The Forward at 110

Published April 07, 2007, issue of April 06, 2007.
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1897, the year the Forward was born, was a year of wrenching, epochal change in America and around the world. For Jews especially, this was the year that the 20th century truly dawned. It was a moment of millennial beginnings that were destined to transform history. It was the perfect time for a new journal to arrive on the scene and set about chronicling the cataclysms to come.

Consider: In August 1897, in Basel, Switzerland, Theodor Herzl convened the founding congress of his World Zionist Organization, the first step toward the rebirth of Jewish statehood. A year before, Herzl had electrified the Jewish world with his visionary monograph, “The Jewish State.” Now he was working to make it real. In April 1897, as Herzl was planning his congress, a Middle East war broke out between Turkey and Greece. Herzl spent much of that spring and summer trying to make a deal with Turkey, the ruling power in the Holy Land: Jewish rights in Palestine in exchange for a promise of war aid from Jews in the West. The sultan turned him down. But Herzl’s diplomacy was just beginning.

And this: In October 1897, in Vilna, Lithuania, delegates from Jewish workers’ clubs throughout tsarist Russia and Poland gathered secretly for the founding conference of the Jewish Labor Bund, the first mass-based socialist party in Russia. The Bund, in turn, hosted a conference the following May in Minsk, where the Russian Federated Social Democratic Labor Party was formed - the same party that would shortly drive out the Bund and its democratic allies and rename itself the Communist Party.

For the 5 million Jews of Russia, Zionism and socialism alike were utopian, faraway responses to a very immediate crisis. Russian Jews had been subjected since 1881 to crushing persecution and repeated mob violence under the tyrannical reign of Tsar Alexander III. Thousands were fleeing for America. In 1896, Alexander’s feckless son Nicholas II was crowned tsar, and the stream became a torrent: 33,000 made the trek in that year alone.

By 1897, more than half a million Russian Jews had come to America. The immigrants changed the face of American Jewry; it had grown in less than two decades from an affluent, well-integrated community of a quarter-million to a mass of nearly a million, mostly penniless, Yiddish-speaking newcomers.

The life they found here was not simple.

In April 1897, when the Forward hit the streets of New York, America was clawing its way out of a four-year depression, marked by violent labor unrest and rampant business corruption. A month earlier, in March, Republican William McKinley had been inaugurated president after winning a hard-fought election against the radical populism of William Jennings Bryan, the prairie Democrat. Bryan electrified the nation with his daring economic message - “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold” - but the Republican outspent him 20 to one.

Bryan’s defeat and the conservatives’ triumph touched off a wave of radical unrest. Strikes erupted across the country, from coalmines to shirt factories to railroads. Through that summer and fall, Eugene Debs, the Indiana railway unionist, and Morris Hillquit, the New York garment workers’ leader, were laying the groundwork for what would become the Socialist Party of America. In December, the American Federation of Labor split apart - for the first time but hardly the last - when the western miners seceded, fed up with the AFL’s timidity.

The daily press struggled to keep up with the turmoil around it. Adolph Ochs, a German Jew from Tennessee, had bought The New York Times in 1896 and promised to elevate it to a world-class newspaper… sober, objective and thorough, dedicated to making its readers informed citizens of the world. In February 1897, Ochs defined his path by emblazoning atop his front page the slogan “All the news that’s fit to print.”

Across town, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal were taking the opposite tack. They were engaged in a race to the bottom, competing to outdo each other in a new journalism of sensationalism, scandal, sex and crime. In January 1897, as their rivalry reached its peak, the snooty New York Press mocked the scandal sheets’ inflamed style with a new term, “yellow journalism.”

But while others sneered, the yellow papers were setting the national agenda. They had taken up the cause of Cuban independence and were calling relentlessly for war against Spain, to bring American democracy to Latin America. By 1898 they had their war, and America had its first empire.

This was the world that the Forward entered on April 22, 1897. The lead stories on its very first front page carried hints of the century ahead: a report from the Middle East war front; an account of the Cuban unrest - headlined “Bravo Cubans” - plus stories about a steam-fitters’ strike in New York, a milkmen’s strike in Buenos Aires and corrupt cronyism in the month-old McKinley administration.

From the first, the Forward was an American and world newspaper. Unlike other immigrant papers, it did not seek merely to comfort its readers in their familiar ways and share the gossip of the ghetto. Rather, it aimed to open them up to the world around them. And yet, it never aspired to be a rarified Gray Lady. It meant from the first to be a voice of the people. That was its secret: It spoke to its working-class readers in a worldly language that they could easily understand, neither above them nor below them. By 1925 it was one of America’s largest-circulation daily newspapers, and arguably the best loved.

The Forward of lore did not burst full-blown onto the scene in April 1897. It was a work in progress, evolving over time as it found its voice. It railed in 1898 against the “capitalist bosses” of the sweatshops. It wept in 1903 for the victims of pogroms. It counseled immigrants looking in 1918 to escape their ghettos. It embraced the Zionist pioneers rebuilding the Jewish homeland in 1925. It rallied in 1935 behind Roosevelt’s New Deal. It warned in 1940 of the storm clouds over Europe. Decade by decade it adapted its message and tone as its readers’ world changed. Other newspapers might seek to reach out and bring their readers to them; the Forward, in a way that was almost unique, went out to its readers and shared their lives. And its name became a legend.

Unique, too, was the Forward’s fate. Between 1940 and 1945, the war machine of Nazi Germany systematically exterminated the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe, the living heart of world Jewry.

As we note elsewhere in this special issue, the Forward was among the first to warn of the Nazi threat, and as the tragedy unfolded, the Forward reported it fully and unflinchingly. Only later, and over time, would the full meaning of the Forward’s own loss become apparent. The Nazis had not only murdered 6 million Jews; they had torn out a civilization by its roots, the 1,000-year-old Yiddish-speaking culture of Eastern European Jewry. The Jewish world lost its living core; the Forward lost its future readers. Earlier generations of immigrants continued to age, as always, and their children moved out into the broader world of America, but now there were no new waves of immigrant Yiddish readers to take their place. And so the Forward entered a long, slow decline.

In August 1951, Abraham Cahan, the Forward’s indomitable founder and guiding spirit, died at 91. He had lived to see the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel; he would not live through the complete Americanization of the American Jewry he had helped to shape for a half-century. In the coming decades, his successors would report the process of transformation to an aging, dwindling readership. In 1983, much diminished, the Forward cut back to a weekly publishing schedule, reduced its paper size from broadsheet to tabloid format and launched an English-language supplement, in hopes of drawing a younger readership.

Then, in 1990, the Forward took the decisive step of launching a new, re-imagined newspaper. Edited by Seth Lipsky, it was reported and written in English by and for a younger generation of American Jews. It recaptured the personality of Cahan’s Forward, with its confident, authoritative broadsheet format and bold, declarative style. But where the earlier incarnation had spoken to a community of newcomers, showing them the wide world around them and helping them to become Americans, the new Forward addressed a generation of fully Americanized Jews and helped them to find their place in the Jewish world. The Yiddish newspaper continues to appear as it has for 110 years, edited by a new generation of activists, scholars and journalists. But now it is part of a family of Forward newspapers.

Two more steps were left to make the Forward the world newspaper it has once again become. In 2000, with a change of editors, the paper returned to the progressive, democratic outlook that had been its hallmark from the first. Once again it speaks as the voice of ordinary American Jews, engaged in the world around, yet firmly anchored in the values that have guided them for generations.

But the world around us has changed. Since the shattering events of September 11, 2001, the passions of the Forward Ρ the struggles of Jewish survival, the wars of the Middle East, even the Jewish role in American politics Ρ have become the world’s concern. And so, once again, the Forward finds itself at the center of the world’s great news stories. Indeed, the headlines on the front page of today’s Forward could easily be mistaken for those first headlines of 1897: Middle East war, labor struggles in Iowa, American adventurism overseas, corruption in Washington and the daily lives of American Jews trying to make their way through it all. The Forward has reported all these stories for 110 years, and we aim to keep doing it for another 110.

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