Haim's Blues

When the subject is history Haim Yavin comes across as a journalist who hasn't really done his homework.

Fred Skolnik,

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חיים יבין ובנו

All the investigative reporting and all the talk shows in the world have not had the slightest effect on how governments operate.

Haim Yavin's five-part 2008 documentary about Israel's Arabs is currently getting a revival on Israeli TV. I have seen it now for the first time and have to say that it is surprisingly well made. I say surprisingly because his previous effort, Land of the Settlers (2005), had been simply awful and bore out the general impression one had gotten of Yavin over the years as a not particularly talented journalist who read very well from a teleprompter and had the right voice and presence to reassure us that at least the news was in good hands.

Land of the Settlers was awful because it was confrontational in an empty kind of way. Yavin asked rhetorical questions full of journalistic platitudes and then editorialized about them with the same platitudes, wearing his biases on his sleeve but never saying anything that hadn't been said a thousand times before. What he revealed was not the iniquities of the settlers but his own dull journalistic mind. Not surprisingly, other journalists loved the series, being cut from the same cloth. In Te'udah Kechulah ("Blue Card"), on the other hand, Yavin lets the Arabs do most of the talking, largely because he sympathizes with them, though occasionally he plays the devil's advocate and asks a pro forma journalistic question, albeit with very little conviction.

I think it is good for us to hear what the Arabs have to say and to be reminded of our failures in dealing with this very problematic minority, even when what they have to say condemns us in no uncertain terms. I have always enjoyed listening to Ahmed Tibi and Hanin Zoabi; they state the Israeli Arab case very well and are a pleasure to listen to if only for their fluency and sarcasm. Their political views may be unpalatable but their social views cannot be ignored. Yavin talks to both of them, and many others, Arabs laborers without jobs and without hope, Arab professionals who are humiliated in their contacts with the Israeli establishment. Certainly we know how to explain everything but this is their point of view and we must take note of it.

In the last segment, however, Yavin gets into politics and comes across as a journalist who hasn't really done his homework. He interviews the notorious Ilan Pappe (then at Haifa University) and lets him get away with outrageous assertions, though it is true that his interview with Benny Morris offsets Pappe's fictions to a certain extent. In Pappe one finds the anti-Israel narrative that has been adopted by an entire army of Israel haters. When he states that the Arab armies invaded Israel in 1948 because Israel had expelled Israeli Arabs, Yavin doesn't know enough to say, "Do you really think so? Do you really think they cared about them? Hadn't they vowed to destroy Israel before there was a single refugee?" Yavin is no match for Pappe. He doesn't know enough history and in effect is coming from the same place as Pappe.

The complaint, on the right, that the media is controlled by the left really misses the point. Certainly the biases are there, but the same biases exist in the public, so the net effect of watching documentaries like Yavin's or the talk shows or reading political columns and blogs is to reinforce these biases and get new arguments, not to change minds. The real problem with journalists is not their biases or political leanings but their competence. They are not, after all, historians or scholars or political scientists, or novelists or dramatists or film makers for that matter. Their ability to understand social or historical processes is limited. Their minds too, it must be said, are fairly commonplace, as evidenced by their use of language, which constantly falls back on platitudes in the absence of real perception. And yet, incredibly, it is they of all people who control the flow of information and shape the way we see the world.

Journalists have not surprisingly been the chief propagators of the myth that freedom of speech and public debate is the cornerstone of democracy and that they themselves are the guardians of this democracy and of the public's "right to know." For these supposed services, they demand a very high price – the invasion of people's privacy and the protection of sources of defamatory or illegally obtained information. Both legislators and law courts have been completely taken in by this deceit and habitually pay lip service to the notion that the press is the watchdog of democracy and thus deserving of the widest latitude. The cornerstone of a democracy is in fact its legal system and the traditions that sustain it. The guardians of democracy are the courts. All the investigative reporting and all the talk shows in the world have not had the slightest effect on how governments operate.

Haim Yavin exemplifies the emptiness of news broadcasting. In the end it provides entertainment – drama and spectacle – even when it deals with issues of life and death. It is of course reassuring to have someone like Yavin appearing to be in control. Listening to the news alleviates uncertainty, establishes order, soothes the nerves, seems to put everything into perspective, but it also distorts our sense of the world, presenting what can only be called an alternate reality where "stories" are selected for their dramatic value and seldom coincide with real historical processes. It leaves us fairly ignorant about anything outside our immediate surroundings, for the people we rely on to keep us genuinely informed have let us down.