New York Times Avoids Calling a Jew a Jew
by Ira Stoll
When is a Jew not a Jew?
When The New York Times is writing about him or her and is trying desperately to avoid mentioning the word “Jew” or “Jewish,” to the point of contorting into all sorts of convoluted and maybe even inaccurate other ways of describing an individual.
“White,” “Polish,” “Viennese” — these are terms that the Times uses to describe Jews, instead of “Jewish.”
The Times has done this not once, not twice, not three times, but four — 4! — times in the past few days.
Example no. 1: A Times obituary of Joe Taub, a past owner of the New Jersey Nets and a businessman who helped build the payroll processing giant ADP, reported:
Joseph Albert Taub was born in Paterson, N.J., on May 29, 1929. His father, Morris, was a junk dealer. His mother, the former Sylvia Sievitz, was a homemaker. Both were Polish immigrants.
As the paid death notice for Taub made clear, he wasn’t a supporter of Polish or Polish-American causes but of Jewish ones: “Mr. Taub contributed to the Technion/Israel Institute of Technology, helping to fund the institute’s computer science program. Mr. Taub was also a significant driving force in the establishment of the JCC On The Palisades, and has continued to support the JCC’s programing. In addition, Mr. Taub has contributed to other Jewish causes, including Temple Emanuel of Closter New Jersey and the United Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.”
The Times has had a particular block with this issue in obituaries; it prompted an entire article in Tablet headlined “Does The New York Times Obituary Section Have a Jewish Problem?” One obituary writer, Sam Roberts, happens to be a mensch, and has started doing it a better way instead. Roberts has an obituary of Irv Refkin, an American spy in World War II, that reports, “Isadore Irving Refkin was born on June 7, 1921, in Milwaukee to Samuel and Anna Refkin, Jewish immigrants from Russia.”
Having deracinated Taub — or having at least described his Jewish parents as “Polish” — the Times proceeded to other targets.
Example no. 2: An article headlined “Satire From Weimar Germany Turns Up in a Berlin Archive” appeared in the Times arts section, reporting, “A previously unknown song by Kurt Weill, the composer best known for ‘The Threepenny Opera,’ has been discovered in Berlin and taken some of the world’s pre-eminent Weill experts by total surprise.” The Times reports, “The composer fled Germany in 1933 under threat of Nazi persecution, and many of his letters and manuscripts were either hidden or destroyed.”
Why was he threatened by Nazi persecution? The Times leaves it as a total mystery. It’s weird.
I’ve been critical of the Times in the past for gratuitously mentioning the Jewish background of people in the news when it isn’t relevant. The Times sometimes does that, for example, when it writes about criminals, or accused criminals, or Americans involved in politics or foreign policy issues. But the Weill example seems a case where it clearly is relevant — it is the reason he had to flee Germany.
Example no. 3: Yet another instance, after Taub and Weill, of the Times awkwardness about this issue comes in a news article about New York politics. The Times reports:
with a white man re-elected as mayor (Bill de Blasio), a white man as governor (Andrew M. Cuomo), a white man as attorney general (Eric T. Schneiderman), and white men as city and state comptroller (Scott M. Stringer and Thomas P. DiNapoli), race has emerged as a flash point in the elbows-out battle to lead the City Council for the next four years.
Schneiderman and Stringer have been widely identified elsewhere as Jewish, but the Times doesn’t mention that in the article at all, choosing to identify them instead solely as “white.” This is a bit of a complex one; there’s a whole book about “How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America.” But the Times doesn’t even acknowledge the possibility that Jews might not fit so neatly into the “white man” majority oppressor stereotype box where the various people quoted in the article are trying to place them.
Example no. 4: The final example of Times obtuseness on this issue comes in the Thursday Styles section, in a profile by Maureen Dowd of Jaron Lanier. Dowd has her own egregious track record of using blatantly antisemitic imagery in her column. Dowd writes:
Right after he was born, his mother, a Marlene Dietrich look-alike and Viennese pianist and stock trader who had talked her way out of a concentration camp by passing as Aryan, and his father, whose family had been mostly wiped out in Ukrainian pogroms, took Jaron someplace they thought would be safe: the westernmost corner of Texas.
What, a reader might wonder, was Lanier’s “Viennese” mother doing in a concentration camp? It’s left to Times readers as a mystery, the same way we wonder why Weill was threatened by Nazi persecution. Lanier’s mother was “Viennese” in the same way that Taub’s parents were “Polish.” These are words that the Times chooses to use instead of identifying people as Jews.
Again, I can understand the Times reluctance to mention someone’s religion or Jewish background when it may be irrelevant. But when it is the reason someone’s mother ends up in a concentration camp, it is relevant.
In a conversation, when someone dances around a topic or avoids it the way the Times is treating Judaism in these articles, it’s sometimes because of a concern that raising it might be somehow embarrassing, or even insulting. If that’s how Times journalists feel about Judaism, it’s too bad.
More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.