The early years

Gershon Agron's December 1, 1932 initiative to launch The Palestine Post was a well-placed gamble, one that is still bearing fruit.

jpost front page 88 224 (photo credit: )
jpost front page 88 224
(photo credit: )
The Jerusalem Post as a journalistic debutante was a gray lady: The front page did not include any photographs, and was predominantly bereft of bylines and datelines. It carried a rather staid assortment of reports that probably would not be deemed worthy of the newspaper today. Typographical layout conformed to the style of the British press, with the lead story on the left rather than the right, which was the American style. "Second British Note," it proclaimed, with the subhead: "Weighty Cabinet Meeting" - in London, of course, not in Jerusalem. Gershon Agron's 1932 initiative, which brought about the newspaper's launching despite the worldwide repercussions of the American stock market crash, had strong support from the World Zionist Organization and especially from its executive arm, the Jewish Agency for Palestine. "It exerted a considerable amount of influence on the British personnel who ran the Mandatory government," said Gabriel Zifroni, a former editor of the General Zionist daily Haboker, whose journalistic career paralleled the birth and growth of The Palestine Post, renamed The Jerusalem Post in 1950 - two years after Israel's declaration of independence. Zifroni described Agron as "a friendly fellow who spoke excellent Hebrew." Although English held sway among the country's local elite, Jewish and Arab - insofar as the various nationalities intermingled in those days - Agron did not regard it or the newspaper he founded as a basis for social superiority or snobbishness. Zifroni described Agron, who had worked for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and filed to various British newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph, as an experienced and very professional journalist. Personally, he was dedicated to the Zionist cause, having come to Palestine during World War I as a soldier in the Jewish Legion which had been mobilized by Ze'ev Jabotinsky as a military force that would participate in the British-led campaign against the Ottoman Turks. World War II and the advance of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the legendary Desert Fox, across North Africa to Egypt's Western Desert (the conquest of Palestine was one of his Afrika Korps' ultimate objectives), brought The Palestine Post a host of new readers: British Commonwealth forces who were stationed in Palestine as a backup to what was destined to become Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery's victorious Eighth Army. "The British army and its allied units did not subscribe to the newspaper en masse or buy enough copies for every soldier to read," recalled N. David Gross, who was destined to become one of the paper's most erudite editors, but individual servicemen and women did. Circulation rose sharply and the revenue from advertising followed suit. During that period, the Post not only maintained a bureau in Beirut, but also was sold in Cairo and Alexandria. It had a substantial readership in all the Palestinian cities, regardless of whether they were totally or predominantly Arab or Jewish. It also could be bought in Amman and other Middle Eastern capitals. "One of its main attractions was the war coverage," Gross went on. It carried the latest dispatches from Reuters and other international news agencies. Like all the other newspapers published in Mandatory Palestine, the Post did not have any of its own correspondents covering the war from the front lines. The British authorities did not grant Palestinian Jewish or Arab journalists that opportunity. But it did run the agency reports in their original language, English, therefore averting the chance that important facts or observations might be lost in translation into Hebrew or Arabic. Because of the nature of Nazi Germany's satanic policy toward Jews, as well as its totalitarian structure, the Post's editorial policy reflected "the Jewish Agency's support for the Allied war effort," Gross said. This required the Post to put on hold its fierce opposition to the British White Paper of 1939, an official statement of its government's abandonment of the Mandate's raison d'etre - fostering the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine - and its decision to curtail Jewish immigration and restrict the purchase of land for Jewish settlements. The Post held its fire until Nazi Germany surrendered, and the Jewish Agency faced the terrible consequences of the genocide it committed. Never shirking public confrontation, political criticism and unequivocal editorial positions, the Post became a major player during the struggle for unlimited Jewish immigration and political sovereignty in the war's immediate aftermath. Its straightforward critique of the Mandatory government was epitomized in the hard-hitting columns of Roy Elston, who wrote under the pen name David Courtney. His "Column One" appeared regularly on the front page and due to his personal background and experience as a government official, saw through its ulterior motives. "He was pro-Zionist then," Zifroni said, and unlike many of his official colleagues did not switch sides. Elston remained in Israel long after independence, becoming a correspondent of The Times of London and was one of the founders of the Foreign Press Association in 1957. In the early 1960s, in the aftermath of the Lavon Affair, the Post supported former prime minister David Ben-Gurion's insistence on a state inquiry commission as the only means to determine whether Pinhas Lavon, as defense minister in the early 1950s, was responsible for the affair in which Israeli agents tried to undermine the budding relationship between the US and Egypt by planting bombs in American installations such as the US cultural center in Cairo. Israel's leading newspapers backed Ben-Gurion's opponents within the ruling Labor Party, including prime minister Levi Eshkol, foreign minister Golda Meir and finance minister Pinhas Sapir, but not the Post. Lavon's importance as a newsmaker and power broker was typified by a seemingly minor incident: He returned by air from Europe on the eve of a major Jewish holiday during which the newspaper was in limbo. When the time came to start the editorial ball rolling again, I, as a relatively new and chronologically junior copy editor, arrived to go through the wire copy that had piled up during the previous two days. The Itim news agency mentioned Lavon's return, and I put it into the "arrivals" column. That act resulted in my being summoned by the editor, Ted Lurie, for a tongue-lashing. "Don't you know that in this newspaper, when Pinhas Lavon sneezes, it's a major story?" he asked. I was crestfallen, but I caught on pretty fast: The Post was watching Lavon's every move if only because of the controversy with its hero, Ben-Gurion. Reprints from 1932 In its first month of operation, The Palestine Post commemorated the tenth anniversary of Eliezer Ben Yehudah's death. Palestine Jewry is this week marking the tenth anniversary of the death of Eliezer ben Yehudah, who died in December, 1922. The achievement and personality of this man are remarkable enough to deserve the attention of a far wider circle than just Palestine and the Jews. After the Babylonian Exile, Hebrew all but died; it was revived in Maccabean times to a certain extent, but after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, it ceased to be a spoken language; the linguistic powers of the Jews, notorious in all ages, enabled them quickly to acquire the language of their adopted place of exile, and Hebrew ceased to exist except as the literary medium of a handful of scholars and as the liturgical language of the Synagogue. One might, forty years ago, have stretched a point and urged that the language was not altogether dead; besides being the liturgical language of the Synagogue, a few people were to be found in Palestine who could, in dire necessity, use Hebrew as a linguistic medium when a Jew of the West tried to do business with a Jew of the East. But no one used it of deliberate choice, and still less did anyone think in it or cherish it as his "mother tongue". For some years newspapers had been written in it, but the language was of the artificial, pedantic and clumsy character which we associate with present-day academic attempts to employ Latin. It was at this stage that there came to the Holy Land a young man, aged about 25, with no means, no fame, no influential backing, and not even a moderately healthy constitution. He possessed but one thing - a will-power at which one stands aghast. He chose to exert this power in one direction: to revive the Hebrew language, which had lain dead nearly 20 centuries; to equip it fully with all the resources of an ordinary living speech, and to habituate his fellow Jews to the use of this language in every department, public and private, of their lives. And this purpose he achieved to the fullest extent. With the accomplished fact before our eyes, it is by no means easy to appreciate rightly all the obstacles which have been overcome. A few, however, we can realize. He had to cope with a race, which, admittedly, is the most obstinate in creation. When Ben Yehudah came to Palestine in 1881 the 50,000 Jews he found here were all "Orthodox," leading their lives strictly in accordance with the complicated religious code: and to these Jews Hebrew was "the Holy Language," the language of Scripture and of Prayer. To use it for any other purpose was a blasphemous profanation. Ben Yehudah came, and, metaphorically, shaved his face, blessed his boots, and blew his nose in Hebrew. Ben Yehudah was, therefore, ostracized, anathematized, "cut off from the congregation." He must bury his own dead children as best he could; his brother European Jews refused to touch his dead wife and take her to the Mount of Olives; the religious leaders denounced him to the Turkish authorities on a trumped-up charge of preaching treason in a newspaper article, and Ben Yehudah spent some months in a foul Turkish gaol. Yet that astonishing will-power still stood firm. He refused to speak any language but Hebrew; the Jews around him, entering Palestine in increasing numbers from all parts of the world, spoke almost every language under the sun except Hebrew (though Yiddish, a Jewish-German jargon, predominated); but his persistent combativeness in the end made others speak Hebrew, too. He edited newspapers, he organised societies, he taught in schools till he infected others with his own enthusiasm. He raised up children of his own and made them talk Hebrew from the cradle. His ideals spread gradually from family to family, until, unit by unit, a generation arose in Palestine which knew no language but Hebrew. And so his life passed for 41 years in Jerusalem. He was untiring, spurring and goading on the half-hearted, allowing them no rest, volcanically eruptive under pressure of opposition, tireless in seeking out new openings, adamant against allowing any concession, single-minded with all the irresistibility of single-mindedness, seeing only one object in life - that his people should speak the language of their forefathers in their ancient land. But there was another, in some respects a more drab, side to the attainment of his ideal. A language disused in current speech some 2,000 years needs more than enthusiasm to recreate it. A language that could serve to express the ideas and voice of the needs of the last century B.C. was helpless when confronted with the ideas and needs of the 19th century A.D. Here again the will of this remarkable man faced the difficulty and overcame it. He was not by training philologist or scholar; but he made himself one. And so we see him in his other phase, as the industrious student engaged in the dull, hard, endless grind which alone could equip the language of the Old Testament for use in the present-day book and newspaper, in the home and street, in the theatre and public meeting. The huge Hebrew literature, from the Song of Deborah to the poems of Bialik, had to be dredged and sifted for forgotten words which could meet modern requirements; roots must be dug out from Hebrew and the cognate languages, and be refashioned and refurbished as derivatives to give the most concrete of ancient tongues an elasticity that could cope with the abstractness of so much of to-day's thought; yet again, new words had to be created to name the new ideas and the new material of modern life. This work went on hand in hand with Ben Yehudah's public propaganda: almost every day in his newspapers and conversation he introduced new words, new turns of phrase, which contributed to the vitality and possibilities of the language. At an early stage in his career he saw the pressing need of a dictionary which should embody all the vocabulary of Hebrew of every age and his own (and others') innovations. He made several tentative efforts, from small vocabularies to the columns of his earliest newspaper to a dictionary of moderate scale. Finally, he planned a Thesaurus on a plan scarcely less grandiose in scale than the great Oxford English Dictionary. This he had nearly completed by the time of his death. The fifth volume of the "Thesaurus totius hebraitatis et veteris et recentioris" was published before his death and five further volumes were planned, together with two introductory volumes describing the historical evolution of the language; and these were left in a condition requiring little further labour to render them fit for publication. Eliezer ben Yehudah's life is a rare example of a life's ideal achieved. During the first 20 years he spent in Palestine he was looked upon as crazy. The most famous of his contemporaries poured scorn on his queer idea of reviving so mouldered a corpse. Only 15 or 20 years ago spoken Hebrew was still a thing of scorn and derision in Palestine. It was mere "Ben Yehudah language", the whim of a madman. When Ben Yehudah tried to address Lilienblum (then the greatest apostle of Jewish revival) in Hebrew, he was met by the contemptuous snub, redet wie a mensch, Yiddish for "Talk like a reasonable being." But he lived to see the world of his dream; he lived to see newspapers attacking him for his political heresies, yet in every sentence and paragraph using words, phrases, and terms of abuse of his own creating; he lived to see the new Jerusalem, with its entertainments, theatrical performances, operas, public speeches, scientific discussions - in spoken Hebrew. He lived to see Hebrew recognized as an official language of the Government of his country, the official publication in Hebrew of a Parliamentary "White Paper," the insertion of a clause in the terms of the British Mandate over Palestine protecting the rights of Hebrew.