Charles Weiss: The Voice of America in the Middle East

A titan reflects on his time.

Charles Weiss (photo credit: Courtesy)
Charles Weiss
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Although for most of his life Charles (Charley) Weiss has been intimately involved with Israel, it was only late this past December that the 90-year-old well-known veteran journalist formally made aliyah, becoming an Israeli citizen. It was in a way, full circle for someone who, as a young man, was a volunteer in Aliyah Bet, the clandestine operation to bring Jewish immigrants, mostly Holocaust survivors, to Palestine during the British Mandate.
As a reporter and editor at The Jerusalem Post beginning in 1953 and then as a correspondent for the Voice of America, his assignments included nearly every development in the Middle East. He covered the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the 1967 Six Day War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the momentous visit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Israel in 1977, the Palestinian national uprising, the intifada that began in the winter of 1987 as well as Israel’s turbulent politics throughout the years. As the regional correspondent for VOA, Weiss reported on the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, the military regimes that governed Turkey in the 1970s and on the 1978 unrest in Iran that led to the overthrow of the Shah. He practically lived in Tehran from the bloody massacre in Jaleh Square in September until the referendum establishing an Islamic Republic in April 1979, when “it became unhealthy for a Jewish American to show his face.”
Weiss was a student at Harvard in 1947 when a recruiter for the Jewish underground in Palestine came to the campus. The meeting introduced him to a new set of issues. “The British, our allies in the war against Hitler, were the villains. They stood between the pitiful remnants of European Jewry and a future in the Promised Land,” Weiss writes in a memoir published by the Israeli Defense Ministry.
Weiss was told that he could help the cause by volunteering for a year’s service in the Haganah in Palestine. “Oh, and by the way, you will also help bring Jewish refugees, most of them concentration camp survivors, to Palestine.” It was an irresistible, heroic role awaiting a young idealist not yet turned 19,” recalls Weiss, describing how he decided to answer the call.
He joined a small group of American and Canadian volunteer sailors in the clandestine rescue operation between 1946 and 1948 that transported Holocaust survivors (ma’apilim) from European ports in a fleet of ramshackle ships. Some made it to Palestine; most did not. The ships included the most famous, the Exodus, 1947.
Weiss boarded the “SS Trade Winds” in the port of Baltimore (the ship was later renamed the “Hatikvah”). It was a tiny oil-fired vessel built during the Spanish-American War. “Not getting seasick was my ticket to being a sailor. I had no other perceivable talents,” Weiss jokes today.
The ship was outfitted in Lisbon to accommodate the refugees, but was already being tracked by the British when it reached the Mediterranean on the way to northern Italy. “We picked up our people on successive, moonless nights. In an operation that took all of 20 minutes we loaded 700 refugees brought from shore in large rubber rafts,” Weiss writes. The next night, the refugees arrived on three large fishing boats. “Hundreds of mysterious figures tumbled out onto the deck in the pitch black darkness and were quickly shown where they were to bunk. Now they had over 1,400 people on board and were setting out for Eretz Yisrael. This was the first time I had come directly in contact with the people who had lived through the atrocities I had seen on newsreels and read about in the papers. How do you relate to them?”
But the “Hatikvah” was intercepted by British destroyers off the coast of Lebanon. After warning the ship not to attempt to enter Palestine waters, two destroyers slammed into the “Hatikvah” from both sides and club-wielding marines jumped aboard. The passengers resisted by throwing cans at the boarding party; the British marines responded with tear gas and warning shots. Following hand-to-hand fighting, the ship was captured. “We in the engine room disabled the engines and shut down the furnaces. We were towed into Haifa on May 17, 1947,” relates Weiss. He and the other American crewmen, together with the passengers, were sent to Cyprus and interned as Jewish “displaced persons.”
His next Aliyah Bet assignment would eventually get him to Romania aboard the Pan Crescent (later the “Atzma’ut”). The ship and its sister, the Pan York, were the largest ships in the Aliyah Bet fleet, and made misleading diversionary trips to throw the British off their trail.
The two ships were tied up in Constanta, Romania, for three months while workmen installed shelving in the holds and massive blowers to provide fresh air. The ma’apilim were to sleep on these bunk beds, stacked four high. Soviet-dominated Romania wouldn’t allow Jews to leave directly to Palestine, so the ships sailed instead to the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Burgas. “A long freight train pulled up to the wharf … the people spilled out, each with their 20 kg bag of effects,” Weiss writes. “They kept coming and coming, then another train pulled in, and they kept coming. This went on for three days. About 15,000 Jews were bunked down, four high in the cavernous holds of the two ships … Just beyond Gallipoli we encountered our naval escort, a British cruiser and six destroyers,” writes Weiss. An agreement was reached with the powers that be that the two ships would go straight to Cyprus and not try to run the blockade. In return, the ships would remain in Jewish hands. The crews and refugees were sent to detention camps near Famagusta.
After returning to the US in 1948, Weiss came back in 1949 to the newly created State of Israel. He was drafted into the army straight off the boat, serving in a unit for foreigners. “On our first furlough we were sent out on confiscated Arab buses that had very low ceilings,” recalls the 6 foot 2 inch Weiss today. “I was all bent over because there were no seats, and this cute little red-headed soldier girl got up to give me her seat. We got married six months later.” His first wife Varda Yuval passed away in 1975.
Weiss started working at The Jerusalem Post in 1955, in its central Jerusalem offices. The Post’s founder, Gershon Agron, was still the editor at the time, but that year was elected mayor of Jerusalem. Weiss still remembers details of his first assignment for the paper as an investigative reporter. “I was sent to go out and find all the fire traps in Jerusalem. I ended up doing a series. I was terribly new to the job, but it put me in touch with the profession.”
The Post staff at the time included many who would go on to become well-known Anglo journalists: managing editor Ted Lurie, Moshe Levin, Lea Ben Dor, David Gross, Phillip Gillon, Alex Berlyne, Maccabi Dean and Mike Ronnen. Ari Rath, who with Erwin Frenkel would become editors, started working at the Post in 1959. “Ari Rath had spent a year as an assistant to retired premier David Ben-Gurion, and was our pipeline to what was going on in the Labor Party.”
Weiss recalls the only time the Post was published on a Saturday. US President John Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, a Friday afternoon. “Ted Lurie called around on Friday night and said he wanted to put out a paper that Saturday, something that had never been done before by any Israeli paper. He rounded up half a dozen people, and we put a paper together, mostly photographs. But of course we had no way of distributing, so we sold the paper to the crowds coming out of the movie theaters Saturday night in Jerusalem.”
The paper often struggled financially, says Weiss, noting that the staff sometimes got shares in the company instead of a salary.
The Post was a political party newspaper then, first Mapai and then, when the party split during the Lavon affair, it became a staunch supporter of the Rafi wing backing Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres. The Histadrut Labor Federation was the principle shareholder. “We had a politruk [a political commissar], who would come in to read the galleys to see that we hewed to the party line. He was something of a creep. Pinchas Sapir [the finance minister] once came to give us a lecture of how important it was to follow the Mapai line,” Weiss relates.
Weiss was on duty as night editor on June 5, 1967, the first day of the Six Day War. “During the day we suddenly saw planes streaming overhead, something that never happened in Jerusalem. Of course, we didn’t know they were Israeli planes.”
Since so many men had been called up, the paper was very understaffed. Two people who volunteered at the Post and were hired by Weiss on sight would go on to have their own journalistic careers. Included here was David Landau, the future editor of Haaretz. “He was a religious boy who knew Hebrew and could type. He had a good news sense. The other ‘volunteer’ was Abraham Rabinovich, whose book on the Yom Kippur War years later became a best seller.”
In the 1960s, Weiss hosted a weekly English language news roundup program on Israel Radio on Saturdays. He was also a freelance reporter for the Associated Press, United Press and Reuters wire services. Beginning in the 1970s, he started working for the US broadcasting arm, Voice of America (VOA), learning to cope with the old heavy reel-to-reel Revox tape recorders.
In 1976 he left the Post to join VOA full-time, and two years later found himself in Iran reporting on the uprising against the Shah following a massacre of protesters in downtown Tehran.“It was the most amazing thing. The people were rioting, chanting ‘death to the Shah.’ The army was still loyal, for the most part and putting down the demonstrations mercilessly. Khomeini was sending ubiquitous audio cassettes from Paris labeling the United States ‘the Great Satan’ and Israel ‘the Lesser Satan.’ And here I am, lugging a tape recorder, obviously an American reporter, a live moving target.” Nevertheless, says Weiss, he never encountered any hostility, even when people knew he was American and living in Israel. On the contrary, he says, “people just wanted to know about both countries.”
He stayed on in Iran, covering the Shah’s flight into exile and the referendum establishing the Islamic Republic. And he was there when Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat and his men took over the ransacked Israeli diplomatic mission in Tehran. “Arafat was almost totally blind,” Weiss recalls. “He was led into the room on the arm of an aide to give his speech.”
Under the VOA rotation practice, Weiss was reassigned to Washington in 1980, working at the news desk, and the State Department beat. It was not a position he much liked, he admits today. “I was used to reporting news as it happened, but there I got to understand what news looked like after it was chewed over. It was like being a spokesman.” He was reassigned to Jerusalem in 1987, in time for the first intifada and the Persian Gulf War. “It was an exciting four years.”
Weiss was very close friends with Bob Simon, the American television correspondent for CBS. Simon and four of his TV crew were captured in Iraq in 1991. CBS assumed they’d been captured by the PLO. “CBS thought that if there were testimonials from PLO people we could get him sprung. I called Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi, the founder of the Palestine Red Crescent Society in Gaza, and got a letter attesting to Bob’s fairness as an objective reporter. But Sadaam Hussein couldn’t have cared less about the PLO.” (The four were released after 40 days.)
When VOA sent Weiss back to Israel in 1987 he discovered his eldest daughter, Anat Hoffman, had become more well-known than he’d been. An Israeli social activist, Hoffman was a member of the Jerusalem City Council for 14 years, and is today Executive Director of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, and a founding member of Women of the Wall. It seemed then and still seems now that she is always in the news. “She was always accessible, charming and mischievous,” says Weiss. “She’s a magnetic speaker and makes wonderful copy.”
Following a four-year stint in the VOA New York office, Weiss remained in the US until his recent “aliyah” with his wife Harriet. “All those years in Israel I never took Israeli citizenship. In the early 50s, you needed an exit permit to leave the country, and also they didn’t allow dual citizenship at the time,” he explains.
Throughout his years as a journalist, Charley Weiss seems to have known everyone. It’s been a very interesting career,” he says today, commenting that “I have no feelings of nostalgia for VOA. The only job I really enjoyed was working at The Jerusalem Post as night editor.”