Julian Schvindlerman
Julian Schvindlerman

The New York Times and Zionism

The way The New York Times dealt with two maritime tragedies during the period of the British Mandate in Palestine might be an enlightening introduction to its editorial position on Zionism, the Jewish National Home, and the plight of European Jewish refugees during WWII.

In November 1940, the Patria ship was moored in the port of Haifa with more than 1,900 Jewish refugees fleeing Europe. The British did not allow their disembarkation in Palestine and planned to send them to Mauritius, then an English island colony. The Hagana, the official Zionist militia, tried to sabotage the expulsion of these illegal immigrants by putting a bomb in the boat. An error in the calculation of the explosives sank the ship and more than 250 refugees. That left the Zionists looking bad. The Times published the news on the front page. Fifteen months later, in February 1942, the Struma ship sank in the Black Sea with its 768 Jewish refugees inside; only one survived. It was the greatest civilian tragedy on the high seas during World War II. Due to technical malfunctions, the ship had to divert its route from Rumania to Palestine towards Istanbul. The British refused to accept the human cargo in Palestine, the Turks did not want it in their country and they decided to tow the battered ship and leave it abandoned adrift. A few hours later it sank. That left the British looking bad. The Times devoted just four paragraphs to the news of a “Black Sea ship” on the second page of the newspaper. In contrast, the Washington Post published an editorial on the subject.

The Times was not exactly a fan of the Zionist cause and gave ample coverage to news that hurt it. In the summer of 1943, the trial of two Jews and two British soldiers accused of smuggling weapons to Palestine began in Jerusalem. The newspaper special envoy to cover the event was Alexander Sedgwick, a pro-British American who believed that the Zionists wanted a state “based upon a philosophy not unlike that of the Nazis,” as he wrote in a letter sent to the publisher of the NYT. One of several articles dedicated to the subject run “Vast Ring with Huge Resources Linked with the Jewish Agency at Smugglers´ Trial.” The American Jewish community was amazed. The same newspaper that was burying the news about the Jewish genocide in Europe deep down in the inside pages was focusing on a case of arms-smuggling in Palestine. To put this in perspective: a few months before, the Warsaw ghetto uprising had occurred, in which members of the poorly armed Jewish resistance fought for more than three weeks against Nazi troops until they were annihilated. It was an extraordinary epic –except for the Times. It took six months until the newspaper finally dedicated an editorial to this dramatic event, and when it did, it did not even mention that Jews had been involved, referring to them simply as “people.”

Similarly, in its edition of March 2, 1944, the newspaper published on page four -among thirteen other news items and within a dispatch from London on European reality- a desperate call from the Polish Jewry to the World: “In our last moment before death, the remnants of Polish Jewry appeal for help to the whole world. May this, perhaps our last voice from the abyss, reach the ears of the whole world.” On that day´s front page at the NYT one could find, along with general information about the war, a piece of news on a bureaucratic errant that American motorists had to run. The news of the imminent extermination of the last Jews of Poland deserved secondary attention for the editors of the Times. However, when Palestinian Jews campaigned in the United States for the formation of Jewish militias to fight the Nazis, and gained partial support from the House of Representatives in 1942, the NYT published an editorial criticizing the initiative and Zionism broadly, claiming that it would provoke an Arab uprising and denouncing that such an idea would cause the Allies to end up favoring a Jewish state in Palestine. This was one of only two lead editorials on Jewish affairs published by the Times throughout the entire period of World War II.

The publisher of the New York Times at that time was Arthur Hays Sulzberger, a Jew of German descent who refused to define the Jews as a people, but rather a religion. “We need no other union than Shema Yisrael,” he said. He rejected the term “American Jews” in favor of “Americans of Jewish faith.” “My job is to show all and sundry that I do not subscribe to the thesis that ‘all Jews are brothers,’” he wrote in a letter to an anti-Zionist rabbi. He helped establish the American Council for Judaism, a group of reformist Jews who publicly declared itself – in the midst of the Holocaust- opposed to “the effort to establish a Jewish National State in Palestine or elsewhere.” In a letter sent to a judge, he said he was proud to unmask “the viciousness of Zionist propaganda.” After visiting Palestine in 1937, he wrote an essay, about which his most fervent public critic, Zionist rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, commented: “It is certainly revealing of the mental torment and confusion so characteristic of this type of Jew.” In 1942, Sulzberger traveled to England where he proposed to Foreign Minister Eden and Colonial Secretary Cranborne to unite Iraq, Syria and Palestine into a single Arab state that would absorb Jewish immigration and eschew Hebrew sovereignty. He also met with Winston Churchill, with whom he wanted to discuss about Palestine but, as Sulzberger later recalled, the British Prime Minister interrupted him: “I know you are not a Zionist, but I am.”

Jewish leaders, rabbis and journalists in the United States strongly protested the behavior of Arthur Sulzberger and the Times. The New Palestine branded members of the American Council for Judaism as “internal enemies of the Jewish people”; William Cohen in The New Frontier accused Sulzberger of suffering “from the Jewish maladies of self-hate and self-effacement”; Rabbi Joseph Shubow announced from the pulpit: “We blame also The New York Times for its ignorance and impudence”; the aforementioned Rabbi Silver lamented that the Times was “the only American newspaper that has set for its mission a fight on Zionism.” Some readers canceled subscriptions. In private and public letters, Sulzberger vented out his annoyance with these complaints, equating his Zionist critics with the Nazis: “Many of the Jewish nationalists think, just as Hitler does, that there should be room for only one opinion, theirs,” and “I am opposed to Goebbels’ tactics whether or not they are confined to Nazi Germany.” One can think of many reasons why Mr. Sulzberger should not have made these analogies, but one stands out in particular: for a while, the Nazi flag flew on the facade of the building that housed the offices of the Times in Berlin. It was put there by someone to whom the newspaper leased space. But still.

In the midst of such bewilderment, mention should be made of the existence of at least one Times reporter who challenged the newspaper for its editorial policy. Ray Brock was removed as a correspondent from the Middle East under British pressure and the Times refused to send him to Yugoslavia, as he had requested, so as not to offend London. Back in the United States he gave speeches against Britain and The New York Times, which he accused of lacking objectivity and truthfulness. When he was asked to shut up, Brock replied: “eye shall continue say exactly what eye damn please.” Incredibly, he would return to work for the daily in the future.

Today, this influential newspaper is highly critical of Israel and more often than not it shows a pro-Palestinian bias, as it did a few weeks ago when it published an article by a notorious Palestinian terrorist in its opinion pages while hiding his bloody past. The sad truth is that The New York Times has been at war with the Zionist idea for a long time.

Note: All of the information cited here can be found in Laurel Leff, Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper; Thomas Kolsky, Jews Against Zionism: The American Council for Judaism, 1942-1948; And Yoram Hazony, The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul.

About the Author
Julian Schvindlerman is an Argentine writer and journalist specializing in Middle East affairs. He lectures on World Politics at the University of Palermo (in Buenos Aires) and is a regular contributor to Infobae and Perfil. He is the author of Escape to Utopia: Mao's Red Book and Gaddafi's Green Book; The Hidden Letter: A History of an Arab-Jewish Family; Triangle of Infamy: Richard Wagner, the Nazis and Israel; Rome and Jerusalem: Vatican policy toward the Jewish state; and Land for Peace, Land for War.