NEW YORK (Nov. 2)
Richard Yaffe, a leading Jewish journalist and Socialist Zionist who used his skills not only to record the events of the present but also the hopes of the future for the Jewish people and for Israel, died last Thursday night. He was 83 years old. His entire adult life was marked by what he called the chance for the good fight. He was a journalist in the cause of humanity.
Yaffe did not stand aloof from the issues and events of his time. As a writer, lecturer, editor, political activist and a founder of Americans for Progressive Israel which reflected the views of Mapam, he was involved in countless causes and campaigns for human rights and dignity everywhere. He was a journalist in the cause of humanity who sought not only to interpret events but to change the world to one in which peace and freedom reigns.
As a foreign correspondent for CBS after the war, he recorded the history of a war-torn Europe arising like a phoenix out of the ashes, the immigration of European Jews to Palestine, and the establishment of the State of Israel.
Yaffe was one of the first journalists — possibly even the first one — to provide serious and substantial coverage of the struggle of Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel or to live as Jews in the USSR. As early as 1950, after returning from his stint as a CBS correspondent in Eastern Europe, he wrote a five-part series on the situation of East European Jewry for the National Jewish monthly.
ASSIGNMENT IN EASTERN EUROPE
During his assignment in Eastern Europe he sent cables and broadcast directly from the war devastated areas. In Poland, he visited the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. In Czechoslovakia, he visited the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
In Hungary, he covered the purge trial of Laszlo Reik, the Communist Party leader. In Yugoslavia, he met with the country’s only surviving rabbi, who had been a partisan with Tito’s guerrillas. In Aden, after visiting Israel, he covered "Operation Magic Carpet," the airlift which brought the Yemenite Jews to Israel.
Upon his return to America, Yaffe continued his involvement in the campaigns and struggles for civil rights and civil liberties. He warned against the rise of hidden and open anti-Semitism and also warned that under certain conditions, America would not be immune to fascism, albeit in a guise different from that which emerged in Europe. He pointed out time and again that Israel’s security was bound up with a free and democratic America.
In an article in the February 27, 1950 issue of Congress Weekly (now Congress Monthly), Yaffe wrote: "I came out of Europe and Israel convinced of this: That the fight within the United States for equal rights and equal opportunities for all minorities, resistance to witch-hunts and illegal searches and seizures was the only fight that really mattered. If this should be lost, the others would be lost with it.
"I don’t think it is an accident that the United Jewish Appeal ties Israel’s needs to those of America’s Jews, through the agencies which fight the good fight at home. They can’t be separated. One fails without the other."
His good fights — which included unremitting opposition to McCarthyism and for justice for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg — led to his being victimized by the McCarthyite witch-hunt. He found himself blacklisted in many sections of the media which capitulated to the hysteria of those times. But his unflagging devotion to democratic principles and his perception that McCarthyism would be eventually defeated by those principles prevented Yaffe from succumbing to despair and gloom.
Yaffe was essentially an optimist about the innate drive of people to do good. He had learned this from his early days as a journalist covering strikes around the country and being moved by the cooperation and solidarity of strikers and their families, and from his days of working with Heywood Broun helping to organize the American Newspaper Guild.
Yaffe wrote with verve and with passion and with humanity whether it was about the efforts of post-war Europe to reconstruct itself from the rubble of Nazism, about the growth and development of Israel, or about his family at a Passover seder in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he grew up not too far from Reading, Pennsylvania, where he was born.
As a Socialist Zionist he was an uncompromising supporter and defender of Israel against its enemies. But equally, at the same time, he was a trenchant critic of its shortcomings. Yaffe was always dismayed that the growing government and trade union bureaucracy and the growing disparity between wealth and poverty and clashes between the Ashkenazim and Sephardim were sowing the seeds of discord and class war in Israel. He was deeply troubled by the growing indifference on the part of some Israelis to the needs of the Arab population in Israel.
Yaffe was pained that the vision and intentions of the founders of the Jewish State and the aspirations of the early chalutzim (pioneers) were being derailed, and that the peace which Israel yearned for continued to be elusive because of the unremitting and irrational hatred of the Jewish State by its Arab neighbors.
HELPED YOUNG JEWISH JOURNALISTS
But Yaffe was not only a journalist who could be caring as well as highly polemical in his articles; he was a warm, concerned, sensitive and compassionate human being who spent much of his time helping would-be young Jewish journalists become genuine Jewish journalists.
Even as he wrote and lectured, he was above all a teacher. To those whom he taught, he was never less than a colleague and always more than a friend. He was the quintessence of a patient father image to younger writers. Yaffe could smile and all around him found themselves smiling along. He could crack jokes and deliver puns with great rapidity and infuse those around him with ebullience. He had a keen and probing mind. He was a journalist of integrity. But above all, Yaffe was, in the classic meaning of the word, a "mentsch."
Yaffe received his Bachelor’s Degree from Boston University and Master’s Degree from Harvard. He began his journalism career in 1926 on the Atlantic City Times and it continued for the next 60 years through the Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Post, New York Journal-American, PM and CBS.
He was the United Nations correspondent for the Israeli daily Al Hamishmar, associate editor of the New York Jewish Week, and editor-in-chief of Israel Horizons which reflects the views of Mapam. He was the American bureau chief of the London Jewish Chronicle and contributed articles to the New York German-Jewish weekly Aufbau, National Jewish Monthly and the Congress Weekly.
Yaffe was the author of three books: "Yugoslavia’s Way," "Nathan Rappaport – Sculptures and Monuments," and "A Short History of the American Jews." During his long career, he was active and held posts in numerous organizations, including the Jewish National Fund, World Zionist Organization-American Section, American Zionist Federation, Foreign Press Association, Overseas Press Club, and the United Nations Press Association.
RECIPIENT OF SMOLAR AWARD
Yaffe was one of the very few who worked at Jewish journalism before the term "Jewish journalism" came into being. His pioneering helped establish its legitimacy and led to the strong American Jewish press in America today.
Last month, Yaffe was named the recipient of the Council of Jewish Federations’ Boris Smolar Awards’ first "Special Citation for Lifetime Achievement in Jewish Journalism." He received the news with great joy. But death prevented Yaffe from actually receiving the award. His funeral was Sunday, less than two weeks before it was to have been presented to him at the CJF General Assembly in Chicago.