Leslie Susser
The Jerusalem Post
February 25, 2011 - 1:00am

Jerrold (Yoram) Kessel, who died on Thursday after a long battle with cancer, was one of Israel’s leading English-language journalists, with a career that spanned over four decades in radio, print and television, including stints as Jerusalem correspondent for the London Jewish Chronicle, news editor at The Jerusalem Post, Israel reporter for CNN and sports columnist for Ha’aretz.

He was 66.

We first met at the Hebrew University in the 1960s, as part of a group of young ex-South African immigrants studying subjects like literature, history, politics, economics and philosophy.

Never the conformist, Jerrold was always full of original ideas and grandiose schemes, traits that never left him. Together we started a radical, but short-lived, student magazine called Vent. When we went down to Eilat for a short holiday, Jerrold concocted a patchwork tent made up of colorful sheets and quilts sewn together by his wife, Lorraine, which a fresh Red Sea breeze easily got the better of, forcing us to scamper for more mundane accommodation.

An avid reader, Jerrold’s passions were for history, literature, Israeli politics and sport.

Not only was he a mine of sporting information, he was also a fine player of a wide variety of games, with exceptional hand-eye coordination. Overweight and not obviously athletic, his agility on a squash court or behind the stumps on a cricket field was of a totally unexpected order. Woe betide the opponent who underestimated him.

As a boy, he was always against South African teams because of apartheid. At his all-white school this would often leave him in a taunted minority of one. But even then he was too strong-willed to be deflected.

In the mid-1960s, Jerrold was instrumental in restarting cricket in Israel. Games were played on matting wickets often in desert conditions. Play in Beersheba was once stopped as a caravan of camels went by.

Jerrold became captain of the Israel cricket team for its first foray into World Cup associate member play in 1979. In one of the games the USA wicketkeeper was guilty of blatant cheating.

It would have been “cricket,” the stiff upper lip code of gentlemanly conduct by which the game is played, to overlook this. Jerrold, motivated by a higher and very personal moral compass, refused to let the matter rest.

Indeed, for Jerrold, more than results, sport was about how you conducted yourself and how you played the game.

This led to his weekly “On the Couch” column in Ha’aretz that looked at the wider social significance of sport and often suggested highly inventive ways to make games better.

Based on a TV documentary he made about a soccer club in the Arab town of Sachnin, which played in the national league and one year actually won the state cup, Jerrold, with his long-time collaborator Pierre Klochendler, wrote the book Goals for Galilee, a brilliant use of sport to analyze the national and cultural predicament of Israel’s minority Arab population.

On the wider Israel-Palestinian issue, he was a unilateralist, fervently believing that Israel must disengage from the West Bank as soon as possible, with or without an agreement, or face erosion of its moral authority and dissipation of the Zionist dream.

His working life as a journalist began as a news reader and editor at Israel Radio. One of his more heroic efforts was coming in at four o’clock in the morning of August 21, 1968, to find that the Soviet Union had invaded Czechoslovakia and the electricity in the building was down. Somehow, working by candlelight, he managed to put out the seven o'clock news.

From the radio he moved on to the Jewish Chronicle, and then to The Jerusalem Post, where he edited the sports section with the late Philip (Figgy) Gillon and served a senior news editor. In 1990, when a large group of journalists left the paper on an issue of editorial independence, he was offered the editorship, but declined.

After leaving the Post, he found his métier at CNN, where he made an international reputation as on camera reporter covering Israel and the Middle East. At CNN he reported the peace process with the Palestinians, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination and the unraveling of the process leading to the second intifada. During the intifada, Jerrold took flak at times for CNN’s alleged anti-Israel bias.

He was concerned more by what he saw as the superficiality of television news, and approached CNN bosses with a plethora of ideas for more indepth coverage.

In 2007, Jerrold covered the Rugby World Cup in France, now rooting for the rainbownation South African Springboks, who won the tournament.

But his abiding memory was not of who won or lost but of the purity of the French passion for the game.

After he learned of his illness, he went on working and playing sport, with characteristic determination, enthusiasm and optimism. Weeks before he died, he was still working on a play featuring his family’s earthy black maid and Nelson Mandela.

His bravery in suffering was, I think, unique. He used to quip that he was playing for a draw, when a cricket team knows it can’t win and plays only to avoid defeat. But in recent weeks, he would say with a chuckle that the fielders were closing in around the bat, signifying that he knew the game was almost over.

Jerrold is survived by Lorraine, their son, Ariel (Chalky), and four grandchildren.

He will be sorely missed by all who knew him.


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