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Adolph Ochs’ Legacy at The New York Times

avatar by Jerold Auerbach


A taxi passes by in front of The New York Times head office, Feb. 7, 2013. Photo: Reuters / Carlo Allegri / File.

The New York Times’ Jewish problem is more than a century old. It dates to 1896, when Adolph S. Ochs, publisher of The Chattanooga Times, purchased the failing New York newspaper. A proud Reform Jew, Ochs insisted that Judaism was a religion, not a national identity that might compromise the patriotic allegiance of American Jews and prompt the dreaded charge of dual loyalty.

Constant criticism of Israel in The New York Times — usually focused on Jewish settlements or its failure to reach a peace agreement with the unmovably resistant Palestinian Authority — is not random. It reflects an enduring, by now embedded, discomfort with the very idea, let alone the reality, of a Jewish state in the Biblical homeland of the Jewish people.

It began with Joseph Levy, the Times’ first Jerusalem-based correspondent. He became a partisan advocate during the 1929 Arab riots in Palestine when hundreds of Jews were murdered and the centuries-old Hebron Jewish community destroyed. Levy’s primary sources were the Grand Mufti (who incited rioting with the lie that Jews intended to endanger Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount) and Hebrew University Chancellor Judah Magnes (formerly a New York Reform rabbi) who advocated a bi-national state of Jews and Arabs.

The Times’ nadir came during the Holocaust. By then Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Ochs’s son-in-law, was the publisher. When the slaughter of six million Jews was even noticed, it was buried in the inside pages lest the Times be portrayed as a “Jewish” newspaper. Instead, the Times became the sounding board for the vehemently anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism. The subsequent birth of the State of Israel could not be evaded, but it took the Times five years to finally recognize it as “an outpost of democracy in the Middle East.”

Its belated embrace was short-lived. The Times condemned the trial of Nazi war-criminal Adolph Eichmann in Israel, lest the Jewish state be perceived as representative of the Jewish people. After the Six-Day War editors focused on the plight of Palestinian refugees, while ignoring Jewish refugees from the Middle East and Africa who found a home in Israel. The Jewish state was depicted as a malevolent occupying power.

In 1984, Thomas Friedman was appointed Jerusalem Bureau Chief.

Editor A.M. Rosenthal (unaware of Joseph Levy’s reporting) believed that he was the first Jew to report from Jerusalem for the Times. Friedman fit the Levy mold. As a Brandeis undergraduate he had belonged to a Middle East Peace Group that discounted Palestinian terrorist attacks as not representative of the Palestinian people. Co-steered by Friedman, it joined Breira, a pro-Palestinian organization of left-wing rabbis and Jewish intellectuals.

Hired by the Times in 1981, Friedman covered the massacre of Palestinian civilians by Christian Philangists in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. Lacerating Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and Prime Minister Menachem Begin for their supposed indifference to Palestinian victims, he conceded that “an ‘objective’ journalist is not supposed to have such emotions.” But he fancifully asserted, “They made me a better reporter.” Once again, the Times had a Jewish reporter whose criticism of Zionism — and now the Jewish state — was relentless.

Relocating to Jerusalem as Times Bureau Chief, and guided by a trio of Israeli leftists, Friedman focused on Palestinian suffering under Israeli occupation. Returning to Washington as a Times columnist, his repetitive critiques of Israel became (and remain) a staple of the Op-Ed page. His colleagues Roger Cohen and Anthony Lewis completed a Times chorus that blamed Israel for the absence of peace with the Palestinians, who showed no signs of wanting it.

In 2012, in pursuit of gender equality (and political correctness), the Times hired Jodi Rudoren as the first female Jerusalem Bureau Chief. The main theme of her reporting was Palestinian suffering from the cruelties of Israeli occupation. Gaza and Ramallah received more attention than Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The evil of Israeli settlers and right-wing Orthodox Jews, and female victims of gender discrimination (in Israel, but not in the Palestinian West Bank), were prominently reported. Times coverage of Israel was indistinguishable from criticism of Israel.

Given its enduring anti-Israel bias, it is hardly surprising that the Times recently hired Peter Beinert as an Opinion page columnist. Frustrated in his desire to support Israel while remaining a committed liberal, he believed that it was “time to imagine a Jewish home that is not a Jewish state.” Specifically: one state, to be known as “Israel-Palestine,” comprising Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. In translation, the end of Jewish statehood.

So, the Times’ century-old tradition of hiring Jewish journalists who are unrelenting in their criticism of Zionism and Israel is secured. Surely Adolph Ochs would be pleased with his enduring legacy.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016, chosen for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a Best Book for 2019.

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