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Wake-Up Call

The leftist Israeli magazine +972 wants to sound the alarm on a Jewish state it believes is destroying itself

Liel Leibovitz
January 19, 2012
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Aaron Amat/Shutterstock.)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Aaron Amat/Shutterstock.)

This past December, as other Israeli publications summed up 2011 by nominating television stars, singers, and athletes as person of the year, the online magazine +972 chose a very different set of honorees: Tawakkol Karman, Asmaa Mahfouz, Razan Ghazzawi, and a handful of other young female activists who helped shape the Arab Spring. The piece—written by Lisa Goldman, the magazine’s cofounder, and heavily reported over several months in Cairo earlier this year—was a perfect reflection of the magazine’s virtues. It was strongly political, rejecting the mainstream Israeli view of the Arab Spring as a potentially disastrous development for the Jewish state. Instead, it celebrated the activists and their accomplishments, faithful to the magazine’s view that democracy is the only long-term guarantee for regional peace and stability. The piece was widely read, receiving copious attention from bloggers and generating traffic on Twitter.

But not in Israel.

Most of those who blogged or tweeted about the piece were residents of Arab countries. And most of these Arab readers neglected to mention that the celebratory piece was written by an Israeli journalist and published in an Israeli political blog. Israelis, on their end, largely ignored the piece, as they do nearly everything +972 does. According to Noam Sheizaf, +972’s editor in chief, only about 20 percent of the magazine’s readers are Israeli, a testament to the growing unpopularity of its progressive politics in a nation governed by a coalition, led by the Likud, of those who place land and faith above all else.

Rejected by the Arabs, ignored by the Jews: This is the reality with which the magazine’s 15 or so writers have to contend, writing, as they do, in English for a largely American audience. The magazine’s name is no coincidence: It is a tribute to Israel’s international calling code and an acknowledgement that, increasingly, any serious conversation about Israel’s policies is to be had outside of Israel’s borders.

Sparking that conversation is +972’s purpose. The magazine was founded last August,
almost by accident, when Goldman, Sheizaf, Ami Kaufman, and Dimi Reider met in Tel Aviv and agreed to collaborate. At the time, all were working journalists—Goldman and Reider were writing on a freelance basis for a host of international publications, Kaufman was an editor at several Israeli newspapers, Sheizaf was a political columnist for the local edition of Time Out, and all had blogs in English that aimed to provide Israeli news and commentary for an international audience. What began by posting each others’ stories on Facebook quickly evolved into a joint platform. From the first, the +972 crew agreed on an unorthodox journalistic ethos: All the magazine’s bloggers have complete freedom to write whenever and whatever they want. The magazine has a top editor, but the bloggers can fire him or her if they please. And whoever comes on board does so gratis. Other writers were quick to join. The website traffic monitor Alexa shows that visits to the magazine have grown exponentially since its inception, more than doubling in the past few months alone.

The magazine’s loose, horizontal structure, however, is not altogether porous: Underlining everything +972 does is a dedication to promoting a progressive worldview of Israeli politics, advocating an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and protecting human and civil rights in Israel and Palestine. And while the magazine’s reported pieces—roughly half of its content—adhere to sound journalistic practices of news gathering and unbiased reporting, its op-eds and critical essays support specific causes and are aimed at social and political change.

“I think there’s still a chance to resolve things,” said Sheizaf, 37, referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “but it’s not going to happen without dramatic pressure from abroad. Left on their own, Israelis will continue the occupation and the current political trends forever.” That’s why Sheizaf caters the magazine to English-speaking readers around the world. “It’s good to internationalize the conversation,” he added. “I believe in this thing we do. I think to bring honest, grassroots voices in English out of Israel, is of the essence.”

Just what these voices might say is unpredictable. Some, like Yossi Gurvitz—a veteran Israeli journalist and former Orthodox Jew—support the one-state solution that would turn Israel and the West Bank into one nation, with equal rights for all its citizens, regardless of their ethnicity. Others, like the American-born Larry Derfner, a former writer for the Jerusalem Post, define themselves as liberal Zionists and support a two-state solution.

“I feel we have a very wide range of opinions [within the left],” said Sheizaf. “If we were more hot-headed, we’d fight each other. But compared to Israeli society and its nationalism and consensus and racism, we’re very focused. This hobby of the left, of having a fierce debate between people standing an inch away in the same ghetto, these arguments are interesting, but not enough to break the package.” And so, while +972’s bloggers often find themselves on opposite ends of their political camp’s most urgent questions, they realize that, for the most part, these differences are nearly invisible to the average American readers.

Plus, Sheizaf added, theirs isn’t an experiment just in politics, but in journalism as well: With traditional media pressed for funds and readers, the magazine’s renown—including frequent mentions in the New York Times—stems in part from its innovative journalistic practices.

Unlike the majority of Israeli newspapers, whose coverage of events in the West Bank is supplied largely by reporters based in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, a number of +972’s contributors are either frequent participants in joint Israeli-Palestinian demonstrations behind the Green Line or are close with the activists who coordinate such protests. In September, for example, a clash broke out between residents and demonstrators outside the settlement of Anatot, not far from Jerusalem. Ynet, the website of Israel’s leading newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, reported that three people were lightly injured after settlers and leftists hurled rocks at each other. Shortly thereafter, Mairav Zonszein, a +972 contributor with deep ties to grassroots civil-rights organizations, provided a far more detailed account, revealing that the number of injured was 23 and that the violence was far from a two-way street: Eyewitness accounts, photographs, and videos all supplied evidence that laid the responsibility for the violence squarely with the settlers. The rest of the Israeli media soon followed suit, correcting the story.

This small victory, and others like it, weren’t enough to keep Lisa Goldman from leaving. Late last year, after 14 years in Israel, she decided to return to her native Canada.

“It became unbearable for me,” she said of life in Israel. “My big watershed moment was Cast Lead [in 2008], and then, over the following months and years, I felt as if I saw everything in 3-D, and it was untenable. I didn’t just know one aspect of the occupation. I knew the spoiled Palestinian brass who grew up in Tunis who were partying hard in Ramallah, and those educated in England. I knew Hamas people and kids from Oberlin who came with their Macs to hang out and help the Palestinians. I knew the journalists, the settlers. I’ve seen every aspect of it. I’ve been working as a journalist since 2005, and I just kind of got PTSD.”

The main cause for her discontent, Goldman said, was a growing discrepancy between the reality she was seeing on the ground every day and her Israeli friends’ unwillingness to confront that reality. “I’d come home from a really horrific day, and I’d drive back to Tel Aviv, and what I’d do is go out for dinner in nice restaurants, but my fuses were popping,” she said. “It’s an incredible transition from the occupation to salubrious restaurants in Tel Aviv. To see an old woman retching up reams of white mucus because of tear gas, and then come home, quickly shower, and have dinner with friends who wouldn’t listen to my politics because I was too radical. I couldn’t take it anymore.”

When she left, Goldman told her colleagues at the magazine that she would still be writing for +972 but won’t be coming back to Israel.

They shared her pain, she said, and respected her decision. Soon, however, the inclement political climate in Israel made life more challenging for all of +972’s contributors, in Tel Aviv and Toronto alike: After the Knesset passed a law last year that made anyone calling on boycotting Israel (the settlements included) into the target of civil lawsuits, +972’s editorial board realized that the magazine, financed largely by readers’ contributions and a few small donations from nonprofit funds like the American-based Social Justice Fund and the German Heinrich Böll Stiftung, would not be able to sustain the sort of lawsuit that, under the new law, could easily be brought against it. “Since we are legally responsible for all content appearing on the website,” Dimi Reider wrote, “this obligates us to erase outright calls” for boycotting Israel or the settlements from the magazine’s comment thread, and disallow any writer to outwardly call for such boycotts.

While some, like Sheizaf, view stirring a global conservation that leads to international pressure on Israel to mend its ways as the remedy for such punitive laws, others, like Zonszein, are focused on the fight at home. After my wife and I co-wrote an essay last month expressing our dismay with Israeli politics, Zonszein replied in a piece of her own, a call to arms of sorts. “The ones who feel rooted here cannot afford to refuse to call Israel home until it embodies their ideals,” she wrote. “Rather they are already here (whether physically or emotionally) embodying those ideals every day in whatever way they see fit. They will not wait around for Israel to get better and cannot disassociate from it until it does. It is their reality, and that in and of itself makes Israel a very different place than the Israel that many are disillusioned with.”

But while +972’s contributors may differ on everything from ideology to strategy, the one thing they seem to share is a sense of urgency. “When Western liberal Jews tell me that they’re so disheartened by the news coming out of Israel but then they started reading +972 and now they feel as if there are still good people fighting the fight, that is the worst thing you can say to me,” Goldman said. “I’m not trying to make you feel better about Israel. I’m trying to wake you up to the fact that things are really bad. We’re near the end. That’s the message I want Western liberal Jews to hear. I want them to wake up and get really involved before the country turns into something they don’t want to be associated with. I don’t see +972 as tikkun olam. I see it as an alarm clock.”

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.