NEW YORK, Nov. 5 (JTA) — It’s rare for a man to became famous in more than one field, but David Bar-Illan did just that. Bar-Illan, who died Tuesday in Jerusalem at 73, was a writer known for his caustic, staunchly pro-Israel columns — and a concert pianist known for his renditions of the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. He was also a top adviser to an Israeli prime minister. “David Bar-Illan was an Israeli Zionist patriot in his whole being,” Israel’s finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said Tuesday night. “He was an outstanding artist who sacrificed years of wonderful musical creativity to engage in journalistic and public activity to help his land and his people. He was a Renaissance man with an international education and an amazing writer whose power was in his deep faith in the righteousness of our people.” From 1996 to 2000, Bar-Illan served as communications director under Netanyahu, who was then Israel’s prime minister. In February 2000, Bar-Illan suffered a massive heart attack that incapacitated him. Before that time, he was known both for his music and his writing. From 1990 to 1992, he served as editorial editor of the Jerusalem Post, and as editor in chief from 1992 to 1996. During much of that time, he wrote a column, “Eye on the Media,” which skewered reporters and media outlets that Bar-Illan thought unfairly and inaccurately portrayed Israel. Though pro-Israel critiques of the media today have become commonplace, Bar-Illan was among the pioneers. In one column, he took on CNN, writing that to “peruse the CNN archive is to realize that facts no longer exist as independent entities.” He wrote in the same column: “According to CNN, Cairo-born Yasser Arafat devoted his teen years to ‘a study of Jewish life, associating with Jews and reading the works of Zionists such as Theodor Herzl.’ One can only wonder where in the Cairo of 1946 Arafat found Arabic translations of Zionist writings (he spoke no other language). Perhaps they were distributed by the Moslem Brotherhood as Samizdat.” In another column titled “Gulf War Fantasies,” he wrote, “Arab disinformation efforts are often amusing. Their stories are so egregious they sound like a cross between ‘Arabian Nights’ and the tales of Baron van Munchhausen.” Bar-Illan “had a way of putting phrases together that nobody else could match,” said Morton Klein, the national director of the Zionist Organization of America. “He was truly a giant in pro-Israel journalism.” In recent years, the College of Judea and Samaria, located in the Jewish West Bank city of Ariel, initiated an annual journalists conference in Bar-Illan’s honor to examine media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among other issues. Some criticized Bar-Illan for taking the Post to the political right. But those who knew and worked with him focused on what they described as his engaging personality. “Often people who met him would be surprised at the warmth and charm that he exuded,” said Carl Schrag, who worked with Bar-Illan at the Post. “On a personal level, David was liked by everyone at the paper.” Born in pre-state Palestine, Bar-Illan fought in Israel’s War of Independence. He later became an accomplished musician before putting his music career on hold to serve Israel through his writing. A search on Amazon.com lists seven of his recordings, including interpretations of the works of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Liszt. His first major appearance on the international stage took place in Israel with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. He also appeared with major U.S. orchestras in the United States — including Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit and Washington — and in Europe. “Never have I met a man that God blessed with so many gifts as David Bar-Illan,” Klein said. Bar-Illan is survived by his wife, Beverly, three children and two stepsons.
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Peter Ephross is a contributing writer to JTA.
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