Amos Schocken is not the most loved man in Israel. The nation’s second most widely read daily paper, Maariv, has charged him with “demonising” the Jewish state. “His newspaper, which was once a sanctuary for intelligence,” the Maariv editorial asserts, “is nowadays an insult to intelligence.” According to the Jerusalem Post, “Schocken lives in a utopian fantasy world.” And when Hezbollah captured an Israeli soldier, a blogger on think-israel.org lamented, “What a pity Amos Schocken wasn’t kidnapped instead.” On the other hand, much of Israel’s intelligentsia laud Schocken for his courageous vision, and believe that the newspaper he publishes, Haaretz (“The Land”), is numbered among the world’s finest newspapers.
Sitting in his art-filled office in Tel Aviv, Schocken is loath to take credit for the plaudits and insults that have translated equally into devoted readers and waves of angry subscription cancellations. “The spirit or the ideology of the newspaper is not something I invented,” shrugs Amos, the 62-year-old grandson of Salman Schocken, the Weimar-era German department store magnate who also founded the venerable publishing house Schocken Books (later Schocken Publishing House), home to Franz Kafka, Martin Buber, and Nobel laureate Shmuel Yosef Agnon.
The newspaper’s liberal stance reflects the Schocken family tradition – Salman supported Brit Shalom, a group that during 1923 to 1948, when Palestine was mandated to Britain, backed peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs and recognised the national aspirations of both peoples alike. The paper has long advocated the return of the territories occupied by Israel after 1967’s Six Day War in exchange for peace, and argued that keeping them endangers the country’s basic Jewish, democratic character.
Among Amos’s top priorities is the thorough, in-depth reporting of the lives of Palestinians within Israel and the occupied territories, although this has brought furious accusations that Haaretz has sullied Israel’s international image.
“It’s one of the most important issues of Israel’s identity and future,” he says of the paper’s duty to report truthfully on the conditions facing the Palestinian population. “This place [the state of Israel] was unfortunately created by trying to obliterate the existence of Arabs. It doesn’t make any sense. The historical presence of the Jews in this area is not something that one can deny and is not something that is made stronger by diminishing the existence of others.”
Salman, whose vigour and readiness to battle for the causes he held true prompted German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt to call him “the Jewish Bismarck”, bought Haaretz from its founders in 1935, after emigrating to Palestine upon Hitler’s rise to power.
His son Gerschom edited and published the paper for over half a century until his death in 1990, when Amos took over as publisher of the Haaretz Group, which includes a chain of weeklies. Amos controls the group together with his brother Hillel and their sister, Rachel Edelman, who heads the Schocken Publishing House in Israel. In 1987, the family sold the Schocken Publishing imprint in the US to Random House.
The family moved last year to secure its reign over Haaretz by selling 25 per cent of the group’s shares to German publishing house DuMont-Schauberg, which foreswore any editorial influence. Amos’s critics were once again enraged when it emerged that the Cologne-based newspaper family had a Nazi past. He brushes aside the criticism, arguing that the current generation bears no blame for the sins of their fathers.
“We could easily raise money for Haaretz from wealthy Israeli businessmen,” he says, “but we didn’t want to expose ourselves to pressures that would make [our] journalists feel uncomfortable writing about things that were not in the interest of big Israeli businesses.”
The decision to approach German investors was viewed as closing a circle for the family. “Not only money and shares changed hands here,” Haaretz commented on the transaction, “but also cultural longings and desires, and lost identities too.” In calling the head of the DuMont-Schauberg family a “combination of enthralling, passionate personality with the embodiment of aristocratic modernity”, Haaretz could have been describing Amos himself.
Just as his grandfather saw himself as a connoisseur, patron and guardian of cultural heritage, so too is Amos a keen art collector. Whereas Salman favoured Rembrandt, Dürer, Van Gogh and the German Expressionists, his grandson fills every wall in the five-storey Haaretz headquarters – from the executive suite to the foreign and sports desks to the employee gym – with contemporary Palestinian and Israeli art.
Former managing editor Yoel Esteron describes it as a “gallery disguised as a newsroom”, and, according to London-based dealer Daniella Luxembourg, Schocken’s constantly rotating array of more than 2,000 works is the most significant private collection of contemporary Israeli art in the world.
Together with a personal curator, Schocken regularly visits artists’ studios to seek out new work – be it Palestinian artist Anisa Ashkar’s performance pieces and body calligraphy or Israeli photographer Adi Nes’s homoerotic takes on Israel’s culture of military machismo.
A fastidious man with cropped grey hair, Schocken straightens framed works as he shows Monocle around the paper’s premises, where he oversees the art’s placement. “We look at the walls and see what works well,” he says of the many provocative images. “We think about the content and the place where we hang it.”
At the reception desk hangs a painting of Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and a fist-waving David Ben-Gurion, with a row of dead Israeli soldiers lying just beneath their gaze, the iconic leaders seemingly responsible for the body count. Schocken uses a large wall leading to the newsroom as what his curator Efrat Livni calls “a sort of bulletin board”. When the second intifada against Israeli control of the occupied territories began in 2000, he hung a large David Reeb canvas there – a painting crudely depicting anonymous urban gunmen under the banner “Let’s have another war”. The identities of the gunmen were ambiguous, leaving a rather sour implication: that Israelis – more than the Palestinians rebelling against them – hankered for further conflict.
Such an affront to the Israeli consensus mirrors the approach Schocken has taken in a series of editorials published in the paper under his own name. He marked Israeli independence day last April with one of these signed editorials, this time calling for replacing the national anthem “Hatikvah”, arguing that its fervent expression of longing for a Jewish homeland was unsuitable now that the citizenship is close to 20 per cent Arab. “Writing these articles is not some kind of hobby,” says Dov Alfon, former editor of the paper’s weekend magazine “It burns inside him.”
In the midst of the second intifada, Schocken rejected appeals from his own staff to moderate the paper’s leftist political stance. “He just ignored it. [Schocken] wouldn’t mind losing money, subscribers or advertisements as long as he’s faithful to his views,” says Esteron. “He’s a man of conviction and he puts his money where his mouth is.”
As the paper of Israel’s cultural, intellectual and political elite, Haaretz has an influence that outstrips its relatively small circulation base – Israeli president Shimon Peres blogs exclusively for the Haaretz website. Larger rivals, the tabloids Yediot Ahronoth and Maariv, have far more readers than the 65,000 subscribers Haaretz’s Hebrew edition boasts, but both tabloids have been buffeted by the introduction last July of a new free daily, Israel Hayom (“Israel Today”), bankrolled by the right-wing tycoon Sheldon Adelson. Meanwhile, Haaretz, with 330 journalists, writers and editors, has invested further in its increasingly popular English website. The English edition has a circulation of around 15,000 and is aligned with the International Herald Tribune.
Business coverage has become increasingly important to Haaretz, which in 2005 launched a separate online and print business sheet known as The Marker. That has helped draw in 15 per cent more subscribers over the past two years and brought a rise in advertising revenues of over 50 per cent.
Alfon argues that Schocken has pushed for greater business coverage not only to enlarge Haaretz’s readership, but also to persuade the Israeli business community that the paper’s political orientation – stressing the need for withdrawal from the territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state – also makes economic sense. Schocken, for his part, plays down suggestions that his paper aims to exert direct political influence. “We’re a newspaper. We’re not competing on running the place. We’re reporting and commenting.”
Haaretz was founded in Jerusalem in 1919 by Zionist immigrants to Palestine, and moved its offices to Tel Aviv in 1922. It was purchased in 1935 by Salman Schocken.
Haaretz is a broadsheet printed daily, except Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. It sells 75,000 Sunday-Thursday, and 95,000 on Fridays. An English edition appears with the International Herald Tribune in Israel.
The Haaretz Group’s other holdings include the Schocken Publishing House, some 15 local papers including the Tel Aviv weekly Hair, the entertainment listings guide Achbar Hair and a 33 per cent stake in Walla!, an Israeli internet portal.
Yedioth Ahronoth – “Latest News” Founded: 1939. Owned by: Moses family. The daily tabloid is Israel’s bestseller.
Israel Hayom – “Israel Today” Founded: 2007. Owned by: Sheldon Adelson, a right-wing US billionaire. This freesheet has a circulation of 100,000.
Maariv – “Evening” Founded: 1948. Owned by: Nimrodi family. Centre-right tabloid with 160,000 circulation.
The Jerusalem Post Founded: 1932. Owned by: Mirkay Tikshoret, a Tel Aviv publisher who bought it from Conrad Black. Circulation of 50,000.
Israel has seven Arabic newspapers, the most influential of which is Kull al-Arab. There are also papers in Russian, Yiddish, German, Hungarian and Romanian.