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August 21, 2014 9:57 pm
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The New York Times’ Favorite Rabbis

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avatar by Jerold Auerbach

CAMERA's new billboard in front of The New York Times's headquarters. Photo: Screenshot / Twitter.

CAMERA's new billboard in front of The New York Times's headquarters. Photo: Screenshot / Twitter.

In the midst of the Gaza war New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief Jodi Rudoren lauded Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, founder of her liberal Reform synagogue in Jerusalem. Including a Muslim excerpt in the traditional Jewish prayer for peace, he advocates “a nuanced position that recognizes the suffering on both sides.” She had no reason to know that she was part of a venerable tradition: ever since 1929 Times reporters have relied upon rabbis chosen to bolster their liberal critiques of Zionism and Israel.

Eighty-five years ago this month Haj Amin-al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, proclaimed that Jews intended to “usurp” the Western Wall and desecrate Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount. His vicious incitement provoked violent Arab riots throughout Palestine. Covering the upheaval for The New York Times was Joseph M. Levy, its newly designated “Palestine Correspondent.” Living in Palestine since his infancy, and fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, he was fascinated by archeology, convinced that recent discoveries made the biblical account “more vivid and intelligible than ever.”

But the Arab riots transformed Levy. Not only the first Times reporter based in Jerusalem, and the first Jew, he became the first in a line of Times correspondents to seek rabbinical support for their criticism of Zionism and the Jewish State.

Levy’s rabbi was Judah L. Magnes, the maverick American Reform leader whose “spiritual” Zionism blended pacifism and universalism. Chancellor of the Hebrew University, he vigorously supported the fringe Brit Shalom peace group, which advocated a bi-national state in Palestine. Magnes drew Levy into covert political discussions with the Grand Mufti and H. St-John Philby, who had served with the British Secret Service in Palestine and Trans-Jordan before his dismissal for providing secret information to Ibn Saud.

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Levy became the conduit for the anti-Zionist consensus forged by Philby, Magnes and the Grand Mufti. After forwarding a draft of Philby’s proposal for “a solution of the existing political situation in Palestine” to the Grand Mufti for his approval, Levy secured Times publication for lengthy statements by Magnes and Philby in opposition to Zionism. Magnes proposed that Palestine become the “World Holyland,” but Jews “must renounce all ideas of political domination.”

Philby thanked Levy profusely for introducing him to Magnes, who is “struggling manfully for a sound solution.” Acknowledging that Zionists had expressed “the greatest indignation” over Magnes’s proposals, Levy nonetheless afforded him two opportunities within a week to respond at length to his critics. Until Israel’s proclamation of independence two decades later, Magnes enjoyed privileged access in the Times for the expression of his anti-Zionist views. He was publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger’s favorite rabbi.

New York Times columnists, especially those who became Jerusalem bureau chiefs, have also frequently relied upon rabbis for spiritual – and political – support for their own liberal views about what is best for Israel. David Shipler, who became bureau chief in 1979, encountered Rabbi David Hartman, a Brooklyn-born liberal Orthodox rabbi, whose think-tank in Jerusalem nurtured the integration of Jewish law and contemporary liberal values.

Skilled in cultivating the Times as his international pulpit, Hartman explained to Shipler that “something had gone terribly wrong” in Israel as “the dream of Zionism had been translated into the reality of a Jewish state.” Warning of the “deep religious nationalists” who were propelled to prominence by the Six-Day War, he gained a convert in Shipler, who lauded Hartman and decried Jewish settlers in his Pulitzer-Prize winning Arab & Jew.

Thomas Friedman, Shipler’s successor, erroneously believed that he broke the “old unwritten rule” at the Times of never allowing a Jew to report from Jerusalem – although Levy had preceded him by more than half a century. He, too, embraced Rabbi Hartman as “my own rabbi.” Friedman cited Hartman as his rabbinical authority for equating Judaism with American liberty while demanding Palestinian national freedom as a Zionist requirement.

With Hartman’s recent death, Times journalists have cited new rabbis to make their liberalism kosher. In addition to Rudoren, columnist Roger Cohen featured Brooklyn rabbi Andy Bachman’s plea for “moderate Israelis and Palestinians” to pursue “economic progress and justice,” not war. Israelis, Cohen added, must “raise their voices for a two-state peace.” A noble vision – if only Hamas would embrace it.

Until then Times reporters might occasionally consult a rabbi who challenges, rather than reinforces, their liberal pieties. Surely they are not hard to find – especially in Jerusalem or Brooklyn.

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