Joseph Finklestone

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The Independent Online

Joseph Finklestone, journalist and broadcaster; born Chelm, Poland 25 September 1924; OBE 1998; married 1951 Hadassah Rivlin (two daughters); died London 1 January 2002.

When Joseph Finklestone arrived in London from Poland at the age of 13, he was already destined for an iconoclastic career. The son of Rabbi Beresh Finklestein, a noted Hasidic leader in Chelm who sought asylum in Britain in 1937, he dashed his family's dynastic hopes by choosing journalism – a profession unheard of within that close-knit community.

His scoop interview with the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, the first ever given to a Jewish journalist, won him the David Holden Award in 1991, a special category within the British Press Awards, honouring the Sunday Times correspondent murdered in Cairo the previous year.

The enterprising Finklestone had already set the stage for ground-breaking journalism in 1974 when he interviewed Said Hammami, the London representative of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, who told him that Yasser Arafat was prepared to make peace with Israel. That brave revelation cost Hammami his life.

Sadat equally paid the ultimate price for his moral courage in flying to Jerusalem for peace talks with the Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin. He was assassinated in 1981. Finklestone had written to Sadat in 1977 suggesting the Egyptian president should launch the peace initiative. Their Cairo interview led to Finklestone's biography The Visionary Who Dared, published in 1996 with the co-operation of Sadat's widow, Jehan.

One of five children, Joseph Finklestone studied at a Talmudic seminary in Gateshead on Tyneside, where he met a soul-mate in the impresario Victor Hochhauser. Finklestone's school essays were talent-spotted by the Carlisle Journal, which offered him a job. A pivotal moment came with his coverage of three plane-loads of Jewish children rescued from Europe's Nazi death-camps in 1945. One of them was Ben Helfgott, who became a lifelong friend and founder chairman of the 45 Aid Society.

In 1946 Finklestone joined the Jewish Chronicle, where he rose to the position of foreign editor and, eventually, diplomatic editor.

Joe Finklestone earned the trust and respect of his contacts both in Whitehall and Jerusalem, and was a gentle and courteous mentor to younger colleagues. He became London correspondent of the respected daily Ma'ariv and Middle East contributor to Radio 4 and the BBC World Service. In later years he covered Middle East stories for The Independent (particularly obituaries), the London Evening Standard and The Guardian, was London correspondent of the Jerusalem Report, and joined the Middle East Group of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. Drawn by both the rigour and the fun of his craft, Finklestone "loved getting scoops", as he put it. Colleagues even nicknamed him "Scoop Finklestone".

In 1950 he met his future wife, Hadassah Rivlin, who worked for the Israeli consulate staff in London. She supported him in his passionate advocacy of peace in the Middle East through his work as chairman of the Guild of Jewish Journalists, founded after Israel's Six Day War of 1967 to bring awareness and understanding to the Middle East. Finklestone introduced various politicians to this small but vociferous pressure group, including Abba Eban, the former Israeli foreign minister, Ronnie Milo, former mayor of Tel Aviv, and a host of Egyptian and Israeli diplomats. Behind these meetings was a sincere determination to make a difference in Israel's fortunes through "learning and imparting the knowledge to others".

As a younger man Finklestone betrayed left-wing sympathies and struggled to maintain the balance between objective reporting and his desire to help move the peace process forward. But, disappointed with the failure of the Barak administration in Israel to achieve peace with the Palestinians, he put his trust in the Sharon government, believing that perhaps tougher policies might work after all.

His interview with Pope John Paul II was widely syndicated, although he received no satisfactory answer to his question why the Pontiff had not formally recognised the State of Israel. In 1999, Finklestone criticised the pro-Jewish Pope for promoting the wartime Pope Pius XII as a saint despite his "most shameful omission" in failing to denounce the Holocaust.

Gloria Tessler