The people & the Book - Israel’s 70th: Fit to print?

The "Grey Lady" has a long history of selective coverage on Israel.

The headquarters of the New York Times is pictured on 8th Avenue in New York (photo credit: REUTERS)
The headquarters of the New York Times is pictured on 8th Avenue in New York
(photo credit: REUTERS)
With Israel's 70th anniversary of independence, an editorial response from The New York Times seems likely. But if past is prologue, the solitary democratic state in the Middle East is unlikely to be celebrated with fulsome praise. The Times’ discomfort with the idea, no less reality, of a Jewish state has a long history stretching back to the purchase of the newspaper by Adolph Ochs in 1896.
Ochs was a proud American Jew. The son-in-law of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, leader of the nascent Reform movement in the late 19th century, he passionately embraced its definition of Judaism as a religion, not a national identity that might prompt dreaded allegations of divided loyalty. Reform Jews had cause for concern: only months earlier Theodor Herzl had published The Jewish State, urging restoration of Jewish national sovereignty in Palestine – “our ever-memorable historic home.” Zionism posed a potentially menacing challenge to the ardent Reform affirmation of the patriotic loyalty of American Jews to the United States.
The very idea of Jewish nationalism – to say nothing of the eventual reality of the State of Israel – would torment Ochs and the publishing dynasty that he secured through his son-in-law Arthur Hays Sulzberger.
But until World War I Zionism remained a remote European movement, only occasionally noticed by the Times. It did not have a reporter in Palestine until 1928 when Joseph W. Levy, whose boyhood had been spent in Jerusalem, was hired as a foreign correspondent.
Murderous Arab riots the following year, leading to the slaughter of Jews in their ancient capitol cities of Hebron and Jerusalem, prompted Levy to become a partisan advocate. He participated in secret meetings with the Grand Mufti, Hebrew University Chancellor Judah L. Magnes (who advocated a bi-national state), and former British civil servant H. St. John Philby, an Arabist who vigorously opposed the idea of a Jewish national home in Palestine. The Times journalist guided statements by Magnes and Philby into his newspaper, launching an anti- Zionist critique that would long remain a Times editorial refrain.
The convergence of religious Reform and anti-Zionism had far more serious journalistic consequences once Adolph Hitler ascended to power. Adolph Ochs, by then in declining health, was torn between his ancestral attachment to Germany and steadfast American patriotism. Times editors, who had dismissed the Nazi menace as a gross exaggeration in 1930, were slow to respond three years later when Hitler became Chancellor. Its foreign correspondent was charmed by Hitler’s “childlike” eyes and “sincere” manner.
Following Ochs’s death in 1935, Arthur Hays Sulzberger succeeded him as publisher.
Sulzberger echoed Ochs’s concern lest Zionism raise doubts about the loyalty of American Jews. His unease over “showcasing” Jews in the Times prompted instructions that they were to be identified as “people of the Jewish faith,” not members of “the Jewish people.” Reporters named Abraham were granted by-lines with their initials only. The idea of a Jewish editorial page editor was anathema to the publisher.
The convergence of Sulzberger’s Reform Judaism and fervent anti-Zionism had especially serious consequences for his newspaper between 1941-1945, when the Holocaust was buried in its inside pages. During the war years the Times became a sounding board for the vehemently anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism, extensively reporting and frequently echoing its discomfort with the prospect of Jewish statehood.
Three months after Israel proclaimed its independence in May 1948 the Times reporter in Jerusalem still was identified as its “Palestine” correspondent. Not until Independence Day in 1953 did the editorial page recognize the Jewish state as “an outpost of democracy in the Middle East.”
The Times’ support was short-lived. Given Sulzberger’s brimming concern lest the Jewish state be perceived as representing the Jewish people, Adolph Eichmann’s trial by Israel for crimes committed in Europe was deeply disturbing. Anticipating Hannah Arendt’s noxious label, correspondent Homer Bigart was struck by Eichmann’s self-image as “a petty bureaucrat,” not worth fussing over.
Far more consequential was Israel’s stunning 1967 victory over the hostile Arab armies massed at its borders. If the idea of a Jewish state had long agitated the Times, a triumphant Israel deepened its unease.
Times editors focused on the necessity of Israeli redress for “the legitimate grievances of the Arab world” – especially the plight of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war. They expected Israel to display “magnanimity” toward the Arab “victims” who had been prepared to annihilate it. Six years later, on Yom Kippur, Egyptian and Syrian military forces attacked Israel. Condemning their aggression, the Times demanded Israeli restraint.
The 1977 election of Menachem Begin, the Irgun leader despised by the Times during Israel’s struggle for independence, posed the challenge to provide fair coverage of Israel’s first right-wing, and religiously identified, Prime Minister. His support for settlements in what had been Jordan’s West Bank elicited incessant criticism of Israeli “occupation” that shows no sign of abating four decades later. Claiming to align itself with “friends of Israel,” the Times identified the Jewish state as the major impediment to Middle East peace.
With Palestinian terrorist attacks increasing, editors and columnists found multiple opportunities to berate Israel for responding with force. Viewing Israel as a malevolent occupying power, they disregarded its historic claims and international legal rights to land between the Jordanian border and pre-1967 armistice lines, rarely identified as biblical Judea and Samaria. A bevy of Op-Ed contributors blamed Israel for Palestinian violence; assertions of moral equivalence between Palestinian terrorists and Israeli settlers became a repetitive trope of Times coverage.
The selection of Thomas Friedman as Jerusalem Bureau Chief in 1984 represented a decision by editor A.M. Rosenthal to discard “the old unwritten rule” at The Times not to permit a Jew to report from Jerusalem.(Evidently Rosenthal did not know about Joseph Levy.)
Friedman, who had embraced Israel as a teen-age kibbutz volunteer, became active as a Brandeis student in Breira, a left-wing Jewish advocacy group that favored a two-state solution along pre-1967 lines. His Times posting in Beirut during the Lebanon war featured sharp condemnation of Israel. After his relocation to Jerusalem he refocused on Palestinian suffering under Israeli occupation. Along the way, he came to rely upon a trio of Israelis whose criticism of their country guided his refrain (echoed in the reporting of his successors) about the Israeli David that had become the menacing Jewish Goliath.
Political liberalism entwined with American patriotism framed The Times’ coverage of Israel, providing a buffer against insinuations of dual loyalty. Right-wing Prime Ministers Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu – and Jewish settlers – provoked the persistent ire of editors and columnists alike. Israeli “occupation” (of its biblical homeland) became a repetitive trope of condemnation.
The obduracy of Palestinian leaders who rejected Israeli offers of “land for peace” in 2000 and 2008, and waged war against Israel after its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, did not weigh nearly as heavily in editorials or columns as the perceived intransigence of the Jewish state.
Since the turn of the 21st century The Times’ columnists have launched a fusillade of criticism of Israel. Writing from Washington, Thomas Friedman delighted in role-playing as the Saudi king and American presidents to proffer his own peace plan to Israel’s detriment. Roger Cohen, like Anthony Lewis before him, wrapped himself in his Jewish identity to badger Israel for the absence of peace. The fallback position of Times editors, even at a time of rising Palestinian violence, invariably was moral equivalence.
Israelis and Palestinians alike were blamed for the carnage inflicted on Israeli civilians riding buses, food shopping, eating pizza, or celebrating Passover.
Israeli op-ed contributors – prominent leftwing writers Amos Oz and David Grossman and Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit among them – were incessant critics of their country.
Far more newsworthy than the deaths of Israelis from Palestinian terrorist attacks were the deaths of civilians in Gaza and the West Bank from Israeli retaliation. News coverage from Palestinian territory was invariably provided by Times reporters who were guided by, and dependent upon, local Palestinian sources for contacts, translation and interpretation.
Between 2009-16 The Times’ editorial policy was framed within the acrimonious tension between a liberal American President and a conservative Israeli Prime Minister.
Barack Obama’s determination to improve relations with the Muslim world, while speaking (his) “truth” to Israel, guided editorial judgment. Benjamin Netanyahu, in turn, was routinely criticized for his stubborn defense of Israeli security. The Times critique of Israel intensified once Diaa Hadid, a Muslim advocate of the Palestinian cause, was hired in response to the Public Editor’s suggestion that an Arabic-speaking journalist would enhance Times coverage.
The embedded narrative of Palestinian victimization and Israeli culpability endured.
In August 2016 the Ochs-Sulzberger family publishing dynasty reached its 120th anniversary.
(To be sure, the biblical life span that God assigned to Moses [Genesis 6:3] was intended for people, not newspapers.) The Times has remained faithful to the entwined principles of Reform Judaism and American patriotism embraced by Adolph Ochs and his Sulzberger descendants: Judaism is a religion without national content; assimilation assures the patriotic loyalty of American Jews; Zionism, compounded by the birth of the State of Israel, remains a lurking problem. All the news “fit to print” became news that fit New York Times discomfort with the idea, and since 1948 the reality, of a thriving democratic Jewish state in the historic homeland of the Jewish people.
Given its entwined history of family journalism and Jewish discomfort, the likelihood of a warm New York Times embrace of Israel on its 70th anniversary of independence for its astonishing achievements as a democratic Jewish state, restored in its ancient homeland nearly two millennia after the Roman conquest destroyed Jewish national sovereignty, seems remote. But if the Times is truly dedicated to all the news fit to print, anything less would be shameful.
Jerold S. Auerbach, Professor Emeritus of History at Wellesley College, is the author of “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016,” to be published this summer by Academic Studies Press