The late Yossi Sarid was a media icon for two reasons.
First, he was a media figure himself, having completed his army service as a correspondent for BaMachaneh Gadna and then the Histadrut’s daily, Davar, as well as broadcasting over Kol Yisrael and Galei Tzahal. He later became the spokesperson for the Mapai Party and prime minister Levi Eshkol, and was very successful in those positions. Second, he provided media personnel, the majority of whom were cut from the same ideological cloth, with a near-worshipful figure whose ideas, language and performance made them comfortable in their profession and even provided them with a purpose in their media activity.
From the reporters to the analysts and the editors who assured his media presence, he was a source of self-confidence.
Some of these people climbed the professional ladder and are today in the most central positions of media power. Sarid was one of them. He provided support for their core beliefs and they provided him with air-time and coverage that drove him to the top.
An insight into this relationship is given by the words of Arieh Golan, the Kol Yisrael stalwart who dominates the early morning airwaves as host of the two-hour Boker Tov (Good Morning) interview and news digest radio program. A seemingly unrelated issue – the demand of the IBA’s deputy director Ronit Braun-Kennis that even senior correspondents and program hosts clock in and out and obtain permission for work on Shabbat – bestirred Golan deeply. He was quoted by Haaretz’s Itai Stern Monday as saying: “Enough of this harassment...what does Braun-Kennis know of journalism work...let her come and open a broadcast on the weekend [he did not use the term Shabbat] in order to report on the death of Yossi Sarid.”
One of us (YM) observed first-hand the near-worshipful behavior of the media toward Sarid during his 13-year career in the Knesset. There is a political custom in Israel called “opening a table.” An MK sits down at a large dining table and the reporters and columnists gather around and almost literally “sit at the feet” of the MK. Jokes are told and stories swapped. At these sessions, Sarid could be, and was, especially sarcastic and denigrating, in his criticism of allies as well as of rivals and opponents. He was invariably forgiven for outrageous opinions. Self-censorship was the rule.
The poet and novelist Eyal Megged was an out-ofplace voice in the post-mortem appreciations. Megged (once a Netanyahu admirer and now a critic, who insists on dining at a hummus restaurant in east Jerusalem), called Sarid an “Admor,” the honorific title given to Hassidic court rabbis. “Sarid was religious,” he wrote on December 7, adding, “And his religion was peace...
and as an Admor, Sarid provided a personal example: do not doubt the religion’s principles and it is prohibited to allow the reality to undermine them...Sarid combined his politics with a blind religious belief...we were comrades-in-arms [and recently] he told me ‘nothing good can come out of [Bayit Yehudi] people.”
Mazal Moualem, writing in Al-Monitor this week, provides the other perspective. Recalling that Sarid had assumed responsibility for Meretz’s failure in the 2006 elections and resigned from the party’s leadership, Sarid, she noted, declared that the real responsibility for the disintegration of Meretz and the Israeli Left lay with the then-head of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat. At a meeting with the party’s faithful, she reminded us, he chastised himself not only for failing to disassociate himself from Arafat, but also for not doing it “firmly enough and at the right time.”
Her conclusion accurately reflected Sarid’s effect on the media. He was allowed to assert his ideology even at the expense of rationality and logic. The media preferred ideological commitment: “Sarid[’s]...death signaled more than just the loss of the man. It also marked the loss of a bold vision and a clear path forward – two features that seemed to have faded away over years of intifadas, terrorism and indecisive leadership in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”
In the eyes of the media, Sarid was right even when he was wrong.
The words and descriptions employed to eulogize Sarid – as well as those avoided – reveal much about this symbiotic relationship. In a 1998 court decision he was found guilty of libeling Yair Kotler, who then published his book on Sarid, entitled The Snake, with its infamous picture of Sarid urinating by the side of the road. In contrast to the deep disrespect of the media for almost all other politicians, this chapter of history was a non-topic.
What follows is a short collection of the superlatives the media lavished on Sarid.
Meretz MK Ilan Gilon: “The Arik Einstein, the troubadour of Israeli politics, has left us.”
Amos Oz: “His voice accompanied us – a sharp, cutting voice, one that constantly reminded us of the simple truth that there is no contradiction between justice and diplomatic wisdom.”
Meretz MK Zehava Gal-On: “He dedicated his life to the struggle against a reality wherein Israel is becoming more violent and less democratic, a state of messianism, closed and paranoid.”
Channel 2’s news reader Oded Ben-Ami: “A clever politician, the boundary-setter of the Left, who never hesitated to speak his mind....”
The channel’s political analyst Udi Segal: “Above all, his voice will be lost...a unique, clear and lashing voice...expressing views that were almost in the minority...we loved to argue with him.”
Menachem Horowitz: “Without doubt, we lost an excellent prime minister.”
Yediot Aharonot’s Nahum Barnea: “Sarid was fearless...his voice clear, clean and uncompromising,” and Eitan Haber: “He was of the type that, it is said, God breaks the die after their birth so that there’ll be no other.”
Adjectives such as “extreme” were not to be found.
His conflicts with Meretz leader Shulamit Aloni were ignored. His bitter feuds with those close and far were portrayed as admirable and to be forgiven. In his last published Haaretz column last Friday, he wrote a classic example of political religiosity: “It’s one continuous line from the 1956 massacre of Kafr Kassem to the...No. 300 bus to the Jewish Underground and now to the Jewish supremacists of Lehava.”
David Runciman, writing in The Guardian in 2011, provided an insight into the relationship between the media and the politician: “What the politicians are frightened of is...newspapers that stir up trouble inside the government...[they] can provide an unrivaled platform for internal rivals to incumbent politicians.” He added that “real power lies [with those] who can click their fingers and watch everyone jump.” Sarid had that power.
The loyalty that Sarid commanded served him well.
His often extreme views succeeded in gaining a media platform that magnified them. Israel lost a personality who wielded great influence on its society, as a government minister and journalist. Sarid was unparalleled, and maybe this is the most damning accusation against Israel’s right wing.
The authors are vice chairman and chairman respectively of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imediaw.org.il).