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A Tragic "Fight in the Family": The New York Times, Reform Judaism and the Holocaust

From: American Jewish History
Volume 88, Number 1, March 2000
pp. 3-51 | 10.1353/ajh.2000.0016

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American Jewish History 88.1 (2000) 3-51

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A Tragic "Fight in the Family": The New York Times, Reform Judaism and the Holocaust

Laurel Leff

November 1942 was a critical month for American Jews. After several months of delay, the U.S. State Department had confirmed already published information that Germany was engaged in the systematic extermination of European Jews. Newspaper reports put the death toll at one million and described the "most ruthless methods," including mass gassings at special camps. 1 Horrified American Jews, many of whom had relatives and friends in Nazi-occupied Europe, began to plan a day of mourning and subsequent protests. Jewish groups, divided by issues important (a national homeland) and petty (organizational infighting), plotted to forge a united front in the face of the overwhelming tragedy. Zionists intensified their efforts to increase emigration to Palestine both to save Jews and to build a state.

At this crucial time Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the Jewish publisher of the nation's most important newspaper, the New York Times, weighed in, taking sides in the simmering debate within the Jewish community over Zionism and its relationship to the ongoing extermination campaign. At the beginning of the month Sulzberger denounced Zionism in a speech at a Baltimore synagogue, extensively excerpted in a news story in the Times the next day. He lobbied government officials to the anti-Zionism position. Later he helped organize the first American Jewish group whose primary purpose was to fight against a Jewish homeland.

And throughout the month, in private letters and public proclamations, he battled with Jewish leaders, who considered him "sick-souled" and "neurotic." The fight was so pitched because, as Samuel Margoshes, editor of the New York City Yiddish newspaper The Day, wrote, it was "in the family." To many Jewish leaders, Sulzberger's outspokenness made their struggle for a Jewish homeland doubly difficult. "The American public at large is still laboring under the misapprehension that both the Times and its publisher speak for most, if not all Jews," Margoshes wrote in the November 20, 1942 issue of the Congress Weekly, a publication of the American Jewish Congress. "While the Times is still, so to speak, in the family," he continued, "the Jews not [End Page 3] only are responsible for it, but the onus is upon us to explain to strangers that the New York Times is not the Jewish Big Brother who is speaking for us when we are in trouble and need help from others." 2

Sulzberger was just as eager to free himself of this "family" entanglement. To Sulzberger, even acknowledging that he was perceived as a Jewish publisher and the Times a Jewish paper would mean capitulating to the reprehensible philosophy of Jewish separateness. Nothing "would be more useful or more truly save our American system than to have that fallacious idea eradicated," Sulzberger wrote in the same issue of the Congress Weekly. 3

Critical events converged in that bleak month, but the clash was not an aberration. Since the Nazis had attained power, the Times, under Sulzberger's stewardship, had maintained a consistent and controversial position on the Jews. Above all else, Sulzberger did not want Jews to be singled out, whether for oppression or for salvation. The Times never called for the lifting of immigration quotas to allow more Jews into the United States. It opposed efforts to let Jews fight the Nazis as Jews rather than as citizens of Allied countries. It supported the British Government's restriction on legal immigration to Palestine even as the persecution of Jews intensified. And, as it did in an editorial that fateful month and would in subsequent editorials, it masked Jews' uniqueness in being targeted for extermination. "The Jews were the weakest and least numerous of the German religious minorities," the Times opined in November 1942, and that explained why the Nazis went after them. But now the Nazis had turned against "priests, ministers and congregations in conquered lands." 4

What is most remarkable about this little-explored chapter in Jewish...