Journalists and pilgrims gather in the yard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City on February 25, 2018. GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images.
In June 1984, A.M. Rosenthal, executive editor of the New York Times, transferred Thomas Friedman from his assignment as a foreign correspondent in Lebanon to the position of Jerusalem bureau chief in Israel. According to Friedman’s recollection, Rosenthal chose him with a specific purpose in mind: “to dispense with an old unwritten rule at the New York Times of never allowing a Jew to report from Jerusalem.” That “unwritten rule” was based on the notion that Jews would be incapable of reporting objectively on their own people in their historic homeland.
Rosenthal’s discard of the old rule marked a welcome change. Evidently, though, neither Rosenthal nor Friedman knew that he was not the first Jew to become chief Jerusalem correspondent for the Times. That honor belonged to Joseph M. Levy, who assumed the position in 1928 at a time when the newspaper lacked a reporter in the city. In fact, the now-forgotten Levy not only was the first Jew to fill the role; he also pioneered the newspaper’s biased reporting on Palestine and Israel. In more ways than one, Friedman, some of his successors, and an array of Times op-ed contributors seem to have inherited his complicated legacy.
Born in New Jersey in 1901, Joseph Levy was taken to Jerusalem as an infant by his parents. He spent his childhood in that Ottoman-ruled city before attending the American University of Beirut. During the 1920s, the early years of the British Mandate, he served as private and political secretary to Sir Ronald Storrs, governor of Jerusalem, and spent seven months living with a Bedouin tribe in what was then Transjordan. In 1928, fluent in Hebrew and Arabic, Levy was hired, according to his November byline, as “Palestine correspondent of the New York Times.” He would write under this and similar titles for more than a decade.
At first, Levy’s reporting carefully skirted the political reverberations of Zionist activity. Fascinated by archaeology and history, he devoted many of his early dispatches to reports of excavations at ancient Beit El and Megiddo, a dramatic discovery of Canaanite pottery (meriting a front-page article in the Times), and ancient bones found at a site near Hebron. “An imposing array of evidence,” he wrote, “linked these artifacts to the Israelite conquest of Canaan and to the land assigned by Moses to his loyal follower Caleb.” With these and similar discoveries, he concluded with palpable excitement, the biblical account of Israelite history “becomes more vivid and intelligible than ever.”
Levy also reported on modern-day cultural activity in the Holy Land. The three-year-old Hebrew University, he observed, committed to the revival of the Hebrew language, had sparked “a new literature” that displayed “the highest type of poetry, fiction, and drama.” In this way, Jews in Palestine were “living up to their reputation, earned through the ages, as a people eager for learning and culture.”
Embracing one essential part of the Zionist narrative, Levy described a land previously “bare and barren through lack of care and cultivation,” now finally “flowing with milk and honey.” He praised the “new type of Jew,” indistinguishable in dress from Gentiles but nevertheless “conscious of his peculiar vocation as a member of the chosen people, once again a free citizen in his ancestral homeland.” Following a severe mid-decade financial crisis in Palestine, the “dark clouds” of economic depression and high unemployment were finally lifting. With patience, determination and an infusion of capital for industrial development, Levy concluded, “the future of the Holy Land is assured.”
But Levy’s optimism was already being tested by events. During Yom Kippur services at the Western Wall in 1928, the British Deputy District Commissioner responded to Muslim complaints by abruptly and arbitrarily ordering police to remove the wooden partition separating men and women worshippers. This hostile act on the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar stirred Jewish protests throughout Palestine. In a column about the disturbance for the Times editorial page, a sympathetic Levy asserted that there was “no excuse for the disrespect displayed by the interruption of the sacred prayer on the holiest day of the year.”
After a few months of quiet, marked by an influx of tourists, an expansion of paved roads and hotels, and a bountiful orange harvest, conflict once again erupted at the Western Wall. Haj Amin-al-Husseini, the British-appointed grand mufti of Jerusalem, claimed in a public statement that Jews were planning to “usurp” the Wall and endanger Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount—itself the holiest Jewish site. In mid-summer 1929, during the Tisha b’Av service at the Wall, an Arab mob swarmed the site, attacking the prayer leader, destroying sacred objects, and burning prayer books. In late August, violence erupted in nearby Hebron, another ancient holy city, traditional site of the burial caves of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people and King David’s first capital. Arabs screaming “Itbah al-Yahud” (“Kill the Jews”) attacked the city’s Jewish quarter. Sixty-seven Jews, including 27 yeshiva students, were brutally murdered.
Stunned by “the wholesale slaughter” in Hebron, Levy wrote in the Times: “There is not one corner of the land where Jews are to be found, from Dan to Beersheba, which has been left unmolested.” Wondering what could explain “the cruel, barbaric slaughter” of innocent rabbinical students, women and children, he searched for an explanation. The “fundamental cause” of the riots, he reported, was “acknowledged to be a revolt by Arabs against Zionism and the alleged Zionist policy of the [British] government.” Their goal, he had learned from an official of the Palestine Arab executive committee, was “retraction of the  Balfour Declaration and the establishment of a national democratic government. . . . Palestine cannot become ‘the’ Jewish national home.”
This was a message that resonated with Times publisher Adolph Ochs. In a letter written from his Lake Placid summer retreat, Ochs, a dedicated Reform Jew who had long identified himself as a staunch anti-Zionist, blamed Zionists for attempting “to superimpose an aggressive [Jewish] minority in Arabia.” Voicing his self-declared “obsession on the subject,” Ochs feared that “Zionist activities in Palestine would not only result in massacres there but would be a menacing danger to Jews throughout the world.” Zionism, he claimed, “is doomed, and the sooner it is a matter of the past and forgotten, the better it will be for the Jews of the world.”
Following the publisher’s determined lead, Times editors provided a platform for critics of the Zionist project. “Jews have no right to a state in so predominantly a Muslim community,” insisted the Yale professor of religion John Clark Archer, for whom Zionism not only was “a mistaken policy” but “a misreading of Jewish history.” Jewish nationalism, complained Henry Morgenthau, the former American ambassador to the Ottoman empire, had stirred “serious trouble” between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, who before the war had long lived peacefully together. By “making demands to which the Arabs could not afford to agree,” Zionists had “spoiled Palestine for the Jews.” According to Rabbi Samuel Shulman of New York’s Temple Emanu-El (Ochs’s synagogue), it was the duty of American Jews to “oppose uncompromisingly and with all their might the philosophy of Jewish nationalism and the Zionistic ideal.”
Levy, to judge by the discernible shift in the tone and content of his reports, soon reached a similar conclusion. “Unfortunately,” he wrote, “the Zionist leaders seem unable to cope with the situation and are floundering about without finding a political solution of the problem.” They had “failed to realize” that Palestine, with an Arab population of more than 600,000 (quadruple the number of Jews), was “not a new country,” and they had “made no efforts to reach an understanding” with “these natives.”
The Arab riots propelled Levy into the vortex of political debate over the Balfour Declaration, Zionism, and the future of Palestine. He participated in covert discussions with H. St John Philby, a disgruntled former British civil servant who had denounced the Balfour Declaration as “an act of betrayal for whose parallel . . . we have to go back to the garden of Gethsemane”; Judah L. Magnes, a prominent American Reform rabbi who had recently become chancellor of the newly founded Hebrew University and was an outspoken proponent of a bi-national state in Palestine; and the grand mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini, the inciter of the 1929 riots who had been convicted in 1921 of instigating an earlier round of Arab mayhem.
Levy was already familiar with Magnes, whose “spiritual” brand of Zionism blended pacifism and universalism. (Jews, Magnes declared, must do “nothing that cannot be justified before the conscience of the world.”) Philby, from the inner circles of elite British society, had served British interests in India, Iraq, and Transjordan (where he replaced T.E. Lawrence as chief British representative), before moving to the Arabian Peninsula. There, living in a 60-room palace in Jidda bestowed upon him by King Ibn Saud, he became a royal adviser.
Philby reported to Lord Passfield, the British Colonial Secretary: “I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of the Near East correspondent of the New York Times, Mr. Joseph Levy,” who was “apparently so impressed with the possibility of my scheme for a settlement” between Jews and Arabs that he asked for “a statement of my considered views for publication in his paper.” Levy then forwarded a draft of Philby’s proposal to the grand mufti for approval, noting, “I was asked by Mr. Philby to carry on negotiations in his absence and to report to him in Jidda.”
Although the Balfour Declaration could not be formally abrogated, Philby’s proposal recognized “the unquestionable moral and legal rights of the Arabs.” Suggesting that “Palestine shall henceforth be administered on a democratic constitutional republican basis,” the plan would vest all legislative and executive authority in a representative assembly and council comprising Arabs and Jews “in proportion to their numbers in the population.” While the Jewish Agency could continue to “watch over and protect the interests of the Jews,” political power would reside elsewhere.
Levy secured Times publication of Philby’s proposal and a complementary statement by Magnes three days later. (He introduced Magnes as an “important moderate Jewish leader” who opposed the “extravagant interpretation” of the Balfour Declaration advocated by Zionists.) The Times also ran a five-column article under Levy’s own byline featuring Philby’s ideas. These, he wrote, offered “perhaps the most logical and fair proposal” for resolving the Palestine conundrum.
Philby’s ideas would be incorporated in the Passfield White Paper of 1930. If enforced, they would have eviscerated the promise of the Balfour Declaration—explicitly endorsed by the League of Nations—of “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.
By then Levy had become the Times’s conduit for the anti-Zionist consensus comprising the grand mufti, Philby, and Magnes. He enjoyed access to Arab leaders and quoted extensively from his interviews with them, while virtually ignoring their Zionist counterparts (except for Magnes, who had become marginalized on the Zionist periphery). Arab opposition to Zionism dominated his reporting.
Returning to Palestine in July 1931 after visits to several Muslim countries, Levy wrote two articles offering unbounded admiration for the grand mufti and contempt for Zionist “extremists.” The mufti—“a most intelligent person with an exceptionally charming personality”—had initiated a “real Arab Nationalist and anti-Zionist movement,” while Zionist leaders, for their part, lacked “an elementary understanding of the Arab” and, rejecting “diplomacy and tact,” had stupidly elevated removal of the partition at the Western Wall into “a vital issue.” Levy blamed the worsening conflict on the failure of Zionists to establish “friendly relationships and cooperation” with local Arabs. Their “lack of foresight” undermined the Zionist cause.
His open partisanship elicited no censure at the Times, no doubt because he was hardly alone there. Far from it: in a letter to Levy, Ochs reiterated that “I am not a believer in the Zionist movement” and could not understand “why so many men, whom I regard as intelligent, are encouraging” it. Clearly, these men did not “see the danger arising from the fact that the Christian and Mohammedan world have their holy and sacred places there, and are fearful and suspicious of the [Jews’] aspirations for political domination.”
Indeed, the prospect of Jewish national sovereignty deeply troubled the Times publisher, even at a time when the safety of Jews in Germany was increasingly endangered by the Nazi rise to power. In its place, the Times embraced Jewish universalism. Early in 1933 it reported the creation of a new organization, initiated by Rabbi Pereira Mendes, to encourage “the creation of an altruistic nation seeking blessing for all the world” and not merely the return of Jews to Palestine. Mendes fancifully advocated “a country where the brotherhood of man is emphasized,” with a temple “where all races and religions might worship in peace.”
Although Levy continued to file occasional reports from Jerusalem, by 1934 his primary base was Cairo. Over the next few years, when he did return, his political analysis remained sharply critical of Zionist leaders. They had, he wrote, “inflated” the words of the Balfour Declaration to imply, wrongly, that “Great Britain had promised the Jews a return to Zion and their ancient glory.” They bore responsibility for “arousing false hopes in the hearts of the Jewish masses by exaggerating the promise contained in the ambiguous declaration.” To be sure, Jews “built; they planted; they established factories and industries; . . . they drained thousands of acres of swamp lands.” This, Levy noted, was accomplished “with the spirit and enthusiasm of a people rebuilding and restoring its own home. . . . Why, then, worry about the Arabs? And they didn’t.”
The Times remained fascinated by archaeological explorations in Palestine. During March and April 1935 it ran nine stories in three weeks about the discovery of Hebrew inscriptions on fragments of broken pottery at the site of ancient Lachish. Dating from the time of the prophet Jeremiah, the inscriptions were described by a Hebrew University expert as “the most valuable find ever made” from the First Temple period and by another scholar as “among the oldest texts that we have of the Hebrew language and [whose] connection with the Bible is of utmost significance.”
Such discoveries might have provided a compelling link between ancient Jewish history in the Land of Israel and Zionist renewal there. But not at the Times, whose editorial policy, echoing its publisher, had determined that Judaism must be a religion only, devoid of national content. Under no circumstances would Jewish nationalism be permitted to confront American Jews with the dread prospect of competing national loyalties.
In the spring of 1936, following the eruption of a far more violent and prolonged Arab “revolt” initiated by the Arab High Command (led once again by the grand mufti), Levy returned to Jerusalem. “Never,” he wrote in sadness, “were the possibilities of an Arab-Jewish understanding in Palestine more remote than at present.” Convinced that Islam with its “motto” of “religion by the sword” had helped propel the violence, he nevertheless focused more narrowly on the acts of young “hotheads” (a favorite word) who had aroused “the Arab masses with the spirit of opposition” by committing “minor acts of terrorism” against Jews.
But the real culprits, and the centerpiece of Levy’s narrative, were the “hot-headed” Zionist leaders demanding “all [of] Palestine” and willfully blind to legitimate Arab frustrations. From his own “many conversations” with young Arab “extremists,” he was certain that agreement could be reached “easily” if only these Zionist leaders were to embrace the anti-statist views of Magnes and relinquish the “nationalistic and political aims of a Jewish state.” Granted, the grand mufti and his followers displayed “intransigence” by demanding the abandonment of a Jewish national home, a halt to Jewish immigration and a prohibition on land sales to Jews. But even “moderate Arabs” opposed “radical and uncompromising [Zionist] demands.”
By then, following Adolph Ochs’s death in 1935, his son-in-law Arthur Hays Sulzberger had succeeded as publisher, launching the family dynasty that retains control of the Times nearly 85 years later. Sulzberger, who had grown up in privileged German Jewish circles in Manhattan, shared his father-in-law’s fear of any perception of the Times as a “Jewish” newspaper. He insisted that ‘[i]f I, as a Jew, can help to impress the world that what Jews want far more than a home of their own is the right to call any place home, then I believe I shall have been faithful to the tradition of justice which is my heritage as an American of the Jewish faith.”
In May 1939, Levy wrote his final articles from Palestine. They summarized the lessons he had learned a decade earlier when Philby, Magnes, and the grand mufti had swept him into their circle of hostility to Zionism. The primary cause of the conflict, he reiterated, was Jewish “provocation.” Some young Jews, increasingly dissatisfied with the “passive resistance” urged by Zionist leaders, had come to believe that “violence is the only method” that would be noticed by British authorities and thereby achieve Zionist goals. “We are ready to be killed rather than be ruled by Arabs,” he quoted them as saying.
For the first time, Levy allotted ample space to David Ben-Gurion, who denounced England for its latest White Paper restrictions on Jewish immigration. Jews, the Zionist leader asserted, would not stop coming to their homeland just “because some law terms it illegal.” Nor would they tolerate “a Hitler regime in a country that was internationally pledged to them as a national home.” Filling two columns, Ben-Gurion’s statement marked the only comprehensive expression of mainstream Zionism to appear under Levy’s byline in a decade of reporting.
Years earlier, when criticized by the Jerusalem journalist Gershon Agronsky for undermining the Zionist administration in Palestine, Levy had responded that if he succeeded in doing so, it would represent the fulfillment of years of effort. Whether that was his retrospective wish or the disclosure of a long-hidden agenda remains unknown. What is clear, however, is that from an intelligent, ambitious young journalist, eager to comprehend the past, present, and future of Palestine, Levy had become the Times’s voice for the mufti’s dream of Muslim dominion and Magnes’s dream of bi-nationalism, both of which converged in implacable opposition to Zionism.
The resultant bias—for the Arabs, approval; for the Zionists, blame—was Levy’s legacy, embedded and perpetuated in the pages of the Times long after his departure from Jerusalem. Even after his arrival in Cairo in 1940, complaints from readers about his lack of objectivity prompted Sulzberger to instruct Managing Editor Edwin James to cable Levy with a pro-forma message: “Reports again received your confusing political with reportorial work.”
Levy’s aversion to Zionism and Jewish statehood, frequently rising to barely concealed antagonism, anticipated the relentless criticism of Israel decades later. Jewish Jerusalem bureau chiefs like Thomas Friedman, Deborah Sontag, and Jodi Rudoren, joined by an array of Jewish and non-Jewish reporters and columnists including Anthony Lewis, Roger Cohen, Nicholas Kristof, Diaa Hadid, and Michelle Alexander, plus a bevy of critical op-ed contributors, would unknowingly retrace his ideological footsteps.
Adolph Ochs, who so vigorously opposed the establishment of a Jewish state, would have every reason to be pleased.
This essay is adapted with permission from Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism, and Israel 1896-2016, by Jerold S. Auerbach, out next week from Academic Studies Press.