In my own write: The story behind 'Dear Sir'

Mere 'venting', even if justifiable, doesn't make a letter to the editor.

letters to the editor 88 (photo credit: )
letters to the editor 88
(photo credit: )
I always enjoyed those few moments when the late Georgie Arazi stopped by the Post's opinions room to share her trenchant but largely tolerant view of life as this newspaper's letters editor, a position she held staunchly for 30 years, well into the 1990s. She was infallible in her judgment of any letter's worth, and as we smiled over this or that curiosity, I little guessed that one day I would take her place. While always popular with readers, letters were traditionally treated at the Post like a sort of Cinderella: beneficial, but banished to the basement. Georgie would select the letters and edit them, and - after the paper was computerized in the '80s - dispatch them to a letters "queue," from where they were plucked, in twos and threes and largely at random, by page designers on the Night Desk looking to fill an empty corner. When Bret Stephens, appointed chief editor in March 2002, asked me to take charge of the letters, things changed. The column was given a designated spot that allowed for eight to 10 submissions to be printed daily. With the redesign of the paper the following year, it received the added bonus of a box. This allocation of a stable and sizable "home" in the paper's opinion pages meant that the Post's letters column - the point where the newspaper and its readers meet - could begin to realize its full potential as a serious, informative, educational and engaging part of the paper. LAST WEEK the Post ran an op-ed by US author and journalist Ira Rifkin in which he described an exchange he had on the letters page of The Capital, his "daily fish wrap" in Annapolis, with an official from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee who had written a guest column for the paper. Even though Rifkin characterized the widely-circulated local paper as "simplistic, unimaginative and factually unreliable," he decided to challenge the views of the ADC official - a "firm believer in the Israel Lobby theory of American Middle East policy" - via a letter to the editor because The Capital's letters page is "among the paper's best-read. "Verbal attacks on Israel in US papers and other media outlets are ceaseless," he wrote in the Post, and "bogus anti-Israel claims must be contested, no matter how seemingly inconsequential the platform. Israel's narrative must be voiced - again and again and again, if necessary - so that public opinion is not molded by Israel's enemies alone." If that holds true in a "minor paper," how much more so in a world title such as The Jerusalem Post, known to and read by English speakers everywhere who want to understand this country and its seemingly intractable conflict with the Arabs? PICTURE a table, the kind we here sit around on Friday evenings, enjoying our Shabbat dinner and discussing the week's events. As participants contribute their views or challenge others', one topic naturally leads to another, punctuated by lively exclamation, pointed observation and, often, laughter. Now expand that dinner-table to encompass the global "family" of Post readers e-mailing in their individual and idiosyncratic responses to articles in the newspaper, and to each other, and you have the ethos of our letters column. Why are letters to the editor so popular? They are short, accessible and make their point quickly, so readers - often pressed and with competing demands on their attention - get good value for a small investment of time. Op-eds and analyses are generally done by "experts" and might overawe some readers; but anyone can write a letter! There is curiosity to see what a letter is about, and who the writer is - after all, it could be someone you once knew well, but haven't seen in years. A letter to the editor, moreover, allows readers to answer the paper back and put those experts in their place - which can be a rather satisfying experience. THE LETTERS that appear in this newspaper, widely read as they are, can act as an important information or hasbara tool. By laying out Israel's complex historical and geographical reality in the authentic "voice of the people," they help to counter media coverage, and opinion, that is all too often biased, simplistic and devoid of context, on a playing field that is tragically - sometimes almost comically - tilted against us. For example, when a reader in Washington accused the Post of "gestures beneath the standards of professional journalism," for "your unfortunate use of the terms 'Judea' and 'Samaria' for parts of the West Bank... [as] political terms used to imply that the Occupied Territories are part of the State of Israel or its historical patrimony," another reader, in Jerusalem, calmly referred him to "Ordnance Survey maps prepared for and by the British Mandate authorities in the 1930s, where he will see these terms also used." WHAT constitutes a good letter in a quality newspaper such as The New York Times, The Guardian - or The Jerusalem Post? The mere act of "venting" - even justifiable anger - is not a letter. Readers have to go away with something, which means they have done one of at least four things: learned something new; seen something old in a new light; enjoyed a clever use of language or metaphor; or had a chuckle - something that cannot, to my mind, be overrated. "Only now the authorities discover that mad cow disease has reached Israel?" asked one letter writer in 2002. "Anyone familiar with the antics of our Knesset members realized that long ago." When Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon met his tragic end a year later, a reader in Wisconsin evoked heated comment from other readers when he wrote: "I am 58, heading for a humdrum retirement culminating in a cheap funeral... Ilan Ramon was a hero in his country... he will be remembered and mourned by entire nations. What better way to die? I would change places with him in an instant." Another reader, in Dublin, cut to the heart of the security fence issue with this one-sentence letter: "I would rather be illegally alive than legally dead." IN THE six years of my job as the Post's letters editor, I've developed a lot of respect for the readers who write to us. A mixed bunch, often experts in their own right, they tend to be educated and sophisticated, with a sense of humor. And they can smell hypocrisy a mile away - be it on the part of local authorities, international bodies, indeed anyone who throws stones at Israel while sitting in his own fragile glass house. So - did anything you read in our pages today rouse or rile you? The letters column of The Jerusalem Post ([email protected]) awaits. The door is open. Walk right in.