The Arty Semite

Getting Rid of Journalists in Haaretz's Third 'Writers Edition'

By Renee Ghert-Zand

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Author Etgar Keret with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo by Tal Cohen.

It’s become a tradition since 2009 that in honor of Israel’s Hebrew Book Week, Haaretz publishes its “Writers Edition.” For this unique edition, all the paper’s reporters disappear and are replaced by well-known Israeli, Middle Eastern, Jewish and Jew-ish authors and poets. This year, 53 noted writers cover everything from breaking news to sports to the weather report.

The depressing main headline, “Netanyahu says there’s no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” is for a political interview author Etgar Keret did with the Prime Minister. The great Israeli poet Natan Zach writes an opinion piece on why he thinks Gilad Shalit will never return home. Nathan Englander gets an exclusive interview with Tony Kushner, the first time he has spoken publicly since the controversy over his receiving an honorary degree from CUNY. On the lighter side, Nicole Krauss reflects on her nostalgia for brick and mortar book stores, and Dorit Rabinyan tries her hand at sportswriting.

Nava Semel wrote a story on how a library in South Tel Aviv has become a beacon of light in the neighborhood packed densely with foreign workers, many with illegal status and who fear deportation. “Writing this article was my humble way to reveal to the public this project of good will and outreaching for the less privileged,” she wrote in an e-mail to the Forward. “The wonderful people who embraced these kids are hidden under our daily hardship and tough existence.”

The “Writers Edition” is the brainchild of Dov Alfon, Haaretz’s editor since 2008, and he won a 2011 International Council for Press and Broadcasting Award for it. In his acceptance speech, Alfon remarked that many people have asked him why this intriguing and well-received concept is implemented only once a year. “The answer is that there is a profession called ‘journalism,’ and to be a journalist it is not enough to just be a good writer,” he said.

The “Writers Edition” has even gained the attention of academic researchers. Professors Zvi Reich and Hagar Lahav of Sapir College studied the special edition and its production, posing the question as to whether there can be a legitimate substitute for news writers. Their conclusions, which they presented this past April at a conference of the Israeli Communication Association at the University of Haifa, were that, although literary authors can produce a high quality newspaper, they do not possess a reporter’s most important characteristics. To put it simply, authors don’t have a journalist’s ability to report on an event they do not personally witness.

“Journalists won’t be proud of this, but therein lies their secret… they have the sources, the professional initiative, the ability to recreate something in incomplete circumstances… they can neutralize different versions of events and personal interests of various parties… no other professional in society can do that,” Reich said.

Or as author Sami Michael stated after participating in the pilot edition in 2009: “Journalistic work teaches the author the secret of brevity, the magic of the flowing word. He gains the ability to enthrall the reader in a few lines…We are acting as reporters to examine the deep connection between work and poetry, reality and imagination…We are people who usually try to write for posterity and who for one day stopped, in response to a request from Haaretz newspaper, to document the present with the most practical of tools, under a most pressing deadline. And all this without lacking even one gram of inspiration.”


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