Friday, August 11, 2000

A Mutual Obsession

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week)

Isn’t it delightful that Jews have become the chosen people of The New York Times, the two-tenths of 1 percent of the world’s population selected for special attention by the world’s most renowned newspaper?

If there was any doubt whether we had achieved this status, it was removed not long ago when Deborah Sontag, the Times’ Israel bureau chief, wrote breathlessly about the scandal of the Jewish National Fund planting trees that either could not take root or were being uprooted shortly after they were planted.

We can now sleep well knowing that JNF has been exposed, knowing that it can no longer make saps out of those who plant saplings in the Holy Land in memory of people they weren’t especially close to whom.

As the world burns in nearly the four corners of the earth, the Times knows that Jewish stories are inherently newsworthy. Hopefully we will now go on to bigger fish, perhaps to telling us who opens the blue and white JNF pushkes and what happens to their contents.

My dream story is why hundreds of thousands of dollars —maybe millions — of good Jewish philanthropic money is squandered each year on Times’ paid obituary notices that certainly are not read by the persons named therein.

Our exalted place in the newspaper of record is not the result of protekzia or, as anti-Semites are wont to believe, a Jewish conspiracy. We earned our preferred position the contemporary way — through an excess of obsession with things Jewish by Times editors and writers that has been reciprocated by our obsession with the newspaper. The match is perfect.

If a newspaper could be psychoanalyzed, we would get a stream-of-consciousness revelation of inner conflict, confusion and Judeo-phobia among scores of Timesmen who are or once were Jewish, starting with the Ochs’ — or is it Oakes? — and the Sulzbergers. For years, one of the consequences of this identity crisis was the unwritten rule that barred Jews from becoming the Times’ chief correspondent in Israel, a taboo broken when Thomas Friedman went from Beirut to Jerusalem.

The Times occasionally has sought to make amends for its sins against the Jews, as in its scarcely publicized apology for its silence as millions of Jews were being slaughtered in Europe. I wonder whether it’s comforting to think that the time may come when Mr. Sulzberger owns up to his newspaper’s tarnished record of Israel reportage.

Perhaps I am being unfair. We had for a long time the pro-Israel columns of A.M. Rosenthal — the initials are another consequence of the Times’ Jewish identity crisis — and William Safire. Even this comfort zone has become attenuated, for Mr. Rosenthal has gone, and now writes for the Daily News, while Mr. Safire has written less often about the Jewish state, perhaps because he is too mired in Clintonmania to pay attention to events far away.

The Times’ domestic coverage of Jewish affairs has shifted. There used to be an abundance of stories on conferences, speeches and press releases, the stuff that is the lifeblood of the dinosaurs known as major Jewish organizations. Theological issues are now covered in the religion column, while our communal life is generally treated as soft news or human-interest stories.

This has resulted in inordinate attention being given to the Orthodox, as in the recent article on intra-Orthodox squabbling in Borough Park over an eruv. I suppose that the Orthodox are more recognizable as Jews, or is the Times following the lead of the Jewish media?

As familiarity breeds contempt, excessive media attention inevitably breeds exaggeration of warts and failings.

This is the nub of what is wrong with the Times’ Israel coverage and its excessive focus on the Orthodox. I trust that I will not be accused of condoning any wrongdoing by suggesting that a person’s Orthodoxy does not belong in a newspaper story, except when as a consequence of the position that he or she holds or if the acts committed are integral to the story.

That is the standard the Times applies generally, except for the Orthodox. In articles on the New Jersey rabbi accused of arranging the murder of his wife, the Times had nothing to say about his denomination. But when a businessman with the first name Barry who happens to be Orthodox ran into financial difficulty because technology stocks nose-dived, his inconsequential tale ended up on the front page of the business section, where he was identified as Boruch Israel — to the surprise of his friends — and there was much irrelevant blathering about his being Orthodox. This triggered an immediate flurry of anti-Semitic postings on Yahoo!. Of course, the Times is not responsible for the misdeeds of others. Or was it in this case?

For all of its long, dreary record on things Jewish, The New York Times is by far the world’s most important Jewish newspaper, a status derived not from the truncated Judaism of the family that controls it or of the people who write for it.

Rather, it is for Jews the most important source for news. As we admire the Times for its strengths, we ought to be mindful of the other side of the ledger, the pain that it has caused to Jews and the pain that it will continue to cause so long as it is beset by a Jewish identity crisis.