The New York Times at 120
One hundred and twenty years ago, on August 18, 1896, the precociously ambitious 28-year-old publisher of the Chattanooga Times, Adolph S. Ochs, purchased the financially flailing New York Times. Rejecting the sensationalist “yellow journalism” of its competitors, Ochs preferred a “clean, dignified and trustworthy” newspaper that would, in the enduring front-page motto that he introduced two months later, provide “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”
Six months previously, a Jewish lawyer-turned-journalist named Theodor Herzl had published a pamphlet entitled Der Judenstaat, propelling Zionism to world attention. In its first mention of Herzl the Times identified him as “originator of the Zionist scheme.” With the approaching Zionist conference in Basel in August 1897, it paid closer attention to “The Jewish State Idea,” warily wondering “is it feasible”?
In Europe and the United States, the Times concluded, “There are many Jews who oppose the founding of this State on the ground that it could only be a small, weak State, existing by sufferance.” It was also “urged” – although the Times did not identify those doing the urging – “that Israel’s mission is no longer political, but purely and simply religious, and that the establishment of the State would do incalculable harm, and could do no good.” Indeed, it would inevitably raise the lurking menace of dual loyalty that has haunted the Times ever since.
Once the delegates in Basel endorsed the idea of Jewish statehood “with great enthusiasm,” the Times became even warier. Identifying Herzl as “the so-called ‘New Moses,’” it reprinted a sharply critical article from the American Israelite, the newspaper of Reform Judaism, excoriating him and his followers as “romantic Zealots” lacking “the least intention to benefit Judaism.” The establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, it firmly declared (and wishfully hoped), was “an impossibility.” The author of that diatribe was Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, who guided Reform Judaism’s embrace of the United States as the American Zion.
Rabbi Wise was also Adolph Ochs’s father-in-law. Married to his daughter Effie, their daughter Iphigene would marry Arthur Hays Sulzberger, launching the family dynasty that has remained loyal to Och’s determination that the Times would never appear to be a “Jewish” newspaper. Sulzberger succeeded Ochs as publisher in 1935, just in time for the Times to ignore the worsening plight of European Jews confronting the looming threat of Nazi Germany. Fearful lest the Times be identified as a “Jewish” newspaper, he insisted that the targeting of Jews for extermination be ignored and reports of Nazi genocide buried on its inside pages. Future executive editor Max Frankel would lament its “staggering, staining failure” to report the Holocaust, which in Laurel Leff’s haunting book title was Buried by The Times.
Sulzberger’s antipathy to the very idea of Jewish statehood, and his agitation over Zionist advocacy, were expressed in his enthusiastic support for the staunchly anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism. It received extensive favorable Times coverage vastly disproportionate to its size or influence. The newspaper’s post-war focus on Jewish “terrorists” in Palestine, in conjunction with its repeated reiteration of Rabbi Judah Magnes’s bi-national alternative to Zionism, reached its apogee of apprehension once Jewish statehood was imminent. Disregarding the exultation of Jews in Israel following its Proclamation of Independence, Times foreign correspondent Dana Adams Schmidt focused on “a tendency to authoritarianism in the nascent Jewish state.”
Discomfort with Zionism, conspicuous among its Jewish reporters and columnists, has framed Times coverage of Israel ever since. Jerusalem bureau chiefs Thomas Friedman and Jodi Rudoren embedded criticism of Israel in their reporting, while Anthony Lewis and Roger Cohen (among others) became cheerleaders against the Jewish state from Washington. In editorials and op-eds the Times transformed Palestinians into the new Jews, whose struggle for statehood, unlike the aspirations of Zionists before 1948, it has avidly embraced.
Times journalists unknowingly followed in the ideological footsteps of Joseph M. Levy, its first Jewish Jerusalem-based correspondent. After the Arab riots in 1929 he consorted with Rabbi Magnes, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, and renegade British civil servant H. St-John Philby (who would convert to Islam and father the notorious double agent Kim) to use the Times as their forum to thwart Zionist efforts.
In Exodus 6:3 God identifies the human lifetime as one 120 years. The New York Times of Adolph Ochs and his Sulzberger descendants has reached that biblical benchmark. But if ”what’s past is prologue” (as Shakespeare suggested), “All the News That’s Fit to Print” will continue to reflect their abiding discomfort with the thriving Jewish state in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people.
Jerold S. Auerbach is completing a book about The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016.