‘It is always better to explain than to fight’

An appreciation of ‘Jerusalem Post’ founder Gershon Agron on the 120th anniversary of his birth

By ALEXANDER ZVIELLI
December 8, 2014 17:40
Gershon Agron

‘The Jerusalem Post’ founder Gershon Agron. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Ahead of Thursday's third annual Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference, we present some highlights from the exclusive conference magazine available only to participants. The conference which will be held at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem on Thursday morning will be streamed live on JPost.com.

I FIRST MET Gershon Agronsky in the newspaper’s pressroom, shortly after midnight on the first night of my job as a linotypist – a profession I had learned at my father’s printing press in Warsaw – at The Palestine Post . By a strange coincidence this was December 1, 1945, and the Post had just celebrated its 12th anniversary.

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He came down to the press to pick up the newspaper’s first edition and spoke with a number of visiting journalists, eager for the latest news. When he saw me, a new face, he came over to ask some personal questions. Quite satisfied, he wished me good luck and rejoined their company.

I had already known that GA, as he was called by the staff, was the Post ’s famous founder and first editor, who ran the entire establishment as his kingdom but who treated all staff as his close family. He was always very well dressed, self-assured and a bit haughty, but he ran the Post as one huge kibbutz, knowing everybody by their first name. Eventually I learned to admire him for his friendly attitude and hard work for Zion.

I had just completed my army service in World War II, and was plunged into another one – the Yishuv’s war for independence. The Post was fighting this war and I was proud to participate. In this effort we were all like an army, and Agronsky, who later changed his name to Agron, was our revered commander.

Born in Russia in 1894 and educated in Philadelphia, Agron began his journalistic career as an obituaries writer for a Yiddish newspaper. A firm Labor Zionist, he studied at Temple University, and contributed pro-Zionist editorials to the Yiddishe Velt (“The Jewish World”). This skill had never left him – he often arrived at the Post ’s press at midnight and wrote an editorial in a matter of minutes.

In New York, Agron found employment at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.



He was also the editor of Dos Yiddishe Folk (“The Jewish People”), an organ of the World Zionist Organization. He became well established in the Labor Zionist circles, and his ultimate plan was to settle in Palestine.

This became possible in 1918, when he volunteered as a soldier in the North American battalion of the British Royal Fusiliers, together with Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the future Israeli president, and David Ben-Gurion, the future prime minister of Israel. They became close friends. As a sergeant, he was demoted twice for going AWOL to address Zionist meetings. As a financially independent journalist, he was allowed to stay after the war in Palestine.

Agron established sufficient contacts to represent American newspapers and press agencies. He also contributed to the Palestine Weekly , interviewed important foreign visitors and edited the Jewish Agency’s Palestine Bulletin .

He established the Foreign Press Association and represented the Journalists’ Association in Jerusalem. But his ultimate goal was an independent, English daily serving the Zionist cause.

This became possible in 1932, when the father of Ted Lurie, a future Post editor, together with a number of Zionists, put up money to turn the Palestine Bulletin into a daily newspaper. Lurie became the Post ’s second editor, and was a tough manager who initiated the newspaper’s move to more advanced typesetting and printing techniques.

The Palestine Post , founded on December 1, 1932, incorporated the 2,292nd issue of the Palestine Bulletin .

It contained four pages, its price was 10 mils and 1,200 copies were printed. The Post ’s purpose was to provide information about Zionism and the Yishuv to English speakers in Palestine. Very few of them knew Hebrew, and they had to wait for days to get newspapers from Egypt or England. During the 1930s, new immigrants from Germany boosted the circulation, which reached some 5,000 copies, out of which 300 were sent daily to Egypt. In addition to civil servants, a number of Arabs, churchmen, foreign press correspondents, diplomats and tourists became the Post ’s avid readers. The newspaper’s name was changed to The Jerusalem Post on May 13, 1950, to honor Israel’s Independence Day that year.

GA was a born teacher. “You must always remember for whom you write, and the British officials in particular,” he argued at staff meetings. “It is always better to explain than to fight. Many infuriating things happen to us daily.

But we should always take care to be respectful and understanding.”

The Post became a great success during World War II, when tens of thousands of Allied soldiers passed through the Middle East and enjoyed the paper, which together with the Yishuv threw itself solidly behind the war effort to defeat Hitler.

As a war correspondent, Agron reported on the 1941-1943 North African campaign. His visit to Turkey in 1942 coincided with the sinking of the MV Struma, and he personally witnessed the tragedy of the dying Jewish refugees facing British and Turkish callousness.

The British mandatory policy turned he Post into a fighting newspaper. On October 7, 1936, the censor confiscated the Post ’s issue dealing with rising Arab terrorism. The Post deplored the British White Paper of 1939 that restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine and land purchases, and fought against the deportations of “illegal” immigrants to Mauritius. The frequently censored articles left empty white patches on the Post ’s pages.

It may be a bit difficult today to under - stand the impact exerted by the Post ’s accurate reports on the struggle with the British Mandate at a time when the British navy hunted for Jewish refugees. GA conducted this battle day after day, and the Post practically replaced the Mandatory Government’s information office as the most dependable source of information for the foreign press. Still, workers found it increasingly difficult to come to work due to the frequent curfews and encounters with British army and police patrols.

The Post ’s impact made it a prime object for Arab terrorism after the UN called for the partition of Palestine on November 29, 1947. On the night of February 1, 1948, Arab terrorists, possibly assisted by the British police, exploded a truck loaded with TNT outside the Post ’s offices. Linotypist Haim Farber was killed, and many workers, including myself, were wounded. Still, the Post ’s two-page issue was produced that night at another press. The bombing became a turning point for the Yishuv and its security forces, which closed the streets and took up positions in Jerusalem.

Salman Schocken, the owner of the burned-out printing press, encouraged Agron to move the Post to Tel Aviv, to be printed at Haaretz ’s press. But Agron would never consider leaving Jerusalem.

He decided to set up the Post ’s own printing plant, and purchased the burned-out press. Fortunately, the heavy Duplex printing machine – which was below street level at the time of the attack – needed only a few repairs. A new linotype was bought, and with the help of the Ahva Press, which offered its linotypes at night, the Post resumed its activity, albeit with a limited number of pages.

The editorial offices were a shamble following the attack. The telephone and electricity wires hung loose. All the reference books, precious archives and Agron’s personal records had been destroyed. But the work proceeded. Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948, and the Post ’s historic issue, “State of Israel is Born,” attracted collectors.

The siege and constant shelling from Jordan continued, but under Agron’s almost constant presence, the Post deftly navigated electricity and other supply shortages, as well as a number of direct hits. On May 18, 1948, for example, the newspaper appeared in stencil due to constant electrical blackout. After the British withdrew, Agron told the staff that the time for excuses caused by the British presence was over, and that from now on the paper must concentrate on local issues such as industry, agriculture and development.

I was on duty with the Hagana at the nearby Notre Dame Monastery at the time, but could do some work at night.

I brought to Agron “highly secret” maps and documents from the Generali Building, the former British police HQ, and he was most grateful. Agron, as usual, received scores of foreign journalists and important visitors in his burned-out office over a glass of whiskey, sometimes long after midnight. Later, disregarding the Jordanian shelling, he used to walk home to Rashba Street in total darkness, complete with his fedora hat and ivory-topped cane.

During the Jerusalem siege, it was dangerous to go to work, it was dangerous to be at work, and it was difficult to get work done due to frequent electrical shortages. Due to blockade, a small-format Post was printed in Tel Aviv. The newspaper was losing money when the circulation trickled to a mere 2,000, and there were few advertisements, but it still appeared daily. The press was, as always, crowded with local and foreign journalists fishing for latest news. Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett used to drop by to correct the proofs of his Knesset speeches.

When the hostilities ended in July 1949, Agron and Lurie began a process of reconstruction that expanded the news - paper’s number of pages. The Post ’s printing press grew by leaps and bounds, and the newspaper invested in new machinery. Agron believed that all the Post ’s revenues should go toward developing a better newspaper. The Post employed many new immigrants, including former journalists and printers of the Iraqi Times.

A number of them slept in the Post’s newsprint store until they settled in Jerusalem.

The Post started a French edition and an international weekly magazine, aimed at overseas readers.

Agron considered that it was his sacred duty to assist new immigrants, American students and young journalists wishing to gain experience. Many of them later made their names abroad. The Post treasurer was frequently ordered to support worthy causes, and in December 1948 Helen Rossi, one of Agron’s deputies, established the Post’s Toy Fund for the benefit of new immigrants.

During the War of Independence, Agron received a secret telegram from Sharett, asking him to take over the future Israeli Information Services.

Agron could not refuse this “call to arms.” However, he was not entirely satisfied, as he expected to be nominated as Israel’s ambassador to Britain.

On May 10, 1949, an official announcement was made that Agron had been appointed director of the Information Services of the State of Israel. His department was to form a part of the Prime Minister’s Office, and was expected to coordinate the public relations work of all ministries, the Broadcasting Service and the Information Services, then under the Foreign and Interior ministries.

Agron appointed Ted Lurie to the post of assistant managing editor, and became a civil servant. He tried to perform his new task as best as he could, but he demanded a free hand and felt squeezed by the internal interests of various ministries.

He soon found out that any civil servant, whatever his rank, is closely bound by rules, regulations, whims and intrigues. As one who enjoyed his freedom at the Post, he found it difficult to adjust. He was promised an initial expense capital of 330,000 Israeli pounds a year, but given only 33,000. “You cannot expect me to do with 33,000 pounds what I planned to do with 330,000,” he complained, and returned to the Post on February 15, 1951. Lurie remained assistant editor. In the meanwhile, Agron went to Britain and the US on behalf of the United Jewish Appeal and the Bonds.

He was very successful in this respect, but complained that travel affected his health, and turned down further requests for fund-raising.

In 1955, Agron took on the challenging post of Jerusalem mayor – an honor and task that he dreamed of – and appointed Lurie as the Post’s editor. Elected on the Mapai ticket, Agron distinguished himself as a skilled negotiator who introduced to the city many light industries and sought to preserve the city’s special character. Against strong Orthodox opposition, Agron succeeded in establishing a number of swimming pools in Jerusalem, and increased the municipal budget. But he continued to visit the Post quite often, sometimes at midnight.

Agron died in 1959, and was given a state funeral. More than 40,000 Jerusalemites lined Jaffa Road to pay their respects and tried to pass by the bier at the municipality. He was eulogized by Sharett, his life-long friend, as one of the greatest personalities of the Zionist movement. His whole life was dedicated to serve his people. His wife, Ethel, continued her Hadassah work, and in the 1970s their son, Danny, worked as the Post’s business manager for two years.

Agron was a member of the Mapai party and the Histadrut labor federation, and a great admirer of Ben-Gurion.

But he was an individualist, and hardly a political party man. However, he perceived the need for one single powerful political party. I often heard him complaining that there were so many political parties in Israel that it was difficult to form a sustainable government coalition.

Once asked why he didn’t become a Knesset member, Agron replied simply, “I didn’t do anything to become one.”

An owner of the Post’s founders’ share, he took great care that it remained an independent newspaper, advised by a board of directors comprised of scholars, economists and a clergyman. But during elections he argued that being independent didn’t mean that the Post should sit on the fence, and promoted Labor.

Agron firmly believed that Zionism, a strong army, good management and well organized labor would make Israel the Land of Milk and Honey.

A huge collection of Agron’s memories and articles was collected and edited in Hebrew under the name Asir Ne’emanut by veteran Post staffer Sraya Shapiro and published by M. Newman Publishing House in Jerusalem. many new immigrants, including former journalists and printers of the Iraqi Times .

A number of them slept in the Post ’s newsprint store until they settled in Jerusalem. The Post started a French edition and an international weekly magazine, aimed at overseas readers.

Agron considered that it was his sacred duty to assist new immigrants, American students and young journalists wishing to gain experience. Many of them later made their names abroad. The Post treasurer was frequently ordered to support worthy causes, and in December 1948 Helen Rossi, one of Agron’s deputies, established the Post ’s Toy Fund for the benefit of new immigrants.

During the War of Independence, Agron received a secret telegram from Sharett, asking him to take over the future Israeli Information Services.

Agron could not refuse this “call to arms.” However, he was not entirely sat - isfied, as he expected to be nominated as Israel’s ambassador to Britain.

On May 10, 1949, an official announcement was made that Agron had been appointed director of the Information Services of the State of Israel. His department was to form a part of the Prime Minister’s Office, and was expected to coordinate the public relations work of all ministries, the Broadcasting Service and the Information Services, then under the Foreign and Interior ministries.

Agron appointed Ted Lurie to the post of assistant managing editor, and became a civil servant. He tried to perform his new task as best as he could, but he demanded a free hand and felt squeezed by the internal interests of various ministries. He soon found out that any civil servant, whatever his rank, is closely bound by rules, regulations, whims and intrigues. As one who enjoyed his freedom at the Post , he found it difficult to adjust. He was promised an initial expense capital of 330,000 Israeli pounds a year, but given only 33,000. “You cannot expect me to do with 33,000 pounds what I planned to do with 330,000,” he complained, and returned to the Post on February 15, 1951. Lurie remained assistant editor. In the meanwhile, Agron went to Britain and the US on behalf of the United Jewish Appeal and the Bonds.

He was very successful in this respect, but complained that travel affected his health, and turned down further requests for fund-raising.

In 1955, Agron took on the challenging post of Jerusalem mayor – an honor and task that he dreamed of – and appointed Lurie as the Post ’s editor. Elected on the Mapai ticket, Agron distinguished himself as a skilled negotiator who introduced to the city many light industries and sought to preserve the city’s spe - cial character. Against strong Orthodox opposition, Agron succeeded in estab - lishing a number of swimming pools in Jerusalem, and increased the municipal budget. But he continued to visit the Post quite often, sometimes at midnight.

Agron died in 1959, and was given a state funeral. More than 40,000 Jerusalemites lined Jaffa Road to pay their respects and tried to pass by the bier at the municipality. He was eulogized by Sharett, his life-long friend, as one of the greatest personalities of the Zionist movement. His whole life was dedicated to serve his people. His wife, Ethel, continued her Hadassah work, and in the 1970s their son, Danny, worked as the Post ’s business manager for two years.

Agron was a member of the Mapai party and the Histadrut labor federation, and a great admirer of Ben-Gurion.

But he was an individualist, and hardly a political party man. However, he perceived the need for one single powerful political party. I often heard him complaining that there were so many political parties in Israel that it was difficult to form a sustainable government coalition. Once asked why he didn’t become a Knesset member, Agron replied simply, “I didn’t do anything to become one.”

An owner of the Post ’s founders’ share, he took great care that it remained an independent newspaper, advised by a board of directors comprised of scholars, economists and a clergyman. But during elections he argued that being independent didn’t mean that the Post should sit on the fence, and promoted Labor.

Agron firmly believed that Zionism, a strong army, good management and well organized labor would make Israel the Land of Milk and Honey.

A huge collection of Agron’s memories and articles was collected and edited in Hebrew under the name Asir Ne’emanut by veteran Post staffer Sraya Shapiro and published by M. Newman Publishing House in Jerusalem.


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