Even before she gets to Israel, Jodi Rudoren, the new New York Times bureau chief, is already explaining why she'd prefer not having "Zionist" attached to her name.
And to a Jewish reporter at a pro-Israel website, no less.
Rudoren, whom I've never met, should know this: It could be worse.
Instead of telling Adam Kredo at the Washington Free Beacon why she's not a Zionist, she could be explaining why she'd prefer not having "Jewish" attached to her name.
Abe Rosenthal, the paper's legendary executive editor, may have favored David Shipler for the post in 1979 not just because of his eye-catching reportage from Saigon and Moscow, but because he also thought he was ending the paper's ban on sending Jewish reporters to the region. As Rosenthal subsequently learned some time after making the assignment, Shipler is not, in fact, Jewish.*
Rosenthal's determination to end the ban finally came to fruition in 1984, when Shipler ended his tour and was replaced with Tom Friedman.
The bizarre circumstances of the Shipler tale -- couldn't Rosenthal have used the typical devices ("So, where are you going for the seder?") that assess Jewdar before he made the decision? -- bespeaks the fraught relationship the Old Gray Lady has with the Old Testament's People.
The Sulzbergers, the longtime owners of the Times, were famously nervous during World War II about reporting the Holocaust, often burying revelations of its horrors on its inside pages.
"Deep down, my father probably would just have soon not have been Jewish," Judith Sulzberger is quoted as saying in The Trust, the authoritative biography of the newspaper by Susan Tifft and Alex Jones, of Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the wartime owner who banned the use of phrases like the "Jewish people."
That reluctance had momentous consequences: Then, as now, what appeared on the Times's front page often determined the news agenda for competitors and wire services.
The late Daniel Schorr, who started out as a writer and then a desk editor with my employer, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, bailed for the mainstream media in part because he could no longer stand to read the horrors coming across the JTA wire, edit, and relay them to subscribers (among them the Times, at the time) -- and then, see nothing make the papers.
The ambivalence persists to this day. Tifft and Jones gleefully chronicle how, depending on who is pissing him off and why, Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., the current chairman, will bark that you know what, he's Jewish, or you know what, he's not. (He's an Episcopalian, albeit one with Jewish ancestry.)
So, following the lead of Arthur O., or "Pinch," here are some rough rules for Times bureau chiefs (and other journalists) for navigating the world's most delicate reporting assignment:
1. Polish that Sunday school Hebrew
It helps. The close 1996 elections, pitting Shimon Peres against Benjamin Netanyahu, were close enough that it took from Tuesday poll closing to Friday afternoon to make the official call. On Friday morning, I was staking out Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv with a bunch of other journalists, waiting for word that could translate into a news alert for my then-employer, the Associated Press.
Netanyahu's spokesman emerged and said, in English, sorry, we still can't call it, and then in Hebrew, for the Israeli press: Come inside, I've got news for you.
The Reuters reporter and I gave each other a quick "Can this guy be this stupid?" look and followed them inside the building.
Netanyahu was by that point sure he would win (he did) and he wanted the Israeli reporters to get the news out before the Jewish Sabbath cut off a significant portion of the country from news broadcasts. Instead, Reuters and AP were the first to have the alerts.
I'm being a little unfair to the spokesman; until around the mid-1980s, it had been a point of honor among most foreign correspondents not to speak Hebrew. The wires were first to wise up and hire locals who could speak the language. Soon the major dailies followed, and then by the 2000s it was no longer unusual for foreign hires to be familiar with the language. (There was never any such reluctance, as far as I can tell, with Arabic.)