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Israel’s Walter Cronkite Finds Himself at a Crossroads

Chaim Yavin, rightly referred to as Israel’s Walter Cronkite, has an odd face for a news anchor. Though his presence has comforted millions, delivering the news nightly on Israel’s state-run channel — with an almost exaggeratedly perfect diction — since 1968, his features seem to betray a slight befuddlement, a tinge of obliviousness. It’s not his fault, of course, but he just doesn’t possess the intellectual air of a Ted Koppel or a Peter Jennings. He’s closer to Dan Rather, though without the endearing earthiness. A well-known Israeli commentator wrote him off to me last year, saying, “Yavin is an anchorman. Very popular, but not very smart.” In fact, some have attributed Yavin’s most amazing feat — never allowing the right or the left to lay claim to him — to the widespread assumption that he has no opinions.

This summer, in a five-part series called “Land of the Settlers,” that was shown on Israeli television, Yavin changed that impression. The highly controversial documentary, which even garnered attention here — from National Public Radio to The New York Times — was a dramatic media event in Israel that provoked serious calls from the right for Yavin’s resignation and was claimed by the left as no less than synonymous with the real Cronkite’s famous editorial against the Vietnam War.

Yavin took off his tie, put on a black trench coat and baseball cap, and went on a “personal journey” to the West Bank and Gaza. He returned with two testimonial threads: on the one hand, the humiliation and despair of Palestinians under occupation, and on the other hand, Jewish settlers who come off, in the words of Ha’aretz’s Tom Segev, as “members of a fanatic, insane, racist, despicable, violent and dangerous sect — more infuriating and despairing than they have ever been seen in an Israeli film.”

But the strongest presence in the film — more than the Palestinians on line at the checkpoints or the settlers shooting machine guns at Arab farmers — is Yavin’s own voiceover, sincerely shocked, saddened and stupefied by what appears on the other end of his camera. There is not much new information here in this documentary, not for those of us who have been intellectually honest in exploring all the thorniness of the conflict. What is new is Yavin, like Columbus discovering his own backyard, suddenly coming to terms with all the moral and practical implications of the occupation as if he had never thought of them before, as if he hadn’t been delivering the news every night for 40 years. The beauty is that he makes it new for us, as well.

The first two parts of “Land of the Settlers” have now been translated into English and are making the rounds of American synagogues, giving some American audiences a chance to see the affecting documentary. In one scene, Yavin sits drinking tea in a settler bungalow. He engages the settlers in argument, screaming at them like a teenager would at an old conservative uncle at a family gathering, and eventually explodes against their stubbornness: “I am coming now from the roadblock. I am coming from a woman who had to give birth at a roadblock because they didn’t let her go through, and I say to you, ‘This isn’t Jewish, what we’re doing here.’”

In another settler outpost in Hebron, he needles Elisheva Federman, wife of extreme right-wing activist Noam Federman, to the point where she reveals her unabashed political beliefs: Palestinians should be given an ultimatum to leave of their own will or be forcibly transferred, she tells Yavin, holding her young son in her arms as she speaks. If they refuse to go, she says, “we should just bomb them and kill them.”

Sometimes Yavin simply stumbles across the everyday and marvels, such as the scene at a West Bank checkpoint where he films a Palestinian man pleading with a young soldier to let his sick daughter through. In voiceover, Yavin wonders, “I look for danger in these people and I can’t find it.”

“Land of the Settlers” appeared on Israeli television in June, two months before the disengagement from Gaza and as the nightly news — anchored by Yavin — was showing images of settler youth violently resisting the impending move. It’s not surprising, then, that the right wing was so sensitive to it. Bentsi Lieberman, head of Yesha, the settler’s council, publicly demanded that Yavin be immediately dismissed from the government channel and payroll, writing: “It is unacceptable that Chaim Yavin will continue to anchor the news of a national station that professes to be objective.”

Though it’s true that in that environment, with the country split and the settlers attempting to make their existential case, Yavin’s depiction of them seemed to have a strategically political motive. It’s probably the reason that Channel One refused to produce the series and Yavin was forced to air it on Channel Two. But viewed now, minus the context of disengagement, it’s hard to see the film as a calculated political move or even emanating from a partisan perspective. True, Yavin clearly believes, as he recently wrote in a Boston Globe op-ed, that “[i]f we want peace, we have to dismantle the settlements,” but he seems to come to this conclusion through the film rather than making the documentary out of this conviction.

Maybe this is what makes the movie so effective. It doesn’t read as propaganda. It’s more like the travels of a classic Yiddish schlemiel, revealing, through his naive and bumbling confrontation with reality, some of the conflict’s essential truths.

Gal Beckerman, a regular contributor to the Forward, is writing a history of the Soviet Jewry movement, to be published by Houghton Mifflin.

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