The newspaper Ha-Tzofeh (or ha-Zofe, Heb. ‘The Observer’) was founded on 03 August 1937 (26 Av 1937) by Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan (Berlin; 1880–1949), a Zionist figure and one of the leaders of the MiZRaChI (Merkaz Ruḥani; Heb. Spiritual Centre) movement, who served as the first chief editor of the paper. Ha-Tzofeh was intended to be the mouthpiece of the Mizrachi movement. The religious-Zionist Mizrachi faction had been established in 1902 at the initiative of Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines (1839–1915) and other religious Zionist rabbis, in response to the decision taken by the Democratic Faction at the Fifth Zionist Congress to focus on secular Zionist education. The Mizrachi became very active in the Zionist Organisation, representing the religious supporters of the Jewish national movement. It lasted the Mandatory period and after the establishment of the State of Israel, in 1956, it merged with ha-Poʿel ha-Mizrachi to form the ‘National Religious Party—ha- Mizrachi —ha-Poʿel ha- Mizrachi’ (Heb. ha-Miflagah ha-Datit Leʾumit), known as the NRP (Heb. MaFDaL), and Ha-Tzofeh functioned as the official organ of the NRP until 2003.
From the beginning, the paper's subtitle was ‘the newspaper of the global Mizrachi movement’, and as a party newspaper, Ha-Tzofeh
followed in its early days in the footsteps of the Jewish political press of Eastern Europe. Like other partisan organs such as Davar
and ʿAl ha-mishmar
, it too, was subject to the institutional control of the party which appointed its chief editor and senior staff, relied upon the funding of individuals and groups close to the party establishment, and published policies, both in its general coverage and in its commentary and opinion pieces, that furthered the needs of the party. In short, the newspaper served as a mediator between the leadership of the movement and its activists and target audience. Due to economic constraints, and much like the other party papers of those times, Ha-Tzofeh
did not develop in its early years a broad news gathering system and most of its publications relied upon information that reached it from news agencies, as well as letters contributed from various locales, while its content demonstrated a preference both for matters related to the Zionist national struggle and for those touching upon specific issues facing the religious community.
The distribution of the newspaper at its start was about three thousand copies daily, mostly to subscribers; for the sake of comparison, the distribution of Yediʿot Aḥaronot in 1939, when it became an evening newspaper under private ownership, was about six thousand copies. In February–March 1947 (Adar 5707), the newspaper established Ha-Tzofeh le-Yeladim (Heb. ‘The Children’s Observer’), the first religious serial for children, which lasted for a long time.
During the Mandatory period, Ha-Tzofeh pushed for the establishment of a Jewish state, but demanded, before its founding, that it follows the laws of the Torah. Even after the birth of Israel, Ha-Tzofeh insisted that Jewish education in the country be based upon religious and traditional principles and it sought to place religious studies at the centre of the educational curriculum. An important chapter in the history of the newspaper were the first decades in the history of the State of Israel, when ha-Mizrachi and ha-Poʿel ha- Mizrachi joined the coalition of the ruling MaPAY (Heb. ‘Party of the Workers of the Land of Israel’) and held positions of power, such as the immigration division of the Jewish Agency, the Ministries of Interior and of Health, and others. These years witnessed a kulturkampf over struggle over the heart and soul of the people in the young Jewish state and the national religious parties found themselves in conflict with the secular ruling party, notwithstanding their political alliance. This tension found expression in a series of political episodes, such as the matter of education of the immigrants from Middle Eastern countries, the issue of German reparations, the magnitude and prioritisation of immigration from various countries, the question of ‘who is a Jew’, and so forth. Ha-Tzofeh, as the mouthpiece of the parties positioned at the centre of the activity, represents thus an important source of information for the history of Israel.
Following the Six-Day War, the gap between the majority of the secular supporters of the leftist camp and the national religious deepened as the latter shifted rightwards. Ha-Tzofeh moved with them and continued to express their ideological positions; its pages even served as a voice for Gush Emunim. At the same time, cracks began to appear in the old ruling parties and, as their power weakened, so too did that of the veteran political press. Ha-Tzofeh reflected these processes, as well as the upheaval of the 1977 elections and the subsequent disengagement of the national religious movement from its alliance with the Zionist Left and its positioning on the opposite end of the political spectrum, alongside the secular Zionist Right and at the head of the settlement movement. All of this took place against the background of the disintegration of the political unity that had defined the national religious movement’s approach in its early decades. In 1976, Ha-Tzofeh published a notice regarding a welcome ceremony for the air force’s first F-15 fighter jets that was scheduled to take place too close to the start of the Sabbath; this item led to the abstention of two NRP ministers in a vote of no confidence and, ultimately, to the dissolution of the Knesset. Similarly, the newspaper published at length articles on conspiracy theories relating to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitsḥaq Rabin (1922–1995) and led the campaign to put Avishai Raviv (b. 1967), an agent in the Jewish Unit of the General Security Service (or Israel Security Agency), who was in contact with the assassin Yigal Amir (b. 1970) prior to the murder of Rabin, on trial.
In 2003, the newspaper was purchased by businessmen Shlomo Ben-Zvi (Michael Goldblum, b. 1964) and Ron Lauder (b. 1944) and as a result, ceased to function as the mouthpiece of the NRP movement, although it retained both its national religious character, as well as the hawkish and rightist orientation that had dominated it since the political upheaval of 1977. On 25 April 2007, the daily edition of the newspaper merged with the paper Maqor riʾshon (or Makor rishon; Heb. ‘Primary Source’), continuing to appear as an independent journal only on the weekends, until 26 December 2008, when even its Friday insert was finally folded into Maqor riʾshon, and it ceased operation as an independent paper. The closure of the newspaper marked both the crisis facing print journalism at the start of the Twenty-First Century and a particular crises challenging the religious Zionist community as a whole and, specifically, the fading of the NRP. Likewise, the shutting of the newspaper in 2008 and, in effect, its sale already in 2003, signalled the end of the era of the party newspaper.