A lion and a legend: Remembering Jpost's Ari Rath

Ari Rath, former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, treated members of the Post staff as family.

By HANAN SHER
January 15, 2017 06:19
Ari Rath

The now-91-year-old Ari Rath in 1989, during his days as ‘Jerusalem Post’ editor-in-chief. (photo credit: DAVID BRAUNER)

I worked with, and under, Ari Rath for most of my 23 years at The Jerusalem Post.

But, to me, the memory that tells most about the man comes from another place – my service as a middle-aged IDF reservist in what was once called the Jerusalem Brigade.

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Within minutes after I showed up for my first reserve duty, the guys discovered that I worked at the Post, repeating a phrase I’d heard many times – and would hear many more over the years – “You know Ari.” Half a statement, half a question. “He used to be with us.”

The hevre told me why they felt that way. Years earlier, the IDF chief of staff paid a surprise visit to a base somewhere in Sinai where the unit was doing its annual reserve duty. The troops – a mixed bag of Jerusalem shopkeepers, Mahaneh Yehuda basta owners, Hebrew University professors, civil servants and a waiter in the Knesset canteen – had been given just a few minutes to polish their scuffed boots and clean up and were understandably apprehensive as the country’s top soldier passed along their ranks.

Until he stopped to shake the hand and begin an animated conversation with one of them, a sergeant. Ari Rath, of course.

Though it’s Israel, where everyone’s on a first-name basis, the reservists were dumbfounded.

One said later: “That proved what we already thought – that Ari knows everyone.”

He really seemed to. His friends and connections included members of the Israeli and international elite – from David Ben-Gurion (he was B-G’s secretary during the 1955 election campaign) and Shimon Peres and everyone else who counted in the years before the Likud took over government in 1977, to former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, Germany’s Willy Brandt and Axel Springer, Bruno Kreisky of Austria, and so many, many others.

Over the years, “You know Ari” was repeated to me and my colleagues on dozens of occasions by all kinds of people, all around Israel and the world – politicians and journalists, members of the elite and common people, elegant ladies and scruffy cab drivers.

For good reason. Ari, who came to Israel from his native Vienna after the Anschluss, on a Kindertransport at the age of 13 and spent many of his formative years on Kibbutz Hamadiya in the Beit She’an Valley, was the quintessential European gentleman with impeccable manners and captivating charm.

He joined the Post on the suggestion of a friend from kibbutz days and made the paper his professional – and very personal – home over the course of three decades, sharing the editor-in-chief position with Erwin Frenkel from 1975 to 1989.

“Ari came to Jerusalem to study, and he joined the Post because he needed to earn a living,” says Frenkel, who now owns a bed and breakfast in Korazim, northern Israel, with his wife, Eta. “He immediately became a very important part of the staff because of his fantastic nose for news and because of his contacts” in the then-ruling Mapai/Labor Party establishment.

He had the nerve, and the verve, of a born reporter. Post staffers more veteran than I talk about the time he was caught wandering around Buckingham Palace while Ben-Gurion was meeting the queen, and his international scoop on Ben-Gurion’s meeting with chancellor Konrad Adenauer prior to the 1952 Reparations Agreement with West Germany.

The unusual joint editorship provided a contrast in styles and personalities – Frenkel’s cool, almost unflappable detachment and Rath’s excitable, emotional character, quick to explode in anger and just as quick to forgive, forget and embrace.

And the contrast seemed to work. During their years of stewardship, the Post attained international status, reporting on Israel with the combination of local know-how and English language that made the paper, a stalwart in its support of the peace process, a must-read for the diplomatic community and in chancelleries around the world.

Despite its small circulation and limited resources, the Post saw itself on a level with the world’s great newspapers.

“It was something we inherited,” says Frenkel. “During the British Mandate, after the paper was founded, visitors from around the world came to meet the Post editor because the paper was in English. That gave us a self-image that was beyond our importance.”

Not quite. At times, the Post really was important, such as during Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977.

Frenkel says Rath was “really excited and lit up” by the event and, together with Post Arab affairs editor Anan Safadi, rushed over to the King David Hotel, where the Egyptian leader was staying.

“Ari played a big role in person- to-person contacts with the Egyptians,” Safadi recalls, adding that Ari was instrumental in helping Eliyahu Ben-Elissar, Israel’s first ambassador to Egypt, gain acceptance into Cairene society.

He was also a storyteller. One day, during the Sadat visit or one of the subsequent encounters with Egyptian delegations in Jerusalem, Ari returned to the newsroom relating a conversation with one of Sadat’s senior advisers, who’d been stuck upstairs when the elevator in one of Jerusalem’s luxury hotels failed. The Egyptian told Ari it was “the happiest day of my life. We see Israel as a technology superpower. Knowing that things go wrong here, too, demonstrates that you’re human.”

Ari treated members of the Post staff as family – perhaps because of how he was, perhaps because he wasn’t married and didn’t have a core family of his own, except for that of his late brother, Meshulam.

He “did everything possible to help,” says Judy Peres, a former Post staffer who later held a senior post at the Chicago Tribune. “The night before we moved to the States, he had my husband and I, and our two children, sleep at his home and he drove us to the airport.”

His expansive kindness and old-school paternalism extended to women.

“He once told me and another woman staffer that there were more than enough females on the staff because women were a distraction,” says Peres. “But it didn’t affect the way he treated us afterwards, which was as though we were his nieces or daughters.”

Mike Eilan was only 27 years old when he was first made night news editor. “I still remember the absolute trust Ari put in me by giving me that level of responsibility.

And the way he yelled at me,” Eilan recalls. “One night, after I made a decision he didn’t like, Ari got very angry. ‘Put up a notice next to where you sit saying Remember History,’ he told me. The message was to take a longer perspective.

“After working at other places for many years, I’m convinced that’s an incredible message of leadership, of teaching and of journalism, all of which made the Post of those days a great place. Young people were given huge responsibilities on one hand and, on the other, older people were kept on well past pension age. That’s way ahead of the social curve.”

In 1989, Robert Maxwell was in Israel for an international Jewish conference. The late British press baron summoned Ari to a meeting where he expected to discuss his plan to purchase the paper, which was up for sale. Ari showed up all right, but stunned Maxwell with his outright refusal. A few months later, the Post was sold to Hollinger, a Canadian firm whose principal leaders, Conrad Black and David Radler, subsequently served jail time for fraud. The Post was sold again in 2005 to its current owners, the Mikraei Tikshoret firm headed by Eli Azur.

Although we thought Hollinger had “saved” us from Maxwell, the marriage with Hollinger turned out to be unsuccessful almost from the outset. Within months, Rath, who was past retirement age at the time, was unceremoniously forced out by Yehuda Levy, the publisher installed by Hollinger. Frenkel followed a few months later.

In retrospect, separation was inevitable. Ari’s (and the paper’s) Labor-left politics, world view and journalistic aspirations were very different from the conservative philosophy and business plan of the then-new owners.

It was, however, far from the end. As he had during his Post years, Ari spent much of the next two and a half decades shuttling between Jerusalem and Europe, appearing on German- language TV, writing and most of all pursuing his joint dreams of Israeli-Palestinian and Austrian-Jewish reconciliation.

His efforts won him numerous awards, including Austria’s Golden Award of Honor and the German Order of Merit; his autobiography, Ari Means Lion, was published in 2012.

Rath maintained an active schedule to the end, traveling between Jerusalem and Vienna where, in 1980, his Austrian citizenship was renewed. He died there on January 13, a few days after his 92nd birthday.

In Israel, Rath had changed his first name from the original Arnold to Ari. And, as the title of his book suggests, he was a larger-than-life figure who left a positive mark on Israeli journalism and those around him.

In his case, Ari also means legend.

Hanan Sher held a number of senior editorial posts at The Jerusalem Post, from 1967 to 1990


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