First, it is published in the city and region with the nation’s greatest collection and concentration of Jews. And the paper itself has a Jewish pedigree, albeit one that is complicated and decidedly ambiguous. The modern New York Times—in its conception, ideals, and current suzerainty—began when Adolph Ochs, the son of German-Jewish immigrants who settled in Tennessee, became publisher in August 1896.
In purchasing and revitalizing the Times, which had been struggling financially, Ochs was himself transformed from an obscure printer-publisher in Chattanooga to a figure of great stature in New York and the nation. He understood however, that at the levels of society which he now inhabited, his Jewishness presented an unwelcome otherness to some.
He responded with a determination “not to have The Times ever appear to be a ‘Jewish newspaper,’” according to Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones in their 1999 book, The Trust.
Adolph Ochs eventually relinquished the paper to the man to whom he had reluctantly given his daughter, Iphigene—Arthur Hays Sulzberger.
Sulzberger, who also had German-Jewish ancestors, took effective control in 1933 when Ochs was ailing and became the paper’s formal head in 1935 upon Ochs’ death. Iphigene and Arthur became the parents and grandparents of two of the next three publishers, Arthur O. Sulzberger and his son, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., the current publisher.
Arthur Hays Sulzberger was regarded as a great success, overseeing the newspaper’s growth and strengthening its reputation. But his tenure also spanned the 20th century’s two seminal events for world Jewry, the Holocaust and the efforts that resulted in the founding of modern-day Israel. To many Jews, his behavior in both instances was deplorable.
Although the scope of the Holocaust would not be appreciated fully until after the war, there was considerable information available contemporaneously. Critics then and later said that the Times underplayed such news deliberately as part of its determination to avoid seeming either a Jewish newspaper or a special pleader for Jewish causes.
In 1944, for example, the Nazi regime, in its death throes, set about deporting to the concentration camps the Jews of Hungary, the last large group of European Jews who had remained mostly untouched by Hitler’s extermination campaign. In July 1944, the Times published an article of only four column inches citing “authoritative information” that 400,000 Hungarian Jews had already been forcibly transported to their deaths and an additional 350,000 were to be killed in the next few weeks. It ran on page 12.
From a journalistic standpoint, it is perplexing, if not stupefying, years later to see how the Times covered the attempted annihilation of European Jewry. The paper published many articles, several of which recounted precisely the horror of what was happening, while at the same time egregiously underplaying them—even given the context that much else was occurring because most of the world was at war. Thus, the historic horror was never meaningfully conveyed because it was reported only in unrelated bits and pieces, and relegated to inside pages.
Laurel Leff, in her superb book on how the paper underreported the Holocaust, Buried by The Times, wrote that the newspaper, suffused with the publisher’s sensitivities, was ever frightened of being seen as an organ of special pleading for Jews. For Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Judaism was solely a religion, not a race or ethnic grouping. He admired Iphigene’s grandfather, Isaac Mayer Wise, a pioneering Reform rabbi who first enunciated his belief in the 19th century that Zionism was based on a wrong-headed notion that Jews were a people, not a grouping by religion.
Arthur also fully subscribed to Adolph Ochs’ belief that the paper’s identification with elements of its Jewish character should be muted whenever possible. In practice, this included the makeup of its staff. That would prove difficult in a city and business that teemed with bright and ambitious Jewish men. It resulted in ludicrous efforts by managers, eager to interpret the publisher’s preferences, to leach the Jewish character out of some bylines; the bylines of A. M. Rosenthal and A. H. Raskin hid their shared first name, Abe.
The issue of how American Jews of all classes view their Jewish identity and what it means for their place in society is a complex and layered psychological matrix, as it surely was for the Sulzbergers.
But there is no doubt they understood themselves to be Jewish, never denied their heritage, and could hardly think otherwise as they were to experience regular anti-Semitic affronts. They were closely knit into the Jewish philanthropic world as befitted their social and economic standing.