Obituary: David Kessler

Joseph Finklestone
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:30

DAVID KESSLER was the man most responsible for making the Jewish Chronicle the most respected Jewish weekly in the world. He achieved this by dint of his unwavering desire for fairness, his belief that all sections of a community must be given a fair hearing, his insistence on total independence, accuracy, economic stability and the need for accepting modern progress.

As chairman and managing director for 50 years of the newspaper, in which he and his family held the majority of shares, Kessler was able to ensure, at times after a struggle, that it followed his principles. Yet he insisted that he did not and would not interfere in editorial policy. His voice would be heard only in highly critical times.

Although his father, Leopold, a mining engineer, was a friend of Theodor Herzl, founder of modern political Zionism, and led a Zionist expedition to the Sinai Peninsula, David avoided official links with the movement. He had very strong views on Israeli policies which he voiced trenchantly.

Even David Kessler's association with the Jewish Chronicle began somewhat doubtfully. Leopold was a pre-eminent partner in a company formed in 1907 to purchase the paper, founded 66 years earlier. By 1935 he felt he needed David's help but the call was not received with any enthusiasm.

Born in Pretoria, where his father was working, David displayed no interest as a young man in working for a newspaper. After reading Economics and Law at Cambridge, he gained business experience in London, Paris and Aden before leaving for Jerusalem, where he worked for the Palestine Potash Company, later the Dead Sea Works. He enjoyed life in Palestine and was reluctant to leave. After a leisurely roundabout trip he finally arrived in London and was appointed managing director of the Jewish Chronicle as his father had won a boardroom struggle. Despite his inexperience he began successfully to modernise the paper. He was greatly helped by the genial non-Jewish general manager, A.B. Guthrie, who won the lasting affection of the staff.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Kessler became a major in the Royal Artillery and was seconded to the Iraq Levies in 1942. From 1944 until 1945 he served in the Political Warfare Executive and then worked with the British economic mission to Greece. Before leaving for the Army, Kessler had the foresight to arrange for emergency printing of the JC. During the Blitz the paper's offices in Moor Lane, on the edge of the City, were destroyed but the printing could be continued in High Wycombe.

On returning to the paper, Kessler was faced with a major crisis which he had to tackle without his father, who had retired. Ivan Greenberg, the editor, the son of a former and famous editor, L.J. Greenberg, was a passionate supporter of the Irgun Zvai Leumi extremist group in Palestine and its leader, Menachem Begin. The paper's news and editorial columns were strongly coloured by Revisionist Zionist views. David Kessler was convinced that the very existence of the paper was at stake and Ivan Greenberg was dismissed. Kessler is reported as having remarked: "When the relationship between editor and proprietor is brought into question, the answer can only be that he who pays the piper calls the tune."

Certainly, Kessler was unhappy with some of the decisions taken by John Shaftesley, Greenberg's successor, and it is widely assumed that this was the reason why in 1958 his post was taken over by William Frankel, a lawyer, who brought a new - and essential - sophisticated, worldly approach to running the JC.

However, Kessler was reluctant to interfere in the daily editorial decisions. He was concerned at the deep split in the Anglo-Jewish community caused by the controversy over the Jacobs Affair when Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs was pushed out of the United Synagogue by the then Chief Rabbi, Dr Israel Brodie, for expressing unconventional views on the origin of the Bible. Frankel was a strong supporter of Rabbi Jacobs and the JC backed him. Kessler did not intervene.

The sharp controversy led to talk about a possible takeover of the paper by a person or a group more sympathetic to the Orthodox point of view. It was reported that the tycoon Sir Isaac Wolfson was considering a bid but he was dissuaded from doing so by Lord Thomson of Fleet.

Fear of a takeover of the JC, as well as to safeguard the independence of the editor and managing director, prompted far-reaching measures. Kessler made great personal sacrifices to ensure that the ownership of the paper could never fall into the hands of unsuitable persons.

When he was appointed OBE in 1996, it was largely for his services not only to the paper but to the Anglo-Jewish community. Although a progressive Liberal Jew, he felt that he must serve every section of the community, including the Orthodox.

Passionately devoted to the cause of the Falasha black Jews, he wrote an outstanding book, The Falashas: the forgotten Jews of Ethiopia, published in 1982. His writing ability was also demonstrated in his 1996 essay "The Rothschilds and Disraeli in Buckinghamshire". He served as chairman of the Falasha Welfare Association, was a founder member of the Minority Rights Group and was also chairman of the Wiener Library. He was deeply hurt when the library's collection of German documents about Jewish life in pre-war Europe was moved from London to Tel Aviv University.

David Kessler loved the countryside. He immensely enjoyed walking. Tall and upright, he was frequently described as the squire of the Buckinghamshire village of Stoke Hammond where he lived. His many-sided life was celebrated in a book of essays in his honour in 1998.

His happy marriage to Matilda lasted 51 years. She died in 1990. He is survived by his daughters Josie, Elizabeth and Nikola, a son, Charles, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Joseph Finklestone

David Francis Kessler, newspaper proprietor: born Pretoria 6 June 1906; OBE 1996; married (one son, three daughters); died Stoke Hammond, Buckinghamshire 24 November 1999.

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