Murray Polner, founding and only editor of Present Tense magazine

June 7, 2019

Obituaries

(JTA)—Murray Polner, the founding editor of the liberal Jewish magazine Present Tense who served as its editor until it folded, has died.

Polner, who also authored or edited eight books, died on Thursday, May 30 at the age of 91. He was a resident of Great Neck, New York.

Polner founded Present Tense in 1973 and remained its editor until the American Jewish Committee ended the publication of the magazine during a cost-cutting restructuring in 1990.

Present Tense was widely seen as an alternative to Commentary, the conservative magazine also published by the AJC. The first issue described its mission as “expressing a wide diversity of opinion on the situation of Jews in countries around the world, the special problems of Israel, the relationships among Jewish communities, and those issues and events in the United States and abroad which affect Jewish life and institutions.” Polner later founded and ran a newsletter called PS: The Intelligent Guide to Jewish Affairs, in order to continue the same kind of work.

He was a pacifist, anti-war writer and activist, according to The Island Now blog, and often wrote magazine articles as well as letters to the editor about subjects of war and peace.

Days before he died he dictated to his friend Rick Shenkman, founder of the History News Network, a letter to the editor of the New York Times, asking why the editorial page had not warned about a possible U.S. war with Iran, Shenkman told Polner’s son Rob, according to a remembrance posted on the HNN website.

The child of Russian immigrants, he served in the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1947 to 1952 and then in the U.S. Army from 1953 until 1955, eventually becoming a pacifist and working with anti-war groups to prevent the reinstitution of a military draft.

He taught through the early 1960s at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, and then at Brooklyn College, Queens College and Suffolk Community College. Polner received his undergraduate degree from the City University of New York. By the late 1960s he earned a Masters degree in history from the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. in Russian history at Union Institute and University in 1972.

 

He served as book editor for the History News Network until May 2017, and was the editor of Fellowship magazine, published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, from 1991 to 1993.

He was until recently a regular contributor to the LA Progressive. In his last column, dated Jan. 27 of this year, he wrote of his lifelong love affair with the New York Times as a reader and contributor, and how it had begun to fade. “[A]t times the Times seems to fall for insider leaks from the huge and very secret ‘Intelligence Community’ in our post 9/11 national security state, a development embraced by our some of our most aggressive haters,” he wrote. “Add that to the growing hostility to Russia, China and Iran, which could bring us perilously close to triggering an accidental conflict.”

Polner also wrote a biography of Branch Rickey, the baseball executive who signed Jackie Robinson, the first black player in Major League Baseball, to Polner’s beloved Brooklyn Dodgers.

He is survived by his wife of 68 years, Louise; a daughter, Beth Polner Abrahams; sons, Rob and Alex; and six grandchildren.

Robert Bernstein, Human Rights Watch founder who chided group for anti-Israel bias

(JTA)—Robert Bernstein, a founder of Human Rights Watch who later distanced himself from the group over its criticism of Israel, has died.

Bernstein also headed Random House for nearly 25 years, emerging as a leading figure in the publishing world. Among many top authors of the day, his company also published the works of Soviet dissidents Natan Sharansky, Andrei Sakharov, Yelena Bonner and Arkady Shevchenko, as well as Jewish Argentine journalist Jacobo Timerman.

He died last month of respiratory failure at a Manhattan hospital. He was 96.

Bernstein was the founding chairman of Human Rights Watch, founded in 1978 as Helsinki Watch, serving until 1990, according to the organization.

According to its statement on Bernstein’s death, Human Rights Watch said that in 2009, Bernstein publicly criticized the NGO’s reporting on human rights in Israel, writing in an op-ed in the New York Times that it condemned “far more” human rights abuses in Israel than in other Middle Eastern countries ruled by “authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records.”

Human Rights Watch and its board responded that the organization’s work on the region was tough and accurate, holding Israel to the same principles and standards applied to all governments around the world. Bernstein continued to serve on Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Advisory Committee until shortly before his death.

Gerald Steinberg, the president of the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor, which worked closely with Bernstein, described him as “a brave defender of human rights.” On his willingness to criticize Human Rights Watch over Israel, Steinberg said of Bernstein “he understood that it was attempting to turn Israel into a pariah state.”

Bernstein’s memoir, Speaking Freely: My Life in Publishing and Human Rights, was published in 2016.

Bernstein, who began his career as a junior office boy at Simon & Schuster, according to the Washington Post, headed Random House from 1966 to 1990. During his tenure he published famed American authors including James Michener, Toni Morrison, William Styron, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, E. L. Doctorow and Robert Ludlum, as well as the Czech revolutionary Vaclav Havel.

He is survived by his wife of 68 years, Helen, and three sons, Peter, Tom and William; a sister; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Letter to the Editor