Veteran journalist Jerrold Kessel, whose career covering Israel and the Middle East for dozens of major news organizations lasted over five decades, passed away yesterday in Jerusalem after a long battle with cancer. He was 66.
A consummate newsman who immersed fully in Israeli society but was never afraid to challenge its injustices, South African-born Kessel will be best remembered as the face of CNN in Israel when global television news was in its infancy. His calming screen presence won him fans across the globe and his full, white beard made him an instantly recognizable figure.
Kessel immigrated to Israel from Johannesburg at the age of 17 and went on to study history, English literature and librarianship at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His career in journalism started in the late 1960s, when he worked as Middle East correspondent for several media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Guardian, The London Jewish Chronicle and BBC Radio.
In 1981, he was given the chance to combine his great love of sports with his career in journalism, when he was appointed sports editor at The Jerusalem Post. He continued to serve in that capacity even after being appointed news editor in 1985.
On leaving The Post in 1990, Kessel made a seamless transition to television, serving as CNN's Jerusalem correspondent under legendary bureau chief Walter Rodgers. His natural screen presence and affable nature made Kessel a favorite with colleagues and viewers alike, and he was dispatched to cover events not only in the Middle East - including the Gulf War - but as far afield as France, Turkey and Nairobi.
Among those who worked with Kessel during his years with CNN was Christine Amanpour. "I learned a lot from him during the time we worked together," she told Haaretz by e-mail yesterday. "During some of the toughest times of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict I found his experience and perspective invaluable. But most of all, I remember him as a kind and burly man with a full appetite for life, and one who taught me more about football [soccer] than anyone I know, which has served me well since I became a mother to a football-loving son!"
"He was a passionate person and a very passionate journalist," said Pierre Klochendler, who first worked with Kessel over 20 years ago as his producer at CNN, and with whom he later collaborated on countless other journalistic projects. "He was a very giving, very collegial person. He never worked for himself, he always worked as a team. He always looked for the team. That's something that is very rare in journalism, especially in television, because people tend to become victims of their own stardom."
After leaving CNN, Kessel continued writing for several newspapers, including a column for Haaretz called "The Sakhnin Diaries," which was later turned into a documentary film, and his weekly "On the Couch" sports column in Haaretz English Edition. Together with the Paris-born Klochendler, Kessler tackled several film projects. Last year, the two journalists published a book called "Goals from Galilee," which dealt with the fortunes of the most successful Israeli-Arab soccer team, Bnei Sakhnin, as well as the place of Arabs in Israeli society.
While writing their book, Kessel and Klochendler spent over a year following the team and, according to Sakhnin Mayor Mazen Ghanaim, "There isn't a child in the town who doesn't know who Jerrold Kessel is. He was a friend and a brother. When he first arrived, we didn't know what to make of him, but when we got to know him, we recognized what a special person he was. He helped put Sakhnin on the map and his contribution to Jewish-Arab coexistence was immense."
Throughout his career, Kessel remained a keen sportsman, captaining the Israeli national cricket team on three occasions. "He was a true ideologist," says Stanley Perlman, chairman of the Israel Cricket Association, "and a pretty decent cricketer, too. He was very useful behind the stumps and I'll never forget the sight of him diving to avoid being run out."
The last column that Jerrold Kessel wrote for Haaretz appears on the sports page of today's paper. For the past several weeks, Kessel invited readers to send him their "dream teams" - the sportsmen and women they have always admired, worshiped and sought to emulate.
In today's final column, written when he was almost too weak to type, Kessel submits his own "dream team." Tellingly, it is a list that includes not only great athletes who have achieved all there is to achieve in their chosen fields, but also those who have contributed most to humankind, to Israeli society and to sporting values.
Kessel is survived by his wife Lorraine, son Ariel (Chalkie ) and two grandchildren. His funeral will be held today at Kibbutz Givat Hashlosha at 10 A.M.
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.
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