Murray Polner, a Great Neck resident since 1961, passed away on May 30. He was 91 years old.
Polner was the founding and only editor of Present Tense magazine, from 1973 to 1990. The liberal magazine was published by the American Jewish Committee, covering Jewish life around the world with heart, cogency, and thoroughness. When the AJC ended the publication, the organization was left with only its neo-conservative Commentary magazine. The New York Times covered the closing of Present Tense, partly because there was a hint of a possible political motive. This was the Reagan era, and not long after a controversial Present Tense cover featured a caricature of the president. (Polner was no fan.)
Polner was also the author, coauthor, or editor of at least eight books. One of the most memorable was “No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran” (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970). This was the first nonfiction book to consider the plight of recent and future veterans of an unpopular war. The book consists of oral-history interviews with former soldiers, grouped under chapter headings “The Hawks,” “The Doves,” and “The Haunted.”
He wrote on the concluding page, “…of this I am certain: never before in American history have as many loyal and brave young men been as shabbily treated by the government that sent them to war; never before have so many of them questioned as much, as these veterans have, the essential rightness of what they were forced to do.”
“No Victory Parades” drew criticism from the right and praise from left-leaning reviewers. To his gratification, it influenced scholars, advocates, and veterans who went on to investigate mental health and other problems particular to this group of military veterans, such as what was later termed post-traumatic stress. He also collected and edited original writings for a book on the amnesty question, titled “When Can I Come Home?” (Doubleday Anchor, 1972).
An unwavering pacifist, anti-war writer and activist — and an early vegetarian and animal-rights advocate since his military service during the Korean War — he also wrote (with Jim O’Grady) a biography of the Berrigan Brothers, titled “Disarmed & Dangerous: The Radical Lives and Times of Daniel and Philip Berrigan” (Basic Books, 2007), as well as a sterling biography of one of his baseball heroes, titled “Branch Rickey: A Biography,” which New York City newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin later praised in his own book on Rickey. In this laudatory biography, Polner argued that Rickey was motivated principally by his religiosity and moral convictions in breaking baseball’s color line.
Polner often wrote magazine articles as well as letters to the editor about subjects of war and peace. A number of them in which he came out strongly against the reimposition of a military draft (he was an active participant in an antiwar group founded in the late 1970s in Great Neck, called Mothers (and Others) Against the Draft). He also counseled young men about the legal option of becoming a conscientious objector in the event of a military draft. At the time, during President Jimmy Carter’s administration, mandatory draft registration had been resumed.
Less than a week before he died, he dictated a letter to the editor to one major daily, urging editorial writers to take up a cudgel against brewing Trump administration plans for war against Iran. He hoped to do more writing for Internet publications against the Washington “consensus” about the value of a far-flung U.S. military presence, and bellicosity, around the world, when he finally succumbed to an infection.
Polner was the child of poor immigrants, Alex and Rebekah (Meyerson) Polner, who fled from Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution and he was raised in Brownsville, Brooklyn with his older sister, Mildred. In addition to Tilden, he attended CCNY (graduating in 1950 with a BSS degree); The University of Pennsylvania (MA, History); The Russian Institute, now Harriman Inst., receiving a Certificate of Graduation there (1967); and a Ph.D. from Union University & Institute (in Russian History, 1972). He was in the U.S. Navy Reserve from 1947 to 1952, and the U.S. Army from 1953-1955, serving during the Korean conflict in Japan.
In addition to founding and editing Present Tense magazine for the AJC, he was the editor of Fellowship magazine, published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, from 1991 to 1993.
He taught at Thomas Jefferson High School in the late 1950s and early 1960s, over a 10-year period, and was an adjunct professor at Suffolk Community College, Brooklyn College, and Queens College in the second half of the 1960s. He then served as executive assistant to the first chancellor of the New York City public schools, Harvey Scribner, and was most proud of his contributions to a student bill of rights as well as the introduction of night schools for teenagers who held daytime jobs.
Polner is survived by his wife of more than 68 years, Louise (Greenwald) Polner, their three children, Beth Polner Abrahams, Robert Polner, and Alex Polner, and six grandchildren.