How one edition’s stories developed in years to follow

Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

As the Jewish Light entered its second decade as an independent newspaper, the stories it covered provided clues to the dizzying changes in the Jewish community and worldwide that colored the 1970s.

The lead story on Page One of the Jan. 6, 1971 issue reported that a Soviet court had commuted the death sentences of two Jews convicted of plotting an alleged hijacking attempt on a Russian plane, while at the same time giving harsh prison sentences to the defendants. Among those convicted was Joseph Mendelyevich, then 23, who became one of the iconic Soviet Jewish “Prisoners of Zion,” along with Natan Sharansky and other leading Russian Jewish “refuseniks.”

The struggle for Soviet Jewry became one of the signature issues of the next decade and a half, culminating in the historic “Let My People Go!” march and rally in 1987, in which 250,000 American Jews participated. Eventually Mendelevich, Sharansky and over one million Jews from the Soviet Union were granted exit visas to start news lives in the State of Israel. Another 250,000 came to the United States and other Western nations.

The same front page tells the story of another prison sentence: Franz Stangl, a key aide in Adolf Hitler’s mass murder of Jews in wartime Poland, who spent 17 years in a Brazilian hideout. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in a Dusseldorf, German court, having been found guilty of murder in “at least 400,000 cases.”

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The year 1971 was four years after Israel’s “miraculous” victory over neighboring Arab states in the 1967 Six-Day War, and the first year in office of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. On Page 7 of the Jan. 6, 1973 edition, the Jewish Light reprinted two interviews by New York Times foreign correspondent James Reston; one with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and the other with Sadat.  

Meir, the first woman prime minister of Israel, expressed doubt about the chances for peace with its Arab neighbors. Sadat told Reston, when asked about establishing relations with Israel and making peace with the Jewish State, “Don’t ask me to make diplomatic relations with them,” warning “our people will crush anyone who would decide this.”

Ironically, both Meir’s and Sadat’s predictions would unfold in the years that followed. In 1973, Sadat, along with his Syrian allies, surprised Israel on Oct. 6, 1973 by sending Egyptian troops across the Suez Canal, on Yom Kippur, the most sacred day on the Jewish calendar. While Israel would eventually defeat the Egyptians, it suffered badly in the conflict and both Meir and the legendary Defense Minister Moshe Dayan both resigned.

Four years later, Sadat shocked the world by proposing to go to Jerusalem to address Israel’s Knesset on his desire for peace. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, in a split-screen interview with Walter Cronkite, eagerly invited Sadat to Israel to address the Israeli parliament. That visit would lead President Jimmy Carter to invite both Sadat and Begin to the presidential retreat at Camp David, where he successfully negotiated the historic peace treaty.

Tragically, Sadat’s other prediction that his people would “crush anyone who would decide this” came true, when he was assassinated by an Islamic extremist. He was succeeded by Hosni Mubarak, who would honor the Egypt-Israel Treaty for his 30 years as President of Egypt.

The vibrant, changing arts scene of the 1970s also found its place in the Light. Lois Caplan, the longest-serving member of the Jewish Light editorial team to date, devoted her column in the Jan. 6, 1971 issue to an interview with Alvin Toffler, author of the best-selling book “Future Shock.” Toffler, who was to be the featured speaker at a Jewish Federation Women’s Division event called “Tell-it-Straight,” said that America was moving from an industrialized to a “super-industrialized society,” which triggered an “avalanche of change” not only in technology but in politics, business and the arts as well.

Long before the Internet and social media, Toffler presciently anticipated the convulsive changes in American society, which have only increased exponentially in the decades since 1971.