The New York Times, Zionism and Israel

Just in time for Hanukkah, the “paper of record” indulges its century-long discomfort with the Jewish state.

“The New York Times” building in Midtown Manhattan. Credit: Ajay Suresh via Wikimedia Commons.
“The New York Times” building in Midtown Manhattan. Credit: Ajay Suresh via Wikimedia Commons.
Jerold S. Auerbach
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of 12 books, including Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel (1896-2016) and Israel 1896-2016, selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a “Best Book for 2019.”

How ironically revealing that The New York Times would choose the pending first day of Hanukkah for an editorial board opinion column entitled, “The Ideal of Democracy in Israel Is in Danger.” As if that was insufficient, Thomas Friedman, for decades the Times’ critic-in-chief of Israel, contributed a two-page rant titled, “What in the World Is Happening in Israel?”

The Times’ Hannukah editorial denounced the Jewish state’s new “far-right” government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu and “ultrareligious and ultranationalist parties,” saying it poses “a significant threat to the future of Israel.”

As for Friedman, he focused on his familiar targets: settlement expansion and the fading two-state solution. Now, he laments, Netanyahu’s election victory assures the “most-nationalist, ultrareligious” government, led by “religious zealots,” in Israeli history.

This is nothing new for the Times. Decades before the rebirth of a Jewish state in the biblical homeland of the Jewish people, the Times displayed discomfort with Zionism and the danger statehood would supposedly pose to the loyalty of American Jews.

Adolph Ochs, who purchased the floundering newspaper in 1896, was proud of his Reform Jewish identity, which defined Judaism solely as a religion, not a nation. Early on, his newspaper was hostile to the Zionist movement and welcomed submissions from wealthy and prominent anti-Zionist American Jews.

According to prosperous banker and philanthropist Jacob Schiff, “The promised land of the Jew” was in America. Zionism, he warned, “threatened the very existence of the Jewish race.” The Times published a critique of Zionism by Dr. Henry Moskowitz, co-founder of the NAACP, who labeled Zionism “romantic and impracticable.” The paper printed a letter from Henry Morgenthau, ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during World War I, that identified America as “a holy land,” where Jews “are Jews in religion and Americans in nationality.”

Ochs’s first visit to Jerusalem in 1922 left him “unsympathetic with Zionism,” because “the Jewish religion is secondary.” Speaking at a temple dedication, he declared, “I know nothing else, no other definition for a Jew except religion.” He feared that “Zionist activities in Palestine … would be a menacing danger to Jews throughout the world.”

Adolf Hitler’s rise to power posed a challenge to Ochs. Horrified by Nazi persecution of Jews, he was determined that the Times would not be identified as a Jewish newspaper. He was succeeded by his son-in-law Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who opposed the identification of Jews as the primary victims of Nazi extermination. The plight of European Jews failed to qualify for the Times’ daily ranking of important events.

The birth of the State of Israel compounded the Times’ Jewish problem, heightening its concern lest a Jewish state compromise the loyalty of American Jews. Once the Times began to post bureau chiefs to Jerusalem, beginning with David Shipler in 1979, its coverage of Israel became more focused, probing and, eventually, relentlessly critical. Fascinated by the struggle between “Arab and Jew,” Shipler understood that the motivation of Jewish settlers was “biblical,” while “a Palestinian people has come not from an ancient source but largely in reaction to the creation and birth of Israel.”

Shipler’s perceptive reporting yielded to Thomas Friedman’s persistent criticism. Chastising Israelis for ignoring the plight of Palestinians, he dismissed terrorist attacks as merely “a continual poke in the ribs” and anticipated that “scary religious nationalist zealots” might lead Israel into the “dark corner” of a “South African future.”

Columnist Anthony Lewis identified the occupation of Judea and Samaria with South African apartheid. Roger Cohen suggested that the U.S. should engage in “hammering” Israel in response to the “scourge” of occupation. Jodi Rudoren wrote preposterously that Israel was building 3,500 new settlements. Following horrific Palestinian terrorist attacks during the second intifada, Times editors held “both sides” responsible. Current Jerusalem bureau chief Patrick Kingsley refers incessantly to Israeli “occupation” of the Jews’ biblical homeland in Judea and Samaria.

For nearly a century, The New York Times has suffered from Zionism- and Israel-phobia. There is no cure in sight.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of 12 books, including Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a Best Book for 2019.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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