A founding father

An excerpt from Matthew Silver's new book on the American-Israeli connection highlights the reinvention of Jerusalem Post founder Gershon Agron.

agron book 88 298 (photo credit: )
agron book 88 298
(photo credit: )
First Contact: Origins of the American-Israeli Connection By Matthew Silver The Graduate Group 386 pages During World War I, Gershon Agron (then still Agronsky), a Philadelphia Jew in his early 20s, served in the "American Battalion" of the Jewish Legion. For the future founder of The Jerusalem Post, this stint in a national Jewish fighting force that was deployed alongside British forces in the conquest of Ottoman Palestine was an impassioned display of Zionist commitment. After the war, Agron returned briefly to the US, and helped launch a groundbreaking, global venture in Jewish journalism, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency; but after three years, he became deeply disillusioned by declining American Jewish support for the Jewish state-in-the-making in British Mandatory Palestine. In spring 1924 he settled once and for all with his family in Jerusalem. This excerpt from the new book First Contact depicts Agron's emotional struggles as he developed his identity as a hasbara (Jewish advocacy) pioneer who established new models in Jewish journalism, and eventually became mayor of Jerusalem. A proud young man, Agron was sufficiently overcome by immigration anxieties in spring-summer 1924 to subordinate himself willfully as a Zionist helper, as an assistant nurse. This identity solution prompted a concomitant issue. His sense of reverent awe for the halutz pioneers on the colonies notwithstanding, Agron had lived as a settled resident of the Yishuv for only half a year, whereas he had been a devoted worker for the world Zionist movement since 1917. Ultimately, would he perceive himself as a minister attending to the needs of the world Zionist movement as a whole, or to the more parochial interests of the Yishuv? In the 20s, Agron's leanings were in the direction of the world movement, while twenty years later his activity became far more Yishuv-bound, in the intense period of struggle and war leading to the establishment of the state of Israel. Throughout this period of existential groping in the middle of the 1920s, Agron's most resolute pronouncements displayed an uncompromising desire to become a valued assistant to Chaim Weizmann. Agron sent to Weizmann on August 18, 1924, a detailed record of his professional activities. The confident and declarative outward tone of the document could not entirely obscure Agron's inner insecurity. Agron yearned to have his evolving professional identity sanctioned by the world's ranking Zionist. Ten years after his correspondence with [the agronomist] Dr. [Arthur] Ruppin, Agron's vocational situation in the Yishuv had substance and shape, but it somehow lacked an authoritative warrant. A decade before, Agron had asked Dr. Ruppin for advice in identifying a vocation fit for life in the new Yishuv; now, he was telling Dr. Weizmann that he had found a profession, yet still awaited genuine Zionist accreditation. A diehard Jewish nationalist from other places might have brought to the attention of the movement's leaders complex matters of religious or ideological import. The American Zionist turned successively to Ruppin and Weizmann to talk about his career. The document which emerged can be classified the credo of a propagandist and an ideologue, but it is also more than that. Agron had brought to Palestine considerable energy and resolve, a solid measure of Zionist experience, and excellent journalism ideas whose time would come. In months preceding the composition of the report to Weizmann, Agron had rolled from blow to blow. The foreign newspapers and wires told him with depressing regularity that there was little reader interest in Palestine affairs; his New York friend, who had inside access to the Jazz Age literary scene, corroborated this view, and urged Agron to quell his Jewish enthusiasms. On his own accord, Agron felt spiritually ineligible for the sort of pioneering work in the Yishuv which enjoyed adulatory reinforcement in the Zionist movement. Though Agron had ties with the Palestine Foundation Fund, he had during his 1921-1924 interval signaled his estrangement from the class of bureaucrats who ran this organization in America. His efforts in Palestine were not boosted by forms of support ordinarily found in immigrant sub-cultures. In short, Gershon Agron was inventing himself, relying on his professional talents, and his idealistic motivation to serve a national cause he cherished. Describing his professional and ideological status in his report to Weizmann, Agron testified: "I am in the first place a newspaper man, but I am afraid I am a Zionist one." As to the substance and rationale of his Keren Hayesod publicity work, Agron stated: "I have always believed the best press propaganda is the indirect kind." Due to this preference, Agron recalled, he had left the Foundation Fund four years before so as to "take over" the JTA. In the same spirit, he had sought work arrangements with various foreign newspapers and wires, because he "did not want to return to Palestine without having formed connections enabling [him]... to do indirect propaganda." No doubt, circulating indirect propaganda was a more complicated business than writing for avowedly Jewish and Zionist periodicals. Agron detailed his indirect propaganda tactics: "Of course, the sledge-hammer does not do here. It's got to be insidious. Any attempt to jam propaganda down the news agencies or papers' throats would only bring rejection slips. As it is, two or three non-Zionist items make even a downright Zionist item acceptable." Formulas which Agron presented in his August 18, 1924, report to Chaim Weizmann sounded dogmatic and manipulative, and ill-suited to the procreative essence associated with an endeavor of national "re-birth." One statement in the report which appears particularly damning when viewed through contemporary lenses is Agron's frank admission that he "had a policy to minimize the seriousness of Arab opposition and of Arab leaders' pretensions" (as will be noted, an appraisal of Agron's newspaper writing confirms that he did consistently belittle Palestinian Arab aspirations and activities). It is no less enlightening, however, to peruse this memorandum of a Zionist publicity pioneer with a view to the creative personality, and constructive professional definitions, that evolved over the course of Agron's career, throughout the next thirty-five years. The rough turns of phrase in the memorandum, and its coercive-sounding formulations, can be misleading. However off-putting it might be to observe an idealistic young man cite "indirect propaganda" dissemination as a career goal, it is neither facile nor apologetic to understand Agron's activities and intentions within the broad cultural circumstances of Zionism. The presumed abnormality of Jewish life was taken as axiomatic truth, both by Zionists and anti-Semites; and all active American Zionists in this era chose professional roles which were perceived to be nationally remedial. Agron's Hadassah counterparts, for instance, proposed to "heal" the Jewish people by running first-rate model clinics and hospitals in the Yishuv. Agron's choice to do Zionist public relations work can be viewed as a viable response to this prevailing perception of Jewish abnormality. In key ways, it was less pretentious, and less deferential to that perception, than other career paths. Healing, for instance, presumed that there was something really wrong; partisan journalism did not. Historically speaking, an argument that dismisses Agron as a Zionist propagandist misses the main point. Louis Fischer, who reached this indicting verdict about his lifelong friend in his autobiography, was not just being uncharitable. What Fischer regarded as a poor career choice on Agron's part could just as easily be seen as an inevitable pursuit. The animus to reply to the allegation of Jewish abnormality was so fundamental as a motivating factor that all Zionist activity can be related in one way or another to propaganda, or the impulse to mold a positive Jewish image in the popular mind. In this sense, it is tautological and unhelpful to classify a Zionist as a propagandist. The aforementioned high incidence of journalistic activity among Zionist leaders provides a clue about the diffusion of this polemic about normality versus abnormality. In one way or another, journalism was an indispensable element in the evolution of modern Jewish politics. In this broad context, the rationale behind Agron's professional calling is clearly intelligible. Many of these generalizations pertain only implicitly to the Yishuv in the early Mandate period, as the dominant political aim in Palestine's Jewish community was autonomy, and its daily cultural discourse was directed inward, and not yet toward a debate with the outside world. A fundamental precept of Zionist ideology, 'shlilat hagola' (Denial of the Diaspora), implied hostility to the sort of international public relations work Agron proposed to do. It might not be going too far to say that the Yishuv was willfully inarticulate. By bringing a keen public relations sensitivity to politicized Jewish Palestine, Agron really was a pioneer. Decades after he masochistically berated himself and his former community ("there are no halutzim from America"), the irony of Agron's mordant self-perception in the 1920s is inescapable: while the profession (agriculture) which he associated indelibly with Zionist pioneering has had decreasing import in Israeli life since the 1960s and 1970s, the pursuit (Zionist hasbara public relations work) he brought to Palestine as a media pioneer has come increasingly to be valued as an element indispensable to Israel's survival. Agron settled in Palestine with the aim of utilizing the most potent instruments of modern public expression on behalf of a Jewish community which was not yet disposed to apply them fully in a world debate it was acutely sensitive about. Overcoming a series of setbacks, Agron set an innovative example of professional insistence. In retrospect, the halutz aspect of his presence in the Yishuv community appears to have stemmed not from his specific journalistic goals, but rather from his general bearing as a creative public relations personality. There was a compelling duality to Agron's ambition. On the one hand, he aspired ardently to become part of a rebellious Jewish community which emphatically rejected "Exile" in the Diaspora. On the other hand, he was perceptively cognizant of the political imperative to present the Yishuv's case both to Jews and non-Jews abroad. The achievement of Agron's life was to erect a coherent and creative working personality around this tense, sometimes contradictory, frame. His statement of career intent to Chaim Weizmann is therefore noteworthy not only for its ideologically dogmatic formulations, but also for its latent, enabling, content. The key sentence in his report to Weizmann read: "My stuff, though it may not deal with Zionism or even anything Jewish breathes a spirit of constructive optimism, predisposing the reader to see that in Palestine there is a state of 'normalcy,' where Zionist reconstruction can be taken for granted." This motto of an American Zionist oleh pioneer ("constructive optimism," "normalcy," "Zionist reconstruction") enjoined a positive work style and building ethos that was not just confined to a career in journalism. Its elements applied equally well to Agron's term as Mayor of Jerusalem as they did to his longer tenure as founder and editor of The Palestine/Jerusalem Post.