Voice of a nation

Chaim Yavin looks back on a career that spanned key moments in the country’s history.

chaim yavin 521 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)
chaim yavin 521
(photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)
A piece of advice given to Chaim Yavin in 1956, when he was just 24, launched a career that turned him into one of Israel’s most recognizable faces. As the main news anchor for state run Israel Television for four decades, he was dubbed “Mr. Television.”
Yavin admits that he was a very poor student. He studied law for six months, worked in construction, picked bananas and tomatoes, and always wondered what he might do to make a decent living. Friends told him, “You have a marvelous voice.
Why don’t you try out for the radio?” Yavin, who barely listened to the radio, thought his friends were nuts.
Listening to Yavin talk provides a window into Israel Television in its earliest days – when its first news employees had more gumption than equipment, eager to get on the air despite bosses who thought they were unprepared. Now 80 years old, Yavin retired from his anchor spot in early 2008, leaving him plenty of time for our late October chat at a cafeteria in a Tel Aviv beachfront hotel. Customers around us whispered, “Chaim Yavin” to one another, but left us alone.
Displaying little signs of his age and exhibiting a less serious mien than when he used to read the 9 o’clock news, Yavin retains that famous baritone voice that kept viewers calm and reassured during frequently tense times.
Born Heinz Kluger in 1932 in Beuthen, Germany (now Poland), he traveled with his parents to Palestine as an infant. Though the family had urged his father Sigmund to remain in Germany, he left concerned at the rise of Hitler. Family members, who had tried to convince Sigmund that Hitler was a passing phenomenon and remained in Germany, died in Auschwitz. Upon the Klugers’ arrival in Palestine, the authorities changed the child’s name from Heinz to Chaim (“I hated the name”). His family settled near Haifa.
A poor student – so poor that he was expelled from one high school – Chaim Kluger eventually graduated and, after an army stint, went off to Jerusalem on his own – to study law at the Hebrew University. Working at all sorts of odd jobs, most of them menial, he listened to friends who urged him to try out for Israel Radio as an announcer.
And so, in early 1956, he successfully applied for an announcer’s job at the radio station and, as he tells The Jerusalem Report, “The rest is history.” The rule at Israel Radio was that all employees had to Hebraize their last names and so Chaim Kluger became Chaim Yavin.
One of his early achievements was to arrange the first live radio broadcast from remote Beit She’an in the Jordan Valley, a program that put the spotlight on the nation’s poor. During the next 12 years, he produced documentaries and entertainment programs (“I was Israel’s first DJ”). When Yavin asked his mother, “How am I doing?” she replied, “OK. But what’s to become of your studies?” His mother’s words haunted him throughout his vaunted career. He kept asking himself, “What is my broadcasting worth? So you’re a big shot. You’re a celeb.
But what value does it have?” By the 1967 Six Day War, 40,000 television sets had been purchased by Israelis. They were bought mainly by Arabic speakers, as viewers could only watch broadcasts from Egypt and Jordan. In fact, for the state’s first two decades, founding father David Ben-Gurion had barred the creation of a television station, fearing it would widen the gap between rich and poor. He also feared that American-produced TV programs would be shown on the television, and “poison” local culture.
Finally, in 1968, the government gave the go-ahead and assigned communications professor Elihu Katz to create a TV station. While working towards a master’s degree in communications at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, Yavin became Katz’s aide. Aware how few human and material resources he had available for establishing a station, Katz believed that it would take future anchors and reporters several years of study before they would be ready to serve as TV broadcasters.
But Yavin and a few colleagues had a powerful itch to get on the air. On Independence Day in 1968 they succeeded, providing the first live television coverage of the annual Israel Defense Forces parade, which on this occasion showed off captured war materiel from the Six Day War. Yavin served as producer of the telecast. One day soon after the parade, noticing a crowd in the corridor auditioning for a news anchor spot, he tried out. “I went into the studio and I never came out. People heard me and they were shocked at my strong broadcast voice.”
Even after the success of televising the IDF parade, Katz was reluctant to allow regular news coverage on the nascent station. Then on July 23, 1968 came the hijacking of an El Al plane from London to Tel Aviv, and Katz green-lighted a one-hour news bulletin anchored by Yavin. Soon Yavin began anchoring the nightly 9 o’clock “Mabat” (Outlook) news show.
For the next 40 years, Yavin served as the main news anchor on Mabat. In addition to the radio news bulletins, Yavin’s nightly news broadcast became a fixture for TV viewers. His deep, confident voice made bad news more palatable. He made sure to speak slowly, without seeming didactic, in order to sound authoritative and to make sure viewers understood him. He was likened to the iconic US news anchor Walter Cronkite, whose broadcast voice was also authoritative and soothing.
Sometimes Yavin had to make tough decisions on what words to use in a telecast, so as not to alarm the public. The toughest call came on May 17, 1977 once it became known that Menachem Begin had been elected prime minister, ending the Labor Party dominance.
As the first person to inform the public that, to everyone’s shock, a veritable political revolution had occurred, Yavin knew that if he used the Hebrew word for revolution – mahapeicha – he could create the image of revolutionaries at the barricades, an image sometimes ascribed to Begin’s Herut party. He began his election results broadcast by using a similar, but more benign, phrase: “yesh mahapach b’yisrael” (there is an upheaval in Israel).
Yavin has been identified with that phrase more than any other he uttered in his career.
Six months later, when rumors began that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat planned to visit Jerusalem on a peace mission – the first Arab leader to do so – Yavin doubted the rumors and assumed most Israelis would too. On the very day that he had been appointed director of Israel Television’s news department, Yavin took a phone call from a colleague who informed him that Sadat was arriving in a few days. “Yes, and you and I are flying to the moon,” Yavin replied cynically.
When the visit was confirmed, Yavin understood that if he expressed his cynicism toward Sadat’s visit on air, he might alarm Israelis. Again, his calm, reasoned voice, announcing the startling news, quieted Israeli nerves.
However dramatic it was for him to announce the news of the Sadat visit, Yavin suffered none of the emotional pressure that he felt when an assassin felled the prime minister. From the moment, on the evening of November 4, 1995, when he learned that Yitzhak Rabin had been shot, Yavin knew his place was in front of the camera. But, he asked himself, what could he say? He knew few details, especially the gravity of Rabin’s wounds.
Settling into his anchor’s seat, he listened through his earpiece to an editor relate that, according to the British Sky News network, Rabin had died. But until the government made its own announcement, Yavin could not broadcast it.
Finally an official announcement of Rabin’s death was issued, and it was Yavin’s task to give the nation the tragic news. Overwhelmed by the news, Yavin was at a loss for words. “I couldn’t force myself to say Rabin had been killed or assassinated or that he was dead.
Still, I had to say something. And so I announced: ‘Rabin is no longer among the living.’” So emotional had he become that he feared breaking down on camera.
“You have to carry on,” he told himself.
“You have a duty to fulfill.”
Over the next few years, as Palestinian suicide bombers stepped up their campaign against Israelis, Yavin again found it increasingly difficult to present the news with detachment. “I hated those bombings.
It was a physical thing. I was very much down. I became so depressed that I asked myself, ‘What is going to become of us?’” He answered the question by deciding that unless Jewish settlements on the West Bank were evacuated or there was a political agreement with the Palestinians, Israel would never achieve peace. Until then, no one watching him on TV had been able to discern Yavin’s political sentiments. But now he felt a need to take a public stance, suggesting that Israel abandon the settlements. Going public on a grand scale, he produced a five-part documentary series on the settlements that aired in May 2005.
In the series, Yavin made his main point. “Since 1967, we have been brutal conquerors, occupiers, suppressing another people.” For the nation’s leading television personality to air his personal views so publicly was seen by settlers as an insult, and they urged Israel TV to fire Yavin. Instead, ITV signed Yavin on for another year, and two years later he won the Israel Prize, the state’s highest distinction.
The series urged no particular solution (“I had no solution”), only that Israel and the Palestinians had to enter into a political agreement. “I didn’t know if terrorism was going to stop if and when we evacuated the settlements, because terrorism was here even before we had settlements. But I said that if we don’t come to an agreement with the Palestinians, terrorism would go on and on forever. They are not going anywhere and we are not going anywhere.” In 2004, there were 234,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank, a figure that has grown to 350,000 today, indicating that Yavin’s series had little impact on arresting settler growth.
In contrast with media stars rushing into politics these days, Yavin had no desire to become a politician. The most serious overture came in 1977 from Amnon Rubinstein, one of the leaders of the Democratic Movement for Change (a forerunner of today’s Meretz party), who according to Yavin promised him a Knesset seat. Yavin said no thank you. “When I was director general of Israel Television [from 1986 to 1990], I was so bored going from one meeting to another. I knew from that experience that I could only be a mediocre politician.”
Watching Israel TV in retirement, Yavin decries the way television has morphed from a serious medium to little more than “a trade, trying to reach as many people as possible.” In earlier days, when he began working at the station, “people were thinking that maybe television could serve as a means to improve humanity, but today television has become totally a medium for entertainment.”
He also raps today’s news anchors – who speak unclearly, and far too quickly. “In my day we worried that our viewers were interested in what we had to say. And so we made sure to speak slowly and clearly.”