The Legacy Of A.M. Rosenthal


There is a school of Jewish conventional wisdom, more conventional than wise, that The New York Times is a media Amalek, and that it ever was so. But in this week of mourning for A.M. Rosenthal let it be said: For the 30 years that he was a Times editor and columnist there was no other journalist who did more to bring sophistication and respect to the coverage of the Jewish religion, who defended Israel with a consistency and passion that frankly shocked his colleagues, and who did more to crack the Jewish discomfort within the most important paper in the nation.Rosenthal died last week at 84, following a stroke, and others remembered how he solidified the Timesí aura of integrity and secured its economic viability even as he radically changed its face, adding many daily sections to what was once a dry and gray two-section paper. But Jewish Timesmen remembered more.

When as executive editor he appointed Thomas Friedman to be the Timesí correspondent in Beirut ó ìat a time when Arafat was the de facto mayor,î remembered Friedman ó and then named him the Timesí Israel correspondent, it was the first time a Jew held those posts. And as someone who saw his own given name, Abraham, replaced by initials in an era when the paper was queasy with even a Lincolnesque Jewish name, Rosenthal allowed a new generation of Jewish reporters, such as Ari Goldman, to use their full names, not initials, in their byline.

Goldman, now a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, recalled, ìAbe never wanted to treat people the way he was treated. Abe knew that there were avenues closed to him as a Jew; he did not want others to be held back.îìItís a very interesting thing, having the name Abraham,î Rosenthal once told The Jewish Week. ìGo up to someone and say ëHello, my name is Abraham Rosenthal.í Right away, youíre announcing you are a Jew. Itís an interesting existence.îBeginning his career in 1943 as a stringer from City College, he won a Pulitzer in 1960 for his reporting on Communist abuses in Poland. Visiting the death camps in Poland in 1958, he wrote one of his most cited pieces, ìThere is No News From Auschwitz,î when newspaper articles on the Holocaust were a rarity.After stepping down as editor, he wrote a column for 13 years, surprising many with his outspokenness regarding anti-Semitism in this city, and his support for Israeli defiance of American pressure and Arab hostility. When his column was dropped by the Times in 1999, he went on to write for the Daily News until 2004.ì

Perhaps most amazing about Abe,î said Goldman, ìwas how he was true to his motto of keeping the paper ëstraight.í There were many complaints about the Timesí coverage of Jews and Israel during his tenure as executive editor, perhaps as many as there are today. Abe consistently backed up his correspondents. He would not take sides. But when he began his column, his love and support for Israel and Jews burst forth like a volcano. His was a heroic voice on behalf of human rights around the world, from Tibet to Africa. He was almost singular among human rights advocates in that he saw Israelís right to exist as a human rights issue.î

Friedman wrote, ìHe was very conservative and supportive of right-wing parties in Israel. But let me tell you this Ö I am sure I wrote things that gave him heartburn. But in all those years he never once complained about anything I wrote. I never knew his politics until he became a columnist.î With Rosenthal, said Friedman, you never saw any ìreportersí or editorsí thumbs on the scale.îìMany people associate me with the Timesí editorials,î Rosenthal said. ìI never had anything to do with the Timesí editorials. Editorials are a separate department from the news editor.

îRosenthal acknowledged that he did change somewhat. ìWhat happened was, after the background noise of being the chief editor died down, certain things came up in my mind that were more important to me than I really understood.îBorn in 1922 in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, to Russian immigrants, Rosenthal was not given any Jewish education but he gave himself a bar mitzvah when he turned 70.After a move to New York City, four of his five older sisters died from various illnesses. While at City College, Rosenthal contracted osteomylitis. ìI couldnít walk and was told I could never walk again,î Rosenthal told me. ìI was very insecure, I had no great confidence in myself. Being a reporter was beyond me, it was too romantic, I was a skinny little kid with pimples shlepping around on a crutch.îThen he visited the college paper. ìI walked in ó bang, that was it. There was nothing in that office but a few old chairs, cigarettes on the floor; I was given a one-paragraph story to write, and thatís all I wanted to do. I loved it.î

Though he never went to Hebrew school, Rosenthal was perhaps the first editor in modern journalism to take religion seriously. ìThe Times thought they covered religion,î said Rosenthal, ìbut what they had was sermons. Every Monday, we printed a whole page of sermons. Religion is not a sermon. I wanted us to get stories about theology. Religion is, without a doubt, one of the great forces in our life. I wanted to cover religious thought, the political and social aspects of religion. Who are the religious thinkers of our time? What are they thinking? Tell me what they are teaching. That is very important to me.îTo this day, there isnít a paper in the nation that covers religious thought and culture with the devotion of the Times, a legacy few honor. When he retired, he left a Times that considered Israel to be worth covering to an extent that few do outside Israel itself, another legacy. In the end, we ó those who take Israel and religion seriously ó were important to him, perhaps more than most of us realized. n