Jonathan Ben Artzi’s parents, who’ve been supporting his ultimately successful campaign for conscientious objector status related to his military conscription sent me an interesting lecture Amos Schocken, publisher of Haaretz, delivered at the University of Missouri school of journalism. In the interview, Schocken uses Jonathan’s case to make a very important point about the critical importance of covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as broadly and diversely as possible.
In reading the publisher’s ideas I come to realize just why it is that the Israeli media are so much better at covering this story than U.S. media. The former, when they do their job right (and they don’t always do so) have a no holds barred attitude. Let the chips fall where they may. If the IDF screws up we’re going to report it (at least if the military censor allows them to). If an MK says something especially boneheaded or racist–let the readers know about it.
In America, journalistic criteria are different. First, you have the issue of determining whether stories from Israel are newsworthy in a U.S. context. Second, you have a sensitivity or fear depending on how you view it of hitting too hard and insulting your Jewish readers. For example, no U.S. mainstream media that I know of have reported on Ben Artzi’s story (while the Guardian and Telegraph have reported the story in England). I think the editors are thinking that if the idea of refusing military service is that controversial in Israel we’re not going to touch it. By the way, I include American Jewish media like JTA in this group of The Timid as well.
Luckily, that’s not Amos Schocken’s approach:
About two weeks ago we received an e-mail from a couple. After many years of loyally subscribing to Ha’aretz, they wrote, “we have decided to cancel our subscription. Since the beginning of the Intifada, we have suffered almost daily from reading reports and articles by Gideon Levy, Amira Hass and Akiva Eldar. But we stayed with you. Lately, however, Ha’aretz has espoused a policy of supporting refusal to serve in the Army. This reached its climax in a report about the Ben-Artzi family in last week’s magazine. We think the refusal to serve in the Army, and the resonance and support that Ha’aretz gives it, undermines the essence of the existence of Israel. As parents of three children who serve in the Army…and who perform their duty out of feeling of loyalty and responsibility, we deem refusal to serve an illegitimate and immoral way to express a political position, and we refuse to be partners with an irresponsible newspaper that supports such phenomena.”
I replied to their letter. “How can you conclude that Ha’aretz supports refusal to serve in the army,” I asked. “The opposite is in fact the case. When the issue of refusal to serve came to the forefront of public debate, and advertisements signed by reserve officers and soldiers appeared in the press advocating refusal, Ha’aretz published an editorial specifically rejecting organized or mass refusal as a legitimate or feasible course of action in a democracy. Not only did we publish such an editorial, but five of our leading commentators wrote signed articles dealing with this issue. Four of them rejected refusal to serve, and only one (by Gideon Levy) supported such a course of action.”
But, I continued in my letter to the couple, the story of those who refuse to serve is one that should be reported, and should be part of public debate. “I see no way not to write about the interesting story of the Ben-Artzi family, really the salt of the earth in this country, and about the refusal of one of its young members to serve in the Army.”
So much for the exchange of letters.
Yonatan Ben-Artzi is a boy of 18, the age when all Israeli boys go for compulsory military service of three years. He announced his refusal to be drafted on the grounds of pacifism. Instead of being drafted he was to be sent to military prison.
Who are the Ben-Artzis? Yonatan’s father, Matanya Ben Artzi, is a professor of mathematics and physics. He served in the Israeli Army, as did his three other children, the elder sister and brothers of Yonatan. He worked for 12 years at Rafael, the government authority responsible for developing sophisticated armaments for the Israeli Army. He did post-doctoral work at Northwestern University in Chicago. Yonatan’ mother did her masters degree in the study of religions at Northwestern.
Matanya Ben-Artzi rejected the vision of Greater Israel right after the Six Day War. In 1980, when called for reserve military service, he refused to serve in the occupied territories and was tried, but was not sent to prison.
Matanya Ben-Artzi has a brother, Haggai. Haggai lives in Beit-El, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, in the occupied territories. Once, in the early eighties, Matanya went by bus to visit his brother. As the bus drove along, Palestinians threw stones at it, and there was some commotion. Arriving at the settlement, he asked his brother why the people there didn’t travel in buses with shatter-proofed windows. The answer was: Out of principle, we travel the same way people do in Tel-Aviv, but we react differently. The reaction was revenge, taken on Palestinian villages in the neighbourhood. The next day Matanya read in the papers that the settlers had destroyed Palestinian cars and other property. He told his brother he would not visit him again, as he did not want to be an accomplice to all that. He has not gone there since.
Why do I tell you all this? I do not tell you this just because a Ha’aretz story about a young boy’s refusal to serve in the Israeli Army, and about the support he gets from his parents, caused a subscriber of many years standing, whose children do serve in the army, to cancel his subscription. Nor do I tell you this because Matanya and Haggai Ben-Artzi have a sister, Sara Netanyahu, who is the wife of Israel’s former prime-minister and would-be future prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which fact of course raises the question of what does the ex-prime-minister think of his nephew’s refusal to serve his country.
I tell you this because this is Israel. Sometimes in one family you have extreme political differences, and the situation of war over the past two years in Israel has led people to take very determined and sometimes very extreme positions.
If we only had American newspapers who were willing to go where others fear to tread, then we’d have the hard-hitting, diverse coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that we deserve. Instead of fear, temporizing and censorship of the debate–we’d have a no-holds barred debate.