At 90, veteran journalist Yuval Elitzur is still going strong

Elitzur reflects on bringing Israel’s story to the world at a time when many countries did not enter into diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.

THROUGHOUT HIS long career, Yuval Elitzur wanted to convey what the hemmed-in nation was accomplishing despite daily existential threats. Journalism provided one opportunity to do so, but diplomacy would provide another.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
THROUGHOUT HIS long career, Yuval Elitzur wanted to convey what the hemmed-in nation was accomplishing despite daily existential threats. Journalism provided one opportunity to do so, but diplomacy would provide another.
Scratch any multi-generational Jerusalemite of Lithuanian background and the chances are very high that you’ll find a member of the Rivlin clan. While such people bear the genes, not all carry the name. A case in point is veteran journalist Yuval Elitzur, whose grandmother was a Rivlin.
Elitzur was born in Jerusalem in 1927 and celebrated his 90th birthday on October 27. He was born under the name of Juval Silberstein and changed his name in January 1947. That was the year he went to New York for the first time, arriving like so many others from the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine, as a Jewish youth emissary.
His mother went with him and they met relatives from both sides of his family, not only in New York, but also in Chicago, Missouri, Boston and elsewhere.
Some of these meetings were reunions with relatives who had preceded them to the “goldene medina” and settled there, and in others they met relatives who had never set foot in what was then Palestine.
Elitzur was primarily interested in meeting Jewish students, and even spent time at a summer camp. He was also looking into possibilities of studying journalism in the US.
In Jewish youth organizations such as Young Judaea and Habonim, he met many ardent young Zionists who in later years came on aliya and renewed their friendship with him. Several of them were very successful in their careers in Israel.
Among them was Jay Bushinsky, a teenager when Elitzur first met him in New York, and from 1966, a foreign correspondent in Israel working in both print and electronic media. For more than half a century, Bushinsky covered every major event in the country and other parts of the Middle East. One of his sons, Aviv, was a journalist like his father, a former spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and is currently a businessman.
During that first trip to America Elitzur also met Judy Neulander, who later became his wife.
It was during that first visit in 1947 that the United Nations on November 29 passed the resolution on the partition of Palestine, and Elitzur, like so many other young envoys, realized what the immediate consequences would be. He knew that he had to go home, because there would be a war. Any thoughts of continuing his studies in America had to be put on hold.
He returned home during the siege of Jerusalem and joined the Palmah, but by 1949 he was once again a youth emissary, this time in Europe.
Friends from his days in the Scouts had founded Kibbutz Hatzerim in the Negev, near the Israel Air Force base of the same name where Elitzur eventually served as an IAF officer. He resumed civilian life in 1952 and began working as a radio journalist.
The job didn’t last long, because in September 1953 he was accepted at Columbia University and sailed for New York, where Judy was waiting for him. They married the following year on August 30. She had received a BA from Harvard and had planned on writing a doctoral thesis, which she put aside when she was given a job as a policy writer at the Israel Embassy in Washington.
His part-time summer work at the Israeli Consulate in New York, responding to the numerous questions about Israel that New Yorkers posed, led to his eventual career as a journalist, and he spent some 35 years at Ma’ariv before resigning in 1992.
He might have continued working at the paper indefinitely, but for the fact that publisher and media mogul Robert Maxwell had bought a large stake of the newspaper’s stock and bargained with the German manufacturer of its new press by playing on German guilt for the Holocaust. Elitzur was shocked and disgusted that the Holocaust should be a bargaining chip in a business transaction and quit working for Maxwell.
Ma’ariv was subsequently purchased by the Nimrodi family, headed by Israel’s best known arms dealer, Jacob Nimrodi.
Elitzur didn’t want to work for a gun runner either, even though it was Nimrodi’s son, Ofer, who was officially the publisher and general manager. Nimrodi subsequently sold the paper to Zaki Rakib, who sold it to Nochi Dankner, who sold it to Shlomo Ben Zvi, who sold it in 2014 to Eli Azur, who heads The Jerusalem Post Group of publications.
Israeli journalists of Elitzur’s generation regarded their calling not so much as a profession as a mission to bring the unfolding story of the young State of Israel to the world. In those days Israel’s bilateral ties were far fewer than they are today, and countries in need of oil caved in to threats of Arab boycotts and did not enter into diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.
To people like Elitzur, who wanted to convey what the hemmed-in nation was accomplishing despite daily existential threats, journalism provided one opportunity, but not the only one. Like many others, Elitzur had another career choice in the event that journalism didn’t work out: diplomacy. As it happened, he was able to work in both.
As a youth, Elitzur was already writing short stories on his typewriter and selling them to relatives and to family guests for a token fee. He also wrote children’s plays for Hemda Feigenbaum, the first Hebrew announcer of the Palestine Broadcasting Service, which after the establishment of the state became the Voice of Israel.
In the pre-television era, radio played a very significant role in the lives of the population, bringing its listeners news, quizzes, music, culture, children’s programs, a search for relatives of Holocaust survivors – and even an early morning exercise program.
Among her various duties, Feigenbaum was responsible for the children’s programs, for which Elitzur wrote several plays, after first proving himself as an actor. His father, who had been denied secular education by his own ultra-Orthodox father, later rebelled against Orthodoxy and encouraged the young Yuval to soak up as much secular education as possible.
Like his relative, President Reuven Rivlin, Elitzur went to school at the Gymnasia Rehavia, graduating in the class of 1945, several years ahead of Rivlin.
It was thanks to his father that Elitzur began writing plays. “You can’t just appear in plays written by other people,” said his father. “Why don’t you write your own?” And so he did.
Elitzur’s father had managed to get some secular education despite the ban placed by his own father.
He wanted more for his son than his own father had wanted for him, and therefore it was no surprise when the young Yuval announced that he didn’t want to follow his father into business and instead enrolled at the Hebrew University, where he completed a BA in history and economics. Years later he became the first Israeli to be accepted by Columbia University’s School of Journalism, where he earned his MA as the only foreign student in a class of 60.
Money was very tight in Israel in the first four decades of statehood, and parents could not support children abroad because they were not permitted to send foreign currency out of the country. People traveling abroad were extremely limited in the amount of foreign currency that they were allowed to take with them.
Once he was settled in America, Elitzur wrote for Hadassah Magazine and maintained a lifelong connection with Hadassah’s founding executive editor, Jesse Zel Lurie, who died this past April at age 103. Whenever Lurie came to Israel, Elitzur would give him an in-depth briefing on the state of the nation.
On his return to Israel after completing his studies at Columbia, Elitzur went to work for Haaretz, but still had a hankering for diplomacy, so in 1956 joined the Foreign Ministry during Golda Meir’s term as minister immediately after the 1956 Suez Campaign. He was given what he describes as “an interesting job” in the ministry’s economics department and also worked in the political department, but this lasted only some eight months, after which he joined Ma’ariv.
Until the mid 1960s, he also served as the sole Israel correspondent for The Washington Post. Then managing editor Al Friendly came to Jerusalem to cover the Six Day War and its aftermath, and was happy to have Elitzur’s help.
In 1976, Hugh David Scott Greenway came to Jerusalem to set up the paper’s second bureau in the Middle East, and continued to rely on Elitzur’s help.
In his memoir of life as a foreign correspondent, Greenway gives considerable credit to Elitzur for working with him both in Israel and Egypt.
It was through him that Elitzur and his late wife met a British writer by the name of David Cornwell, better known to the world as John le Carré, when he was researching material for his book The Little Drummer Girl, which is set against the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Yuval and Judy Elitzur befriended him and corrected some of the factual inaccuracies in Le Carré’s draft before the final editing of the book.
That was in the early 1980s, when Elitzur took a leave of absence from Ma’ariv to sit for days with the author in his hotel, going over the text. “He fell into the trap of Arab propaganda,” says Elitzur in retrospect. Their friendship continued long after the book was published and Elitzur visited Le Carré at his home in England.
In the mid 1960s, prior to the Six Day War, Elitzur took two years’ leave of absence from Ma’ariv for his second stint of diplomacy, this time in an effort to fight the Arab boycott. He served as Israeli consul in New York, working closely with the Anti-Defamation League in organizing a counter-boycott against Coca-Cola, which had caved in to Arab demands and would not approve a franchise for Israel. As a result, American Jews switched from Coca-Cola to Pepsi, before Coca-Cola ultimately came to be bottled in Israel.
In addition to journalism, Elitzur has written books on the intricacies of money and political power, and the financial cost to Israel of maintaining control over Judea and Samaria. Even as he celebrated his 90th birthday, Elitzur continues to contribute to publications in Israel and the United States.