From fighter to witness

In an interview which originally appeared in 1992 in the special edition celebrating the 60th anniversary of ‘The Jerusalem Post,’ Haim Gouri recalls the national mood in Israel in the 1970s.

Israeli poet Haim Gouri (photo credit: CRIS BOURONCLE / AFP)
Israeli poet Haim Gouri
(photo credit: CRIS BOURONCLE / AFP)
‘Innocence Lost.” This was the headline of an interview with poet, writer and journalist Haim Gouri in The Jerusalem Post on April 24, 1974, the eve of Israel’s 26th Independence Day.
Eighteen years later, almost to the day, Gouri says he believes this headline is an accurate reflection of post- Yom Kippur War Israel.
The former Palmahnik and IDF officer is typical of the Israeli safra vesaifa – fighter and writer. His career as a journalist, unbroken to this day, started in 1954 when he joined the staff of Lamerhav, a Labor daily, later to merge with Davar.
Relaxing with his trademark pipe in his book-lined home in Jerusalem’s Talbiyeh neighborhood, Gouri, 69, shares with The Jerusalem Post his impressions of the 1970s and his views on “responsible journalism,” which is the paper’s motto.
“There is no doubt that the Yom Kippur War was a turning point,” Gouri says. “It was the first time the Jews in Israel had to surrender territory. In the struggles of the 1930s, we answered with the “tower and stockade” settlements; in the War of Independence, we widened the partition plan; in the Six Day War, we gained the territories; but in the Yom Kippur War, we had to fold up camp and retreat.
“Part of this was the fault of the superpower struggle,” he says, echoing his words of the 1974 interview.
“Traditionally this is so, and [David] Ben-Gurion understood this simple fact: We didn’t have to worry about Moab and Edom, it was the superpowers of Rome and Babylon which conquered us.”
The war also marked a turning point for the Israeli press, including The Jerusalem Post, says Gouri. “In the 1950s and 1960s, journalists knew the truth about different matters like the Lavon Affair, but they preferred to keep quiet. They abided by the raison d’état and were loyal to the policies of the government. After, and even during, the Yom Kippur War, this changed. Take, for example, the publication of Hamehdal (The Foul- Up), about Moshe Dayan. Journalists stopped being keepers of secrets.”
Israel thus joined the world of new journalism, with its advocacy approach rather than its gatekeeping for the government. The Post was part of this trend from fighter to witness, says Gouri, who was not upset by this change.
“‘Honesty is the best policy’ in this case,” says the veteran journalist.
Being responsible means accurately reflecting the situation as it is, neither sensationalizing nor downplaying it, Gouri explains. “Your English-speaking readers, here and abroad, see themselves as part of the dispute. People know that the disputes exist and there is no way you can hide it from them. The Six Day War united the country territorially but divided it ideologically. People see this, just as a child knows when his parents argue. That is why getting accurate information is so important.
“You shouldn’t be scared of the truth,” Gouri continues.
“It can be turned from a weak point to a strength. It emphasized dedication to democratic principles. There is no conflict between responsibility and freedom of the press.
“A paper such as The Jerusalem Post, which talks also to the Diaspora, has to be particularly objective. It must reflect the shadow and the light, the arguments and the unity. The Post was founded to represent the views of a society which believed itself to be right and it should stick to those founding principles.”
Was the paper presenting the truth in the years of hero-building that followed the post-Six Day War euphoria, or was the hero-bashing that followed the 1973 downfall closer to the correct picture? “The swings in temperament seen in the press reflect the swings in the mood of the entire nation,” says Gouri the poet. “We are a people of ups and downs, euphoria and pathos, pride and pique. Everything about us is drastic.
Look even at the weather: We had snowstorms and brilliant sunshine the same month this year. Every day there is a sudden sunrise and an equally dramatic sunset, but there is no twilight. The Hazal [Sages] wrote: ‘The [Jewish] people is compared to the dust of the ground and to the stars of the sky. When they sink, they sink down into the dust; when they rise, they rise into the stars.’ “Responsible press means not participating in these violent swings but giving instead an accurate portrayal. Still, there is something nice in this Jewish propensity for ecstatic enthusiasm and criticism. There is no need to hide the part of Jewish genius which is traditionally found in our sarcasm and irony.
“Papers can keep this too. You have your news pages and your humor columns, Davar has Davar Aher [the satirical supplement]. But the press can also educate people to see things with greater perspective. They must move away from this tendency to swing between hubris and the fear of tomorrow. The press must make the distinction between view and review.”
The true challenge of responsible press in Israel, says Gouri, is avoiding the government leaks. “Report the facts and let the readers decide,” he advises, adding that the constant government leaks which started in the 1970s are perhaps the biggest challenge to democracy that we face.
“With so much information leaving government, cabinet and even military meetings, the tendency is for those meetings to get smaller and smaller until they comprise two or three people who feel they can trust each other and who take decisions without gaining the wider view of their colleagues. It was to avoid such leaks that the Lebanon War in 1982 was basically carried out on the advice of just three people. Had more people been consulted, perhaps the war could have been averted.”
The hero-bashing and the government leaks of the 1970s are part of the phenomenon Gouri referred to in the 1974 interview when he said, “We bear much guilt. We are guilty of having betrayed the idealism of our youth.”
Gouri, perhaps the archetypal member of “The Generation of 1948,” lights another pipe, leans back in his comfortable armchair and ponders: “Perhaps there was a conflict with the ethics of the founders. Nothing is more difficult than a revolution once you have become bourgeois.
The Yom Kippur War marked a period of disillusionment that was to continue into the 1980s and the Lebanon War. Whereas the songs of 1948 were full of pride, the songs of the late 1970s include an invitation to cry; satire became rampant. We lost our innocence and gained anger.”
This anger can be seen in the songs, poems and plays of the time, Hanoch Levin’s satirical plays and Ephraim Kishon’s increasingly ironic vignettes.
Such a phenomenon not only does not surprise Gouri, it underscores the point of a story he often tells: On his first visit to Cairo in 1977, he met with the multi-faceted Egyptian personality Dr. Hussein Fawzi – writer, doctor, musician and literary critic. “Discussing the reasons for war, Fawzi said something which I repeat after every meeting with IDF officers,” continues Gouri. “‘Every good intelligence officer must read the poetry of the other nation; only poetry can provide the true information on the soul of the people.’” The Hebrew poetry of the late 1970s was harsh and bitter; there were no longer the defiant nationalistic songs that the young Gouri used to sing so unselfconsciously with his colleagues in his Palmah days.
Instead, people started questioning Trumpeldor’s reputed last words, “It is good to die for our country.” They started to feel that the war was never ending. Gouri, serving during the war as an education officer, met with soldiers who questioned the values they had been raised with. “But this was a good thing, really. It meant that Am Yisrael [the People of Israel] hadn’t lost its moral instincts. The press can and should be a forum for these dilemmas.”
The press can also be a forum for other issues, as a glimpse at the front pages of The Jerusalem Post reveals. By the late 1970s, the plight of the Soviet refuseniks had come to the fore in the Post. The headline of July 14, 1978, “15 years demanded for Sharansky,” and on March 6, 1979, “Ida Nudel’s Siberian terror” are examples of front-page stories on Soviet Jewish suffering.
Can the paper feel it played a role in ensuring that today Sharansky and Nudel are quoted from Jerusalem press conferences rather than Siberian prisons? “Undoubtedly, the press coverage did help, though it’s difficult to determine to what extent. The Post is read by many opinion leaders abroad, Jewish and non-Jewish. It can put a topic on the agenda.”
But this ability to get matters onto international agendas has a flip side, also clear in the 1970s. Today, we talk of the “Theater of Terror,” staging vile crimes in such a way as to get the best coverage. The 1972 Munich Olympic massacre early on in the decade was a clear case of exploiting the media when the world’s attention was focused in one place. It was one of many dreadful attacks on Israelis in the 1970s: At Lod [Ben-Gurion] Airport, Kiryat Shmona, Ma’alot, the coastal road, and elsewhere, much innocent blood was spilt. The grief of the survivors is recorded in the Post as if they had cried on its pages and left an indelible tear stain there.
There was also the euphoria that follows heroism: “Joy at rescue of hostages” yells the headline of July 5, 1976, with pictures of Operation Entebbe.
“The press does not only reflect the news. It can affect and even create it. The 1970s were not free of such cases either. You must be careful how you focus the camera. Do you have a wide lens or a narrow one? Are you getting the whole picture or just a part of it? Guard against superficiality and malicious gossip – the curse of today’s papers,” counsels Gouri.
Gossip might even be fatal. “You journalists killed him,” the son of housing minister Avraham Ofer charged in January 4, 1977, following his father’s suicide.
“I don’t think the newsmen killed him in the sense that Ofer committed suicide while under investigation for financial misbehavior, and he was overcome by the rumors instead of trying to counter them,” Gouri contemplates.
But were the 1970s a period of greater acceptance of responsibility? Golda Meir cites “ministerial responsibility” for the reason she resigned in April 1974; Yitzhak Rabin quit in April 1977 surrounded by rumors, a few months before the headline announced “Era of currency control ended.”
“Certainly the press played a part in forcing these issues into the public awareness. Whatever motives lay behind the actions of any person, the press by reporting the situation helped affect their actions.”
Was the press then also responsible for the events behind the May 18, 1977, headline: “Likud in first place: Labor loses heavily”? The political Mahapach (upset) is not a subject Gouri is comfortable with at a time when again the country is about to go to the polls. “The press certainly presented people in a way which broke stereotypes,” is all he will say.
It was perhaps this breaking of stereotypes which helped play a role in creating a happy ending to the 1970s. The front-page headline of March 27, 1979, declared: “Israel and Egypt sign peace treaty declaring end to 30-year state of war.” And it is fitting and optimistic to note on which to end our interview.
As Gouri repeats: We are a people of extremes. There is sadness and there is joy. The decade which started with bloodshed and fighting on the southern front at least bowed out triumphantly as it blew the ink dry on the chance for peace.