Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2006, pages 34-35

Special Report

New York Times Editor Abe Rosenthal Had A “Passionate Attachment” to Israel

By Richard H. Curtiss

In his farewell address to his countrymen, George Washington cautioned against passionate attachments to foreign countries. If ever such a warning applied, it was to A.M. Rosenthal, the long-time chief editor of The New York Times, who died May 10 at the age of 84.

Rosenthal was a campus correspondent at the City College of New York (CCNY) when he was invited to join the Times staff after his predecessor joined the military in 1944, during World War II. He wisely seized the opportunity to join one of the world’s most prestigious newspapers. Although he never did complete his university studies, four years later CCNY granted him a degree anyway. He started out as a reporter on the Times city staff and later became the paper’s United Nations correspondent, a position he held for eight years. He made a point of creating clever headlines to make his work interesting and memorable.

Rosenthal asked the Times to make him a foreign correspondent, hoping to join the Paris bureau as deputy to the chief correspondent. Because the newspaper’s policy at the time was to have not more than one Jewish staff member in each bureau, another reporter got the posting.

After applying for the foreign staff several times, Rosenthal finally received his first foreign assignment in 1954. He was sent to New Delhi, where he remained for four years, traveling incessantly in the vast country in which he never lost an interest. He also visited Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal and Kashmir.

Rosenthal’s next assignment was to the Soviet satellite of Poland, which he eventually was forced to leave because of his persistent and embarrassing questions about the Warsaw government. After a brief time in Geneva he was assigned to Japan where, again, he wrote engagingly and interestingly about that unique and highly important country. He also covered the rest of Asia.

The Times then brought him back to New York, where he moved rapidly up the career ladder, eventually becoming the number two man at The New York Times—his ostensible boss being the prestigious James Reston. By that time Rosenthal was a master of cutthroat office politics, in which Reston was not really interested. Eventually Rosenthal took over the top position of managing editor.

Rosenthal made a vast number of imaginative changes that, in effect, modernized what was once known as “the good gray lady” of journalism. Some of these features helped build wide circulation, as did local editions in such suburbs as New Jersey, Connecticut, Long Island and Westchester County.

Rosenthal was a master of cutthroat office politics.

For many years The Times was an unhappy and clique-driven newspaper, but its circulation grew even as many other daily newspapers faded or even folded. After inaugurating a special edition for Chicago, and expanding to the West Coast, the Times printed simultaneously in all these important markets. More than anyone else, Rosenthal deserves credit for the fact that the Times is a truly great newspaper which is still expanding.

Although brilliant and innovative, Rosenthal was given to fits of screaming, shouting, cursing and other outbursts that were incongruous with the Times’ public persona. He not only could be petty and vindictive, however, but generous and kind as well.

In 1971 he played a key role in the Times’ publication of the Pentagon Papers, a landmark in the history of journalism which subjected Rosenthal and his publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, to the risk of jail. Equally important, Rosenthal favored those he considered “stars” who were personally loyal to him rather than just to the newspaper.

As managing editor and subsequently executive editor, the posts he held from 1969 until 1986, Rosenthal reversed one of the Times’ final, unspoken limitations on Jews. Because the Times was reputed to be a Jewish-owned publication, there was an unwritten rule that no Jew could report on Israel, in order to avoid the charge of dual loyalties.

Ironically, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, publisher of The Times, did not support the creation of Israel, believing it would create problems for Jewish Americans. At the time of the U.N.’s 1947 partition of Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Sulzberger cancelled an advertisement submitted by the “American League for a Free Palestine” a U.S. alter ego and fund-raiser for the terrorist Irgun Zvi Leumi, led by future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

The action, prompted by Sulzberger’s personal convictions, brought him into confrontation with American Zionists and led to a costly boycott of The New York Times by department store advertisers. The boycott was referred to as the “frightening experience” by Times executives, who locked away all correspondence referring to it in a safe in the Times’ offices.

Under Rosenthal, the Times installed David Shipler as Jerusalem bureau chief, assuming, based on the reporter’s surname, that Shipler was Jewish. Learning only after the appointment that he in fact was not, Rosenthal waited several years, until the correspondent finished his assignment, before awarding the Jerusalem post to Thomas L. Friedman.

In his book The Other Side of the Coin, noted anti-Zionist author Alfred M. Lilienthal recalled that, in August 1982, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Friedman wrote a dispatch from Beirut reporting Israel’s “indiscriminate” bombing of Beirut. Friedman’s office telex machine soon produced a message from New York that Times editors had deleted the word “indiscriminate” as editorializing—although they praised Friedman for “good work under dangerous conditions.”

Friedman replied that he had purposely used the word after traveling around Beirut and concluding that the bombing that day was fundamentally different from what had happened on the previous 63 days. “What can I say?” Friedman telexed. “I am filled with profound sadness by what I have learned in the past afternoon about my newspaper.”

In a rage, Rosenthal ordered Friedman to return to New York immediately. Friedman expected to be fired. By the time he arrived for his lunch appointment, however, Rosenthal came in “looking unhappy, glowered at Friedman and then said: ”˜You are receiving a $5,000 raise.’ After Friedman described what had actually been taking place in Beirut, Rosenthal seemed relaxed and friendly. However, he warned, if you ever pull a stunt like that again, you are fired!”

Every foreign correspondent is familiar with the pressure to avoid unpleasant truths. To this day, Friedman often resorts to circumlocution to avoid censuring Israel—a precaution that undoubtedly has served him well in his present incumbency as a twice-weekly op-ed columnist.

According to Rosenthal’s obituary, his father changed his name from Shipiatsky, taking an uncle’s name, when he emigrated from Belarus to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, where Abraham Michael Rosenthal was born. For a time the elder Rosenthal was a fur trapper, before moving to the New York City borough of The Bronx, where he worked as a housepainter. Rosenthal’s father suffered a grievous accident there and died three years later, when Abe was 12.

Four of his five sisters died at an early age, and Abe suffered from a bone disease, osteomyelitis, that initially crippled him. He was accepted at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where he spent a year in a cast, thus losing a year of school. Eventually he was able to abandon his crutches and went on to study at what was then called the City College of New York.

At The Times his dearest friend and collaborator was Arthur Gelb, his deputy.

Rosenthal’s first wife was Ann Marie Burke, an Irish-American. The couple had two sons and a daughter before divorcing in 1986. One of their sons later became a New York Times editor, but only after his father had retired. In 1987 Rosenthal married Times colleague Shirley Lord.

Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. refused to waive the mandatory retirement age of 65 for Rosenthal, but did allow him to continue writing his twice-a-week column, “On My Mind.” (Some Times staffers derisively referred to it as “Out of My Mind.”) A few years later Sulzberger told Rosenthal that “It was time to go.” Rosenthal was caught totally by surprise and, in an interview with the rival Washington Post, said so. After cleaning out his desk, he then became a weekly columnist for The New York Daily News, a sensationalist tabloid in which Rosenthal could indulge his pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian prejudices. He wrote for the Post for six more years before going gracefully or ungracefully into the night.

Funeral services for A.M. Rosenthal were held at the Central Synagogue in Manhattan. 

Richard H. Curtiss is executive editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, on Middle East Affairs.

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