My Word: A newsworthy anniversary
Front-page headlines are the most striking part of a newspaper, and The Jerusalem Post has published a huge number of dramatic ones ranging from war to peace, terrorism and the Entebbe rescue, sporting victories, religious gatherings, economic slumps and technological marvels. Perhaps the best known is the banner headline “STATE OF ISRAEL IS BORN,” which ran on Sunday, May 16, 1948. The headline announcing the birth of the newspaper itself was more muted and was published long before the historic rebirth of the Jewish state.
On Thursday, December 1, 1932, The Palestine Post printed 1,200 copies of its first issue “incorporating ‘The Palestine Bulletin.’” The Palestine Post, whose name was changed to The Jerusalem Post in 1950, took over from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency which from 1925 until then had, in the paper’s words, “borne alone the heavy burden and grave responsibility of producing Palestine’s only English daily paper.”
The nature of that first eight-page black-and-white paper was an example of understatement in keeping with the predominant tone of the British Mandate that still ruled the land. It was a time when Palestinian could refer equally to Jews and Arabs.
A front-page announcement declared “Today’s issue of this newspaper is an attempted forward step in English journalism in Palestine…
“Published in Jerusalem in the interests of the entire population of the country, nothing Palestinian will be alien to The Palestine Post. Whilst endeavouring to bring the outer world nearer both to the Palestinian and the foreign resident, it will be our constant aim to help the non-Palestinian to acquire a fuller understanding and 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.”
It was to be a labor of love. The new management was prepared to initially produce the paper “at a sacrifice” in the hope that it would become attractive enough to draw new readers “of all classes” and hence increase revenue.
The “responsible editor” was Gershon Agronsky, who, by then known as Agron, was to become mayor of Jerusalem.
It was Agron who in 1949 conceived of The International Jerusalem Post, reportedly as a way of combating the drastic drop in local readers after the mandate ended and British officials and soldiers left the country. It took another 10 years for “the Weekly Overseas’ edition” to hit the press, in September 1959, after Agron gave it his deathbed blessing.
Permit me a moment of pride in what has become my second family and home: An 85th anniversary is a cause for celebration, particularly given the current state of the media worldwide. As I start my 30th year at the paper, I have more reason than most to celebrate.
Overcome by curiosity, a professional trait, I looked beyond the front page of that first issue and discovered how things have changed, and how they have remained the same.
Fortunately for the publisher the sacrifice was not total and the first edition of the Post did carry advertisements.
There were ads for Dubek cigarettes, olive-oil based soapflakes ideal for silk lingerie (if we can believe the manufacturer, Shemen), White Satin Gin, corned beef, children’s toys, Barlock typewriters, and “Hanotaiah citrus expert soil specialists.”
The travel hot spot was literally that: “Tiberias Hot Springs, returning to ancient fame!” There was an archeology column and a promise for future columns “that will appeal to the feminine reader.”
Details were published of an upcoming cricket test match and “the return football match between Hashmonai and RAF Headquarters,” which, in case you were wondering, ended in “another draw, 3 to 3.”
There was a schedule of “wireless programmes” with frequencies for several European countries.
Piano lessons for advanced students were offered in Haifa and cultural events included a cello recital by Thelma Yellin, the “last two performances” at the Edison Theatre of Rasputin, and Jerusalem’s Eden Hall offered screenings of Atlantide and “a film you should not miss!”: Maurice Chevalier in La Grande Mare.
Under the section headed Readers’ Letters, sent “at the owners’ risk,” was a lengthy one signed “Yours, etc. K.F.”
It referred to the local government bill and got down to the nitty-gritty issues that still interest those of us who live here: “The delicate art of self-government will never be learned by a people which is kept on the lead and not trusted to deal even with matters of sanitation or road-paving.”
Editorials dealt with British war debts and water resources – referring, of course, only to “flowing rivers” and “underground sources.” Sewage treatment and desalination plants, which have completely changed the country’s water situation, were a thing of the future.
Airport strikes, like the one threatened at Ben-Gurion this weekend, were not even on the radar (had it existed yet) but the paper included a list of “Sailings from Palestine and Egyptian ports.”
The Holy Land was no paradise. There was a report of the ongoing trial of three men accused of “the murder of the Jewish pedlar, Yehuda Joseph Levy, contrary to Article 174 (3) of the Ottoman Penal Code.” Levy’s mutilated body was discovered in a sack in a cave “near Beit Sahour, a village near Bethlehem.”
The Post prides itself on the fact that it did not miss an edition even when its offices were bombed in February 1948, shortly before the British left. Three Post employees were killed and the press (and much of the archives) were destroyed, but a two-page edition was printed elsewhere – the journalistic equivalent of the show having to go on.
IN 1932, the newspaper’s switchboard was a four-digit telephone number: 1355.
Even as I wonder what a future reader of The Jerusalem Post would make of today’s issue (and I can’t even begin to imagine by means of what technology it will be accessible in another eight and a half decades), an article printed in that first issue continues to resonate.
“Dr. Nahum Sokolow’s journalistic reminiscences,” written in Jerusalem on 1 Kislev 5693, is at times prophetic.
Sokolow was a journalist and Zionist leader who worked with Chaim Weizmann on the issue of the Balfour Declaration, 100 years ago.
“To-day the directors of a newspaper mostly shape their policy with one eye on their circulation and the other on the advertiser,” he wrote, bemoaning the conditions in which “the editor’s hours of work cut him off from social intercourse and contemplative study,” and warning against press monopolies.
“In my eyes, journalism is not a profession but a mission, a form of leadership,” Sokolow wrote. He quoted Mark Twain describing yellow journalism as “that calamity of calamities” and opined that by going in the face of reason and intelligence it was undemocratic.
“Sensationalism is the most dangerous poison!” Sokolow stated. Doubtless he would have had little patience for “fake news” and “alternative facts.”
Addressing the matter at hand, the birth of the new newspaper, Sokolow said: “I think the country needs a well-informed and well written organ in English… in addition to its Hebrew and Arabic press. Well-informed, because the chief purpose of a newspaper is to supply information. People can form their opinions from the facts. Accurate information teaches people to think in accurate terms. And as vulgar and melodramatic headline- making demoralises the way of expression among the masses; in the same way a clean style of press elevates and ennobles public speaking and writing.
“In this sense I wish you, dear Mr. Editor, the greatest possible success in the interest of the Land of Israel.”
Eighty-five years after Sokolow penned these thoughts, 70 years after the UN passed the partition plan resolution leading to the birth of the State of Israel, I’m happy to let Sokolow have the last word. Long may his wishes for success continue to come true. And may the coming decades bring more good news than bad.