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The "Post" Marks 75th Anniversary Print E-mail

By Jay Bushinsky
December 7, 2007

Inaugural editions of daily newspapers are not just collectors' items. They often are expressions of journalistic intent and bear witness to the publishers' principles, values and objectives.

This certainly was true of The Palestine Post, forerunner of today's Jerusalem Post, which made its debut, Dec. 1, 1932. It featured an unsigned "announcement" in the center of Page One, which undoubtedly was sanctioned if not actually composed by its pioneer editor, Gershon Agronsky. (His slavic surname later was hebraized as Gershon Agron).

The policies it specified, some of which were tailored to the circumstances of those days and others which apply to this day.

Referring to the "new management" which had "incorporated" its predecessor, The Palestine Bulletin to create a new journalistic entity, The Palestine Post, it reflected acute awareness of Great Britain's presence and role as holder of a League of Nations mandate over this country.

 It said this new daily newspaper would "respond to the needs and tastes of British residents and other Europeans and Palestinians" (the latter meaning Jews and Arabs).  In a bid to justify the birth of an English-language newspaper it added:  Their interests served in various degrees by the Arabic and Hebrew press, the Palestinians too may find in this journal certain acceptable features obscured by the specific character of the newspaper in the other languages of the country." The Jerusalem Post fulfills the latter goal to this very day.

This journalistic debutante indeed was a gray lady, however. The front page did not include any photographs, was bereft of bylines and datelines (except at the start of one short item from the Reuters news agency at the bottom of column two about "Another Hunger March." This story was filed from Washington, DC, and coincided with the economic depression that threatened to tear the U.S.A. apart. Otherwise, it carried a rather staid assortment of reports that probably would not be deemed worthy of the newspaper today.
Typographical layout conformed to the style of the British press, with the lead story on the left rather than the right which was the American style. "Second British Note," it proclaimed, with the subhead: "Weighty Cabinet Meeting" -- in London, of course, not in Jerusalem.

Agron's initiative that brought about the newspaper's launching despite the worldwide repercussions of the American crash had strong support from the World Zionist Organization and especially from its executive arm, the Jewish Agency for Palestine (sic). "It exerted a considerable amount of influence on the British personnel who ran the Mandatory government," said Gabriel Zifroni, a former editor of the General Zionist daily, "Ha'Boker," whose journalistic career paralleled the birth and growth of The Palestine Post and the newspaper's offspring, The Jerusalem Post, as it was renamed in 1950 -- two years after Israel's declaration of independence.

Zifroni described Agron as "a friendly fellow who spoke excellent Hebrew." Although the English language held sway in the country's local elite, Jewish and Arab -- insofar as the various nationalities intermingled in those days -- Agron did not regard it or the newspaper he founded as a basis for social superiority or snobbishness.

He described Agron, who had worked for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and filed to various British newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph, as an experienced and very professional journalist. Personally, he was dedicated to the Zionist cause, having come to Palestine during World War I as a soldier in the Jewish Legion which had been mobilized by Ze'ev Jabotinsky as a military force that would participate in the British-led campaign against the Ottoman Turks who ruled Palestine and were linked with the Central Powers which were led by Imperial Germany and included the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Agron was a tough, no-nonsense and hands-on editor.  He demanded accuracy above all and was intolerant of error.  A case in point: Richard Stander, a 21-year old copy editor who new to journalism when he was hired by The Post in 1952, recalls Agron's rage upon discovering a faulty rendition of one of then-Finance Minister Levi Eshkol's speeches on the government's financial policy. "Who is responsible for this?" Agron shouted as he steamed out of his office and into the city room.  Stander, in whose memory this incident has been stored for the past 55 years, recalls looking up meekly and confessing, "I am."  Agron proceeded to scold him for carelessness, demanded that he reread the Hebrew text and render it precisely as Eshkol meant it to be in good newspaper style.  The mistake was understandable. Stander -- who also went by his Hebrew name, Reuven -- had arrived in Israel from the U.S. the previous year and had learned most of his Hebrew at the 'ulpan' in Kibbutz Dovrat.  But that was irrelevant.  Agron made no allowances and did not compromise when The Post's accuracy was at stake.
 
World War II, the advance of Wehrmacht Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the legendary Desert Fox, across North Africa to Egypt's Western Desert, (the conquest of Palestine was one of his Afrika Korps' ultimate objectives) brought The Palestine Post a host of new readers: British Commonwealth forces who were stationed in Palestine as a backup to what was destined to become Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery's victorious Eighth Army.

"The British Army and its allied units did not subscribe to the newspaper en masse or buy enough copies for every soldier to read," recalled David Gross, who was destined to become one of the newspaper's most erudite editors during the post-war and post-statehood era, but individual servicemen and women did. Circulation rose sharply and the revenue from advertisements followed suit.

During that period, The Palestine Post not only maintained a bureau in Beirut, but it also was sold by newspaper vendors and at news stands in Cairo and Alexandria. It had a substantial readership in all the Palestinian cities, regardless of whether they were totally or predominantly Arab or Jewish. It also could be bought in Amman and other Middle Eastern capitals. "One of its main attractions was the war coverage," Gross went on. It carried the latest dispatches from Reuters and other international news agencies. Like all the other newspapers published in Mandatory Palestine, The Post did not have any of its own correspondents covering the war from the front lines.

The British authorities did not grant the Palestinian-Jewish or -Arab journalists that opportunity.  But it did run the agency reports in their original language, English, therefore averting the chance that important facts or observations might be lost in translation to Hebrew or Arabic. Because of the nature of Nazi Germany's satanic policy toward Europe's Jews, as well as its totalitarian structure, the Post's editorial policy reflected "the Jewish Agency's support for the Allied war effort," Gross said.

This required The Post to put its fierce opposition to the British White Paper of 1939, an official statement of His Majesty's government's abandonment of the mandate's raison d'etre -- fostering the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine -- and its decision to curtail Jewish immigration and restrict the purchase of land for Jewish settlements.

The Post held its fire until Nazi Germany surrendered, May 9, 1945, and the Jewish Agency faced the terrible consequences of the genocide it committed. Never shirking public confrontation, political criticism and unequivocal editorial positions, the Post became a major player during the struggle for unlimited Jewish immigration and political sovereignty in the war's immediate aftermath. Its straight forward critique of the Mandatory government, predicated as it was at the stage by the White Paper of 1939 in which the United Kingdom transformed itself from a harbinger of Zionism into an obstacle to the Jewish national movement's goals, was epitomized in the hard-hitting columns of Roy Elston, who wrote under the pen name, David Courtney. His "Column One" appeared regularly on Page One and due to his personal background and experience, saw through the ulterior motives of His Majesty's government.

Elston had served as an official in the Mandatory government and therefore knew it from the inside. "He was pro-Zionist then," Zifroni said, and unlike many of his official colleagues, did not switch sides.  Elston remained in Israel long after independence was declared, becoming a correspondent of the London Times and as such, was one of the founders of the Foreign Press Association in Israel in 1957.

The Post always had strong political and editorial commitments, characteristics that were especially evident in the early 1960's in the aftermath of the divisive if not obsessive Lavon Affair. It supported (by-then) former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion's insistence on a state inquiry commission as the only means to determine whether Pinhas Lavon, as defense minister in the early 1950's was or was not responsible for what was known as the "essek bish" (the shoddy affair) in which Israeli agents tried to undermine the budding relationship between the U.S. and Egypt by planting bombs in American installations such as the U.S. cultural center in Cairo. The burning question at that time was, "who gave the order?" and BG wanted it answered.

Israel's leading newspapers backed Ben-Gurion's opponents within the still-ruling Labor party, including incumbent Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, Foreign Minister Golda Meir and Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir -- quite a triumverate (!) -- but not the Jerusalem Post.  Lavon's importance as a newsmaker and power broker was typified by a seemingly minor incident: He returned to Israel by air from Europe on the eve of a major Jewish holiday during which the newspaper was in limbo. When the time came to start the editorial ball rolling again, I, as a relatively new and chronologically junior sub-editor (copy editor in American lingo) arrived to go through the wire copy that had piled up during the previous two days. The Itim news agency mentioned Lavon's return and I put it into the "arrivals" column. That act resulted in my being summoned by the editor, Ted Lurie, for a tongue-lashing. "Don't you know that in this newspaper, when Pinhas Lavon sneezes, it's a major story?" he asked. I was crestfallen, but I caught on pretty fast: The Post was watching Lavon's every move if only because of the controversy with its hero, Ben-Gurion.

The Post's hands-on involvement in the issues of the day made it a target for anti-Zionist terrorism. In a burtal, though clumsy bid to silence it, a car bomb was detonated, Feb. 1, 1948, outside its printing press on Jerusalem's Rehov Ha'Solel.  The blast killed one typesetter and wounded 20 other persons. This tragedy did not stop it from fulfilling its editorial mission. It came out as usual the next morning,  although in a reduced format.

According to the Palestinian Arabs, he perpetrator was Fawzi al-Kuttub, a Palestinian Arab who was fighting Palestine's Jews under the command of Abdel Kader el-Husseini, the nephew of the fiercely anti-Zionist Grand Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini. Al-Kuttub never was apprehended and leaders of the Yishuv (Palestine's Jewish community) as well as commanders of the three Jewish underground organizations -- Hagana, Irgun Zva'i Le'umi and Lohamei Herut Yisrael -- doubted that the Palestinian Arab resistance was capable of this type of operation.

A veteran Jerusalemite, Basia Rahmani, who recalls the Post episode vividly, said the man suspected of detonating the blast was "a blond, blue-eyed fellow." She noted that it was part of a series of major explosions that rocked the Jerusalem, "all only a few weeks apart" -- one at The Post, another on Ben-Yehuda Street and another at the Jewish Agency building. There were casualties in dead and wounded in all of them.

After the State of Israel's was declared by its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and in the aftermath of the War of Independence that raged until mid-1949 -- events covered by The Post extensively -- the newspaper focussed on the ensuing domestic politics. Its slant tended toward Mapai, Ben-Gurion's moderate socialist party, and held to this position through all of its transfigurations as the "Ma'arch" (Alignment) and "Avoda" (Labor). The fact that the newspaper was owned by the Histadrut and was one of the labor federation holding company's major assets made it compatible with its financial operation by "Koor" a Histadrut entity.

The Post's second editor -- Ted R. Lurie -- who took over when Agron was elected mayor of Jerusalem in 1955, maintained this editorial tradition despite the fact that his political inclinations leaned toward the middle-of-the-road Progressive party of those days and away from the Laborites. Lurie was a genial, easy-going editor, blessed with an open mind and an ability to attract gifted journalists to The Post's ranks. During the ensuing years, several of them went on to gain worldwide notoriety or succeeded in advancing their professional careers locally, as did former News Editor David Landau, who now serves as editor of Haaretz, and Wolf Blitzer, who stars on CNN. But much of the editorial control during the Lurie era was exercised by his deputy, Lea Ben-Dor, who succeeded him as editor in 1974.

Sarah Honig, an incumbent Post columnist who joined the paper in 1968, believes that the 1977 national election and the victory won by Likud leader Menachem Begin was a turning point in the newspaper's history. "Until that sea-change in Israeli politics, The Post considered itself a mirror of Israeli national policy," she said. "As of 1977, the newspaper had a problem. It had treated Begin as a political curiosity, almost like a relic of the past (Begin had commanded the anti-British Irgun during the struggle for statehood) who refused to go away."

She credited Begin with having had a rather respectful attitude toward The Post despite its lack of affection for him. The intricacies and subtleties of the nation's political scene were covered assiduously and at times brilliantly by its indefatigable political reporter, Mark Segal. A British-born journalist, Segal was fluent in Hebrew and au courant insofar as the incessant convolutions of Israel's party politics were concerned. Similarly, Honig, who came here from the U.S., was and still is an expert in Israel's political process and maintains excellent sources within and without its political establishment.

Two years before the Likud's ascension to power, The Post's editorship passed to an unusual diumverate -- Ari Rath, a former political reporter who was closely associated with Ben-Gurion and had spent his formative years as a kibbutznik and Erwin Frankel, a Harvard University graduate with a strong intellectual background. They remained at the helm until 1989, directing an editorial policy that was critical of the Likud's policies in government and at the same time considerate of the Palestinian Arabs' grievances under Israel's military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The first intifada and the events that led up to it were reported with an unusual degree of sympathy and understanding by Joel Greenberg, who went on to become The Chicago Tribune's bureau chief in Jerusalem. However, the newspaper's editorial policy underwent a sharp change when the Hollinger firm of Canada, headed by Conrad Black and largely run by David Radler, became the owners. Rath and Frankel stepped aside and were replaced by N. David Gross, who had worked on The Post's foreign desk for many years. He was editor from 1990 to 1992 and was succeeded by David Bar-Illan, a virtuoso concert pianist and a staunch supporter of the Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu.

The changeover from Histadrut control to the Hollinger regime was stormy and tinged with personal bitterness. Staff members who resented the Hollinger takeover and the editorial changes it brought resigned en masse and and tried to form a rival newspaper. When this effort failed because the prospective investor, Edward Saroussi bailed out on them , they dispersed. Seven years later, the initially-rival English-language periodical, The Jerusalem Report, with Hirsch Goodman, previously The Post's military correspondent, as editor, also was purchased by Hollinger.

By the time The Post entered the 21st century and approached its 75th anniversary (Dec. 1, 2007), its editor, Jeff Barak, presided over a newspaper which had kept up with the major technological developments in mass communication and expanded its journalist offerings far beyond its modest beginnings.

There was an Internet Edition that ranked with those of the world's leading dailies and exceeded many of them in cybernetic clientele; it had six million "hits" per day.  It had begun to publish a French-language edition and a Christian-oriented edition as well. Barak adhered to the concept to which his predecessors adhered and often stressed, that, "The Jerusalem Post is an Israeli newspaper," implying that local coverage was paramount.

It also had to vie with a serious competitor in the daily Haaretz' English-language edition, which was primarily a translation of the Hebrew original, but was coupled to the prestigious International Herald Tribune. Nevertheless, The Post retained its loyal readers and then some. On the other hand, it had to continue coping with the virtual cutoff of circulation in what used to be and could again become part of its natural market: the English-language readership in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as well as in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt.

Jamil Hamad, a distinguished Palestinian journalist who works for Time magazine and is based in its Jerusalem bureau contended that the newspaper should allocate more space and coverage to developments in the Arab sector of this country whose residents compromise nearly 20 per cent of the population as well as to the areas under the Palestinian Authority's jurisdiction. "One correspondent assigned to the Palestinian component is not enough," he said. "There should be more."

However, as a staunch advocate of peace and reconciliation, Hamad postulated that resolution of the bi-national conflict that has been raging since the day The Post was born will thrust it into a new era and will enable it to play the role to which it is suited and which Agron may have envisaged, that of an independent, objective and unfettered monitor of events throughout the Middle East.

Who knows? By then, there may be an Arabic edition of The Post as well!

 

 

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