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May 6, 2016 7:33 am

What’s Behind the Recent Glut of New York Times Holocaust Stories?

avatar by Ira Stoll

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The front page of The New York Times of 11 November 1938. Photo: Wikipedia.

The front page of The New York Times of 11 November 1938. Photo: Wikipedia.

The editor of a Jewish newspaper for which I worked once imposed an informal limit on the number of Holocaust-related stories in each issue, remarking, facetiously, that as bad as it was that the Holocaust happened, it didn’t make it any better to have to hear about it over and over again.

The point wasn’t to oppose Holocaust remembrance, just to attempt to assure that the narrative of Jewish victimhood not overshadow the other newsworthy and more contemporary stories of Jewish nationalism, power, and religious and cultural renaissance.

The New York Times, alas, has no such hesitation. It loves to write about the Holocaust.

Though the paper made no direct acknowledgment of Holocaust Remembrance Day — at least that I could discern — it marked the occasion with at least two Holocaust-related articles.

One, from the metro desk, appears under the headline, “Search for Family’s Lost History Leads to Mass Grave in Poland.” It reports on the Pomeranc family, a New York real estate family who funded an investigation that discovered mass graves at Adampol, Poland.

A second article, in the arts section, is by a critic writing about her grandfather, who listened to classical music at the Buchenwald concentration camp. It appears under the headline, “Love and Loss, Set to Music, During the Holocaust.”

The Times’ Holocaust interest extends beyond Holocaust Remembrance Day. On one random day last month, the newspaper’s home page featured both an arts article, headlined “Does My Family Own an Artwork Looted by Nazis?” and a “couch” column by a New York psychoanalyst exploring the complexity of treating a Polish patient, given that the psychoanalyst’s father had been in the Belzec concentration camp. (The “couch” column says, “details have been altered to protect patient privacy,” so it’s not clear how much of it is actually true, but that is another matter.)

The Shoah, in other words, is a Jewish topic that the Times adores covering nearly as much as it likes to write about Jewish food. It’s almost as if, by dwelling on the genocide retrospectively decades later, the newspaper is trying to compensate for its own embarrassingly bad coverage of atrocity when it was actually happening.

If the Times wanted to atone genuinely for its World War II-era errors, it would do so by doing a better job of covering contemporary Jewish issues. There, the newspaper’s record ranges from the laughably clumsy to the downright shameful.

This week, the newspaper followed up its classic correction for having “incorrectly implied that beef tenderloin is kosher and appropriate for Passover” with another so-good (or bad)-it-is-worth-clipping correction, this one declaring, “An article on April 6 about the first Italian translation of the Babylonian Talmud referred imprecisely to its number of pages. While it is 5,422 pages long if both sides of a page are counted, it contains only 2,711 individual pages, not 5,422.”

A front-page Times article about opposition to naming the law school at George Mason University in memory of Justice Scalia quoted “Craig Willse, a cultural studies professor at George Mason who has helped lead the opposition to the change.” The Times, in all apparent seriousness, quoted Professor Willse calling Justice Scalia “racist,” without mentioning that the professor is the faculty adviser to a group called Students Against Israeli Apartheid and an organizer of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. It’s amazing that an advocate of boycotting Israel can get quoted in a front-page New York Times article calling someone else a racist, rather than, say, attempting to defend against the criticism that the boycott Israel movement is itself antisemitic in its singling out of the Jewish state. (Never mind the lingering mystery, unaddressed by the Times, of how Scalia’s alleged racism squared with his friendship with Justice Thomas.)

Then there was the Times decision to cover the issue of juvenile crime and punishment, not with an article about New York State, where a whopping 15,296 offenders aged 15 or younger were arrested in 2014, but with two articles (one, two) about the mere 103 Palestinian Arabs minors aged 16 or younger in Israeli jails. The second of the articles appeared on the front page and included bylines or credits from three Times journalists — Diaa Hadid, Rammi Nazzal, Myra Noveck — and a Times photographer.

Do you think it is ridiculous that the Times is devoting the front-page resources and full-court-press coverage to jailed Palestinian Arab youngsters in Israel and not, say, to young criminals in the Bronx, or in China, or Pakistan, or, for that matter, in Mexico, home of New York Times Company financial backstop billionaire Carlos Slim, where tens of thousands of immigrant children are held in detention centers? When American 9- or 11-year olds are charged with murder, the Times deals with it via an online blog post picking up wire-service accounts, not with front-page articles involving a quartet of Times journalists.

If one wanted to complain about such coverage, where would one address the complaint? The Times has been without a full-time permanent Jerusalem bureau chief since the end of December, when Jodi Rudoren departed the post.

Write to the public editor? Margaret Sullivan published her farewell column in the Times on April 16. The paper has yet to announce a successor; Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy told me this week that the paper is “in the final stages of the search.” Back on February 22, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. wrote, “We ​will be in a position to name Margaret’s successor very soon.” Two and a half months is “very soon” in Times time.

Perhaps readers could write to the Times foreign — sorry “international” — editor, Joe Kahn. Mr. Kahn was recently found tweeting what he called the “great news” that Max Fisher of the web site Vox will join the New York Times, bringing his “trademark explanatory journalism to our global readers.” Mr. Fisher’s work for Vox on Israel and the Palestinian Arabs has been thoroughly and effectively shredded by both David Bernstein of the Washington Post (here and here) and Noah Pollak of the Washington Free Beacon (“Let us praise Vox Media and its stooges as they stagger and stumble from one hilarious mishap to another, smacking each other in the face with two-by-fours and stepping on rakes.”)

Times executive editor Max Frankel once accurately and memorably described the newspaper’s contemporaneous record in covering, or not covering, Hitler’s war against the Jews as a “staggering, staining failure.” Today’s generation of Times men and women, while struggling mightily to make up for the paper’s record on the Holocaust, are well on their way to amassing their own list of errors when it comes to the stories of today’s Jews. One prays that the consequences this time around will be less severe.

More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

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