This is a guest post from Jerold S. Auerbach, author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel (1896-2016). This post originally appeared on the Times of Israel Blog.
Amid the justifiable furor that erupted over the obscene anti-Semitic cartoon that recently appeared in the international New York Times, its editors remained silent for nearly a week. A solitary voice of anger surfaced in the newspaper. Aptly labeling the cartoon “a textbook illustration” of anti-Semitism, Times columnist Bret Stephens lacerated his newspaper for publishing a depiction of Prime Minster Netanyahu as a dog (with a Star of David hanging from its collar), leading a blind President Trump wearing a kipa. The cartoon, Stephens wrote furiously, “might have been published in the pages of Der Strumer.”
Stephens contextualized the Times obscenity within its “longstanding Jewish problem, dating back to World War II.” Burying the Holocaust in its inside pages, when it even deigned to mention it, certainly was a despicable failure of journalistic integrity that will forever stain the Times.But its Jewish problem appeared long before World War II and remains a stain on its journalistic integrity.
It began when Adolph Ochs purchased the newspaper in 1896. For Ochs, a proud Reform Jew, Judaism was a religion not a national identity. Fearful lest the loyalty of American Jews to the United States would be compromised by adherence even to the idea of Jewish statehood, Ochs pledged his loyalty to the United States by resolutely opposing Jewish nationalism. For Ochs, like prominent Reform leaders, any mention of Jewish statehood posed the menacing challenge of divided loyalty that has hovered over the Times ever since. For half a century before the birth of the State of Israel, unyielding anti-Zionism revealed the deepest fears of its Jewish publisher.
Joseph Levy, the first Times reporter to be posted in Jerusalem (in 1928), became a partisan anti-Zionist advocate. A participant in meetings with the Grand Mufti, Hebrew University Chancellor Judah Magnes (a pacifist who advocated a bi-national Arab-Jewish state) and British Arabist H. John Philby, Levy guided their criticism of Zionism into the Times.
Ochs’s bias was shared by his son-in-law Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who became the Times publisher in 1935 and passed along his Reform legacy to his successors. Under Sulzberger the Times became even more fervently anti-Zionist. Jews, he insisted, must be identified as “people of the Jewish faith,” not members of “the Jewish people.” Jewish reporters named Abraham received by-lines with their initials only.
So it was, decades before a Jewish state arose from the horrors of the Holocaust, that the Times revealed the scope and depth of its discomfort with the rebirth of Jewish national sovereignty in the historic homeland of the Jewish people. Judaism was identified as a religion only, without national content. Zionism, culminating in Jewish statehood, posed a disturbing menace to New York Times publishers that continues to be reflected in editorials, columns and news coverage. It has yet to adjust to the idea, and since 1948 the reality, of a thriving democratic Jewish state in the historic homeland of the Jewish people.
It took nearly a week after its recent publication of an appallingly anti-Semitic cartoon for the Times to confront its culpability. It finally conceded that “the appearance of such an obviously bigoted cartoon in a mainstream publication”—the Times did not identify itself—“is evidence of a profound danger—not only of anti-Semitism but of numbness to its creep.” But it quickly segued to “even greater hostility and danger” confronted by European Jews. And it preposterously claimed, despite its incessant criticism of the Jewish state, that “We have been and remain stalwart supporters of Israel.” Stalwart critics would be more accurate. Indeed, Bret Stephens correctly identified the “intensely adversarial coverage of Israel” in his newspaper.
Whether by Jerusalem journalists, New York editors or European cartoonists The New York Times continues along the path pursued by Adolph Ochs and his Sulzberger descendants. 120 years of evidence, culminating in a despicable anti-Semitic cartoon, suggests that change is unlikely. Whether the Times is capable of “serious reflection” about its deeply embedded Jewish problem, aside from a single editorial, remains to be seen.
Jerold S. Auerbach is author of eleven books, including a New York Times Noteworthy Book (1976), and articles in Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, and The New York Times. A Guggenheim Fellow and Fulbright Lecturer at Tel Aviv University, he is Professor Emeritus of History at Wellesley College.