Like a voice crying from beneath a collapsed building, every now and then a well-known and respected Israeli startles us with a sharp plea: the country must cease its immoral, illegal and self-destructive occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people. Despite the horror, the apparent hopelessness of what we hear and see in the debris, we are encouraged that a familiar voice is speaking from a place where we have come to expect silence. Perhaps this means the current situation is not hopeless. Haim Yavin, the news anchor of Israel’s leading television station, is the latest in a series of desperate voices.
From the 1970s until his death, the revered Israeli religious philosopher and Orthodox Jew, Professor Yeshayahu Leibovitz warned that there is no such a thing as an enlightened occupation. He cautioned that if continued, the occupation would destroy the moral fabric of Israel. He was largely ignored. In the summer of 2003, the highly decorated Reserve Brigadier General Yiftah Spector was one of 27 pilots who signed a letter which declared that the actions of the Air Force in the territories were immoral and illegal. Spector and his fellow pilots refused to obey any order to attack innocent Palestinian civilians. During that same summer, Member of Parliament, Avram Burg, who is a former Speaker of Parliament, published an article in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth entitled “The End of Zionism” in which he decried the treatment of Palestinians and proclaimed the utter futility and racism of the settler project. Both Spector and Burg created quite a sensation in the Israeli and international press. Their dramatic and unexpected voices of dissent encouraged many, yet changed Israeli government policy and public opinion little.
The latest addition to the above list of ignored prophets is Israel’s highly respected “Mr. Television,” Haim Yavin. Yavin has caused quite a controversy when a five-part documentary he produced, “Land of the Settlers -- Diary of a Journey” began showing on Israeli television. Yavin, who since 1968 has been the news anchor for the leading (and for a long time only) television channel in Israel, has always maintained a strict journalistic neutrality, seemingly never taking sides on the issues. Some observers like journalist and author Tom Segev, thought of Yavin as being a perfect representation of the Israeli consensus. This consensus currently seems to be moving rapidly toward an ever more militant nationalism and ever increasing ability to deny the brutal realities of an occupation only a short drive away from their homes.
To the surprise of many, Yavin’s documentary turns out not to reflect this new militancy, but rather to be highly critical of the occupation and the settlers. “Mr. Docu,” as he is nicknamed in an article on one Hebrew website, unlike “Mr. Television” leaves no doubt about his views when he proclaims during his film that, “since 1967 we have been brutal conquerors, occupiers, suppressing another people.” Tom Segev wrote in the newspaper Ha’aretz that the first two parts of the five-part broadcast portrayed “the settlers as members of a fanatic, insane, racist, despicable, violent and dangerous sect -- more infuriating and despairing than they have ever been seen in an Israeli film.”
“Land of the Settlers,” which is the result of two and a half years of filming, is the opposite of the usual fare presented by the mainstream Israeli press, which has never treated the settlers more sympathetically than at present. All three leading newspapers are running numerous articles archived in special sections on their websites devoted exclusively to the disengagement. These articles mostly portray the settlers as both patriots and victims, worthy of admiration. This newly invigorated favorable press the settlers are receiving, mirrors their increasing public support. New polls show that half the public is against the disengagement. For years Israeli polls have claimed that the public strongly supported evacuating the Gaza settlers, who they supposedly perceived as too costly to protect and maintain both in economic and military terms. But Internet polls on both Ma’ariv and Yedioth Ahronoth news sites are now running about 70% favoring the settlers in their battle against evacuation.
There has been much speculation as to how much Yavin’s film will influence public opinion. Tom Segev is cautious, but open to the possibility that because Yavin is who he is, some people may reconsider their attitude toward both the settlers and the Palestinians. Haim Yavin is often referred to as the Walter Cronkite of Israel. So it is not surprising that Cronkite’s old network, CBS, drew the parallel between Yavin’s documentary and the American anchor’s visit to Vietnam and his subsequent editorial, which was critical of the America’s war in Southeast Asia. Many credit Cronkite’s editorial as being a turning point in the increased public opposition to the war.
However, no major shift in opinion as a result of “Land of the Settlers” is readily apparent or likely. Yavin’s own network refused to show the documentary. It was shown on the smaller Telad station which is immune from public pressure since it has lost its license and will soon be off the air. Only a disappointing 24% of the viewing audience watched the initial installment, despite Yavin’s stature and the significant publicity generated by the controversial program. The third installment which was about the security fence only had a 15.6% share of the audience.
Yavin himself is not optimistic about the chances of his documentary having a salutary influence. He said, “I cannot really do anything to relieve this misery, other than to document it, so that neither I nor those like me will be able to say that we saw nothing, heard nothing, knew nothing.” (Ha’aretz, May 27, 2005). In an interview with the New York Times, Yavin calls the situation “a Greek tragedy, because I don't see any solution, the settlers are so strong. In a way, they [the settlers] run the country, or run the agenda of the country.” He continues, “I don't see anyone undoing what they've done” which is “an annexation of land that goes against a viable state for the Palestinians” (NY Times, May 31, 2005).
Yavin may be more influential with the general public than Leibovitz, Spector or Burg. His medium, a television documentary, is potentially capable of greater influence than either the written word or even as in Spector’s case a dramatic protest. Yet, I agree with Yavin himself that he is no doubt powerless to stop a train that has already left the station.
What makes Yavin different from other dissidents is not his greater ability to influence, but his willingness to see into and express the darkness that today drives Israeli society to a greater and greater militancy toward the Palestinians. Leibowitz, Burg, and Spector always expressed optimism for change in spite of their sharp criticism. Spector was actually surprised that the Air Force did not understand is letter of refusal as friendly criticism and thought they overreacted by removing him from his teaching post.
Yavin is pessimistic and not afraid to express his despair. He probably knows the reality of the situation as well as anyone alive, having covered the news for almost 40 years. It is clear that the Sharon government wants to use the Gaza withdrawal as a model for imposing a unilateral solution in the West Bank. This solution will involve annexing large areas to Israel and inflicting severe restrictions on any future Palestinian quasi-state. It is a formula for continued oppression and a new round of violence that is sure to follow. That is why Israel and the international community need to see the grim and brutal reality of the occupation as depicted in “Land of the Settlers.” Unfortunately, the chances are good that like those that preceded him Yavin, will also be ignored.
Ira Glunts first visited the Middle East in 1972, where he taught English and physical education in a small rural community in Israel. He was a volunteer in the Israeli Defense Forces in 1992. Mr. Glunts lives in Madison, New York where he operates a used and rare book business. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other Articles by Ira
Other Articles by Ira Gluntz