Getting the facts right

Could we have come up with a more precise headline? Yes, absolutely, we should have and we have apologized to our readers. Is that reason enough to slander the piece? I don’t think so.

Teddy Kollek and David Ben-Gurion on the Kinneret. (photo credit: NAFTALI OPPENHEIM/ BEIT YIGAL ALLON ARCHIVES, GINOSSAR)
Teddy Kollek and David Ben-Gurion on the Kinneret.
(photo credit: NAFTALI OPPENHEIM/ BEIT YIGAL ALLON ARCHIVES, GINOSSAR)
Last week, I was having coffee with friends in Hamburg, Germany, when I received an e-mail. It contained an article that had just been published by The Jerusalem Post and as I began reading I shook my head. Benjamin Weinthal, the Post’s correspondent in Berlin, was criticizing the current cover story of the leading German weekly, Die Zeit, a story about the creation of the State of Israel. I had written that story.
Given our shameful history, reporting about Israel in Germany is not easy. Here it is particularly important that articles don’t lead to misunderstandings. In light of the upcoming anniversary of Israeli independence we wanted to tell the extraordinary success story of Zionism. Knowing that this is a sensitive topic I spent considerable time on research. I traveled to Israel, interviewed the Israeli historian Anita Shapira, read books by Tom Segev and Ari Shavit, dug into diaries and memoirs, and, after months of research, decided to tell the Zionist story through the eyes of one of its early protagonists: Arthur Ruppin.
I was fascinated by the life of this German Jew who was sent to Ottoman Palestine in 1908 by the Zionist Organization. Reading his diary was thrilling. How he started building up a country, often from scratch. How he traveled all around Ottoman and later British Mandatory Palestine buying land from Arab farmers. How he founded Jewish villages that became sprawling cities. How he, after having devoted his life to the creation of a Jewish state, didn’t live to see it becoming reality.
I followed in Ruppin’s footsteps from Tel Aviv to the Kinneret, from Kibbutz Degania to Mount Scopus where he bought the land that, today, is home to the Hebrew University. At the end of the article, I wonder about Ruppin’s legacy, more specifically about the fact that Ruppin’s method – his remarkable art of creating facts – is not unlike the one applied by settlers in the West Bank many years later.
The story ended up seven times as long as the article you are reading right now. It covered more than a century of Zionist and Israeli history.
Why am I telling you this? Because reading Weinthal’s piece, one might very well think I wrote some kind of anti-Israel piece, cruelly published just before the celebration of Independence Day.
Now don’t get me wrong – I am not saying that there is nothing in my piece worthy of criticism. I am sure there is plenty. And I welcome a proper debate about it. Weinthal knows his country much better than I do and I am more than willing to learn. But that’s not the point. The point is that he totally misrepresented my piece; it almost seems as if he never read it.
If he had, he wouldn’t have insinuated that I omitted historical background such as the “centuries-old antisemitism and the Shoah.” Because, in fact, I wrote this: “In Europe, the Nazis had begun to murder Jews in concentration camps. Anti-Semitism, centuries old, culminated in the Holocaust, this biggest of all crimes that finally showed that if there is one people to claim a land to find refuge there, it is the Jews. The Jewish people do not long for power but for security. They were more driven to Palestine more than attracted to it. It’s part of the historic tragedy that anti-Semites would turn this story against the Jews in the following decades, accusing them of greedily assembling a country.”
If he had read it, he wouldn’t have quoted a tweet claiming that I concealed the fact that Jews lived on the land since the days of King David. Because, in fact, I wrote this: “The Jews, [Theodor] Herzl argued, should again have their own state: after two millennia of exile in which they were ostracized, persecuted, and murdered, during which anti-Semitism constantly re-invented itself without ever disappearing, when being hated was part of Jewish life as was the fading memory of the old homeland of Israel. After this era of suffering, the Jews should again have their own state, in which they could come to rest. Preferably where they had already had a home.”
In his article Weinthal claims that an Israeli diplomat in Berlin reprimanded me for my story when, in fact, that same diplomat told me in an e-mail that she liked my article, as did other embassy employees. The thing she did reprimand (rightfully so) was the story’s headline on DIE ZEIT’s front page that included the unclear wording “Arab land.” We wanted to refer to the land Ruppin bought from private Arab citizens, but the wording chosen can be easily misunderstood.
Could we have come up with a more precise headline? Yes, absolutely, we should have and we have apologized to our readers. Is that reason enough to slander the piece? I don’t think so.
There’s one more thing: Weinthal insinuates that there’s institutionalized anti-Israel bias at our paper. He writes that our late publisher, former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, criticized Israel in the past and that he had been a soldier in the Wehrmacht.
All true, but not at all relevant here. Our publishers don’t tell us what to write. But if he absolutely wanted to talk about them, he could just as well have mentioned Schmidt’s long-time co-publisher Josef Joffe (by the way, still in office), who is Jewish. It would have been just as unimportant but an interesting fact, maybe.

The author is a journalist with Die Zeit.