Antisemitism at The New York Times?

Yet another Sulzberger mea culpa in the paper’s political cartoon.

By YOEL COHEN
May 16, 2019 19:11
Antisemitism at The New York Times?

The cartoon in The New York Times International Edition showing a blind US President Donald Trump led by a dog with the face of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wearing a Star of David on his collar. (photo credit: screenshot)

 
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The prestigious newspaper, The New York Times published an appalling political cartoon in the opinion pages of its international print edition,” an editorial in the paper opined days later. “It portrayed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel as a dog wearing a Star of David on a collar. He was leading President Trump, drawn as a blind man wearing a skullcap.”

The editorial continued: “The appearance of such an obviously bigoted cartoon in a mainstream publication is evidence of a profound danger – not only of anti-Semitism but of numbness to its creep, to the insidious way this ancient, enduring prejudice is once again working itself into public view and common conversation.”

A political cartoon, by definition, is intended to make a statement. Putting a yarmulke on the US president suggests he is a Jew. Making him blind suggests that he is under Israel’s control. Putting a Star of David on Netanyahu is controversial, given the connection to the Holocaust.

The cartoonist, Antonio Moreira Antunes, who works for the Portuguese newspaper Expresso, has sought to put a damper on the controversy by distinguishing between criticizing the politics of Israel and attacking Jews. “Trump’s erratic, destructive and often blind politics encouraged the radicalism of Netanyahu,” he told a Jerusalem Post reporter via email. To illustrate this, the analogy that occurred to Antunes was a blind man led by a guide dog. He added the Star of David to help readers identify Netanyahu. But the cartoonist failed to explain why he drew a kippa on Trump’s head.

An unsigned editorial is one of the strongest weapons in a newspaper’s armory. Yet another is to publish countering editorial material – whether op-ed or news and feature reportage of, say, the rise of antisemitism today, presenting an opposite view to, in this case, that posed by the cartoonist.

In the 1930s and the 1940s, the editorial said, “The New York Times was largely silent as anti-Semitism rose up and bathed the world in blood. That failure still haunts this newspaper. Now rightly, the Times has declared itself ‘deeply sorry’ for the cartoon and called it ‘unacceptable.’”

The editorial, sub-titled “By publishing a bigoted cartoon, the Times ignored the lessons of history, including its own,” needs to be seen against the paper’s controversial past with regard to Jewish and Israeli matters.

The New York Times, a family newspaper, was bought originally in 1896 by Adolph Ochs, the son of a lay rabbi from German stock, who was married to the daughter of the leading Reform rabbi, Isaac Mayer Wise. He and his son-in-law after him, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, were acutely concerned with their social standing in American society and were anxious that the newspaper not be perceived as “a Jewish newspaper.”

During the Second World War, the newspaper missed what would be one of the war’s major stories: the annihilation of six million Jews. Sulzberger deliberately lowered the newspaper’s attention to the story. Laurel Leff, author of Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper, has charged that the newspaper treated it as a secondary story and that only six times during the entire war did the genocide make the paper’s front pages rather than being tucked away on inside pages. True, other US papers also failed at the time to gauge the scale of atrocities, but just 11 editorials appeared in The New York Times about the persecution of the Jews in 1938, and only three each in 1941, 1942, and 1943. Partly, the low profile reflected how Sulzberger wholly identified with Reform Judaism’s belief that the Jews were a religion, not a nation.

Even a tour of Dachau and the ovens by Sulzberger after the war failed to move him to support a Jewish homeland. So, it was no surprise that, come Israel’s independence, the newspaper editorialized against the creation of the Jewish state. And Arthur Hays Sulzberger instructed staff not to refer in editorials to “the Jewish nation.”


The owners were so anxious for the paper not to be seen as the “Jewish newspaper” that journalists who were Jewish were not appointed during the Ochs and Sulzberger years to senior editorial positions. Indeed, journalists with Jewish names were asked to be discreet and write only their initials in the byline. Thus, for example, Abraham Rosenthal became “A. M. Rosenthal.” Although the paper was one of the first foreign media organizations to open a full-time bureau in Israel, no Jew was appointed as the newspaper’s correspondent there until well into the 80s. Yet Arthur Hays Sulzberger was wise enough to appoint Irving Spiegel to cover New York, the country’s largest Jewish community.

However, once his son, “Punch” Sulzberger, took over as publisher in 1963, it led to a significant change in the paper’s stance – and a series of mea culpas. Indeed, the 1967 Six Day War had such an impact on Punch that he became a Zionist. Also, Jews were appointed to senior positions. Further, A. M. Rosenthal (married to a Catholic but identifying as a Jew) became the paper’s editor – the first of three Jews appointed to the post. The others were Max Frankel (the son of Israeli emigres to New York) and Jill Abramson (the first woman to be appointed to the editor’s chair). Punch’s son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr, who succeeded him as publisher, continued with the more balanced approach. (This seems to have extended into his personal life; even though he was confirmed in church as an Episcopalian, he had even spent time on an Israeli kibbutz.)

According to Christopher Vecsey, author of Jews and Judaism in The New York Times, “No aspect of Jewish experience has received more Times coverage over the past several decades than the Holocaust” – which can be seen as the paper atoning for previous sins.

But the paper’s latest apology must naturally raise questions about whether controls in journalistic expression might infringe on freedom of the press. However, as The New York Times editorial concluded, “Apologies are important, but the deeper obligation of the Times is to focus on leading through unblinking journalism, and the clear editorial expression of its values.”

Every social value – including freedom of the press – is a relative rather than absolute value. All values – for example, military censorship or controls on artistic expression – may be essential for the well-being of society, but they must be limited to a bare minimum so that they can be effective on the one hand, but on the other hand, they do not infringe upon the freedom we value.

It is instructive to compare this cartoon affair with the Charlie Hebdo affair. After the murder by Islamists of 12 staff members, including nationally celebrated cartoonists of the satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in Paris in January 2015, the Western media were faced with the dilemma of whether to reprint the cover cartoon of Mohammed or not. On the one hand, not only was it the subject behind the horrendous murders, but reprinting it – notwithstanding that the cartoon was offensive to many Muslims – would show a sense of journalistic identity with the basic principle of media freedom that underlay the Islamic attack. On the other hand, to avoid republishing it would mean facing accusations of journalistic cowardice and self-censorship.

The Washington Post, for example, which did publish it, argued in a blog that, while the Post’s policy was also to avoid publication of material which was “deliberately” offensive to religious groups, the Charlie Hebdo cartoon of Muhammed did not meet that criterion. “We’ve never maintained that simply publishing an image of Muhammed itself was offensive,” it added. In contrast, The New York Times, while only among a minority of news organisations in the US and elsewhere that decided not to republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, chose to be more sensitive and then had to defend themselves against criticisms for being too weak.

In retrospect, the reaction of The New York Times to this latest cartoon controversy provides a belated postmortem to the earlier Charlie Hebdo one. Cartoonists are paid to be provocative, outrageous, and moralist. But in so doing, they should also work within socially acceptable boundaries. To influence, yes. To raise issues to the public agenda, certainly. But not when the style boils over into generating hatred and antisemitism.

Yoel Cohen is on the faculty of The School of Communication, Ariel University; his books include ‘God, Jews & the media: Religion and Israel’s media,’ and ‘Spiritual News: Reporting Religion Around the World

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