William Frankel

By Geoffrey Alderman, April 25, 2008

Born London, February 3, 1917.
Died Washington DC, April 18, 2008, aged 91.

A strong and effective editor, William Frankel was responsible for a revolution in the relationship between the Jewish Chronicle and the Anglo-Jewish establishment a half-century ago.

As general manager from 1955-58 and editor from 1958-77, Frankel dispensed with the niceties of a past in which Anglo-Jewry’s oldest and premier newspaper had tamely reported — or not reported — what the establishment wanted the rank-and-file to know, or not to know.

His finest hour came in 1961, when, breaking the news of the practically enforced resignation of Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs from the staff of Jews’ College, Frankel fearlessly challenged and tore up the convention that, save for the most minor of quibbles, the JC always supported two bastions of the establishment, the United Synagogue and Chief Rabbinate. But in other ways, too, he steered the JC into modern times.

Frankel came from an impeccable Orthodox Jewish background. The second of three sons, he was born in Whitechapel in 1917 to parents who had recently emigrated from Galicia.

His father ran a market stall in Petti-coat Lane before becoming shammes to various shtiebls and shuls. He grew to manhood in a Chassidic environment but his attendance, first at the nearby Jews’ Free School and later at St-George’s-in-the-East Central School, exposed him to a much wider milieu.

Attracted by medicine, he studied for a year at the Regent Street Polytechnic but could not handle the physics or find long-term funding.

He moved to Davenant Foundation School to matriculate in classics in order to qualify for Jews’ College, then took a series of lowly jobs before becoming secretary of Mizrachi, the religious Zionist movement.

Married to Gertrude Reed in 1939, but excluded from military service on medical grounds, he and his wife escaped the Blitz by moving to Cambridge, where the London School of Economics had also been evacuated.

At the LSE-in-exile, Frankel completed a law degree and met a rising generation of Jewish intellectuals. Called to the Bar in 1944, for the next decade he was a successful barrister.

He might have remained in the legal profession. But as the English correspondent of the American Jewish Committee, another paid communal post, he met David Kessler, head of the controlling shareholding family of the JC. In 1954 Kessler asked Frankel to become the paper’s general manager. Frankel accepted the challenge. He took over as editor four years later.

In 1954 the JC was edited by an irascible Mancunian, John Shaftesley, a printer by trade. Shaftesley’s approach was unashamedly formulaic. Though not afraid, on occasion, to criticise the British Government (over Palestine) or the state of Israel (over reprisals for Islamic terrorist attacks), Shaftesley took care not to rock too many boats.

Notoriously, in the 1956 Suez crisis, Shaftesley went out of his way to defend Jewish Labour MPs who meekly followed the Labour Party line in condemning Israel’s attack on Egypt.

In 1958 Shaftesley was “kicked upstairs” — made an executive director and sent back to Manchester to take charge of the JC-owned Jewish Gazette.

Secure now in the editor’s chair, Frankel set about recruiting a team of younger, anti-establishment journalists, including Chaim Bermant and Alfred Sherman. He expanded the JC’s coverage of foreign affairs, arts and entertainment.

Typographically, the JC was completely redesigned but, more importantly, its content was refocused onto the tensions and tribulations experienced by an Anglo-Jewish community that was fast becoming polarised, pluralised and dysfunctional.

As far as Frankel was concerned, there were no sacred cows. He became increasingly critical of Israeli policy in Judea and Samaria, but his most barbed editorials were aimed at the Board of Deputies (which he condemned as a piece of “obsolete machinery”) and the United Synagogue (whose plan for a massive “cathedral synagogue” at Marble Arch he dismissed as irrelevant to the needs of the Anglo-Jewish masses in post-war Britain).

In January 1961 he brazenly accepted — as an “act of courtesy” — a summons from the United Synagogue’s Beth Din to answer the charge that, in running an article critical of the views of Orthodox rabbis on mixed dancing, he had brought Judaism into disrepute. Frankel was completely unapologetic.

On December 22, 1961, Frankel broke the “Jacobs’ affair” — the resignation of Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs as lecturer from Jews’ College, following Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie’s refusal to honour an unwritten agreement to appoint him principal. Jacobs’s recent book had questioned the literal understanding of God’s revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai as described in the book of Exodus.

To the intense anger of both Brodie and his successor, Dr Immanuel Jakobovits, Frankel, preoccupied with the rise of an intolerant ultra-Orthodoxy, never flinched from his support of the persecuted Jacobs, whom he rightly declared to be every bit as Orthodox as the late Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz.

He was among the core group of New West End Synagogue members (Jacobs’s pulpit prior to his Jews’ College post) who established the break-away New London Synagogue in 1964 as a spiritual home for Jacobs.

Appointed CBE in 1970, Frankel retired from the editorship in 1977 but remained director of its parent company till 1995, serving as chairman from 1991-94. He disliked collective bargaining and, as chairman, derecognised the JC’s National Union of Journalists “chapel”. Union recognition returned after his chairmanship.

Although he said at the beginning of his editorship that he had no training for the job, his concise and legally trained mind was apparent from his cogently argued leaders. He continued writing after retiring as editor, contributing to The Times (of London) and The Statesman (of India). He established a prize for young writers in memory of his film-critic daughter, Anne, from his first marriage, who died in 1989.

He edited Friday Nights (1973), a JC anthology, and the annual Survey of Jewish Affairs from 1982-92, but wrote his own book, Israel Observed (1980), while a special adviser to The Times over a period covering that paper’s 1979 strike.

His memoir, Tea with Einstein and Other Memories (2006), recalled his surprise visit in 1947 to Albert Einstein.

He continued his legal interests as president of the Mental Health Review Appeal Tribunal and chairman of the Social Security Appeal Tribunal from 1978-89, having already served as JP from 1963-69.

In the academic field he was visiting professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1968-69, vice-president of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research from 1993, and a governor at both Oxford and Cambridge Hebrew study centres. He was a clear and popular speaker and lecturer, whether on BBC radio or to American students.

Divorced in 1971, he married American divorcee Claire Neuman in 1973. After leaving the JC board, he divided his time between Washington and London.

He is survived by his second wife; a son, John, from his first marriage; three stepdaughters and five grandchildren.

Last updated: 4:41pm, September 23 2009