‘The Jerusalem Post’ is still fighting for Israel, 90 years later

We don’t shy away from tough issues: We embrace them. That is what we learned from Agron. Happy 90th anniversary.

 The first edition of the Palestine Post published on December 1, 1932 and the portrait of Gershon Agron that hangs in the editor's office. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The first edition of the Palestine Post published on December 1, 1932 and the portrait of Gershon Agron that hangs in the editor's office.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

On December 1, 1932 a light, eight-page new newspaper was printed in Jerusalem. Its name was The Palestine Post and in that first edition, the front page had short stories about a car crash injuring two RAF officers near Ramle; the arrival in Jerusalem of Yassin Pasha, soon to be the prime minister of Iraq; and the return to Jerusalem of Norman Bentwich, the British attorney-general of Mandatory Palestine.

It wasn’t much in terms of news, but those few stories were anyhow overshadowed by the main piece in that inaugural issue – the announcement by Gershon Agron, founding editor of the newspaper.

In it, Agron – born in Ukraine but raised and educated in the United States – explained the rationale for establishing an English-language newspaper in the British-controlled territory: 

“Published in Jerusalem in the interests of the entire population of the country, nothing Palestinian will be alien to The Palestine Post. Whilst endeavoring to bring the outer nearer both to the Palestinian and to the foreign resident, it will be our constant aim to help the non-Palestinian to acquire a fuller understanding and a deeper affection towards a land which is enshrined in the hearts of most of the races of the earth and in which it is his privilege to live and to work.”

Don’t misinterpret what Agron wrote. This was before the establishment of the State of Israel. A “Palestinian” back in 1932 did not refer to the Arab residents of the West Bank or east Jerusalem as it does today. He was referring to the people who lived in the land – Jews and Arabs – who were all known as “Palestinians” for living in a land called “Palestine.”

 A painting of Jerusalem Post founder Gershon Agron that hands in the editor-in-chief's office in Jerusalem. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) A painting of Jerusalem Post founder Gershon Agron that hands in the editor-in-chief's office in Jerusalem. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

He continued: “The Palestine Post will not seek to promote personal ambitions or party advantage. Its reports will be objective as humanly possible and its criticism informed, legitimate and helpful. In criticism and in reports, the studied purpose will be the present and future welfare of the country and of its people.”

Looking back

IT WAS INTERESTING this week to read Agron’s words from 90 years ago and to reflect on the role this newspaper has played in the nine decades since. As initially envisioned, The Jerusalem Post – as that original paper’s name was changed to in 1950 – still serves a core mission to serve as the window to the world for what happens in this ancient land. We strive to help people – in Israel and around the world – better “acquire a fuller understanding,” as Agron wrote, toward this land.

We also have upheld the standard he set for how a newspaper should retain objectivity. We have a clear distinction between news and opinion and we do not promote specific parties or personal agendas. We provide everyone on the political spectrum – from the Right to the Left and the Center – with a platform to voice their opinions as part of a belief that our job is to provide our readers with multiple diverse viewpoints so they can be best informed and educated and then make their own decisions.

This traditionalist approach to our role as a news platform is unlike some of the other publications and news sites out in the world today. In Israel, the US and other places, the trend today is for media outlets to stake out a partisan position (think Fox News, Yisrael Hayom, Haaretz or MSNBC).

Part of this is due to ideology and part of it is about dollars and cents. Standing out, being partisan on every issue can attract money. It can work as a business model.

We, on the other hand, hold to a traditionalist model. We try to stay non-partisan based on the principle that this is how a newspaper needs to be. This is not easy, and it can be complex, but we believe that complexity is not something to run away from. It is what makes life – and our jobs – interesting.

The Jerusalem Post's mission

OUR PURPOSE remains – as Agron put it – “the present and future welfare of the country and of its people.” We write about issues that we care about and we commission opinion pieces from people who we believe have what to say on those issues.

We have also kept up another ideal that Agron instilled in this paper, as told over by Alexander Zvielli, the Post’s legendary chief archivist who worked for the paper for 70 years and passed away in 2017 at the age of 96.

The first edition of The Palestine Post was in the middle of being printed on Thursday night, December 1, 1932, when someone asked Agron who was standing next to the printing machine with a few copies in his hand, why he didn’t wait a month and start the new publication on an easier date to mark – January 1, 1933.

“I have waited for this moment too long,” Agron answered. “I wouldn’t wait even for a single hour more. Every date, every single long-awaited date is meaningful not only to me, but for all of us, in the Palestinian Yishuv’s [settlement’s] long development history.”

Nowadays, waiting is not part of our vocabulary. It’s unlikely that Agron could have imagined back in 1932 the arrival of the Internet and what a news website like the Post’s would look like where we publish over 100 articles a day, most within minutes of the events they are about.

Just like Agron could not wait, the news industry today does not wait for anyone. He needed to tell Israel’s story to the world just like we continue to do today.

AS AGRON would soon discover, this was not always easy. On February 1, 1948, mere months before David Ben-Gurion declared Israel an independent state, Arab terrorists parked a stolen army truck packed with half a ton of TNT in front of the newspaper’s offices near Zion Square in the center of Jerusalem just as the staff was busy putting together the next day’s edition.

Four people were killed in the ensuing explosion, including one of the paper’s typesetters, and the offices were completely destroyed. The survivors gathered at a nearby coffee shop, shlepped in some typewriters and sat to type out a two-page newspaper which came out the next morning. The “Column One” editorial began, “The truth is louder than TNT and burns brighter than the flames of arson.”

Did they not have an excuse to skip that paper? Of course they did. But Agron and his staff understood that they had a mission – and it was one they would not give up on even when hit with tragedy.

It is not the same, but this story was on some of our minds during the first coronavirus lockdown in March 2020. The paper was not hit by tragedy (thank God), but the uncertainty, the closure of our offices and the move to a dispersed newsroom on a computer system put together overnight in MacGyver style had its moments of despair when it seemed insurmountable to keep getting out a paper with the same quality content at the time of an unprecedented global pandemic.

We knew, though, that failure was not an option. Our predecessors had done so under tougher life-threatening conditions. If they didn’t miss a day, how could we?

There is no doubt that running a newspaper and working in the media in 2022 is very different from the way it was in 1932. If Agron were to walk into our office on Jaffa Road at the entrance to Jerusalem, he might have a hard time understanding how the newsroom works with the digital race, social media and the need for speed.

In a country as political as Israel – we are just a month after our fifth election in three years – this is far from being easy. But we succeed, I believe, because we are unapologetic and unwavering in our editorial line.

As the primary English newspaper in Israel and the Jewish World, The Jerusalem Post upholds its role faithfully – taking issues that are at the heart of controversy in Israel, the region and the Diaspora and confronting them head on.

We don’t shy away from tough issues: We embrace them. That is what we learned from Agron.

Happy 90th anniversary.