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 Posted Monday, May 27, 2002

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Max Frankel was with the New York Times from the early 1950s to 1994, eventually becoming its Executive Editor. The following quotations are from his memoirs, The Times of My Life. And my Life with The Times (Random House, New York, 1999).


The best reporters and editors normally have no race, sex, or religion. They may charm or muscle their way into strange places, but they try not to THINK male or female, black or Jewish. Still, there always comes a time for exceptions. I remember reliving the shudders of refugee life at the sight of Hungarians trudging across a frozen frontier swamp. I never totally banished that twinge of smug American security when interviewing high-ranking Germans. And there's no denying the conspiratorial bond that suddenly appeared when an old man on a park bench in Kiev whispered, BIST AH YID?

Are you a Jew? was a question often put to me, and with decidedly different inflections. In Communist countries, it came from Jews who meant thereby to ask whether they could trust me with seditious conversation. In Israel, it was asked to discover whether I would ever put my feelings for the Jewish state ahead of my journalistic mission. Now that I had charge of editorials at the Times, the question was usually hurled with contempt; I was obviously a Jew, but in the eyes of many Jews, an unworthy one for daring to criticize the Israeli government. So whenever I turned to the subject of Israel, there was no escaping my skin." (page 397)

Except for my place of birth, I was a Galicianer, dammit, an EASTERN Jew just one generation out of the shtetl. The Nazis obliterated that Yiddish world, a constellation of townlets that stretched from Lithuania to Romania, but the shtetl culture kept on fiddling in the hearts of millions of us, in Israel and America. No matter how aggressive our assimilation to new worlds, we Galicianers always juggled a kind of dual citizenship. Unlike many German Jews, we wanted to retain our Jewishness, our YIDDISHKAYT. And after the Holocaust, not even the starchiest Americans dared any longer to demand that we shed it, as they had demanded of striving Jews in the 1920s and '30s." (page 398)

Although Times bylines gradually came to include names like Weiler, Raskin, and Rosenthal, these writers were somehow all persuaded to render their first names as A. instead of Abraham." (page 399)

By the time Punch Sulzberger [inheritor of the New York Times] occupied his father's chair in 1963, American society had shed many of its anti-Semitic prejudices and permitted the rapid advancement of Jews in professional life and corporate suites. The general revulsion against fascism turned into a revulsion against bigotry itself, as demonstrated by the election of the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy. Exploiting this atmosphere, and Gentile guilt about the Holocaust, American Jews of my generation were emboldened to make them themselves culturally conspicuous, to flaunt their ethnicity, to find literary inspiration in their roots, and to bask in the resurrection of Israel." (page 400)

Instead of idols and passions, I worshiped words and argument, becoming part of an unashamedly Jewish verbal invasion of American culture. It was especially satisfying to realize the wildest fantasy of the world's anti-Semites: Inspired by our heritage as keepers of the book, creators of law, and storytellers supreme, Jews in America did finally achieve a disproportionate influence in universities and in all media of communication.

Punch Sulzberger unconsciously abetted this movement. He felt born to the publisher's chair and had none of his father's hang-ups about being Jewish. Israel's ambassadors to the United Nations lived just a few floors below his Fifth Avenue apartment and always enjoyed easy access to him and to his table at The Times. Within a few years of Punch's ascendancy, there came a time when not only the executive editor -- A. M. Rosenthal -- and I but ALL the top editors listed on the paper's masthead were Jews. Over vodka in the publisher's back room, this was occasionally mentioned an any impolitic condition, but it was altered only gradually, without any affirmative action on behalf of Christians." (pages 400-401)

Because my name was Max and because I produced editorials that disapproved of some of the hawkish policies of Israel's prime minister, Menachem Begin, ... even modest criticism of Israeli actions inevitably provoked angry articles in Jewish weeklies, demands that I meet for remedial instruction with the heads of Jewish organizations, and a flood of angry letters, many condemning me as a 'self-hating Jew' who had abandoned his people to curry favor with the goyim. I was denounced as being ignorant of the Holocaust and indifferent to the damage done by disharmony among Jews. To the most sober of these assaults, I sometimes responded with a hurt biographical note, stressing my roots in the shtetl, our family's taste of both Nazi and Soviet anti-Semitism, the disappearance of my grandparents, my sojourn among relatives who had survived the death camps to settle gratefully in Israel, and my intimate familiarity with every liturgical variant of Jewish ritual. Mostly, however, I would simply retort that my only remaining Jewish friends were Israelis, to make the point that many Israelis also found fault with their government and also favored accommodation with the Palestinians, as they eventually proved in the Peace Now movement.

I was much more deeply devoted to Israel than I dared to assert. I had yearned for a Jewish homeland ever since learning as child in Germany that in Palestine even the policemen were Jews! Like most American Jews, however, I settled on a remote brand of Zionism, which rejected all importuning to move to Israel to share its hardships and dangers." (page 401)

I did indeed have many close Israeli friends, not only relatives and journalists but high officials, ranging from Yitzhak Rabin to Lova Eliav. That is why I well understood the full range of Israeli opinion on all of the country's vital security concerns." (page 402)

Fortified by my knowledge of Israel and my friendships there, I myself wrote most of our Middle East commentaries. As more Arab than Jewish readers recognized, I wrote them from a pro-Israel perspective. And I wrote in confidence that The Times no longer suffered from any secret desire to deny or overcome its ethnic roots. (page 403)

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