Obituary: The veteran artist who gave the 'Post' its name

Meir "Mike" Ronnen, the sharp-witted Post art critic and cartoonist, dies at the age of 83.

ronnen 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi [file])
ronnen 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi [file])
Meir "Mike" Ronnen, the sharp-witted Jerusalem Post art critic and cartoonist credited with coining the newspaper's name, died at Jerusalem's Shaare Zedek Medical Center on Sunday morning at the age of 83. Ronnen, who was born in Melbourne, Australia, made aliya via Egypt in 1949, and almost immediately got a job at what was then called The Palestine Post. He was hired by managing editor Ted Lurie and was asked by founding editor Gershon Agron to start the overseas edition, now known as The International Jerusalem Post . A Renaissance man with a broad general knowledge, Ronnen worked at the Post for most of the next six decades, becoming a well-respected art critic and satirist, and producing some of the funniest and most biting commentary and cartoons on life in this country. In an interview with Ruthie Blum for the paper's 75th anniversary in 2007, Ronnen recalled how he had actually come up with the idea of changing its name to The Jerusalem Post in 1950. When the state was established, Palestine disappeared. Don't forget that in those days 'Palestinians' generally meant Jews, not Arabs. My father was a Palestinian, for example, because he was born in Jerusalem. So I went to Gershon and Ted and asked them why we were still called The Palestine Post. Their response was, 'What do you mean? We've always been called The Palestine Post.' And I said, 'Yes, but there's no more Palestine.' So Ted said, 'You mean, we should be called The Israel Post?' I thought for a minute and said, 'No, that doesn't ring right.' It sounded to me like Israel Speaks, the name of a terrible Zionist news sheet in America at the time. 'We're the only daily paper in Israel that's printed in Jerusalem,' I said. 'Let's call ourselves The Jerusalem Post.' They agreed on the spot, and I went away and made a proof of the banner head of the paper. By cutting out the word 'Palestine,' and hand-lettering the word 'Jerusalem' in its place, we had a new banner and Ted put it in the paper without any prior announcement. After a couple of weeks, we made an official announcement, reinstated my banner head, and from then on we were The Jerusalem Post. Ronnen became a living legend at The Jerusalem Post , working for the newspaper almost all his life - even after his retirement. He wrote thousands of well-informed, critical articles ranging from art and book reviews to current events and history. He served as art editor of the paper for many years and won many admirers (and adversaries) for his own art work and cartoons, published in both the Post and in Yediot Aharonot. Blum captured his personality nicely in her biographic sketch: Indeed, the man who has spent the better part of his life helping to shape the newspaper - from the minutest technical details of an ever-changing printing process to the graphics, photos and content of its pages - has enriched and amused as many people as he has exasperated. Having what he calls 'no tolerance for bullshit,' Ronnen explains how he has managed to 'piss off' members of the local art scene. In the first place, his policy as the paper's art editor and central critic has always been to 'write about art, not artists.' As a result, he says, it's not only the artists themselves who have hounded him over the years, but their spouses and children as well. Though he was single-handedly responsible for instating the paper's first billboard, listing all the country's galleries and their showings as a service to the public, he nevertheless insists that 'this doesn't mean they were all worth reviewing.' On the contrary, he claims, most of what's out there is decidedly not. 'Journalism should not be promotional,' he states with characteristic hands-down assertion - one among many trademarks. Nor does he believe it should be partisan. In fact, he recounts, when Post founder Gershon Agron tried to get him to join Mapai, 'I explained to him that, as a journalist, I felt I shouldn't be openly allied with a party.' After discovering his talent to draw, Ronnen graduated from the Melbourne Royal Technical College of Art, where he also studied architecture. The youngest boy ever to win a commission, Ronnen served in the Australian army as an infantry instructor, and after World War II was over, he reenlisted to serve in occupied Japan for the Combined Allied Forces newspaper as a staff artist and engraving supervisor at the Osaka Mainichi Shimbum Printing Works. He had also studied nanga painting and caligraphy. In Australia, he began sketching cartoons for the Sydney Sunday Telegraph. Tall, dapper and strong, Ronnen was a born sportsman and he loved "the gentlemen's game of cricket." It inspired his keen sense of fair play. He enjoyed playing tennis and handball, and was also a good swimmer, sailor, skier and horse rider. Although he modestly described himself as "an indifferent sportsman," he acknowledged that his greatest achievements were probably "a single-handed, straight-up-and-down climb of Mount Fuji and reaching the finals of the Combined Occupation Forces table tennis championships." (His partner in the latter was Sgt. Stephen Klein, the world champion in 1938-9.) After making aliya in 1949, Ronnen served for 25 years with the Jerusalem Brigade. He joined The Palestine Post staff the same year, having been engaged by managing editor Ted Lurie to draw maps of local firefights, but his skills soon emerged as an illustrator, graphic artist and photo editor. In September 1959, at the request of founding editor Agron, he began editing the first copy of the paper's new project: The Weekly Overseas Edition. He served as an aliya emissary in South Africa and Rhodesia in 1956-8 and was awarded a US State Department Press Fellowship in 1960, which he used to work at the Louisville Courier Journal. He was a guest contributor to Art International and Art News and illustrated books by satirist Ephraim Kishon and nature expert Paula Arnold. He also designed and produced photographic books titled Jerusalem - The Living City and A World of Their Own: Naive Artists from Israel together with Susan Tumarkin Goodman. Ronnen's frequent book reviews reflected his deep interest in Jewish and general history, especially the Holocaust, and his extraordinary and broad general knowledge. He wrote regularly about art collections, museum exhibitions and auctions at Christie's and Sotheby's, always providing the reader with the historical context and cultural significance of the objects on sale. He patiently and pedantically listed the galleries and works of Israeli artists in the paper. In 2003, Ronnen was conferred with a fellowship of the Israel Museum, which he had covered since its inception in 1965. It said that in addition to chronicling its development, his insightful reviews of museum exhibits and his interviews with a series of museum directors, curators, visiting artists and collectors had helped to bring the Israel Museum to ever wider attention in Israel and abroad. For Ronnen, art was all-embracing and demanded talent, knowledge and patience. He was a keen observer of the art world in Israel, and especially in Jerusalem, but never compromised on his critical approach and attention to detail. Ronnen drew his first cartoons in 1949 for the Post, and soon realized that it would be more astute for him to steer away from politics: I published a few political cartoons as early as 1949. But I saw that Ted - who was running the paper while Gershon was in the government, and then when he was mayor of Jerusalem - was afraid of political cartoons. He didn't want to rock the boat. So he discouraged me from continuing to do them. Instead, I created a weekly pocket cartoon character called Eli. Every week I dressed him in a different role - say, a policeman or a grocer - and had him make a comment on the subject of the week. These cartoons always began with: 'Eli says...' I remember once drawing what I thought was a very innocuous one: 'Eli says that if the Kinneret gets any more polluted, we'll all be able to walk on the water.' But Ted killed it. He said it would offend Christians. I refused to continue the cartoon. And that was the end of Eli. I did not begin publishing political cartoons in the Post until Lea Ben-Dor became editor. My Eli was a favorite of Vera Weizmann, the wife of Israel's first president. After Weizmann died, Vera's secretary called me to invite me to brunch with her in Rehovot. I went, and she told me how much she admired Eli and how much she enjoyed the Post. She also told me a story about her husband. She said that every morning she would read the Post at breakfast and Chaim Weizmann would read the Times of London - which he got a few days late. But he refused to look at the Post. And one morning she said to him, 'Chaim, you know, the Post is really very enjoyable.' From behind the Times, Weizmann said, 'Hah, you're going native.' Meir Ronnen is survived by four children, Michal, Shelli, Lia, and Tal, and four grandchildren, Carmelle, Yasmin, Dor and David. Another daughter, Karen, died tragically in 1999.