Rereading the fine print

It has been nearly six decades since Meir Ronnen turned up at The Palestine Post looking for a job.

meir ronnen nov.10.06 (photo credit: Meir Ronnen)
meir ronnen nov.10.06
(photo credit: Meir Ronnen)
For someone who officially retired 16 years ago, Meir "Mike" Ronnen is still as much, if not more, of a fixture at The Jerusalem Post than the rest of the staff. The cubicle where he writes, edits and draws is his castle: No one dares pass its threshold when he's not there; and when he is at his desk, everyone stops by to shoot the breeze or pick his brain. Engaging in either always proves worthwhile, since the 81-year-old veteran immigrant from Australia (who says that his English accent in Hebrew is still so pronounced that people ask him how long he's been here) is as wicked as he is wise - and as charming as he can be chilling, where professional standards are concerned. 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." How did you come to work at the Post? I came to the Post in April 1949 - at the age of 22 - wearing a pair of shorts [he laughs]. I told [managing editor] Ted Lurie that I'd gained a lot of experience in Australian and Japanese newspapers, and that I could draw. Ted said he was interested, and he'd let me know. Then I went to Netanya where my grandfather was living, and waited till I got a letter from Ted saying, "Come along and we'll see what we can do." At first, he gave me a half-time job drawing maps. I wasn't very good at that, but I did it. And I became the Post's first picture editor, dealing with news photographers. After that, I became assistant to the features editor, a lovely man named C.Z. Kloetzel, formerly a journalist from Germany, who boasted that he was the only yekke [German Jew] in Israel without a doctorate. At the time, Jerusalem was full of German Jews, and they ran almost everything: the hospitals, the Bezalel school, the cafes - such as Atara and Alaska - which were a very important part of Jerusalem life in those days; they were always full of journalists and would-be writers. There were a number of German Jews on the paper, too. One was Dr. Gruenfeld, who ran the advertising department and whose wife ran the archive. The literary editor was Dr. Eugen Meyer. Eventually, poor old Kloetzel died, and he was replaced temporarily by several people, including Dan Samuel, the younger son of Edwin Samuel and grandson of Lord Samuel, the first high commissioner. When Dan joined the Shell company, I became features editor. Where did you live when you began working for the Post? I found a room - a garage, actually - in the garden of a house owned by a lovely yekke lady named Ursel Liebstadter. When I told her that I worked for The Palestine Post, she was so impressed, she said, "What? You know Gershon Agron?" And I said, "Of course!" - though at that stage I hadn't yet met him. But I was immediately given a room. It was on Rehov Lincoln, opposite the ruins of the King David Hotel, which had been blown up in 1946 but still hadn't been rebuilt. One side of it - the side that had been occupied by the British administration - was just a pile of rubble. When did you become a full-time employee? In August 1949. How much was your first full-time salary? Thirty-six lirot. Did that seem like a lot at the time? No, but it was sufficient. There wasn't much to do with money in Jerusalem at the time. There was no food, and we got water in the pipes every 18 days. Everything was rationed. There were a number of pseudo restaurants that served pseudo food without coupons. One could manage. My very first meal in Jerusalem was lunch at Fink's. And I enjoyed it so much that I went there again in the evening with my future brother-in-law, whom I'd met in Marseille in the volunteers' camp. We became instant friends with Dave Rothschild, who ran the place. Fink's was my second home for many years in the good old days. Before it became exorbitantly expensive? It was never exorbitantly expensive for the regulars. Fink's had two prices. Dave had a menu for tourists and itinerant visitors; the regulars paid about one third of the menu prices. How did you meet Gershon Agron? Before he became mayor of Jerusalem, Gershon - who had founded The Palestine Post in 1932, on my sixth birthday - served as minister of information in the first Israeli government. But he came to the Post as often as he could. The first time I met him, he was sitting at his desk, which was covered with proofs of columns of type. He looked up at me and asked: "Can you tear paper?" I didn't know what he was getting at, but I said, "Well, eh, ah, yes, of course I can tear paper." He looked at me said, "Ah, but can you tear it like this?" At which point he picked up a sheet, and - without folding the paper [to create a crease] - tore it perfectly between two columns of type. From then, we got on like a house on fire. He was a wonderful man, cultured and brave. And he was a staunch Mapainik; he was No. 6 in the party. He liked me so much that after I had been at the Post for six months, he offered to personally sponsor me into the party. I did what Israelis call shminiyot ba'avir [cartwheels] not to appear ungrateful. I finally explained to him that, as a young journalist, I felt I shouldn't be openly allied with a party, even though I more or less subscribed to Mapai. He accepted this and instead gave me a pair of golden bookends, which I still have. It was a great personal and professional loss to me when he died, in 1959. That was the year I produced the first overseas edition of the Post and Gershon, on his deathbed, put my name on the masthead. I was also the first magazine editor. I produced both of these two new papers within a year of each other. Were you also editing copy? Yes, I was doing everything. Not long after that, I began writing art reviews as well. Art was the only thing I really knew a lot about. I knew how everything was done; I could do it myself. Our art critic in Jerusalem had been an Austrian called Theodore F. Meisels. He was known to everyone as Th.F.M., which was how he signed himself. And he used to explain to me that any fool could go to a show and write something about it. The trick was to write about it in an interesting manner without actually going to view it. You haven't followed that principle, have you? Certainly not! Where were the first offices of The Palestine Post located? In downtown Jerusalem, in what was originally Rehov Hasolel, and which, after the establishment of the state, became Rehov Hahavatzelet. We eventually acquired another building on Rehov Harav Kook nearby, in which a lot of our contract printing was done. We were the biggest commercial printshop in Jerusalem. There were five at the time, all making a living, amazingly enough. The building bore the scars of the fire caused by the 1948 bombing. The floor tiles were all amazing colors, having been rebaked in the fire. The scars of the explosion were also evident on the faces of a number of printers I worked with. There was a dear man called Shimshon Lifschitz, who had lost one eye in the blast but continued to compose my pages. His face was pitted from broken glass. A number of other chaps in the press were similarly scarred. The chief printer, a man named Tanachi, lost the top half of his ear in the explosion - it was neatly sliced off. I'll never forget looking at it every day. Then there was a linotype operator named Levin, who was also scarred and had lost one eye. Four of his sons worked at the Post. The Levins helped run the press and Avraham Levin became the Post's advertising manager. In those days, the press workers outnumbered the journalists. And we were all like a family. Gershon Agron frequently organized huge lunches for the entire staff, about 250 people. I always sat with the printers. Where did the money come from to fund such a large staff? Did the government subsidize it? The job printing press paid for the Post, not the government. Gershon never took a penny from anyone. He used to say that we were amateur prostitutes, not professional ones. Which is why we never had any money, but we limped along. Gershon's attitude was that the Post existed to pay the salaries of its employees - or, at least, that was its first priority, not making a profit. Unfortunately, from time to time, it made a loss. How did the paper come to change its name? That was my doing, back 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. In those days, newsboys on Zion Square used to call out "Palestine Post! Palestine Post!" - and they went on doing that, because nobody noticed the change. A few days later, we returned to the "Palestine" banner while Ted orchestrated the legal side of the name change. To this day, the company remains The Palestine Post Ltd. After a couple of weeks, we made an official announcement, reinstated my banner head, and from then on we were The Jerusalem Post. When did you begin doing cartoons for the paper? 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." When did The Jerusalem Post move to its current premises in Romema? Before the Six Day War. I remember, because I was called up, and by chance found myself in a trench at the bottom of Ammunition Hill, and was quickly involved in the worst battle of the war. I remember coming back on leave in uniform, and everyone at the Post treating me like a hero. After the war, we took on some 60 east Jerusalem Arab men and women to work in the press and bindery. How did the paper manage in that and subsequent wars, with so many men on staff being drafted? It was reduced in size. But it was always a matter of honor for the paper to come out every day. Now fast forward to 1990, when Hollinger bought the paper. That was when the paper underwent its biggest change. The staff of the Post had been mostly liberal and pro-Left, and they were afraid that Hollinger would do what it had done with all its papers in Canada, and that was to dictate a right-wing editorial policy. Rather than have that happen, half the staff walked out. I felt like walking out, too, but I was just three months from retirement. The new management was delighted by the walkout. They would have fired half the staff anyway, because the paper was grossly overstaffed and losing money. Ironically, Hollinger didn't end up interfering editorially. What anecdote about the paper sticks out in your mind? Back in 1949, foreign minister Moshe Sharett would sometimes turn up at the Post around 6 p.m. and ask me to bring him the editorial - then known as the "leader" - for inspection. I quickly learned that this was not for political reasons; all he wanted to do was make a few stylistic changes in order to show off his command of English. In the early '60s, the Histadrut put in a politruk, a commissar, to sit in the newsroom and censor everything that appeared in the Post - on behalf of Mapai. The politruk didn't last more than a year, because we just froze him out. What best sums up this place? The Post has risen from the ashes every time it has had a new editor-in-chief. And it has always been the editor, not the owners or a political party, who determined editorial policy.