Online Zionism (and online anti-Zionism) is getting dirtier and dirtier. I have two sets of mixed feelings about the recent decision by Haaretz to charge for online content, the second more serious than the first. One is practical-pecuniary. The second one is psycho-political. Am I going to pay for it, and maybe just maybe it’s time to stop looking.
On the one hand, I am going to miss the free content, and I think Haaretz is going to lose a lot of international readers, which is too bad. Haaretz occupies a unique niche. It represents a small sliver-community of liberal opinion and readers in Israel, a small country. But it has managed to punch above its weight, given, I think, the ubiquity it acquired from its online presence. Now that it’s no longer free, fewer people will read it. Might this mean that Haaretz (and with it liberal, left-center Israeli opinion) will shrink to its natural, miniscule proportions?
On the other hand, it’s not that I don’t see the point behind the decision to charge for content. Maybe this really is the beginning of the end of the new media if by new media we meant something open-sourced and free for which no one has to take responsibility. Or it’s the end of critical thought and critical culture in a media environment that encourages the pretence that all information is equal. Soon all that’s left is going to be the New York Times, The Jerusalem Post, Mondoweiss and the jerks at Tablet. Oh well.
The second bit of ambivalence relates to the obsession with Israel on the part of leftwing American Jews like myself. Because now I have to ask why, in the first place, am I, an American Jew, following so closely and intimately Israeli politics and culture. I think there’s an answer to this, but, truth be told, I’m beginning to feel like the guy in the back seat watching other people go about their business.
I didn’t always feel this way about Israel. I come from a Labor Zionist household and grew up in Habonim. When I was in high school, my father subscribed to the Jerusalem Post, back in the day when it was a liberal, center-left newspaper. (This is not to say my father was liberal. He wasn’t.) I spent multiple years in Israel after high school and have been reading the Israeli press pretty much since then. So maybe I’ll now subscribe to Haaretz. Or maybe I won’t. I am going to need to think about this.
My dear fellow American friends, forgive me for saying this, but maybe this is one way to wean myself from (an) (my) (our) almost life-long obsession with Israel. Haaretz-online has been the medium that allowed self-important leftwing busy-bodies like myself to cop an “insider’s view of all things Israel –politics, culture, society. It’s a smutty version of what Jacob Neusner called “vicarious Judaism.” I see the voyeurism especially now that I’m on Facebook. As a medium, Facebook is giving me a more “objective” view of what this kind of behavior looks like –objective in the strict sense that I can see myself in others by watching them watching Israel with the obsession with which I have watched Israel over 30 (!!) years. Every little incident, any bit of racist legislation or every little pedestrian human rights abuse, it all goes right up on Facebook, and then we can get all indignant about it –as if we’re all not already reading Haaretz ourselves. We are worse than voyeurs. We dress it up as “politics” and share it with others.
The problem is that Haaretz remains the unparalleled platform not just for Israeli news and politics. It’s also a source for news and reviews relating to Diaspora affairs, Jewish history and Jewish culture and also, occasionally, Middle Eastern culture and politics. As a professor of Jewish Studies, I’m pretty sure not to subscribe would be a big mistake. And it’s not like I want to not know what’s going on in Israel, which is to say that I have professional reasons compounded by personal reasons to not not subscribe. I think I can get the department to pay for my subscription as a research expense. I’ll continue to watch. I’ll sit in the back and peek through my fingers. Almost as bad as starting a blog, it’s in such incredible bad taste.