JPost at 90: An uncompromising start

In the mid-1960s, when few Jews had a good word to say about Egypt, I was a very young journalist in Australia who had been taught that there’s more than one side to every story

 (FROM 3RD L)  ‘Palestine Post’ founder Gershon Agron is flanked by Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek (L) and David Ben-Gurion, in the Old City.  (photo credit: Jerusalem Post archives)
(FROM 3RD L) ‘Palestine Post’ founder Gershon Agron is flanked by Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek (L) and David Ben-Gurion, in the Old City.
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post archives)

The first story I ever wrote for The Jerusalem Post was rejected by the very person who had commissioned it – the paper’s second editor, Ted Lurie. In 1948, Lurie became acting editor after founding editor, Gershon Agron, took a leave of absence in order to head the newly created Information Office of the nascent state. Lurie held the position for some time until it became clear that Agron would not be returning. 

The paper, founded during the British Mandate era, was originally called The Palestine Post. In 1950, the name was changed to The Jerusalem Post.

In the mid-1960s, when few Jews had a good word to say about Egypt, I was a very young journalist in Australia who had been taught that there’s more than one side to every story. Accordingly, I began to question the things I had been taught in my Jewish day school, Zionist youth movement, and even the Jewish newspaper where I worked. I had a nagging urge to go to Egypt, but I was fairly sure that, given my background, I would be denied a visa.

I had no option but to write a request to president Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Months went by, when suddenly a letter arrived from the Egyptian Embassy in Canberra, notifying me that following instructions from Cairo, the embassy would issue a visa.

EGYPTIAN PRESIDENT Gamal Abdel Nasser (right) with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, on his first visit to Moscow, 1958. (Zeinab Mohamed/Flickr) (credit: ZEINAB MOHAMED/FLICKR)EGYPTIAN PRESIDENT Gamal Abdel Nasser (right) with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, on his first visit to Moscow, 1958. (Zeinab Mohamed/Flickr) (credit: ZEINAB MOHAMED/FLICKR)

A Melbourne travel agency arranged my flight and accommodation at the Tulip Hotel. The taxi driver taking me there from the airport spoke no English, and I spoke no Arabic. I tried speaking in Hebrew instead, since there was some similarity between Hebrew and Arabic, and we managed to understand each other.

Egyptian hospitality is legendary.

Although the hotel was not very luxurious, the service was friendly and helpful.

The following day, I went to the Government Press Office (GPO), where they already knew about me – the young Jewish journalist from Australia. Although it was quite early in the morning, I was greeted with a tray of piping hot food. I explained that I could not partake for religious reasons and was asked what was permissible.

Fresh fruit, I replied, whereupon a young man was immediately dispatched to make the necessary purchase. He returned with a tray laden with a variety of delicious fruits.

The GPO was very helpful in terms of information and recommendations about where to go and what to see. They even provided English-language Jewish newspapers from around the world for me to read. The staff apologized for not being able to arrange an interview with Nasser. It just so happened that celebrity boxing champion Muhammad Ali was in town, and he was a lot more important than an anonymous young journalist from Melbourne.

Coincidentally, in June 1985 Ali visited Israel. Although he had already retired from boxing, he was still a celebrity. My press photographer husband, Dan Landau, was photographed by his colleague Isaac Harari playfully jamming his fist into Ali’s jaw.

During my first visit to Egypt, there was a rumor going around that Israel’s prime minister Levi Eshkol intended to poison the Nile. As this was before the 1967 Six Day War, it is widely believed that this may have contributed to the decision to wage that war. Having made no secret of the fact that I was planning to travel from Egypt to Cyprus, and from there to Israel, several Egyptians asked me to find out if the rumor was true.

At the time, the sister of my Australian boyfriend, who had made aliyah some years before, was working in the Foreign Ministry. When we met, I told her about the rumors circulating around the poisoning of the Nile story. Although she confirmed that it wasn’t true, she suggested that I should speak to Ted Lurie about publishing my story in The Jerusalem Post.

LURIE WAS quite enthusiastic at first, but as the article did not contain a single negative comment about the Egyptians, he soon lost interest.

In those days, Jewish journalism was more propaganda than news driven. The information office headed by Agron was, in fact, a propaganda office.

Meanwhile, a much longer, hand-written version of the story had been sent to The Australian Jewish News in Melbourne, where it was published in full.

Gershon Agron was born in Russia in the late 19th century. In 1906, his family immigrated to the US, where he grew up. Fluent in English, Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian, he began writing for Jewish newspapers in 1915, seven months before the end of World War I. Having joined the Jewish Legion, he fought against the Ottoman Army in what was then Palestine. A journalist at heart, he sent dispatches from the front line back to America.

A committed Zionist even as a teenager, Agron – or Agronsky as he was originally called – soon came to the attention of the Zionist leadership in America and was appointed as the spokesman for American Jewry.

Following his discharge from the army, Agron joined the Zionist Commission established in March 1918. It was headed by Chaim Weizmann, who at the time was president of the British Zionist Federation, and would later become the first president of Israel.

The Zionist Commission comprised leaders from Britain’s Jewish community, who went to Palestine to study the situation in order to make recommendations to the British Authorities. Agron was the Commission’s press officer.

While in Palestine, Agron also helped to expand the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), formerly known as the Jewish Correspondence Bureau. The JTA was founded in the Netherlands in February 1917 by Jacob Landau, a 25-year-old journalist. Landau recognized the importance of collecting news from around the globe of specific Jewish interest and disseminating it throughout the Jewish world. In 1922, the JTA transferred its headquarters to New York, where it is still based.

The JTA’s Berlin bureau was closed by Hitler’s secret police in 1937.

At one stage, the JTA collaborated with MI6, the British Intelligence Service. Together, they launched the Overseas News Agency (ONA), which provided press credentials to British spies.

The JTA currently comprises correspondents in 40 cities across the globe, including Washington DC, Moscow, Jerusalem, North and South America, Israel, Europe, Africa, Australia and Asia.

Having completed his work with the Commission, Agron returned to the US and was appointed editor of the JTA.

IN THOSE days, journalists were known as publicists. Their articles didn’t simply report the facts, they also contained personal opinions. Thus Agron used the JTA extensively to lobby for the creation of a Jewish state. In 1924, he immigrated to Palestine.

He continued to write for the JTA, as well as several non-Jewish publications in different countries.

For some years, he served as press officer for the Zionist Executive. He dearly wanted to set up a Zionist newspaper, but without the required support he was forced to find another backer. On December 1, 1932, the first edition of an eight-page broadsheet was published.

Lurie, who had emigrated from the US to Palestine in 1930, worked with Agron almost from the very beginning and stayed as head of the paper until his death in 1974. Agron continued working for various Zionist causes. In 1955, he was elected mayor of west Jerusalem, a position that he held until his death in 1959.

Photographs of Agron in his mayoral role are on display on the upper floor of the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. The high esteem in which he was held can be evidenced by the fact that the former headquarters of Israel’s Government Press Office was, for many years, located in Beit Agron in the center of town, alongside several other international media outlets. One of Jerusalem’s main streets is also named after Agron. 