An editor at the New York Times has recently apologized for having written several anti-Semitic and racist tweets. Tom Wright-Piersanti is a senior staff editor at the Times. In the years 2008-2010, Wright-Piersanti wrote several offensive tweets, which were uncovered by the website Breitbart.
On New Years’ Day 2010, Wright-Piersanti tweeted, “I was going to say ‘Crappy Jew Year,’ but one of my resolutions is to be less anti-Semitic. So… HAPPY Jew Year. You Jews.”
The previous month, during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, Wright-Piersanti shared a picture of a car with a lit menorah on its roof and wrote, “Who called the Jew-police?”
“I have deleted tweets from a decade ago that are offensive,” Wright-Piersanti tweeted after the Breitbart article was published. “I am deeply sorry.”
He also mocked Native Americans, and Afro-Americans, for which no doubt he is also “deeply sorry.”
Amazing how “deeply sorry” people are about so many things the minute they are found out, but not one minute earlier. Perhaps he is “deeply sorry” only because those tweets came to light. They were not just “offensive,” but disgusting. In any event, Wright-Piersanti apparently needn’t worry about his job. As of this writing, he’s still at the New York Times, a paper that has a Jewish, and latterly an Israeli, problem. It recently published two antisemitic cartoons in its international edition. The more offensive of the two depicted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a guide dog (a dachshund) wearing a Star of David collar and leading President Donald Trump, who is wearing a black kippah. Anyone of sense would have seen this cartoon as antisemitic, save apparently the editor at the Times who approved the cartoon. And the Times, just like Wright-Piersanti, said it was “deeply sorry.” Yes, it was “deeply sorry for the publication of an anti-Semitic political cartoon” that appeared in its international print edition. And the Times has decided to stop publishing cartoons from non-staff members. It has also said that it will also overhaul its bias training to have an emphasis on antisemitism, according to an internal note from the Times’s publisher, A.G. Sulzberger. What about training on how to bring a modicum of fairness to reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Or would that be asking too much?
The Times has had a “Jewish problem” ever since Hitler came to power in 1933. So let’s go back to the 1930s and 1940s, before there was even an Israel for the Times to be anti-Israel about, to see how, and to ask why, the most influential paper in the world, owned by Jews, paid so little attention to the murderous threat of Hitler and the Nazis as it grew throughout the 1930s. It was precisely because the paper was owned by Jews, who were determined not to have their paper be thought of as an organ of special pleading about Jewish suffering, that the New York Times failed so miserably, in its under-reporting of the Holocaust and the antisemitic crimes during the 1930s that led up to its final, murderous efflorescence. In her brilliant Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper, Laurel Leff notes that Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who became the publisher in 1936 (though he was effectively the publisher from 1933, because of the illness of the previous publisher, Adolph Ochs) and continued in that post until 1961, at the most critical period for the Jews of Europe, had studiously refrained from having anything to do with Jewish organizations or causes. He (Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher of the Times) refused to donate to the United Jewish Appeal or the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. He wrote in 1934, “I am a non-Zionist because the Jew, in seeking a homeland of his own, seems to me to be giving up something of infinitely greater value of the world. … I look askance at any movement which assists in making the peacemaker among nations merely a national Distribution Committee, favoring instead the National Missions of the Presbyterian Church.” In 1948, he wrote, “I know of no difference in my way of life than in that of any Unitarian.”
Sulzberger was committed to an odd definition of journalistic balance. The Times refused to run letters to the editor that attacked the rise of antisemitism in Germany, so that it would not also have to offer space to those supporting antisemitism.
Instead of speaking of Jewish refugees, Times editorials tended to speak of German refugees. Arthur Hays Sulzberger refused to intervene with American officials to get a visa for a cousin, Fritz Sulzberger, advising him in 1938 to stay in Germany. So indifferent was he to what was going on in Germany, apparently, that he thought as late as 1938 that Jews should remain in Germany and ride out the storm. His misreading of reality was astonishing. By that year, it should have been clear that staying in Germany amounted to a death sentence. In 1933, Jews had been discharged from all universities, and then from all civil service jobs. Long before Kristallnacht, there were boycotts of Jewish shops, Jews were attacked, even beaten to death, on the street, Nazi rallies were held where Jews were hysterically denounced; a phrase from a 19th-century antisemite, Heinrich Treitschke, was recycled for use by the Nazis: “Die Juden sind unser Unglück!“(“The Jews are our misfortune”).
Yet in 1938, the publisher of the New York Times was advising a relative to remain in Germany. A. H. Sulzberger didn’t want to hear about all the atrocities German Jews were enduring. And he didn’t want his paper to make too much of such things either.
The threat to Jews was always minimized by the Times. Early in the war, the Times ran a campaign of nine editorials and three front-page stories that urged Congress to allow British families to send their children to safety in America, but made no such campaign on behalf of the Jews. Those British children might have been in danger from V-2 rockets, if they lived in the East End of London, but the Jews in Nazi-occupied countries faced certain death if they were not brought to America. The New York Times – under Arthur Hays Sulzberger – didn’t care enough to call for their admission.
Nor did the Times think helping Jews find refuge from the Nazis outside of America was a cause to promote in its editorials. When the British issued the White Paper of 1939, restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine to 15,000 a year for five years, the Times ran an editorial praising the move as necessary “to save the homeland itself from overpopulation as well as from an increasingly violent resistance on the part of the Arabs.” That White Paper effectively kept hundreds of thousands of Jews, who might have escaped from Europe in time, from being admitted to Mandatory Palestine. Churchill thundered against it as unjust and cruel. But not according to the New York Times; its editors thought the White Paper was perfectly correct in permitting no more than 15,000 Jews a year to find refuge in Palestine from the Nazis. Otherwise, the editorial absurdly claimed, Mandatory Palestine would be “overpopulated.” On what basis did the Times editors make that claim? Israel now has a population that is six times the population of Mandatory Palestine in 1939, and it is still not overpopulated. And the Times actually thought that it was preferable in 1939 to keep Jews in Europe, where they were almost certain to be killed, in order not to anger the Arabs in Palestine. The Mandate for Palestine’s provisions, that required Great Britain, as the Mandatory authority, to “facilitate” Jewish immigration and “encourage close settlement by Jews on the land,” were to be ignored so as not to upset the local Arabs.
Arthur Hays Sulzberger lived among, and wanted to be accepted by, other people of great wealth, including many non-Jews, and he did not wish to be thought of as caring too much for the fate of Europe’s or Palestine’s — Jews. In that he succeeded, and for that he deserves endless obloquy in the history books. Assimilated and anti-Zionist, he instructed his editors to downplay news about the suffering of Europe’s Jews so that the newspaper would not appear to be too concerned with Jewish matters. He was a horrible man.
There was very little reporting in the Times on the rising antisemitism in Nazi Germany all through the 1930s. Atrocities against Jews in Germany, which began in the streets soon after Hitler took power in 1933, were mentioned intermittently, almost always in a few paragraphs deep inside the paper. Even Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938, when Jewish homes, hospitals and schools were demolished by Nazi attackers using sledgehammers, received less treatment in the New York Times than it did in many other newspapers around the world. The rioters destroyed 267 synagogues throughout Germany and Austria and the Sudetenland. Over 7,000 Jewish businesses were damaged or destroyed; 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Hundreds of Jews were murdered, often beaten to death by mobs. This had no visible effect on the editorial and reporting policies set down by Arthur Hays Sulzberger.
Why did this underreporting at the Times matter so much? It mattered because it had a direct effect on the sense of urgency among American Jews, and on the attitude in the government about rescuing Jews from the Nazis.
When the Holocaust began in earnest, and news about the roundups of Jews sent to concentration camps – labor and death camps were distinguished, though in the “labor camps” the inmates were often worked to death — managed to filter out, the New York Times continued to give such reports a few paragraphs deep within the paper. It did the same with reports from the Eastern Front, about the gassing of Jews in the mobile gas vans, about the mass shootings right on the edge of open pits into which those killed would topple. The paper never connected the dots of the Nazi efforts to exterminate the Jews of Europe, never presented it as part of a comprehensive genocidal plan. Its coverage of the murders of six million Jews was absurdly small, given the world-shattering size of the atrocity; this “Jewish news” from Europe was most often covered in a few paragraphs in the back; more attention was given in the Times to business, movies, golf championships, and racing news than to the Holocaust. Sulzberger, the publisher, was not haunted by what was going on in Europe. He gave his own attention to such pleasures as vacationing at Knollwood on Saranac Lake, in the Adirondacks. Knollwood was an enclave consisting of seven or eight luxurious “rustic cottages” that belonged to leading members of “Our Crowd,” that is, the assimilated and rich German Jews of New York, members of the Harmonie Club, families who had arrived in the 19th century from Germany and looked down on the recent Jewish arrivals from Eastern Europe. They were glad to host a celebrity refugee from Germany – Einstein went twice to Knollwood, and his photograph is still on display in one of the “cottages” – but didn’t want to be unduly bothered with unpleasant news from Europe. And Sulzberger was one of them.
That failure by the New York Times to report adequately throughout the 1930s on the growing danger to Germany’s Jews was not without consequences, as shall be discussed tomorrow.
Under-reporting by the New York Times on Nazi antisemitism, and the deliberate placement of such abridged stories deep inside the paper, had terrible consequences for the Jews of Europe. First, American Jews who relied on the Times for their information, in that pre-television era, had no clear idea of the extent of the antisemitic horrors being perpetrated, and how, as the Nazi war machine extended German rule over much of Europe, Jews trapped in those occupied lands were being systematically slaughtered – gassed in camps or mobile vans, shot, burned alive, worked deliberately to death — in the Endlosung, or Final Solution to the “Jewish problem.” Had they been better informed, and in a timelier fashion, American Jews — properly alarmed — would have made much greater efforts to rescue their relatives, and other Jews, too. They would have sent money, and money given to bribe the right rat in the right office might mean that life-saving visas could be acquired, both for exit and entrance. That money could also pay for transportation out of Nazi-occupied Europe, and for the services of passeurs who could smuggle Jews into such safe havens as Switzerland or Spain or Turkey. Such sums from America could prove useful for desperate Jews, too, in other ways — to pay for lodging, food, and transport – if they were on the run. Suppose that the New York Times had all through the 1930s, instead of scanting on its coverage of Jews in Germany, devoted many pages to their situation, culminating in Kristallnacht? Suppose the Times had reproduced the pages of Der Stürmer, published photographs of burned-out synagogues, reported on Jews who had been fired from their jobs, had their shops destroyed, were beaten to death on the streets of Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Frankfurt, Nuremberg? What if the readers of the Times, the “newspaper of record,” had learned early on about the first camps that opened, at Dachau and Buchenwald? What if the Times publisher had been someone who thought the Nazi persecution and murder of Europe’s Jews was, after the world war itself, the most important story in the world, and did everything he could to make sure it was given the prominence it deserved? Between the outbreak of World War II, on September 3, 1939, and its end on September 2, 1945, there were 2,190 days. What if there had been a Times story about Europe’s Jews on every single one of those 2,190 days? Surely American Jews, and not only Jews, would have done much more, if they had been properly informed. They could have held rallies, raised money, pressured their Congressmen to open the gates to Jewish refugees – damn the peacetime quotas! — and made the rescue of Europe’s Jews, those that had not yet been killed, a central issue, a moral and political issue, a campaign issue.
Had more been known, and known earlier about the German murders, then many Jews (but not only Jews) in America would have gone all out to rally support in Washington, enlisting the aid of those who, such as Senator Robert Wagner of New York, already were aware of what was going on in Germany. The Roosevelt Administration might then have been persuaded to pressure the British, who knew they would need American aid and goodwill in the mighty contest to come, to end the their illegitimate blockade that prevented Jews from reaching Palestine. Had American Jews been better informed by the powerful New York Times, the paper they relied on, more of them might have mobilized their financial power, and found ways to send money to Jewish organizations in Europe, for distribution to those trying to escape. Some Jews might have evaded the British blockade and entered Palestine. It is too often forgotten that ships could still leave from the Rumanian port of Constanta, on the Black Sea, throughout the war. And money could ensure that harbor masters looked the other way as ships left their ports with their human cargo. Jews might then have made it, if they had the money to buy the right visas and to pay for that transport, all the way to North Africa, where Vichy French officials were not able to police the populace as easily as they did in France itself. It was possible for Jewish refugees to disappear from view in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, where hundreds of thousands of Sephardic Jews lived and could help them. Franco’s Spain, though Fascist, was another place Jewish refugees would not be harmed, but they needed money both to buy their entry visas, and to live on while searching for work. Turkey was another possibility, a place where some Jews found refuge, and many more might have, had they had sufficient means for travel, entry visas, living expenses. The most famous German literary scholar of the 20th century, Erich Auerbach, a Jew who had fled Nazi Germany in 1935, wrote his masterpiece Mimesis while living securely in Istanbul during the war. Some Jews managed to get to Egypt, and from there they went through the Sinai Desert, by motorcar or horse or camel or even on foot, pedibus calcantibus, and made it — despite the British blockade — to Palestine.
All these conceivable avenues of escape required money, not just for transportation, and food and lodging while on the run, but always for bribes to the right rat in the right office who – for a price — could supply the right papers. Had the antisemitic attacks in Germany in the 1930s, and the first news of mass murdering of Jews in the camps, been fully reported on by the New York Times, American Jews would surely have raised huge sums and sent money to those in peril. Money could buy lives: the Cuban president, Federico Laredo Bru, who prevented the German Jews on the ship St. Louis from disembarking at Havana in May 1939, forcing the ship, with its Jewish passengers, to then try American and Canadian ports, where the ship was turned away. Ultimately the St. Louis returned to Germany, and the would-be refugees were imprisoned by the Nazis and many, of course, were then killed. The Cuban president might have changed his mind had he been offered enough money. And had the chorus of rage and pity for the refugees been heard loud enough in Washington, perhaps the St. Louis would have been permitted to dock at an American port, and its desperate human cargo permitted to disembark. But the Times did not make clear what the inexorable fate for those refugees would be; the chorus never became loud enough. Washington, shamefully, failed to act.
Second, the under-reporting of the Holocaust by the Times also affected official Washington. Few American politicians in the late 1930s realized the full extent of the antisemitic persecution by the Nazis. Had the antisemitic attacks, had Kristallnacht and then the beginning of the mass roundups for the camps been extensively covered, there might have been more calls from Congress to admit Jewish refugees. And those in the government who opposed the admission of Jewish refugees, who met with little opposition, could more effectively have been countered. Instead, the State Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, the antisemitic Breckenridge Long, who had been put in charge of all matters related to war refugees, did everything he could to prevent Jews from being admitted to the U.S. Ultimately, the effect of the immigration policies set by Long’s department was that, during American involvement in the war, ninety percent of the quota places available to immigrants from countries under German and Italian control were never filled. If they had been, an additional 190,000 people could have escaped the atrocities being committed by the Nazis. Had the New York Times reported fully and truthfully on the Nazi murders, it is even possible that political pressure from Congress would have forced the dismissal of Breckenridge Long, and thereby not just hundreds of thousands of Jews could have filled the refugee quotas for Germany and Italy that had been closed to them, but other Jews might have been helped by an American government now willing to expand its refugee program beyond the quotas set earlier, for those in the greatest peril – i.e., Jews in Europe. The American government might also have used its influence to persuade other countries in this hemisphere – Mexico, Brazil – to take in Jewish refugees. The Americans also could have used their ships to transport desperate refugees from European ports. In the Dominican Republic, where the dictator Rafael Trujillo said he would welcome Jews to the city of Sosua where, he believed, they would help build the country’s economy, only several thousand could take advantage of this offer; there were not enough vessels to transport the Jews eager to resettle.
The New York Times has never adequately examined its own role in reporting on the antisemitism of the 1930s and the mass-murdering of Jews in the 1940s known as the Holocaust. The paper has reported on Laurel Leff’s study, Buried With the Times, and recognized the truth of the indictment she presents. But that is not enough. The Times should dedicate an entire issue, or more if necessary, of its Sunday Magazine to a thorough self-study, quoting in their entirety the Times reports (and where they were placed in the paper) on the attacks on German Jews throughout the 1930s, including Kristallnacht on November 9-10, 1938, and then, it should also reprint those those articles — where there were any – which it published about the Holocaust itself. How did the Times cover the roundup of Jews at the Vel d’Hiv in Paris, of the reports by Jan Karski, who had learned in detail about the death camps in Poland, had visited the Warsaw Ghetto, and who came to Washington to inform President Roosevelt about what he had seen and heard? On July 28, 1943, Karski personally met with President Franklin Roosevelt in the Oval Office, telling him about the situation in Poland and becoming the first eyewitness to tell him about the Jewish Holocaust and the Warsaw Ghetto. During their meeting, Roosevelt asked about the condition of horses in Poland. According to Karski, Roosevelt did not ask one question about the Jews.
How was the farce of the “model camp” at Theresienstadt (the camp where the Nazis showed “happy, healthy Jews” with their orchestra, and painting classes, to visiting Red Cross personnel) presented in the pages of the Times? What did it let its readers know about the numbers of Jews being sent to the death camps of Auschwitz, Belzec, Treblinka, and what exactly happened in those camps? The Times has a duty not merely to endorse Laurel Leff’s study, but to show how badly it covered the Holocaust by reprinting what it reported at the time.
Take, for example, the story published in the paper on July 29, 1942, about the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. The story bore the headline “Warsaw Fears Extermination” instead of “Jews in Warsaw Fear Extermination.” It was published on Page 14, and was not even a stand-alone story; it consisted of a handful of paragraphs next to an ad for Emerson spinet pianos. The Times should reprint that story in all its nauseating brevity. It should reprint the other stories in the Times – the handful of disjointed reports, a few paragraphs here or there, about the labor camps, and the death camps, about the mobile gassing vans, about the Jews burned alive, about the mass shootings of Jews on the Eastern Front. And it should list the many examples of anti-Jewish “actions” that were known at the time, but that the Times chose to ignore altogether.
In 1944, for another example of minimizing Holocaust news at the paper concerns how it reported on Hungarian Jews. 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.
Only four column inches, on page 12, were devoted to the fate – the murder — of 750,000 Hungarian Jews. What if the story had been on page 1, and given not four column inches but fifty, or one hundred column inches? What if there had been photographs of Hungarian Jews, starving and exhausted, waiting to be transported to the death camps? Surely there would have been a furor in Washington, and a renewal of previous appeals for the American Air Force in Europe to bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz, to save the 350,000 Jews who had not yet been killed but soon would be? Such a suggestion, to save Jews from mass murder, had been made months before about a different group of Jews, and had been rejected by Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy as too “disruptive to the war effort.” Perhaps with more coverage of the Hungarian Jews in the Times, instead of a handful of paragraphs on page 12, McCloy would this time have been forced to agree.
Neil Lewis damningly notes:
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.
Lewis is too mild in his criticism here. It is not true that the Times “published many articles” about the Holocaust. And certainly not the thousands the subject deserved.
It would be salutary for the New York Times to begin its inquest into its own journalistic performance with a sincere mea culpa. Something like this:: “Between 1939 and 1945, the New York Times published more than 23,000 front-page stories. Of those, 11,500 were about World War II. Twenty-six were about the Holocaust. Now we will show you exactly what was reported by the paper, and what was minimized, or downplayed, and what was ignored. And we will attempt to tell you why.”
That is the reckoning with its past that the New York Times owes to posterity.
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