Jerrold Kessel, 1945-2011

He was one of Israel’s leading English language journalists, with a career that spanned over 4 decades in radio, print and television.

By LESLIE SUSSER
March 26, 2011 06:19
4 minute read.
Jerrold Kessel

Jerrold Kessel 311. (photo credit: COURTESY PIERRE KLOCHENDLER)

 
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JERROLD (YORAM) KESSEL, who died on February 24 after a long battle with cancer, was one of Israel’s leading English language journalists, with a career that spanned over four decades in radio, print and television, including stints as Jerusalem correspondent for the London Jewish Chronicle, news editor at The Jerusalem Post, Israel reporter for CNN, sports columnist for Haaretz and op-ed contributor to The Jerusalem Report.

He was 65.

We first met at the Hebrew University in the 1960s, as part of a group of young ex- South African immigrants studying subjects like literature, history, politics, economics and philosophy. Never the conformist, Jerrold was always full of original ideas and grandiose schemes, traits that never left him.

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Once when we went down to Eilat for a short holiday, Jerrold concocted a patchwork tent made up of colorful sheets and quilts sewn together by his wife Lorraine, which a fresh Red Sea breeze easily got the better of. It was, in retrospect, emblematic of a lifelong drive to overcome recalcitrant realities through imagination and passionate dedication.

An avid reader, his passions were for history, literature, Israeli politics and sport. Not only was he a mine of sporting information, he was a fine player of a wide variety of games, with exceptional hand-eye coordination.

Overweight and not obviously athletic, his agility on a squash court or behind the stumps on a cricket field was of a totally unexpected order. Woe betide the opponent who underestimated him.

As a boy, he was always against South African teams because of apartheid. At his all-white school, this would often leave him in a taunted minority of one. But even then he was too strong-willed to be deflected.

In the mid-1960s, Jerrold was instrumental in restarting cricket in Israel. Games were played on matting wickets often in desert conditions. Play in Beersheba was once stopped as a caravan of camels went by.

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Jerrold became captain of the Israel cricket team for its first foray into the World Cup in 1979. In one of the games the US wicketkeeper was guilty of blatant cheating. It would have been “cricket,” the stiff-upper-lip code of gentlemanly conduct by which the game is played, to overlook this. Jerrold, motivated by a higher and very personal moral compass, refused to let the matter rest.

Indeed, for Jerrold, more than results, sport was about how you conducted yourself and how you played the game. This led to his weekly “On the Couch” column in Haaretz which looked at the wider social significance of sport and often suggested highly inventive ways to make games better.

Based on a TV documentary he made about a football club in the Arab town of Sakhnin, which played in the national league and one year actually won the state cup, Jerrold, with his longtime collaborator Pierre Klochendler, wrote the book Goals for Galilee, a brilliant use of sport to analyze the national and cultural predicament of Israel’s minority Arab population.

On the wider Israel-Palestinian issue, he was a unilateralist, fervently believing that Israel must disengage from the West Bank as soon as possible, with or without an agreement, or face erosion of its moral authority and dissipation of the Zionist dream.

His working life as a journalist began as a news reader and editor at Israel Radio. One of his more heroic efforts was coming in at four o’clock in the morning of August 21, 1968, to find that the Soviet Union had invaded Czechoslovakia and the electricity in the building was down. Somehow, working by candlelight, he managed to put out the seven o’clock news.

From the radio he moved on to The Jewish Chronicle, and then to The Jerusalem Post, where he edited the sports section with the late Philip (Figgy) Gillon and served as a senior news editor. In 1990, when a large group of journalists left the paper on an issue of editorial independence, he was offered the editorship, but declined.

After leaving the Post, he found his métier at CNN, where he made an international reputation as on-camera reporter covering Israel and the Middle East. At CNN he reported the peace process with the Palestinians, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination and the unraveling of the process leading to the second intifada. During the intifada, Jerrold took flak at times for CNN’s alleged anti-Israel bias. He was concerned more by what he saw as the superficiality of television news, and approached CNN bosses with a plethora of ideas for more in-depth coverage.

In 2007, Jerrold covered the Rugby World Cup in France, now rooting for the rainbow nation South African Springboks, who won the tournament. But his abiding memory was not of who won or lost but of the purity of the French passion for the game.

After he learned of his illness, he went on working and playing sport, with characteristic determination, enthusiasm and optimism. Weeks before he died, he was still working on a radio play featuring his family’s earthy black maid and Nelson Mandela.

His bravery in suffering was, I think, unique. He used to quip that he was playing for a draw, when a cricket team knows it can’t win and plays only to avoid defeat. But in recent weeks, he would say with a chuckle that the fielders were closing in around the bat, signifying that he knew the game was almost over. He is survived by Lorraine, their son Ariel (Chalky), and four grandchildren.

He will be sorely missed by all who knew him.

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