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The New York Times’ Strange Attack on Classical Reform Judaism

Dr. David Eugene Blank
Fall 2002

On November 14, 2001, The New York Times (NYT), America’s premier newspaper, celebrated its 150th anniversary (1851-2001). Among the many self-congratulatory articles in the paper’s supplements of that date was one written by its former Pulitzer Prize winning editor, Max Frankel (editor 1986-1994). Frankel’s article, entitled “Turning Away from the Holocaust,” was a sharp critique of the NYT’s coverage of the news of Hitler’s effort to destroy Europe’s Jews. Frankel began by stating: “And then there was failure ... the staggering, staining failure of the New York Times to depict Hitler’s methodical extermination of the Jews of Europe ... a Nazi war within the war crying out for illumination.”  

Frankel described what he considered to be the NYT’s most “staggering” and “staining” failure to adequately report the annihilation of six million Jews. Accepting the findings of a Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics. 2000 article written by Journalism Professor Laurel Leff, he wrote that news reports on atrocities committed against various European Jewish communities, 1939-1945, “were mostly buried inside its [the NYT] gray and solid pages, never featured, analyzed or rendered truly comprehensible.” Frankel further wrote that the NYT failed to identify that many if not most of the “victims,” or “refugees,” often mentioned in NYT reports on Hitler’s atrocities, were Jewish. Frankel graphically supported his argument by presenting a photocopy of the NYT of April 20, 1943 in his essay. The reported murder of an estimated 2,000,000 Jews, “Since the Nazis began their march through Europe in 1939,” was announced in a small, “appendage article” to the page 11 continuation of a reported article on “Refugee Aid being linked to Victory,” in the issue of April 20, 1943.  

It seems clear that, for whatever reason, the NYT failed to report adequately on the systematic extermination of European Jews. Its failure was especially glaring when compared to the coverage of other New York City newspapers; The Post (then a Liberal New York newspaper also owned by a Jewish publisher, Dorothy Schiff) and PM (a former ultra-Liberal New York City evening newspaper), and journals such as The Nation, and The New Republic. According to Frankel, all “showed more conspicuous concern” about the ongoing murder of European Jews than did the NYT. Other sources such as Deborah Lipstadt, (1986) Beyond Belief: The American Press and The Coming of The Holocaust 1933-1945, wrote that the Hearst newspapers, despite the fact that William Randolph Hearst had been labeled an “anti-Semite” by some, did a far better job of reporting on the WWII murder of Jews.  

Frankel’s Reason  

What stunned this writer and engendered his writing this essay was the reason Max Frankel gave for the NYT’s most “staggering and staining failure” in his November, 2001 essay. According to Frankel, the reason for this awesome journalistic failure was the “Classical Reform Judaism” upbringing of its then publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, (publisher of the NYT, 1936-1961):  

“At the Times, the reluctance to highlight the systematic slaughter of Jews was also undoubtedly influenced by the views of the publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger. He believed strongly and publicly that Judaism was a religion, and not a race or nationality - that Jews should be separate only in the ways they worship. He thought they needed no state or political and social institutions of their own. He went to great lengths to avoid having the Times branded a Jewish newspaper. He resented other publications for emphasizing the Jewishness of people in the news.”  

It is strange indeed that an active, supportive Reform Jew, and member of Congregation Emanu-El in New York City, such as was Arthur Hays Sulzberger, would find in his religious teachings, or rabbinical counseling, a motive for not reporting more adequately Hitler’s ongoing extermination of European Jews. The reason for the failure of the NYT, 1939-45 was to be found elsewhere and not in the religion of Arthur Hays Sulzberger.  

In Jews Against Zionism: The American Council for Judaism, 1942-1948 (1990), Professor Thomas A. Kolsky reports that Arthur Hays Sulzberger was closely associated with the group of Reform rabbis and prominent American Jewish public figures such as Lewis Strauss and Lessing J. Rosenwald who created the American Council for Judaism in 1943.  

Sulzberger and the Council  

Kolsky writes that Sulzberger’s involvement with the founding fathers of the ACJ was at the urging of Rabbis Samuel L. Goldenson and Jonah Wise of Congregation Emanu-el. Although he never formally joined the ACJ, Sulzberger could be considered a “latent” founding father of the group. Frankel’s strong criticism of Sulzberger’s public conduct as NYT publisher from 1939 to 1945, therefore, unfairly reflects negatively on those who were instrumental in establishing the Council.  

Why would a decent man such as Max Frankel, who is also a respected and astute journalist, come up with such an unrealistic assessment as an explanation for the admittedly bad news coverage by the NYT of the systematic murder of European Jews between 1939 and 1945? Beyond this, given the fact that Frankel conceded that he was unable to uncover any “surviving record” of how the paper’s coverage of the Holocaust was discussed, why would the present publisher of the NYT allow such an attack on his grandfather’s reputation to be included as part of the celebratory occasion of the NYT’s 150th anniversary?  

Perhaps the reason can be found in the personal life history and career of Max Frankel, as well as in the contemporary political atmosphere in which the NYT is operating with regard to the continuing conflict in the Middle East. It is, after all, a matter of public record that the NYT is one named target of what appears to be a planned strategy of intimidation aimed at the U.S. media by some partisans of Israel who are angry at press coverage of the Middle East. A group of what Jonathan Jay Goldberg called “militants of the Jewish Right” in his 1996 study, Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment, are subjecting the NYT to a periodic circulation and advertisement boycott in 2001-2002. It is certainly possible that the November, 2001 article by Frankel is part of the NYT’s ongoing “corporate damage control” policy in the face of this new threat of a boycott.  

“Tribal” Identity  

Max Frankel is a German Jew of Polish ancestry who arrived in the U.S. in 1940. In his 1999 memoir, The Times of My Life and My Life with the Times, he discussed the nature of his Judaism, his strong Zionist and “Jewish tribal” identity and, finally, his role as an outspoken “liberal” managing editor of the NYT.  

Curiously, he entitled this revealing chapter in his memoir with a Yiddish expression, “Bist Ah Yid?” (Are you a Jew?). The use of this Yiddish expression derived from Frankel’s experience as a reporter in Europe during the Cold War. Despite his journalistic education to be an objective observer, he accepted that he was, in fact, a reporter who was “a defiant Jew,” and a “tribal Jew.” He wrote that as he rose in the NYT hierarchy, he could not banish the twinge of his own reality as an individual forced to flee the Nazis in 1940, when interviewing high-ranking Germans, seeing Hungarians fleeing Communism in 1956, or reporting on the former Soviet Union.  

Being greeted by the question ‘Bist Ah Yid?’ as he often was in Europe, meant that, in Frankel’s own words, “there was no denying the conspiratorial bond,” linking him with the Jewish people. Although born in Germany, Frankel refused to be considered a “German Jew.” “I was a ‘Galicianer,’ [a Jew from the Galicia region of Poland] dammit, an Eastern Jew just one generation out of the shtetl.”... “We Galicianers always juggled a kind of dual citizenship.” “We wanted to retain our Jewishness, our Yiddishkat.”  

Frankel, in this chapter, “Bist Ah Yid?” contrasted his being a “proud, defiant Jew” with the American Jews such as the publishers of the NYT, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, and his father-in-law, Adolph Simon Ochs, “who treated Jewishness as a faith, never as a secondary nationality or aspect of personality. They were American Jews, not Jewish-Americans, and they felt none of the shtetl Jews’ transcendent bond with Jews the world over.”  

Fear of Favoring Jewish Causes  

In his 1999 memoir, Frankel wrote that the cause of the paper’s apparent failure in the murder of European Jews, “in those days were infected by the owner’s [personal], palpable fear of appearing to favor Jewish causes.” Frankel also saw Sulzberger’s conduct as NYT publisher as being typical of that of “prominent American Jews ... of the WWII period, who were allegedly reluctant to engage in ‘special pleading’ for the rescue of the remnant [of European Jews] lest they be accused of damaging the war effort and delaying Hitler’s defeat.”  

The fact is that while we Reform Jews are proud of our effort to marry Judaism with the ongoing enlightenment, and the advance of modern science, and that we do indeed believe Judaism is a religion and not a nationality, there is nothing, absolutely nothing in Reform Judaism that would lead anyone to downplay the “Jewish part” of the European tragedy, 1939-1945, on the grounds that we should resist “special pleading” for our fellow Jews. To argue that Reform Judaism’s universalism is a cause of the NYT’s journalistic failure in 1942-1945 is without any logical or historical basis.  

To understand why “sacrificing” the reputation of Arthur Hays Sulzberger appeared to be necessary for the NYT in late 2001, it is important to remember that Sulzberger has become something of an American Jewish “arch-villain” in Holocaust literature. The more strident voices in this genre suggest that it was his burying the news of the Holocaust that enabled Roosevelt to let it happen.  

“Conventional Wisdom”  

In her 1986 book, Beyond Belief, Deborah Lipstadt first articulated what has become the “conventional wisdom” on Arthur Hays Sulzberger. Relying on two muckraking accounts of the NYT, The Kingdom and the Power by Gay Talese (1963) and The Powers That Be by David Halberstam (1979), Lipstadt declares: “Given Sulzberger’s aversion to Jewish editors and executives and desire that the paper not sound ‘too Jewish,’ it is quite logical to argue that the paper’s treatment of the news (of the Holocaust) was influenced at least in part by the fact that it concerned Jews.”  

This thesis permeated the account of the Ochs and Sulzberger families in The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times by Susan Tifft and Alex Jones (1999), which apparently cemented in stone the “conventional wisdom” on Arthur Hays Sulzberger as an individual who would rather not have been Jewish.  

Frankel, in his 1999 memoir, discussed at length his long time feud and competition with the individual who succeeded him as the NYT’s first Jewish managing editor, A.M. Rosenthal. The publication of the Frankel memoir, which was coincident with the abrupt ending of Rosenthal’s career with the NYT, explosively converted this private feud into a public issue.  

Frankel-Rosenthal Feud  

The literature that blossomed after the 1999 Frankel memoir, on the Frankel-Rosenthal feud touched on the differences between the Frankel and Rosenthal management of the NYT’s coverage of the ongoing tragedy in the Middle East. The literature of A.M. (Abe) Rosenthal’s editorship (1968-1986) is replete with reports of Rosenthal’s uncompromising tilt toward Israel (which included periodically censoring of news from the Middle East that portrayed Israel in an unfavorable light - especially during its invasion of Lebanon). This is cited in the review essay by Alfred M. Lilienthal of the book Fit to Print: A.M. Rosenthal and his Times by Joseph C. Goulden (1988) in Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (June 1989).  

Frankel entitled his chapter on his appointment as NYT’s managing editor in 1986, “Not Abe.” Frankel, as a self-identified “defiant Jew,” was apparently the perfect “Not-Abe” successor to Rosenthal. He could resist the hard line Zionist charge that the NYT is anti-Israel, and tilt its Mideast news coverage toward greater fairness and objectivity.  

As both the second Jewish managing editor of the NYT and as a “defiant Jew, and a Galicianer” openly hostile to the memory of Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Frankel was the perfect “Not Abe.” Unlike Rosenthal, Frankel found it necessary at times to produce “editorials that disapproved of some of the hawkish policies of Israel’s prime minister, Menachem Begin.”  

Angry Jewish Reaction  

Frankel notes that, “Many Jewish readers leapt to the conclusion that I was just another German assimilationist who, like The Times of yore, accepted Israel only grudgingly and was ‘bending over backwards’ to impress gentile establishments. Even modest criticism of Israeli actions inevitably provoke angry articles in Jewish weeklies, demands that I meet for remedial instruction with the head of Jewish organizations, and a flood of letters, many condemning me as a ‘self-hating Jew’ who had abandoned his people to curry favor with the goyim.”  

Given Frankel’s own narrow escape from the Holocaust, arriving in the U.S. in late 1940, one can understand his anger at being called a “self-hating Jew,” [just as had Arthur Hays Sulzberger in 1942-1943, and in 1946-1948]. How dare these hard-line, intolerant Zionists call him a “self-hating Jew” for merely telling the truth - unlike A.M. Rosenthal - about certain Israeli actions that required NYT editorial sanction! As Frankel stated, “dammit,” he is a “defiant Jew,” a “devout Zionist, “and “Galicianer.” [only a generation out of the shtetl] and not some “monied,” “assimilationist” American Jew such as either Adolph Simon Ochs or Arthur Hays Sulzberger!  

Frankel concluded his November, 2001 NYT essay, with a touching description of Arthur Hays Sulzberger’s allegedly changing his mind, “About the need for a Jewish State.” Frankel also wrote that under Arthur Hays Sulzberger’s son and grandson, “The Times shed its sensitivity about its Jewish roots, allowed Jews to ascend to the editor’s chair and warmly supported Israel in many editorials.”  

There is a critical historical fact of the greatest of importance to understand the emergence of the NYT’s pro-Israel tilt, that Frankel failed to mention in either his 1999 memoirs, or 2001 article. In 1946-1947, the NYT suffered a “costly” advertisement “boycott” by Jewish [pro-Zionist] - owned New York City department stores. This boycott was launched in direct response to Arthur Hays Sulzberger’s outspoken, personal and public anti-Zionism, and his “flirting” with the founding fathers of the ACJ in 1942-1943, and apparently again in 1946-1948.  

Advertisement Boycott  

The 1946-1947 advertisement boycott was compounded by an effort by the NYT’s then rival, The New York Herald Tribune, to replace it as the “quality,” “up­scale” morning newspaper of preference by New York’s many Jews. The Herald Tribune’s strategy was to become more pro-Zionist than many American Jews were during the critical 1945-1948 period, when the ACJ was attempting to establish itself as the voice for a non-Zionist American Judaism.  

Alfred M. Lilienthal seems to have interviewed Arthur Hays Sulzberger for his 1953 book, What Price Israel? Lilienthal’s description of this 1946-1947 boycott and its impact on the thinking of the NYT was as stark as it was succinct. “The boycott” was referred to as a “frightening experience” and all references to it were locked in a safe, and Sulzberger did “not permit access to” this record during what was apparently a friendly and helpful interview.  

The spark of the well organized advertisement boycott by the Jewish-owned Department stores was the 1946 personal decision of Arthur Hays Sulzberger not to publish an ad by the American lobby and support group for the “terrorist Menachem Begin-led Irgun Zvai Leumi.” [quotation is from the 1989 Lilienthal review-essay]. Other published, historical accounts of the 1946-1948 period “great debate” within America, and the American Jewish community over the advisability of creating a Zionist State also frequently described Begin, and his group, as “fascist,” and the Irgun as “racist,” in that it posited a “pure” Jewish state free of any Arab citizens.  

Although Arthur Hays Sulzberger never formally joined the fledgling ACJ, as a public personality, and a prominent American Jew, he gave several speeches - as an individual - in favor of its program. Readers in 2002 should realize that the ACJ’s initial post-WWII strategy was to concentrate on the DP [Displaced Persons] issue rather than on opposing the creation of a Zionist state. Many of the “DPs” were Jews who survived Hitler’s Holocaust, who had no desire to return to nations now controlled by that other 20th century mass murderer, Joseph Stalin, and who had no desire to conquer Palestine from the Palestinian people.  

Liberalization of Immigration  

The ACJ, under the leadership of Lessing J. Rosenwald and Rabbi Elmer Berger sought a massive liberalization of U.S. immigration laws that would allow hundreds of thousands of “stateless Jews” to come to the United States. Although never a member of the ACJ, Arthur Hays Sulzberger gave a speech in 1946 in a Chattanooga, TN synagogue, charging that the Zionists were attacking a liberalization of U.S. immigration laws, in order to hold the “unfortunate Jews in the DP camps as hostages” for their desire to create a Zionist state. This speech was apparently followed by his personal decision not to publish an apparently incendiary ad by the pro-Irgun group.  

Although the NYT is now a much stronger corporation than it was in 1946-1947, it is still haunted by the memory of its suffering an advertisers boycott. One must remember that the Oslo Peace Process started to unravel in late 2000, and that the hardest of hard liners, Ariel Sharon, was elected Israeli Prime Minister in 2001. With regard to the explosion of the Frankel-Rosenthal feud in public, David Margolick, a former NYT reporter, and Vanity Fair editor, quickly wrote an essay in the December, 1999 issue of that magazine, “Clash of the Times Men,” that asserted that their feud had gone “thermonuclear,” as a result of the 1999 Frankel memoirs. The NYT has had to face the fact that a “disloyal” former managing editor, Abe Rosenthal, was on the war path against it. Rosenthal had become the darling and champion of hard line Zionists, and the NYT had to prepare to weather the expected public relations storm that Rosenthal and the hard line Zionists were expected to produce.  

By early 2000, Rosenthal, became a columnist, with the rival New York Daily News. Zionists quickly arranged a speaking tour for Rosenthal in which he entertained audiences in several JCCs [Jewish Community Centers] with his tales of having to work for that assimilationist Arthur Hays Sulzberger. These audiences were dazzled by his revealing that Sulzberger was such a “self hating” Jew, who was so fearful that the NYT not be identified as a “Jewish newspaper,” that he, Abraham M. Rosenthal, had to appear in the story-bylines as, “A.M. Rosenthal.” “Those bastards at the NYT circumcised my first name [Abraham to A.] in order to please the goyim.”  

Critical Asset  

Rosenthal, as a well-known public personality, quickly became a critical asset for those who saw in the criticism of NYT’s coverage of the 1939-1945 murder of Jews, a vehicle for attacking its present coverage of the Middle East, as the spiraling violence between Israelis and Palestinians began. By early 2001, Rosenthal was to appear as the “insider” expert on a CNN Cable History Channel, muckraking documentary attack on the NYT, “Holocaust; The Untold Story,” that included interviews with both Professors Lipstadt and Leff. Academic seminars and televised public forums quickly followed. In one of these TV forums, veteran journalist, Marvin Kalb, vilified Arthur Hays Sulzberger.  

Corporate damage control strategy often relies on admitting “mistakes” in the past - when “others” were in charge, and assuring all that the entity, the NYT, is now moving ahead rather faultlessly - [thanks to the pro-Israel tilt of the nasty A.M. Rosenthal, and “the kinder, gentler” version of Max Frankel] It is most logical for the “loyal,” former managing editor, Max Frankel, to demonstrate not only that he [and today’s NYT] is the “Not-Abe,” but also that he [and today’s NYT] is also the “Not-Sulzberger.”  

What could be an easier assignment for his “damage control effort,” but to identify some exotic, and hypothetically extinct religious practice as the cause for Arthur Hays Sulzberger’s failings? After all, how many people know about “Classical Reform Judaism” in the 21st century, the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, or the fact that the American Council for Judaism is not only surviving, but may actually succeed in revitalizing itself as a factor, if not a force, within Reform Judaism? Max Frankel, as the “Not-Abe,” appeared to be the perfect person to lead its damage control strategy.  

“Corporate Damage Control”  

Frankel’s assignment in writing his 2001 essay, viewed as an exercise in ‘corporate damage control,’ was to assure all that the spirit of Arthur Hays Sulzberger had no influence in the contemporary NYT and that its present coverage of the ongoing Middle East tragedy is - unlike the “Times of yore,” [as Frankel wrote in his 1999 memoir] - above reproach. So please, no repeat of the 1946-1947 boycott - either by advertisers or readers - of the NYT.  

The problem with this strategy is that those who now threaten the NYT with a boycott claim that their threat has succeeded in changing its coverage and slant to one which is even more supportive of Israel than in the past. Frankel’s attack on Classical Reform Judaism, and his failure to present a fact-based defense of the complex reality that was Arthur Hays Sulzberger - that would have resulted in a more positive portrait of the NYT publisher, has only encouraged those who have launched their assault upon the NYT to intensify their intimidation of the American news media.  

Readers are welcome to compare the NYT’s own acknowledgement that it has been one named target of this ongoing boycott-intimidation assault on the U.S. media in the article by Felicity Barringer, “Some U.S. Backers of Israel Boycott Dailies Over Mideast Coverage That They Deplore,” May 23, 2002 - with the ad the boycott sponsors placed in the New York Jewish Week, May 24, 2002 to accept that the intimidation of the NYT by these “militants of the Jewish right” will continue.  

NYT Stonewalling  

Barringer reported that her own internal inquiry of how many cancellation had resulted from the present-day campaign against the NYT, met with stonewalling. [The 1999 Tifft & Jones book authors also may have been denied access to the file on the 1946-1947 boycott.] On the other hand, the Los Angeles Times, which also faced charges of an anti-Israel bias, reported 1,200 symbolic cancellations due to a parallel boycott.  

Barringer also reported that more vulnerable parts of the American media have suffered substantial damage due to the present intimidation. She gave as an example, the experience of the Boston based NPR station, [an affiliate of National Public Radio] that has reported being hit by a boycott that has apparently cost it over $1,000,000 in ‘underwriting’ corporate donations. Why is the NYT so reticent in 2002, to tell its own reporter what it knows of the impact on it of a contemporary boycott?  

After describing himself as a “defiant Jew” and a strong Zionist, Max Frankel was, it seems shocked at being called a “self-hating” Jew merely for producing an editorial that expressed “disapproval of some of the (Israeli) hawkish policies.” With an apparent sense of reluctance, he wrote: “Israel became so crucial to the definition of (American) Jewish identity that most Jews gave unqualified support to its governments - through vigorous political lobbying of presidents and Congresses. They brooked no criticism of Israeli society and policy.”  

“Frightening Experience”  

Clearly, the specter of a repeat of the 1946-1947 “frightening experience” that was the Zionist boycott haunts the NYT. But buying into the vilification of Arthur Hays Sulzberger may not be sufficient to ward off another “costly” boycott, and can be considered to be self-defeating.  

The broader question remains. Does a fearful NYT, anxious to trim its sails in reporting on the Middle East, lest it be subjected to a boycott, truly serve the interests of American democracy? As America’s premier newspaper, the NYT would do well to stand firm in the face of threats of boycott and demonstrate the same fortitude it displayed in publishing The Pentagon Papers.  

In Max Frankel’s chapter, “Bist Ah Yid?”, he strongly suggests that a blind, unquestioning support of anything Israeli governments might do may, in the long run, threaten American Jewish survival. Most American Jews, argues Frankel, accept, as he does, “A devotion to rationality and a reasonableness, an attraction to individualism and relativity, a faith in debate and democracy.” He argues that, “The pressure to stand united always against the goyim” will not succeed in the end. He laments: “If my Yiddishkat is to survive in America, it will be as a value system (dedicated to the wisdom of debate and democracy) and not in a taste for bagels and lox or a guilty twitch at the sight of bacon.”  

Ethical and Moral Force  

The 21st century reality is that Judaism will only survive in America as an attractive ethical and moral force, not as an unyielding foreign policy voice in behalf of Israel. Max Frankel’s indictment of Reform Judaism seems disconnected from any serious analysis, and in contradiction to his own values. Hopefully, he will rethink his position.  

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