Book review: ‘The Jerusalem Post’ at its birth

A story of pre-state Israel and self-discovery.

HISTORIC ISSUE of ‘The Palestine Post’ from the current ‘Jerusalem Post’ conference room. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
HISTORIC ISSUE of ‘The Palestine Post’ from the current ‘Jerusalem Post’ conference room.
Palestine Posts: An Eyewitness Account of the Birth of Israel Based on the letters of Mordecai S. Chertoff is a captivating eyewitness account of the birth of modern-day Israel. It is based on a two-year correspondence between Mordecai Chertoff, a New York native who lived in Jerusalem from 1947 until 1949, and his family in the United States.
Chertoff was far more than a casual bystander writing chatty letters. Arriving in Jerusalem in February 1947, Chertoff, then 25, joined The Palestine Post – which was founded in 1932 and became The Jerusalem Post in 1950 – and served as local news editor, foreign news editor and war correspondent for the newspaper until his return to the United States in February 1949. He also served as a soldier in the Hagana, and accompanied the Palmah on numerous missions, giving him a unique, first-person perspective on events. Chertoff’s letters describe the trials and travails of pre-state Israel through the eyes of a young, articulate American who experienced hunger during the siege of Jerusalem, loss when his compatriots died in combat, and elation upon the proclamation of the state in May 1948.
Chertoff was a gifted writer, and his letters home vividly describe the momentous events of the time, including the UN partition vote, the bombing of The Palestine Post, the sieges of Gush Etzion and Jerusalem, the building of the Burma Road, terrorist attacks, the declaration of statehood, and the battles and military campaigns that followed. Ably written by his son, Daniel S. Chertoff, the book incorporates both his father’s letters and many of the articles he wrote for the Post during that period.
Throughout the book, the author provides valuable historical context, notes and explanations about the people and events mentioned in his father’s letters. Of equal interest are the letters that Chertoff received from his family at the time, expressing their concerns for the welfare of their son and brother, as well as for the Jewish people’s struggle for independence in the Holy Land. Chertoff’s parents and siblings were avid writers as well, and their exchanges on both political and personal matters are fascinating.
Chertoff was deeply involved in daily Israeli life, living in Jerusalem during dangerous times and chronicling events as they occurred. In his letters he occasionally expressed sentiments about the divergence of opinions and experiences between American and Israeli Jews. The author writes that his father felt alienated from American Jews, believed that they could not comprehend what was going in Israel, and were more concerned by the impact of events in the Middle East on their own status in the United States. “These concerns anticipate what would become a recurring issue between American and Israeli Jews.”
Mordecai Chertoff was energetic, capable and talented, and during this critical period met and mingled with a number of Israel’s future leaders, including Golda Meir, Yaakov Herzog, Yitzhak Rabin and others. From 1947-1949, the fate of Palestine’s Jewish inhabitants was anything but assured, and Chertoff’s letters express the precariousness of the situation. Chertoff was in The Palestine Post newsroom when the building was bombed in February 1948. His letter to his parents describing what transpired, and his coolness under fire, illustrate the gravity of the situation.
Mordecai Chertoff’s letters home were much more than a war chronicle. They reflect the life he lived as a young, single resident of Jerusalem. His personal life and loves, his professional successes and failures, as well as his occasional disagreements with his parents and siblings about his life choices make the book a compelling chronicle of life in the 1940s. At a time when the art of letter-writing has all but disappeared, it is refreshing to read complete sentences that describe how people lived their lives, how they felt, and what they did. “Before word processing,” writes the author, “writers had to think and write in sentences, paragraphs, and whole sections. It was a very different, and more demanding, mental process.”
Apart from its historical value, Palestine Posts succeeds on an entirely different level as a volume of self-discovery that provided Daniel Chertoff with a greater awareness of his father as a young man. Through his father’s letters, Chertoff the son gained a deeper awareness of both his father’s shortcomings and strengths. “How men feel about their fathers is fundamental to how they feel about themselves,” he writes. “We cannot accept or understand ourselves without first understanding and accepting our fathers.” Daniel Chertoff freely acknowledges the prejudices and politically incorrect comments found in some of his father’s letters, but points out that his father and his grandparents were “real” people living their lives in different times.
Mordecai Chertoff returned to the United States in February 1949. He came back to Israel 10 months later, but eventually returned to the US, where he spent most of his life before returning to Israel in 2007. He died in 2013 at the age of 91 in Jerusalem. It was only after his death that his son Daniel found his letters, which formed the basis of the book. The author researched numerous historical sources and read through issues of The Palestine Post from the period, using them to contextualize his father’s letters and ongoing events.
Palestine Posts provides a fascinating account of life in pre-state Israel. The reality that Mordecai Chertoff so vividly described makes the book particularly valuable for readers who have a limited awareness of modern Israeli history. Readers who are more familiar with these events will also enjoy the book, as the vitality of Chertoff’s letters and newspaper reports brings the events of more than 70 years ago to life.