NEW YORK, April 11 (JTA) When Seth Lipsky was negotiating to launch the English-language edition of the Forward more than a decade ago, many touchy subjects came up, but perhaps none more combustible than that of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Menachem Begin’s ideological forefather.
Lipsky knew that Jabotinsky was the archenemy of the Labor Zionism that serves as one of the ideological underpinnings of the Forward Association, the longtime publisher of the renowned Yiddish paper.
But on that day in 1987, Lipsky, who considers the militant founder of Revisionist Zionism a hero, didn’t back down and the negotiations temporarily broke down, according to one source.
The talks with the board that owns about half of the paper were eventually restarted, leading to the creation in 1990 of the English-language Forward with Lipsky at its helm.
But as reports circulate of Lipsky’s imminent forced resignation, the Jabotinsky conflict reflects the ideological struggles over past as well as current politics that accumulated and eventually led to his presumed ouster.
Lipsky’s departure has not been officially announced, and he says it “is not appropriate for me to comment” at this time.
But sources close to Lipsky say there is a “zero percent chance” he will remain as editor and the terms of his departure are being negotiated.
The paper is jointly owned by the Forward Association and a partnership funded by philanthropist Michael Steinhardt. If Lipsky does depart, it is unclear if Steinhardt would sell his share of the paper and leave the Forward Association alone either to absorb the financial losses the paper has been incurring or to look for other donors.
Steinhardt said in an interview he could not comment about his future involvement with the paper, but he did say that negotiations about the paper’s future have been going on for six to eight months.
He also said he believed the Forward could survive without his financial involvement if the Forward Association chose to let it.
Soon after Lipsky was appointed editor of the paper, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg wrote the Forward Association, saying that while he supported Lipsky’s right to express his opinions, “to do so on the money accumulated on a socialist or social democratic platform” as the Forward had was absurd.
At the time, says Hertzberg, now a visiting professor at New York University, the board virtually ignored his letter, turning it over to Lipsky.
But a decade later, the board appeared to share his conclusions. Sources say that after Sam Norich took over as general manager of the association in 1998, he began pressing for Lipsky’s removal.
Norich made it clear that he did not feel the Forward’s tradition was being well-served, according to a source familiar with the developments.
Norich and Harold Ostroff, chairman of the newspaper, declined to comment, citing the ongoing negotiations.
In retrospect, the relationship between Lipsky and the association was a marriage that was destined for divorce.
The Yiddish-language Forvertz, which in the 1920s had a circulation nearing 250,000, had made its name as the voice of immigrant socialism but not communism and the Jewish labor movement.
Lipsky, on the other hand, came from a background that included time at the staunchly free market and politically conservative editorial board of The Wall Street Journal.
He hewed to a hard line on peace both with Syria and the Palestinians, most recently attacking Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak for having a “double standard” for “assiduously courting and praising the dictator at Damascus, Hafez al-Assad.”
As egregious to those members of the Forward Association, he published blistering editorials and incendiary front-page articles attacking beliefs long held by the majority of the Jewish establishment on such issues as welfare reform and school vouchers.
Indeed, the Jewish establishment came under constant criticism some would say slander for what Lipsky saw as its liberal ideology and clandestine operations.
A recent headline, “If Police Spot a Clown in the Capitol, It Might Be Steve Solender on the Job,” referred to the president and chief executive officer of the United Jewish Communities.
Some 39 executives of local Jewish federations signed a letter in last week’s edition, protesting the headline.
He wrote several editorials attacking the UJA-Federation of Greater Philanthropies of New York for what he saw as the unfair advantage that the New York Jewish Week enjoys because contributors to the New York federation automatically receive subscriptions to that paper.
Indeed, reaction to the news of Lipsky’s apparent ouster among Jewish organizational officials many of whom assiduously read but simultaneously revile the paper was swift.
“You can’t go around slandering people and not think you’re not going to pay a price for it,” said a key leader in the Jewish organizational world, who asked not to be identified.
But, added this insider, the Forward might not be as interesting if Lipsky does leave.
Lawrence Rubin, the executive vice chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella group that the Forward often attacked, said, “I think that the Forward has been independent, but it hasn’t maintained journalistic standards.”
Jewish officials often complained to Steinhardt, the hedge-fund manager-turned-philanthropist who has devoted increasing resources to the Jewish world, and to the Forward Association.
Some observers say all of this may not have mattered had the paper not lost so much money.
But the English-language version is suffering annual losses of approximately $2 million, according to The New York Times. Its circulation never topped 30,000, and it never achieved the daily publication envisioned by Lipsky.
“If Lipsky had succeeded in creating a going concern, he might have gotten away with it, but he didn’t create a going concern,” said Hertzberg.
Both past and current staff have come to Lipsky’s defense.
In a letter to Forward Association officials, past staff members, several of whom have gone on to careers at such publications as The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker, wrote: “It would be devastating both for the cause of free journalism and for the Jewish community if the Forward were to cease publication; it would be equally terrible, however, if the Forward were to continue to publish without Seth Lipsky at its helm. Seth is not merely the editor of the English-language Forward, he is its animating spirit.”
Meanwhile, the president of the company that publishes the Detroit Jewish News and the Atlanta Jewish Times says the developments at the Forward will not affect those papers, of which Steinhardt recently invested and became chairman.
“The reasons why Steinhardt is involved in Detroit and Atlanta stand on its own merits,” said Arthur Horwitz.
(JTA Editor Lisa Hostein contributed to this report.)