided, so much propaganda and lies and ignorance.

The French-language edition of Gideon Levy's book Gaza: Articles pour
Haaretz, 2006-2009, is published by La Fabrique. An English edition
will be available soon.

David Cronin's book Europe's Alliance with Israel: Aiding the
Occupation will be published later this year by Pluto Press.