A version of this piece originally appeared in Plus61J, an Australian Jewish publication.
It’s hard to imagine a more controversial Israeli journalist than Gideon Levy. The Tel Aviv native began his career in journalism as a soldier in 1971, reporting for Army Radio on Israeli politics. In 1978, at the age of 26, he joined then-opposition leader Shimon Peres as political aide. In 1982 he returned to journalism, joining the Haaretz daily, where he still writes today.
Since 1988, Levy has dedicated his career to one issue only: exposing Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Levy does not mince his words when criticizing Israeli policies. His writing, in both the news and editorial sections of the newspaper, have made him one of the most reviled figures in Israeli media.
In July 2014, in the midst of Operation Protective Edge, Levy penned an op-ed, titled Lowest Deeds From Loftiest Heights, in which he savaged Israeli pilots engaged in bombing missions over the Gaza Strip. “They are the ones […] now perpetrating the worst, the cruelest, the most despicable deeds,” he wrote.
The furious reactions from both the military establishment and the general public forced Haaretz to hire bodyguards for Levy, escorting him for weeks. “There is a limit to what you can say,” one pilot wrote to the website of Channel 2 news. “I sacrifice my heart and soul and feel I’ve been stabbed in the back.”
Levy stopped going to the Carmel Market, his favourite shopping venue, after being spat on and yelled at. He was also told that the article had cost the newspaper two million shekels ($568,000) in cancelled subscriptions and advertising.
“It was a terrible time, the worst I’d ever had,” Levy recalls. “It’s not because I was scared, even though I was. But I felt it was a turning point. It had never been that bad. For me not to go to a demonstration? That had never happened before. That article still haunts me today, it’s become my middle name.”
My biggest enemy is the centre and the Zionist left. They mislead people. I unequivocally prefer [Education Minster Naftali] Bennett to Yair Lapid. I would even prefer Netanyahu under certain conditions.
Through his body of work, Levy has been invited by the Australian Friends of Palestine to give the keynote speech at the Edward Said Memorial Lecture in Adelaide on November 25. His speech will be titled The First 50 Years: Israeli Society and the Occupation. Though he never met Said in person, Levy did not hesitate to honour his memory by traveling across the world.
“Said and I don’t agree on everything but I think that had we met, we would have found much common ground,” he says.
He was not invited to speak to any Jewish groups in Australia but doesn’t really mind. He will meet Australian politicians and appear on the ABC program Q&A.
“I speak to any audience that will listen to me, not necessarily Jews. I don’t have a target audience I write for or speak to, and that’s never a consideration. My lecture will focus on my field of coverage and will not be critical of ‘the other side.’”
Levy assumes that he will not be invited to address Jewish audiences in Australia, which he considers a “right-wing community,” and is even bracing himself for Jewish protests at the lecture venue, as occurred a few years ago in New York.
Levy wasn’t always the enfant terrible of the Israeli left, though. “My opinions grew more and more extreme the more I covered the occupation,” Levy says. “I certainly didn’t hold these opinions before I travelled to the Territories. I was never a right-winger, but I used to be a centrist-leftist. My generation, and more so following generations, were completely brainwashed.”
At first, Levy wrote a weekly column on interesting sites across Israel, but started taking interest in the Occupied Territories when his friend David “Dedi” Zucker, a Member of Knesset with the left M’eretz Party, invited him to join an excursion to the northern West Bank.
“He said: ‘They’ve cut down olive trees near Nablus, let’s go see them.’ From there it took off gradually, and eventually I decided to do only that,” he recalls.
“I remember my first trip to the Territories, three weeks after the war of 1967. I was only a 14-year-old boy but I was euphoric. I didn’t even notice there were Arabs there — back then we didn’t call them Palestinians – I only saw the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the Western Wall. It was like an orgasm.”
As a political science graduate student in Jerusalem, Levy was introduced to Shimon Peres by Yossi Beilin – later a deputy foreign minister, and Justice Minister, and one of the initiators of the Oslo Peace Process — who was writing his PhD dissertation at the same department. “The transition was very natural,” Levy says. “I had always dreamt about politics and journalism together.”
He believes that senior politicians such as Yair Lapid and Shelly Yachimovich do well thanks to skills they acquired as journalists. “Verbal skills are very important in politics. The idea is to express political views; it’s not obvious [for politicians] to have a worldview. Good journalists and good politicians need a worldview.”
Levy said he’s frustrated, but not for his decision to abandon the political track. “I’m frustrated because I have no influence. I have no chance of being a decision-maker like the prime minister or defense minister. With my opinions in this day and age, there’s no way. My only dilemma is whether to voice my opinions as a journalist or as an oppositionist in the halls of Knesset.”
I can’t emotionally criticise the Palestinians, because my hands are not clean. I also don’t think they can currently be judged, since they live in abnormal conditions.
Analysing Israel’s current political scene, Levy’s outlook is bleak. “No doubt, Israeli society is becoming increasingly right wing, religious, and racist. The worst thing is we’re racing towards a weakened democracy. There is no longer a left camp in Israel; Israel speaks in one voice. What’s the difference between Avi Gabbay, the leader of the Labour party, and Netanyahu? A bit of rhetoric but not much else.”
That process is a result of sophisticated scare tactics on the part of Israel’s right-wing government, Levy believes. “I don’t think people feel any less scared today than they did during the Second Intifada. That’s because they’re constantly inundated with a sense of danger: ISIS and everyone is out to obliterate us.”
However, Levy says he appreciates his ideological rivals on the right “for at least being honest.”
“My biggest enemy is the centre and the Zionist left,” he says. “They mislead people. I unequivocally prefer [Education Minster Naftali] Bennett to Yair Lapid. I would even prefer Netanyahu under certain conditions.”
Some credit Labour leaders like Gabbay for shifting right in a bid to garner more votes from the Israeli centre in an increasingly conservative Israeli society. But Levy doesn’t buy that.
“They’ve been doing it for the past 30 years and it always fails,” he says. “Flattering the right doesn’t work, because voters are intelligent and prefer the original. Why should they settle for a cheap imitation? I also think it’s intellectually and politically dishonest. This attitude has effectively eliminated the left, because it delegitimises its positions. Where have we come that the word ‘leftist’ is a curse word in Israel? I’m proud of being a radical leftist.”
The success of British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is proof for Levy that a strong ideological backbone is the only guarantee for political victory. “He’s closer than any other Labour leader in recent years to becoming prime minister,” Levy opines. “I wish we had someone like that here.”
That article [about pilots in Operation Protective Edge] still haunts me today, it’s become my middle name.
According to Levy, political expediency considerations never guide him in his writing. “I’m extremely skeptical about the level of influence of what I write,” he says. “My articles have no impact. But I’m unable to keep silent, so I write. I have many more readers oversees than I do in Israel, and I’m much more famous over there. I’d love to be more influential, but not at all costs.”
The claim that his articles are used as ammunition by Israel-haters does not disturb Levy. On the contrary, he believes that his free hand at Haaretz could equally be viewed as proof that Israel is an open, self-critical society.
“I am deeply connected to this place and care about it, but I am in fact hostile to Israel in its current policies. In the age of modern technology, where everything I write is immediately disseminated across the world, the question of what people do with what I write is irrelevant. It’s really not my responsibility.”
“One day of Operation Protective Edge caused more damage to Israel’s image than all my articles over 40 years put together. So better complain to those who caused Protective Edge rather than those who write about it.”
Unlike his colleague at Haaretz, Amira Hass, Levy feels uncomfortable criticising the Palestinian side. “My writing is directed at Israelis and I can’t emotionally criticise the Palestinians, because my hands are not clean. Who am I to preach to them? I occupy them. I also don’t think they can currently be judged, since they live in abnormal conditions. A brutal tyrannical regime controls their lives and I can’t blame the victim.”