If Israel’s meaning comes down to the redemption of its Diaspora, then it follows that a Jewish news agency would view the Jewish state through the ultimate “Good for the Jews” lens.
In small ways and large, JTA has covered Israel not just as, say, The New York Times would cover Britain — an important ally with close and intertwined cultural ties — but as a mirror for its Diaspora readers seeking to understand themselves and their place in the world.
Sometimes this take was obvious: The joys attending Israel’s miraculous victories in 1948, 1967 and 1973, the soul-searching following its stumbles in Lebanon in 1982 and throughout the intifadas.
Yet there were subtler and more telling signs as well: Israel’s emergence as a sports and entertainment powerhouse and its beauty contest wins. You can almost hear the Jewish schoolboy chortling beneath the reporting: “Whoa, Jews shoot hoops? And check out these babes — they’re Jewish!!”
The anxious sense of what the relationship will mean bubbles up even in the celebratory statements greeting Israel’s establishment, in this story datelined May 16, 1948, two days after independence was declared: “The test of the ages the world’s doubts and Israel’s loyalty is at hand,” Stephen Wise, the American Jewish Congress president says at the Madison Square Garden event headlined by Chaim Weizmann.
The prevalent sense, even in those uncertain times, was one of relief. The natural headline for the first Passover post-independence was that “Next year in Jerusalem, which has been for centuries the climax of the Seder service, will assume a new meaning to-morrow evening.”
Anxieties about the shape the revived Jewish polity would take were already a standard of JTA reporting from pre-state Palestine. This October 1947 story datelined less than a month before U.N. recognition made statehood inevitable — lays bare the tensions between the Yishuv establishment and Irgun and Lehi insurgents. Judah Magnes, the Hebrew University president, warns that both sides have embraced “force, violence and totalitarian methods.”
Yet, there was also evident in pre-state reporting the tenderness that still prevails in Israel-Diaspora relations. This brief item notes the reestablishment of cable communications in 1943 between the Yishuv and the Tunisian Jewish community in the wake of the Allied liberation of that country. (It also foretells the critical role electronic communications played in Tunisia’s 21st-century liberation!)
It went both ways, of course, and from the early days of the modern Zionist enterprise. This 1933 story is an appeal for Diaspora assistance in saving the Yishuv’s schools.
The nexus between rescue and redemption has since ancient times been the sweet spot for fund-raising appeals. It was no different in 1950, when the United Jewish Appeal raised an astonishing $6 million — that’s about $54 million in 2010 dollars — in a single evening. UJA’s chairman, Henry Morgenthau Jr., cited the success of Operation Magic Carpet, the rescue of Yemen’s Jewry, in appealing for funds to get Jews out of Iraq.
The same dynamic played out three decades later when Israel thanked the UJA for the $62 million ( $123 million in 2010 dollars) it raised subsequent to the dramatic transport of Ethiopian Jews in Operation Moses.
In moments of triumph and in moments of profound concern, the relationship always mattered. In September 1974, Jewish leaders met in New York to ponder “the Yom Kippur War and its broad implications for the world Jewish community.” Almost exactly seven years earlier, Yaacov Morris, a Jewish Agency representative, told a group of young American Jews that the Six Day War had “not only brought Western Jews back to Judaism but also brought many Israelis back to the Jewish people as well.”
There were moments of doubt as well. JTA chronicled the massing of second thoughts following the first Lebanon War in 1982, and its coverage was informed by concerns typical of an American-based news agency: What did the ascendancy of Ariel Sharon mean for basic freedoms? Would broadcasters critical of the war be banned from covering it for the supposedly
independent (and influential) Army Radio? Were displays of military might appropriate in the wake of a war rapidly spinning out of control?
Such concerns played out again 30 years later when Jewish groups warned Israel against targeting human rights groups.
But overwhelmingly, the relationship’s narrative — and its coverage by JTA — has been characterized by mutual concern and affection. Concern, typified by the relentless chronologies of terror, like this one from 2003 covering the Second Intifada.
We see this affection in these stories noting how a country that at times seems to be in a perpetual state of siege celebrates the European basketball cup in 1977; wins at Eurovision in 1978, 1979 and 1998; and then those all important beauty contests, Miss Universe and Miss World.
Ron Kampeas is JTA’s Washington bureau chief.
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