‘The Jerusalem Post’ at its birth

A story of pre-state Israel and self-dis­cov­ery

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - BOOKS - • ALAN ROSENBAUM

Pales­tine Posts: An Eye­wit­ness Ac­count of the Birth of Israel Based on the let­ters of Morde­cai S. Chertoff is a cap­ti­vat­ing eye­wit­ness ac­count of the birth of mod­ern-day Israel. It is based on a two-year cor­re­spon­dence be­tween Morde­cai Chertoff, a New York na­tive who lived in Jerusalem from 1947 un­til 1949, and his fam­ily in the United States.

Chertoff was far more than a ca­sual by­stander writ­ing chatty let­ters. Ar­riv­ing in Jerusalem in Fe­bru­ary 1947, Chertoff, then 25, joined The Pales­tine Post – which was founded in 1932 and be­came The Jerusalem Post in 1950 – and served as lo­cal news ed­i­tor, for­eign news ed­i­tor and war cor­re­spon­dent for the news­pa­per un­til his re­turn to the United States in Fe­bru­ary 1949. He also served as a soldier in the Ha­gana, and ac­com­pa­nied the Palmah on nu­mer­ous mis­sions, giv­ing him a unique, first-per­son per­spec­tive on events. Chertoff’s let­ters de­scribe the tri­als and tra­vails of pre-state Israel through the eyes of a young, ar­tic­u­late Amer­i­can who ex­pe­ri­enced hunger dur­ing the siege of Jerusalem, loss when his com­pa­tri­ots died in com­bat, and ela­tion upon the procla­ma­tion of the state in May 1948.

Chertoff was a gifted writer, and his let­ters home vividly de­scribe the mo­men­tous events of the time, in­clud­ing the UN par­ti­tion vote, the bomb­ing of The Pales­tine Post, the sieges of Gush Etzion and Jerusalem, the build­ing of the Burma Road, ter­ror­ist at­tacks, the dec­la­ra­tion of state­hood, and the bat­tles and mil­i­tary cam­paigns that fol­lowed. Ably writ­ten by his son, Daniel S. Chertoff, the book in­cor­po­rates both his fa­ther’s let­ters and many of the ar­ti­cles he wrote for the Post dur­ing that pe­riod.

Through­out the book, the au­thor pro­vides valu­able his­tor­i­cal con­text, notes and ex­pla­na­tions about the peo­ple and events men­tioned in his fa­ther’s let­ters. Of equal in­ter­est are the let­ters that Chertoff re­ceived from his fam­ily at the time, ex­press­ing their con­cerns for the wel­fare of their son and brother, as well as for the Jewish peo­ple’s strug­gle for in­de­pen­dence in the Holy Land. Chertoff’s par­ents and siblings were avid writ­ers as well, and their ex­changes on both po­lit­i­cal and per­sonal mat­ters are fas­ci­nat­ing.

Chertoff was deeply in­volved in daily Is­raeli life, liv­ing in Jerusalem dur­ing dan­ger­ous times and chron­i­cling events as they oc­curred. In his let­ters he oc­ca­sion­ally ex­pressed sen­ti­ments about the di­ver­gence of opin­ions and ex­pe­ri­ences be­tween Amer­i­can and Is­raeli Jews. The au­thor writes that his fa­ther felt alien­ated from Amer­i­can Jews, be­lieved that they could not com­pre­hend what was go­ing in Israel, and were more con­cerned by the im­pact of events in the Mid­dle East on their own sta­tus in the United States. “These con­cerns an­tic­i­pate what would be­come a re­cur­ring is­sue be­tween Amer­i­can and Is­raeli Jews.”

Morde­cai Chertoff was en­er­getic, ca­pa­ble and tal­ented, and dur­ing this crit­i­cal pe­riod met and min­gled with a num­ber of Israel’s fu­ture lead­ers, in­clud­ing Golda Meir, Yaakov Her­zog, Yitzhak Rabin and oth­ers. From 1947-1949, the fate of Pales­tine’s Jewish in­hab­i­tants was any­thing but as­sured, and Chertoff’s let­ters ex­press the pre­car­i­ous­ness of the sit­u­a­tion. Chertoff was in The Pales­tine Post news­room when the build­ing was bombed in Fe­bru­ary 1948. His let­ter to his par­ents de­scrib­ing what tran­spired, and his cool­ness un­der fire, il­lus­trate the grav­ity of the sit­u­a­tion.

Morde­cai Chertoff’s let­ters home were much more than a war chronicle. They re­flect the life he lived as a young, sin­gle res­i­dent of Jerusalem. His per­sonal life and loves, his pro­fes­sional suc­cesses and fail­ures, as well as his oc­ca­sional dis­agree­ments with his par­ents and siblings about his life choices make the book a com­pelling chronicle of life in the 1940s. At a time when the art of let­ter-writ­ing has all but dis­ap­peared, it is re­fresh­ing to read com­plete sen­tences that de­scribe how peo­ple lived their lives,

how they felt, and what they did. “Be­fore word pro­cess­ing,” writes the au­thor, “writ­ers had to think and write in sen­tences, para­graphs, and whole sec­tions. It was a very dif­fer­ent, and more de­mand­ing, men­tal process.”

Apart from its his­tor­i­cal value, Pales­tine Posts suc­ceeds on an en­tirely dif­fer­ent level as a vol­ume of self-dis­cov­ery that pro­vided Daniel Chertoff with a greater aware­ness of his fa­ther as a young man. Through his fa­ther’s let­ters, Chertoff the son gained a deeper aware­ness of both his fa­ther’s short­com­ings and strengths. “How men feel about their fa­thers is fun­da­men­tal to how they feel about them­selves,” he writes. “We can­not ac­cept or un­der­stand our­selves with­out first un­der­stand­ing and ac­cept­ing our fa­thers.” Daniel Chertoff freely ac­knowl­edges the prej­u­dices and po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect com­ments found in some of his fa­ther’s let­ters, but points out that his fa­ther and his grand­par­ents were “real” peo­ple liv­ing their lives in dif­fer­ent times.

Morde­cai Chertoff re­turned to the United States in Fe­bru­ary 1949. He came back to Israel 10 months later, but even­tu­ally re­turned to the US, where he spent most of his life be­fore re­turn­ing to Israel in 2007. He died in 2013 at the age of 91 in Jerusalem. It was only af­ter his death that his son Daniel found his let­ters, which formed the ba­sis of the book. The au­thor re­searched nu­mer­ous his­tor­i­cal sources and read through is­sues of The Pales­tine Post from the pe­riod, us­ing them to con­tex­tu­al­ize his fa­ther’s let­ters and on­go­ing events.

Pales­tine Posts pro­vides a fas­ci­nat­ing ac­count of life in pre-state Israel. The re­al­ity that Morde­cai Chertoff so vividly de­scribed makes the book par­tic­u­larly valu­able for read­ers who have a lim­ited aware­ness of mod­ern Is­raeli his­tory. Read­ers who are more fa­mil­iar with these events will also en­joy the book, as the vi­tal­ity of Chertoff’s let­ters and news­pa­per re­ports brings the events of more than 70 years ago to life.

(Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

HIS­TORIC IS­SUE of ‘The Pales­tine Post’ from the cur­rent ‘Jerusalem Post’ con­fer­ence room.

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