The Times And Its Jewish Problem

The Times And Its Jewish Problem

Associate Editor

Despite The New York Times frequently distinguished and always-considerable attention to Jewish subjects in the last 15 years (at least), more than a few Jews continue to look upon the paper with what Elvis called ìsuspicious minds.î For most of the last century, the Times has returned the suspicion, looking upon anything Jewish with squeamishness bordering on contempt.

In The New Yorker (April 19), writers Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones conclude after seven years of research that the Timesí founding family, the Ochs and Sulzbergers, had ìa self-image as Jews [that] has profoundly shaped the paper,î and for the negative, at that. Tifft and Jones attribute this to the familyís lingering 19th century-style Reform-German Jewishness.

That group was notorious for being ashamed of the Eastern European shtetl-types that emigrated here after they did. In addition, it wasnít until Israelís founding that these German Brahmins began to share the Zionism and proud ethnic consciousness that so dominated the thinking of the Jewish mainstream. Even then, the Ochs and Sulzbergers balked at being anything but Americans first.Yes, the Times invested a lot of coverage to the 1914 case of Leo Frank ó a Jewish factory manager in Atlanta who was found guilty, and hung by a Georgia lynch mob, for the murder of a 13-year-old Christian girl. But the anti-Semitism unearthed by the case so soured Adolph Ochs, say Tifft and Jones, that subsequent Jewish issues were ìhandled with a wariness that bordered on paranoia.îWith the rise of Nazi Germany, that paranoia overwhelmed good sense: Ochs ìbanned all letters to the editor concerning Hitler.î The Times ìlamely explained to those who inquired that it had received so many letters on ëthe German situationí that it would be unfair to publish some and not others…îNews coverage of the Hitler years was ìremarkably thorough,î but the stories were frequently brief and buried deep within the paper. The Warsaw ghetto uprising and other resistance were obliquely ascribed to ìthe Polesî and ìWarsaw patriots.î A front-page story on the liberation of Dachau did not include the word ìJew,î and an article on Auschwitz, written by C.L. Sulzberger, made no mention that most of the dead were Jews.Additionally, the Sulzbergers were ìskittish about showcasing Jewish talent. … When Jewish bylines were given they were deracinated,î Abraham H. Raskin became A.H. Raskin; similarly, A.M. Rosenthal, and others until the 1970s.The great landmark of the Times maturation came in 1969, with the appointment of Rosenthal as managing editor, and later executive editor and (pro-Likud) columnist. He was followed into the upper echelons by Max Frankel and Joseph Lelyveld. Editorials were rarely read by Punch Sulzberger, and Frankel said that ìthe unhappiest Punch ever was, probably, was when we criticized the Israelis for bombing a nuclear reactor inside Iraq,î in 1981.The authors report that the current publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., continues the hands-off approach, and maintains a ìtenuous tie to his Jewish heritageî of which he is ìproud.îThatís heritage, not religion. He considers himself an agnostic, say Tifft and Jones. Once, when an Israeli official was explaining to Sulzberger that he and others in the room would always have a homeland in the Jewish country, Sulzberger said loudly: ìExcuse me, but Iím an Episcopalian! Is this still my country?îTifft and Jones tell us that 30 years later Sulzberger ìcontinues to regard the Israeliís comment as racist.înIf the first casualty of war is truth, then there is a major casualty in Kosovo.Newspaper ads are being run by Jewish organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish World Service that evoke a Holocaust context: ìOnce again, thereís a reason to remember,î reads the AJWS headline under a picture of refugees clustered on and alongside a train. Elsewhere, Miles Lehrman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, was quoted by the JTA news service (April 14): ìAs we remember the victims of the St. Louis and all of the eventual victims of the Holocaust, we have a better understanding why we are in Kosovo … while murder and mass atrocities run rampant.îBut is this righteous indignation or wartime jingoism that distorts the truth? Henry Kissinger asks in Newsweek (April 5), if the suffering ìis so offensive to our moral sensibilities,î what about ìEast Africa, Sri Lanka, Kurdistan, Kashmir and Afghanistan ó to name just a few of the places where infinitely more casualties have been incurred than in Kosovo … the president has invoked historical analogies [that] are extremely dubious.îIn Newsweek International (April 12), Elie Wiesel writes, ìAs early as 1992, media coverage of the war in Bosnia mistakenly compared Serbian ëethnic cleansingí to the Holocaust. … Now we are witnessing a nightmare in Kosovo; it demands action, not comparison.îIf the imagery of trains is correct, then the Albanian Kosovars are analogous to Hitlerís innocent victims, killed for genocidal reasons in a war they didnít ask for.The pertinent question is when does the media commence the telling of a story? In Israel, for example, the Arabs prefer to begin the tale with territory occupied in July 1967, rather than in Hebron 1929, or even 1948. In Yugoslavia, when does the story of this new Holocaust begin?According to a 12-year-old edition of The New York Times (Nov. 1, 1987), the Albanian Kosovars were reported as instigating Holocaust-like activity, long before they became the 1999 symbol of Holocaust victimhood. The Times reported way back then, ìSlavic Orthodox churches have been attacked, and flags have been torn down. Wells have been poisoned and crops burned. Slavic boys have been knifed, and some young ethnic Albanians have been told by their elders to rape Serbian girls.îIf the Serbs respond in kind, does that make anyone in this story analogous to the Jews of the Shoah? Before the Jewish civilians were put on trains, did they poison wells and rape their enemies, as did Kosovar civilians?The ADLís national director, Abraham Foxman, told The Jewish Week, ìThe events themselves [of 1999] evoke images of the Holocaust, and the fact they do doesnít mean that itís the Holocaust. It certainly doesnít trivialize the Holocaust by events that are happening which bring it to mind.îWhen does the Holocaust imagery rightly begin? ìNone of it is black and white,î says Foxman. ìThere are grays. On the other hand, when you begin comparing what is a [Serbian] government with a policy to [Kosovar] rebels, itís not the same thing. There was a lot of pain and hurt and vengeance.îRuth Messinger, president of the AJWS, defended the imagery: ìWe didnít pick the picture [of refugees on a train] by accident. We are not into measuring one international disaster against another, but when a dictator is forcing people out of their homes and killing them because of who they are, and when one of the methods used is to evacuate people is to herd them onto trains, there is a connection in peopleís minds between these actions and actions taken against the Jews.î She said it was analogous to the Holocaust circa 1939, not later.Except the historical fact of Jews in boxcars was not something that happened in the 1930s, but only in the 1940s when the trains were bound for genocide and Auschwitz ó a place, wrote Elie Wiesel, that the Kosovar story, for all its evil, doesnít go.

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