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Wake the sleeping dogs! The Jewish world needs journalism without fear or favor

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The letter is dated Feb. 16, 1904. It’s typewritten on yellowing letterhead from the Jewish Theological Seminary, with a few handwritten cross-outs and a few little holes in the paper. It’s ostensibly about the Russo-Japanese war, about which I have virtually nothing to say. But two lines jumped out at me, as relevant — and wrongheaded — today as 118 years ago.

“Beyond that, I do not think it is wise for Jewish newspapers to go,” Cyrus Adler, the president of the American Jewish Historical Society, librarian of the Smithsonian Institution, and lecturer at JTS, had written to Philip Cowen, editor and publisher of The American Hebrew. “It is best,” Adler added in closing, “to let sleeping dogs lie.”

The specifics about the line Adler was trying to draw for Cowen’s coverage of the war are too much to explain here, but they almost don’t matter. Those are fighting words for us journalists.

I’m allergic to dogs, but I’m inclined in the metaphoric sense to wake ‘em up. To poke the bear, ruffle some feathers, turn over all the rocks. Our job is to afflict the comfortable as well as comfort the afflicted. To tell the stories people may not want to hear but truly need to know.

Because — and these, like all clichés, are rooted in reality — knowledge is power, the truth shall set you free and if we don’t, who will?

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The historical society that Adler founded in 1892 is now doing an oral history of the pandemic. As part of the process, each of the 36 Jewish thought leaders interviewed had to pick an artifact to represent our lives over these two intense years — mine is the Forward hoodie shown above, but more on that later — and to reflect on one from their archive, in my case Adler’s letter to Cowen.

To help me unpack it, I called Jonathan Sarna, perhaps the preeminent historian of American Jewry and a fierce advocate for a robust Jewish press. He shared a 2014 dissertation by Mina Muroaka that explores the surprising importance of the Russo-Japanese war to American Jews and, it turned out, quotes from this very letter.

Arising 10 months after the devastating Kishinev Pogrom that killed 49 Jews and destroyed 1,500 homes, and amid immigration debates in Washington, this war became for many American Jews a way to avenge Russia and, as Muroaka puts it, “to transform the issue of Russian antisemitism from a Jewish problem into an American problem.”

Artifacts, old and new.

Artifacts, old and new.

While the United States stayed neutral in the war, Jacob H. Schiff, a German-Jewish immigrant tycoon, loaned Japan $200 million to finance its military operations. The Lower East Side of Manhattan was awash in Japanese flags, rabbis across the country sermonized about the conflict, and the Jewish press covered it extensively, Muroaka reports.

“Japan Brings Hope to the Russian Jew,” said one headline in The Jewish Review and Observer of Cleveland, reporting that “the news of the great Japanese victory has been received everywhere with a feeling of rejoicing.”

Adler’s letter to Cowen is framed around immigration debates in Washington. “We must always remember that there are five millions of Jews in Russia,” he wrote, adding that the Russian embassy in D.C. “maintains a careful supervision of the press” and “transmits everything said about their government” to St. Petersburg.

Adler had heard Cowen was planning a special issue about the economic value of the Jewish immigrant, and warned, “This too, I strongly advise you not to do.”

More fighting words for journalists. I asked Sarna to help me parse them. First, he backgrounded the players.

Adler, born in Arkansas, in 1863, was “the first great scholar-doer,” he said, and “a bridge between” the academy and communal leaders and donors, including Schiff.

“He didn’t like to talk about American antisemitism, he would always insist ‘no such thing, there can’t be any such thing,’” Sarna said. “Not because he was naive, but it was not the kind of subject he thought should be discussed.”

Cowen, who was close with the poet Emma Lazarus, was one of the founders of The American Hebrew, which at the time was not the largest Jewish paper, “but was the most respected,” Sarna said. (“People who appeared in The American Hebrew were perceived by The New York Times to be important.”)

Cowen lived from 1853 to 1943, or, as Sarna put it, across “the transformation of American Jewry from a small community of maybe 50,000 to millions by World War II.”

And the two men were friends. “I doubt very much if Cowen felt he had to listen, that it was an order, but I’m sure he took it very seriously,” Sarna said of Adler’s letter. “They each have different responsibilities, they each have different proclivities — one has the proclivity to reveal and one to cover up — but as long as they’re talking, they end up in the middle.”

The letter reminded Sarna of a story from decades ago, when a rabbinical student was on trial for sexually assaulting a child in Cincinnati. It was all over TV news and the front page of the Cincinnati Enquirer, he said, but when the local Jewish paper, The American Israelite, so much as mentioned it, people were outraged (the student was acquitted).

In a different era, Sarna pointed out, the great Rabbi Stephen S. Wise had denigrated New York’s Jewish papers as “weaklies” because they were afraid to upset local machers. And in our own time, in the Boston area where he lives, Sarna said of the decline of the Jewish media: “I think we pay a big price for the fact that a lot of things are not known and are not reported on.”

Cyrus Adler at 69 in 1930.

Cyrus Adler at 69 in 1930. Courtesy of JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images

“The question always is whether a Jewish journalist is supposed to celebrate the community and project the community as it would like to see itself, an idealized version of the community, or whether the role of the Jewish newspaper is to tell it like it is, warts and all,” Sarna continued. “Every Jewish editor faces this.”

Warts and all is what we need now. Not because I don’t celebrate all that is wonderful about our communities and about Jewishness itself. But you’ve got thousands of synagogues, camps, pro-Israel advocates, social-justice organizers and umbrella institutions to project the idealized version of the community and work towards it.

Our role is different.

The Forward is here, first of all, to inform you; to bring you stories from outside your orbit, to contextualize and explain the news, to debunk misinformation, to explore complicated issues fully and fairly.

We’re here to ask tough, sometimes unsettling questions about what people within our communities are fighting over and why. We’re here to hold powerful leaders and organizations to account — whether for sexual misconduct or hateful statements or finances.

We’re here to hoist a mirror so you can see yourselves as others see you — and to open windows so you can truly see others: Jews of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, Jews with radically different political perspectives, Jews of varied religious observance or none at all, Jews who are queer and Jews who dance and Jews who raise hell.

Independent reporting and a platform for civil discourse are pillars of healthy democracy. Our communities deserve them — and need them.

I get emails sometimes that echo Adler. Why do you quote IfNotNow, the leftist group that fiercely opposes Israel’s occupation of the West Bank? (Because they represent an important and growing segment of young Jews.) Why do you platform Orthodox Trump supporters? (Actually, pretty much the same answer). Why do you do the ‘secret Jewish history’ of this or that? (Because people love to read them.)

As I wrote a few weeks ago, a number of pulpit rabbis complained after we covered the contract dispute between the rabbi held hostage in a Texas synagogue last month and the congregation’s board of directors. Many of them worried the article could further traumatize the congregation.

I get that — their job is to provide pastoral care, and I’m confident there was plenty available to the Colleyville community.

We have a different job. And it’s never been more essential.

Your Turn: Pandemic Artifacts

I found the assignment of picking an artifact to represent my pandemic experience pretty anxiety-inducing. I’d hope my columns, and the Forward’s broader coverage, would be the archive consulted by future generations. But that was the task. The Forward bought these hoodies for everyone on staff ahead of our first virtual gala, in November 2020. We were all surprised by how soft and warm and perfectly comfortable they are, and ever since, hardly a Zoom happens without at least one person in the hoodie. So I picked it to represent the way the boundaries between work and home evaporated during this era when hoodies became work-clothes.

What’s your pandemic artifact? Email us a picture and its backstory — it can be a few sentences or a few paragraphs — and we’ll publish excerpts in the coming weeks.

Send your artifacts to [email protected].

Your Weekend Reads

Anne Frank is a puppet in a new play about her life. As our Lauren Markoe writes, the script was too dark, too honest, and too Jewish for Broadway.

Also in this week’s edition: Andrew Silverstein tracks down the actor behind the most iconic Jewish ad campaign in history; talking across generations about the Middle East; an interview with Harvey Fierstein; using journalistic tools to unravel family lore; and a Holocaust survivor denied reparations — twice.

Download the printable PDF here.

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