'Why Does a Jew Need a Newspaper?'

A new book published in Hebrew sheds light on the first Hebrew-language daily and Judah Leib Kantor, the pioneering publisher who got the presses rolling.

The concept of “objective reporting” has been controversial for many years. The New York Times, the bastion of this goal, insists even today that it is attainable. Proponents of objective reporting argue that it is possible to distinguish between news and opinion, to insist on meticulous fact-checking, present more than one side of a story and avoid conflict of interest because of a personal or other connection between the writer and his or her subject.

Others, including journalists educated in the European school of thought, claim that objective reporting is a pretension, is impossible to fulfill and therefore unnecessary. A reporter is neither an impartial referee nor a U.N. observer. He is obligated by his profession – and by human values – to tackle the job armed with a social and ethical agenda. Only by doing so can he condemn injustice, expose lies, express skepticism and courageously confront people in power.

Campaigns that have flooded Israel media in recent years, including the mobilization of the press to help free Gilad Shalit, the fight against economic concentration, the cost-of-living protest last summer and those against (or in favor of) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have prompted some critics to long for the good-old days when the media supposedly behaved differently. Back then, the media reported events without expressing an opinion, and certainly not in the hard news portion. Yet, as is always the case, nostalgia does not always represent the truth. Very few newspapers, if any, succeeded in keeping their news pages free of agendas, hidden or overt.

Some tried to, but they did not last. Take Judah Leib Kantor (1849–1915), for example. In his well-researched biography, Dr. David Tal tries to reinstate Kantor, who was pushed to the margins of Hebrew journalism, to a position of respect. Kantor served as the publisher of Ha-Yom, the first Hebrew daily, published in St. Petersburg from 1886 to 1888. Kantor’s intention in founding Ha-Yom was to deviate from the tradition of 19th-century Jewish journalism, and not just in the frequency of its editions.

A decade before the first appearance of The New York Times' motto, “All the news that’s fit to print,” Kantor was already trying to report the news without staking out a position. Even before he established Ha-Yom, Kantor defined his journalistic approach: “To lay bare the facts, indications and events before the reader, and let him judge them as he sees fit.”

There was a measure of naveté in Kantor’s desire to rise above the “disgrace and foul speech that Jewish writers are feeding each other these days,” as he put it. This proves that Jewish journalism was not the symbol of national identity and unity, as is commonly thought. Divisions, disputes and polemics permeated discourse in the Jewish public space. For Kantor and others, the message was not one of unity or objectivity. The driving force behind Jewish and Hebrew journalism was – and remains – aggressive, opinionated battles for the sake of ideologies, groups and people, and also for the sake of competition in business. With the passage of time, this tendency led to increased yellow journalism, both in style and content.

The naked truth?

When the first issue of Ha-Yom was published, Kantor was convinced that the Jewish public had difficulty accepting the naked truth. Every line he published was examined with suspicion. In his book, Tal writes that Kantor’s rivals interpreted his pioneering journalism as an expression of political hostility toward the Jewish national idea.

While the editor-in-chief of Ha-Yom was not the sort of investigative reporter contemporary readers are familiar with, he still possessed several traits essential to any reporter. He had a healthy skepticism about statements made by interested parties. He also did not believe the role of a reporter was to be a cheerleader for any particular movement. This was a courageous move. At that time, the boundaries between journalism and activism were fluid, as later happened in the Land of Israel during the golden age of political organizations.
For example, Ha-Melitz, the first Hebrew newspaper in Russia, helped collect donations “for our brothers, the colonists in the Holy Land.” In 1886, when Ha-Melitz published, in serial form, a list of the donations it had received, Kantor examined them meticulously, found irregularities in the entries and protested against them in his newspaper. The editor of Ha-Melitz, Aleksander Zederbaum-Erez, issued a sharp response, and the two engaged in a lengthy duel in the press.

A similar thing happened regarding the effort to persuade Jews to donate funds to the needy within their own communities or to schools in the Old Yishuv (the Jewish community that lived in pre-state Israel prior to Zionist immigration after 1880), as well as to the new settlement effort. The Jewish newspapers were asked to publish an announcement from rabbis requesting aid for those settling the Land of Israel, but Kantor refused. In what Tal describes as “apologetic acrobatics,” Kantor said he wanted to stay clean, fair and neutral. His rivals were not convinced.

The need to curry favor with readers and avoid irritating them was alive and well, even before the age of ratings. Tal describes how, in the latter decades of the 19th century, Jewish editors, including Kantor, had to walk on eggshells so as not to lose readers.

Kantor, who began his career in journalism as a side business while studying medicine in Berlin, was acutely aware of this. After he published a poem urging people to “break through the windows of the Enlightenment” until there was no longer any difference between Christian, Muslim and Jew, the Jewish public viewed him as an extreme proponent of the Enlightenment. Rabbi Chaim Zelig Slonimsky, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Ha-Zefira, the first Hebrew paper in Poland, invited him to write with the proviso that he would not address controversial subjects. To reassure readers that he was not distancing himself from religious education, Slonimsky published an essay describing how the wisdom of Talmudic literature was superior to that of science.

Kantor had no patron to assist him in publishing his newspaper, and advertising revenues were slim. Almost all his funding came from subscriptions. At first, the newspaper was a success: He signed up 2,400 subscribers – the number he believed would enable the newspaper to break even. But Kantor never expected that his pioneering venture would attract competitors into the market right away. Within several months, Ha-Melitz and Ha-Zefira switched to a daily format as well, and the stiff competition finally brought down Ha-Yom.

As Kantor put it, the number of subscribers to Hebrew newspapers was “not sufficient to support three entities in the same field and enable them to survive.” To attract readers, he published a literary monthly magazine entitled Ben-Ami, which was distributed to subscribers of Ha-Yom. But the high cost of producing Ben-Ami only added to his debts. The battle for survival increased the competition between the newspapers, as ideological disputes mingled with commercially motivated attempts to smear competitors.

Give us physics and chemistry

David Tal’s biography details more than just the first chapter of the war between Hebrew dailies, which has been going full-force for more than 126 years. It also gives readers a glimpse into the world of the 19th-century Jewish cultural elite of the Enlightenment period. Kantor, a physician who later became the chief rabbi of Vilna and of Riga, combined the tradition of the rabbinical seminary with the spirit of modernity from the University of Berlin. He wanted to give his readers a newspaper that would deal with more than just footnotes to Jewish history or culture, as many other Jewish weekly and monthly publications did. His newspaper would also report the present and provide commentary on current affairs.

“I speak in the name of people who are screaming like cranes: Give us clear reports, give us nature reports, give us physics and chemistry, technology, physiology, geology, economics. Leave the past alone and look at the present only,” Kantor said. And they wanted these reports in Hebrew, which had not yet adapted to modern times.

Kantor sought to establish “a fair, well-organized newspaper that meets the high standards of foreign-language newspapers.” This way, he would reduce the disconnect that existed between Jews in Russia and the modern world. “Why does a Jew need a newspaper?” Kantor asked. He replied that in the absence of credible news reporting, “every community depended on the word of a tailor who heard a rumor from the lowest-ranking clerk, who heard it from the one above him and the one above him.” Ha-Yom exchanged this tailors’ gossip for news from around the world that it received, at a fairly high cost, from the Northern Company telegraphic news agency. It also translated items and quoted from Russian-language and other newspapers. But it was difficult to find editors (“assistants,” in the language of the time) who knew “how to render the concepts and statements from telegrams quickly in easily understandable language.”
Correspondents who had no professional training and limited credibility – “citizen journalists” in today’s parlance – wrote news items from the Jewish Diaspora. The newspaper also had a financial section, which included daily stock market reports, currency exchange rates and items on the wine market in Kishinev or the effect of railroad transport rates on the cost of merchandise, among other things.

People known as “Ha-Yom staff” – columnists, as they would be known today – contributed the core of the newspaper’s content. They included educated, well-known writers of the time, such as David Frischmann. These writers provided readers with commentary, in excellent Hebrew, on current events. Some of these writers, who received no compensation, were simply content to work for the first Hebrew newspaper and reach Hebrew-speaking readers. Kantor himself, a prolific columnist, wrote on a wide variety of subjects under pseudonyms.

Despite his focus on high quality, Kantor realized that his readers were interested in lighter fare. In his column entitled “Mixture,” he published “racy” news items from around the world, such as reports about women firefighters in Boston, a cheese exhibition in Italy, and even about an engineer named Eiffel who was planning to build an enormous tower in downtown Paris for the 1889 World’s Fair.

David Tal’s book, which still retains some of the structure of a doctoral thesis, succeeds in rescuing Kantor from oblivion. It sheds light on an important part of Jewish history while drawing similarities between print editions that were published in St. Petersburg in the 19th century and the multi-channel, interactive digital editions of the 21st.

“Even in the best Jewish newspapers, one encounters letters that are amazingly empty and bare of content,” Kantor once wrote about letters to the editor. Sadly, the same could be said for some comments on contemporary Israeli news sites.

"Judah Leib Kantor, pioneer of the Hebrew daily: a biography." By David Tal, published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House and Yad Ben-Zvi. In Hebrew, 432 pages, NIS 92

Dr. Rafi Mann is a communications researcher and historian. His book about David Ben-Gurion and the media will be published later this year.

Judah Leib Kantor