How Two Jewish Publishers Who Privately Opposed Zionism Folded

In her 1997 autobiography, the late Katharine Graham of the Washington Post described her father as an assimilating Jew who didn’t talk about his Jewishness to his Episcopal-church-going children. He was “involved in Jewish charities, causes, and international issues.

“He was not a Zionist, however, believing strongly that he was an American citizen first and foremost.”

That’s odd. Her father, the financier Eugene I. Meyer Jr., who bought the Washington Post in the 1930s, is a figure in Zionist history. Behind the scenes, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis turned to Meyer again and again for money to support the Jewish settlement in Palestine. Meyer met with Brandeis’s Zionist klatches, personally lobbied his friend FDR on their account, and agreed to head the University Zionist society—an organization to build support among Jews on campus (per Brandeis’s letters, edited by Melvin Urofsky and David W. Levy, and Peter Grose’s Israel in the Mind of America).

So was Katharine Graham lying about her father?

Well, no. Despite Meyer’s support, even Brandeis conceded late in life that “his heart was never in Zionism and he did this largely on my account.” So Meyer was merely tithing—to something he didn’t believe in. This speaks to an interesting feature of the Israel lobby: It has long counted on support from assimilationist Jews who were lukewarm on the idea but went along under pressure from their nationalist Jewish friends.

Consider Meyer’s counterpart at the NYT: former publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger. When Sulzberger died in 1968, the Times obit was emphatic about his views. “[Jewishness] was to him a religion, not a nationality. He did not believe Jews to be a race or a people, and, like Mr. Ochs [his father-in-law], was deeply opposed to the Zionism movement…”

Deeply opposed. Successful assimilating German Jews like Sulzberger and Meyer loved America. They were becoming big deals in the land of opportunity, they didn’t quite see the point of Zionism—though they knew that Eastern European Jews who had fled pogroms were excited by it.

Sulzberger flirted with public declarations of his anti-Zionism. According to Thomas Kolsky’s splendid history, Jews Against Zionism, in the 1940s, Sulzberger helped draft the mission statement of the anti-Zionist Jewish organization, the American Council for Judaism—which opposed “all philosophies that stress the racialism, the nationalism and the homelessness of the Jews, as injurious to their interests.” Wow.

But in the end Sulzberger dithered and didn’t sign on publicly. He wanted to, he told the Reform rabbis who headed the group. But till it got a big following, he just couldn’t do so. It would hurt the integrity of the newspaper. Chicken.

Besides, the nascent Israel lobby was already on the Times’ case, accusing it of being “a transmission belt for anti-Zionist propaganda.” This ticked Sulzberger off. He said the viciousness of the Zionists’ attacks were a big reason he had converted to anti-Zionism!

What is my point? Here are two powerful Jews, one a non-Zionist, the other anti-, controlling two of the most important newspapers, and both are afraid to express their views. Some may call that professionalism, I call it abdication: they were holding back on a central issue of the time. The publishers of the New Republic and the New York Sun and Commentary would never cheat their readers of their views of Israel, that’s their raison d’etre.

Why didn’t these men express their views? I think they were ashamed of their assimilation. And they were outplayed by the nationalists in their community. Kolsky says that the Zionists beat the anti-Zionists not on the issues, but by outsmarting them. They put them on the defensive by saying they were unrepresentative or “self-hating.” They allowed them to piously play by the rules—no lobbying! the anti-Zionists declared— while the Zionists were working the White House. Give them credit. Today the Israel lobby works the cloakrooms and paints anyone who criticizes the intimacy of the U.S.-Israel relationship as an anti-Semite; and liberal Jews sigh and walk away.

Lately Richard Cohen of the Washington Post admitted regretfully that the creation of Israel was a “mistake.” Sixty years ago a group of Reform anti-Zionist Jews were saying just that: that a Jewish state was an anachronism, it would result in endless violence in the Middle East, and would require support from Jews here, which would make those Jews confused about their allegiance. The two publishers evidently shared many of these views but couldn’t take a stand.

So what was the position of liberal assimilating Jews in the Zionist movement? Just what Stokely Carmichael said the position of women was in the black power movement: prone.

Comments

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