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May 9, 2019 3:40 pm

Is New York Times Editor Influenced by Mother’s Negative View of Israel?

avatar by Ira Stoll


New York Times editorial page editor James Bennet. Photo: screenshot.

When 81 Jewish organizations wrote to The New York Times to complain about the newspaper’s recent publication of a cartoon that even the Times conceded was antisemitic, they addressed their letter to the newspaper’s executive editor, Dean Baquet.

When the Times publicly issued a letter to its own employees about the issue, the memo came from the newspaper’s publisher, A.G. Sulzberger.

You’d have to read deep into the Times’ own news article about the matter to find the name of a third Times executive: “James Bennet, the editor who oversees all content on The Times’s editorial pages, declined to comment in detail.”

Don’t mistake Bennet’s low profile for a lack of power, either inside the newspaper, where he is seen as a possible successor to Baquet, or outside. When Sulzberger went to the White House in July 2018 to meet President Trump, the only Times man who accompanied the publisher to the off-the-record face-to-face meeting was Bennet. Bennet was also reportedly at Sulzberger’s side this week when the Times publisher met with a group of New York rabbis concerned about the cartoon and the newspaper’s coverage of Israel.

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The cartoon scandal has escalated into the deepest crisis of Sulzberger’s less than 18-month tenure as publisher. President Trump and Vice President Pence both tweeted about it. Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, denounced the newspaper as “a cesspool of hostility towards Israel.”

The Times responded with an editorial condemning antisemitism and insisting, laughably, “We have been and remain stalwart supporters of Israel.”

Bennet’s Jewish family background had previously been the stuff of whispered speculation among those concerned by Times coverage. Now, all of a sudden, it has become arguably crucial context for understanding a major international media story. Add to the mix that Bennet’s older brother Michael, a US Senator from Colorado, recently announced that he is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, and the case for probing further only gets stronger.

The Times itself addressed the matter obliquely in June of 2018 in its obituary of James Bennet’s father, Douglas J. Bennet. Douglas Bennet had been president of National Public Radio and Wesleyan University and also served as assistant secretary of state and administrator of the US Agency for International Development. “Mr. Bennet’s first marriage, to Susanne Klejman, ended in divorce in 1995,” the Times reported.

Susanne Klejman’s name turned out to be exactly the two-word key needed to unlock a more detailed picture. Google it, and it turns up the wedding announcement of James Bennet’s parents from the June 28, 1959 New York Times. “The Rev. Dr. Ralph Johnson, minister of the Parsippany Presbyterian Church, performed the ceremony,” the Times reported.

And then it turns up a two-segment, two-hour oral history interview that the US Holocaust Memorial Museum conducted with Klejman on March 22, 2012.

Much of the interview consists of Klejman talking about her family’s experience during World War II and afterward.

Toward the end of the second two-hour segment, the Holocaust Museum’s volunteer interviewer, Gail Schwartz, asks an open-ended question: “What are your thoughts about Israel?”

Klejman replied, “I feel that they have made some very serious mistakes in how they treat the Palestinians.”

She recalled that she had visited her son James when he was The New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief. “What I saw when I was there was pretty God-awful, and it simply made me think that they were doing the same thing as the Germans had done with the Jews, of making them non-people,” Klejman said. “At one point, at one of the checkpoints, which were really set up massively during the intifadeh, I saw some soldiers being absolutely horrible to a couple of old Palestinian men, and that brought back memories. They have, you know, totally ghettoized them.”

To put it bluntly: James Bennet has a Holocaust-survivor mother who has said Israeli soldiers remind her of the Nazis.

It’s not unheard of for Holocaust survivors or their children to make this comparison. George Soros has written about Israel as a “poignant and difficult case” of what he calls “victims turning perpetrators.” Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth, a relentless critic of Israel, frequently invokes his own father’s 1938 escape from Nazi Germany.

Klejman complained that “Israel has become very, very conservative in recent years.” She blamed the influence of immigrants to Israel from Arab lands. “They had grown up in countries where religion and government were completely intertwined. … They were trying to have the same thing happen in Israel,” she said in the interview.

Klejman said the increasing entanglement of religion and state was a departure from Israel’s earlier history. Her parents, who also survived the Holocaust, were art dealers in Manhattan with a gallery on Madison Avenue across from the Carlyle Hotel. The gallery’s clients included the Rockefeller family and John and Robert Kennedy. Israeli politicians also came by. “When I was growing up in New York, Teddy Kollek would come and visit my parents. Moshe Dayan would come and visit. They were secular people. They were Jewish but they understood the need for secular government and not to have religion be the one that ran the government. I think that is an enormous danger now in Israel,” she said.

The Holocaust Museum interview also probes Klejman’s Jewish identity and that of her family. Her father, John Jacob Klejman, had attended the Sorbonne, and her mother had been educated at Lausanne, since Polish universities had quotas limiting Jewish students. The family was not religious, to the point of not even having Passover seders, Klejman recalled. “They considered themselves Poles,” she said of her family before the war.

Blonde and blue-eyed, she survived the war as a girl by passing as a non-Jew after being spirited out of the Warsaw Ghetto by a policeman. Her father wound up with a bullet fragment lodged in his back, and once had to jump out of a second-floor window into a garbage truck to elude capture. Klejman moved 13 times by the time she was 11 — first within Poland, then to Sweden, Mexico, and New York. While her parents devoted themselves six days a week to the art gallery, Susanne enrolled herself in public school and did the family errands — buying groceries, picking up dry-cleaning — after school. After Hunter High School, she went to Wellesley College, marrying Douglas in 1959.

“His family goes back to the Mayflower — literally goes back to the Mayflower,” she told the Holocaust Museum interviewer. Douglas Bennet, she said, was descended on his mother’s side from a long line of Presbyterian ministers. The line started with Abner Benedict, a 1769 graduate of Yale who volunteered as a chaplain on the patriot side of the American Revolution.

“Neither my husband nor my children are particularly religious, although the children consider themselves Jewish,” Klejman told the interviewer.

The interviewer asked, “Do you consider yourself Jewish?” Klejman replied, “Yes. As an ethnic identity but not a religious identity.”

The museum interviewer pressed the point. “Were your children raised at all in the Jewish tradition?” Klejman replied, “No, they weren’t raised in any tradition.”

“They all married Episcopalians,” Klejman said, noting, though, that they had all “incorporated some Jewish tradition” into their wedding ceremonies. She speculated that sending her three children to schools affiliated with the National Cathedral in Washington, DC may have turned them against religion. Klejman worked as a librarian at one of the schools.

She said she had transmitted to her children her own hostility toward Germany. “I wish Germany had been completely destroyed, and I still feel that way. I never buy anything made in Germany if I can possibly avoid it, and I’ve sort of got my kids to agree to do that also, because of the way that I feel about Germans and Germany.”

In an earlier interview — on August 12, 1998, with what is now known as the USC Shoah Foundation, Klejman was asked, “What, if any connection do you have with Judaism?”

“I would say almost none,” she replied. She said her children “consider themselves to be Jewish, but they haven’t pursued it.”

The Shoah Foundation interview also included a short session with Holly Bennet, who is the sister of James and Michael. She told the interviewer that she had developed some “interest in Judaism, which has been not practiced in the family for generations now, severely interrupted to the point of almost a shunning and discomfort, general discomfort.”

New York Times staff editorials represent the newspaper’s institutional view, not the personal view of the editorial page editor, let alone the personal views of the editorial page editor’s mother. The editorial page editor’s boss, the publisher, sometimes gets involved; his family also started out Jewish, but the branch that contains the current publisher has moved, through intermarriage, away from Judaism. And there’s a whole board of editorial writers that contributes to the column of unsigned editorials. The Times editorial column had its issues with Jews and Israel before James Bennet’s arrival and no doubt will have them after he leaves.

Even allowing for all that, though, reviewing some of the New York Times editorials published during James Bennet’s tenure — the one demanding a reduction in American aid to Israel, the one condemning Vice President Pence’s trip to Israel, the one proposing the division of Jerusalem, the one faulting Prime Minister Netanyahu for not visiting Washington, the one criticizing the New York City Parks Department for accommodating religious swimmers with single-sex hours at a Brooklyn pool, the one calling for the United Nations Security Council to determine Israel’s borders and the future of its capital city, the one warning that “Under Mr. Netanyahu, Israel is on a trajectory to become what critics say will be an apartheid state like the former South Africa” — it’s hard to avoid detecting at least a trace of the voice of Susanne Klejman.

It’d be a mistake, in other words, to think that Bennet’s family story, or A.G. Sulzberger’s, entirely explains everything in the Times editorial column about Israel or Jews. But it’d be a mistake too to think that there aren’t individual influential people whose personal histories may help shape the institution.

James Bennet has brought some new Zionist writers like Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss to the Times op-ed page. But he’s also hired, and published, proponents of boycotting Israel, such as Michelle Alexander. After the antisemitic cartoon was published, Stephens faulted his own newspaper for “the almost torrential criticism of Israel and the mainstreaming of anti-Zionism, including by this paper, which has become so common that people have been desensitized to its inherent bigotry.” The Times has said that, because of a faulty process, the antisemitic cartoon was chosen and approved by only a single production editor before publication.

During his stint as the Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief, Bennet largely avoided the opprobrium showered on others who have held that job. Even the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, a severe critic of the Times that has erected a billboard outside the newspaper’s headquarters to fault the news organization’s anti-Israel bias, awarded Bennet a “thumbs up” for what the advocacy group called “his generally impartial, balanced coverage of the region.”

In 2004, Bennet wrote a Times magazine profile of Ariel Sharon in which he described Sharon as “trying to gird Israel for a conflict — not merely with the Palestinians — whose end he cannot foresee.” In 2014, Bennet tweeted: “Apologies for a self-tweet, but I think this NYT Magazine profile I did of the indomitable Ariel Sharon holds up.” Indeed, the piece does hold up well, not just a decade after it was published but now 15 years on — not only as an assessment of the regional realities, but of Bennet’s own take on the situation.

“It is not that Sharon does not want peace. He often says he wants peace more than other politicians who have not seen so much suffering and death. But Sharon does not put his trust in treaties,” Bennet wrote. “Sharon does want a peace agreement. But he wants the agreement that he wants — a so-called long-term interim agreement. It is a kind of standstill arrangement. He wants the two sides to go to separate corners, cool off over many years and only then begin talking about the big issues, like Jerusalem. No credible Palestinian leader could agree to such a deferral of the Palestinian national dream. But Sharon may have picked his historical moment well enough, and maneuvered his allies and enemies skillfully enough, to impose it.”

Sharon, Bennet wrote, “regards Israel as a worldwide Jewish project, and he did not want to see any divergence in the Israeli and Jewish identities.”

Bennet wrote sympathetically about Sharon, but also with a warning, in Bennet’s own voice. “When a soldier forces a Palestinian to strip at a checkpoint or when a soldier demolishes a Palestinian’s home, not only the Palestinian suffers and not only the Palestinian may harden. … As this conflict grinds on, Israel will no doubt remain morally alert — morally conflicted, as demonstrated by the soldiers who refuse to serve in the territories — but it will also remain morally compromised in the eyes of the world.”

While editor of The Atlantic, Bennet invested significant resources in the Jewish story, devoting the magazine’s April 2015 cover to an excellent article by Jeffrey Goldberg headlined, “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” Bennet also hosted a video discussion in which he, Goldberg, and Leon Wieseltier discussed the rise of antisemitism in Europe.

In a December 2017 meeting with Times employees, Bennet said he had felt “very strongly” that the Times should publish an op-ed by a Jewish settler in the West Bank. The article, by Yishai Fleisher, the international spokesman of the Jewish Community of Hebron, appeared in the February 15, 2017 Times under the headline “A Settler’s View of Israel’s Future.” Bennet said he published it over the objections of others within the Times who thought it crossed the line into “hate speech” or “denying personhood to the Palestinians.”

Bennet also was forthright in February 2018 about cutting loose a new Times hire, Quinn Norton, after it became clear Norton had remained friends with a neo-Nazi. In a memo to colleagues afterward, Bennet outlined his views of the page’s role: “In Opinion, our collective role is not to tell people what to think. It’s not to simply reflect back to them what they already think. It’s to help them — as best we can — to do what they want to do, which is to think for themselves. … We owe our readers an honest struggle over the right paths ahead, not a pretense that we’re in possession of God’s own map.”

Bennet wrote, “That means being willing to challenge our own assumptions; it means being open to counter-arguments even as we advance our own convictions; it means listening to voices that we may object to and even sometimes find obnoxious, provided they meet the same tests of intellectual honesty, respect for others and openness.”

Michael Bennet’s voice on these issues has been somewhat different from that of the New York Times editorial column. The Colorado senator publicly opposed President Obama’s objections to legislation combating the effort to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel. Michael Bennet also joined Republicans in condemning an anti-Israel UN Security Council resolution that a lame-duck President Obama failed to veto. Michael Bennet did, like the Timesfault President Trump for exiting the Iran nuclear deal. Bennet voted in favor of the deal after making an impassioned speech asserting that “the survival of the State of Israel is essential to the security of the Jewish people, and, as far as I am concerned, Israel’s survival is essential to our humanity.” The speech also noted, “My grandparents, John and Halina Klejman, and my mother, Susanne Klejman, had everyone and everything they knew taken from them in the Holocaust.”

The New York Times article about Michael Bennet entering the presidential race reported that “Mr. Bennet’s parents raised him with Jewish and Christian traditions.” In announcing he was entering the race, Bennet said, “When I was growing up, it was an American article of faith that if you worked hard, you could get ahead and build a better future. For my mom, Susanne Klejman, together with her parents, John (once Jakób) and Halina, it was more than faith; it was a central fact of their lives. They were Polish Jews who had survived the Holocaust. When the Nazis invaded, they were forced to separate. My mom was told her parents were dead, only to discover they were alive when they came to find her after the war.”

James Bennet didn’t respond to my email inviting him to comment for this article. He’s neither directly endorsed nor repudiated his mother’s views.

In an interview last year with his 20-year-long friend John Harris of Politico, though, Bennet spoke generally with reverence about the way ideas are transferred from parents to children. “I do feel — like families — institutions transmit values from one generation to another,” he said. “And that is really important.”

Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. More of his media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

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