Remembering Ari Rath

Ari’s antenna was constantly scanning the horizon for stories, and he did not make do simply by assigning them.

January 19, 2017 21:45
4 minute read.
Former Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief Ari Rath dies at 92

Former Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief Ari Rath dies at 92. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

‘You have a visitor,” said the sergeant.

I was at that moment sprawled atop a bald hilltop in the Judean Desert, resting together with the rest of my reserve unit after a training exercise in the summer sun. The sergeant nodded toward the edge of the hill. Puzzled, I walked there and looked down. There was a car in the wadi below. A civilian car. I do not recall seeing a road or dirt track. The car was Ari Rath’s.

“Be back at the base by 6 o’clock,” the sergeant said.

I forget Ari’s explanation as to how he was able to find me in the middle of the desert, how he knew what unit I was with, or how he was able to wangle permission from the army to free me for the afternoon. Ari’s connections were legendary.

The reason he had come to fetch me was that mayor Teddy Kollek was to speak with The Jerusalem Post editorial staff that afternoon: the paper periodically invited newsmakers for such sessions. I was the Jerusalem beat reporter and, as such, Ari decided that I should be there to ask questions. Thus it was that I entered the conference room, to the considerable amusement of mayor Kollek (see photo), dust-covered, disheveled – straight from the front, as it were, and dragging my rifle like a cane.

Ari’s antenna was constantly scanning the horizon for stories, and he did not make do simply by assigning them. Whenever circumstance warranted, as in my case, he personally intervened to make the story happen.

The Post’s diplomatic reporter, the late David Landau, was dispatched by Rath to Aswan in the wake of the peace treaty with Egypt and told to get an interview with president Anwar Sadat, who was vacationing there. Landau put in his request with Egyptian press officers and waited. Days passed. Then more days and still more mosquitoes and heat.

Landau finally told Ari that the chances of an interview were scant to nonexistent, and asked whether he could come back to Jerusalem.

Ari insisted that he stay. Meanwhile he had been working the connections, direct or indirect, that he had already begun weaving with Cairo. The Jerusalem Post reporter was eventually brought to Sadat’s villa and granted the first interview given by the Egyptian leader to an Israeli newspaper, a cosmic scoop.

(Sadat was in turn granted something unique by Landau. The journalist told Sadat at the end of the interview that, as an Orthodox Jew, he would like to bless him for his peacemaking. Sadat, himself a devout Muslim, readily assented. Landau would relate after he came back that nobody else was present in the garden where the interview was held, not even security personnel. He placed his hands on the head of the man who just five years before had staggered Israel in the Yom Kippur War, and pronounced the Hebrew blessing.) Ari saw The Jerusalem Post, which could be read by the Arab elite, playing an active role in normalizing relations between Israel and the Arab world. He planned to establish a bureau in Cairo after the peace agreement. When Beirut fell in the 1982 Lebanese War, he drove there to explore the possibility of arranging regular distribution of the paper. Neither project worked out in the end.

Other colleagues have pointed out in obituaries how Ari treated staff as family. My sister Malka was working as a copy editor at the Post when I arrived five days before the Six Day War. When she mentioned to Ari that her brother was coming, he took time out in that frantic pre-war period to pick me up at the airport with her. Instead of driving to Jerusalem, however, he left us sitting in his car on Hayarkon Street for an hour while he went into a Labor Party meeting, where the formation of a coalition government as a step toward war was being debated.

The first assignment Ari gave me when I joined the Post two years later was to cover a political meeting. I told him that after my experience on American newspapers, I preferred not covering politics. “I’ll write about sewers, I’ll write about sports. Just not politics. And not the diplomatic beat.”

“It’s about time,” said Ari heatedly, “that you learned that everything is politics. Sewers are politics, sports are politics.” I had to concede his point but he eventually gave me what I wanted – the municipal beat, which I would enjoy for the next decade.

Ari’s departure from the Post with the arrival of new right-wing owners was abrupt and painful. As the new publisher, a former paratroop colonel, put it to him: “A battalion can’t have two commanders.” I don’t recall any parting ceremony, but I may be mistaken.

A day after his ousting, I happened to see him on the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall downtown. He was walking slowly up the street from Zion Square, looking around at the buildings and shops like a tourist. He didn’t seem to be going anywhere. When I drew close I saw that he looked dazed. An active life at the center of events had suddenly clanged shut behind him. I suggested that we sit and have coffee. He responded readily to the invitation.

Friends and acquaintances who happened by stopped to chat, and Ari slowly returned to himself. There was, however, no room for concern. The sizable venues where his round-number birthdays would be held in the coming decades would continue to be filled by people, from Israel and abroad, whose lives he had memorably touched.

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