The Sulzberger family: A complicated Jewish legacy at the New York Times

The Sulzberger family: A complicated Jewish legacy at the New York Times

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. speaks at the New York Times’ New Work Summit in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Feb. 29, 2016. (Kimberly White/Getty Images for New York Times)
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. speaks at the New York Times’ New Work Summit in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Feb. 29, 2016. (Kimberly White/Getty Images for New York Times)

Last Thursday, The New York Times announced that its publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., 66, is stepping down at the end of the year. His son, 37-year-old Arthur Gregg (A.G.) Sulzberger, will succeed him.

The familial exchange of power wasn’t unexpected. The younger Sulzberger is the sixth member of the Ochs/Sulzberger clan to become publisher of the prominent newspaper. He is a fifth-generation descendant of Adolph S. Ochs, who bought the newspaper in 1896 as it was facing bankruptcy.

The family’s Jewish history — Adolph Ochs was the child of German Jewish immigrants— often has been the subject of scrutiny, even fascination. That was particularly true during and after World War II, when the paper was accused of turning a blind eye to atrocities against Jews.

Today the family’s Jewish ties are even more tenuous than they had been. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. was raised in his mother’s Episcopalian faith and later stopped practicing religion. He and his wife, Gail Gregg, were married by a Presbyterian minister. He has said, however, that people still tend to see him as Jewish because of his last name.

A look back into the family’s history shows why. Adolph Ochs, the original member of the Ochs/Sulzberger clan, married Effie Wise, the daughter of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the leading American Reform Jewish scholar who founded the movement’s rabbinical school, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

After Ochs’ death, his son-in-law, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, took over the reins at the Times. Sulzberger, a Reform Jew, was an outspoken anti-Zionist at a time when the Reform movement still was debating the issue. He and his family “were closely knit into the Jewish philanthropic world as befitted their social and economic standing,” wrote Neil Lewis, a former longtime Times reporter.

The paper’s owners drew criticism for the way it covered Jewish affairs, particularly the Holocaust. Critics said the newspaper failed to give adequate coverage to Nazi atrocities committed against Jews, a charge to which the Times later owned up. Arthur Hays Sulzberger had experienced anti-Semitism, and he was worried about his paper being perceived as too Jewish, Laurel Leff wrote in her 2005 book “Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper.”

“There would be no special attention, no special sensitivity, no special pleading,” Leff wrote.

In a 2001 article for the Times, former Executive Editor Max Frankel wrote that the paper, like many other media outlets at the time, fell in line with U.S. government policy that downplayed the plight of Jewish victims and refugees, but that the publisher’s views also played a significant role.

“He believed strongly and publicly that Judaism was a religion, not a race or nationality — that Jews should be separate only in the way they worshiped,” Frankel wrote. “He thought they needed no state or political and social institutions of their own. He went to great lengths to avoid having the Times branded a ‘Jewish newspaper.’”

As a result, Frankel wrote, Sulzberger’s editorial page “was cool to all measures that might have singled [Jews] out for rescue or even special attention.”

Though the Times wasn’t the only paper to provide scant coverage of Nazi persecution of Jews, the fact that it did so had large implications, Alex Jones and Susan Tifft wrote in their 1999 book, “The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times.”

“Had the Times highlighted Nazi atrocities against Jews, or simply not buried certain stories, the nation might have awakened to the horror far sooner than it did,” Jones and Tifft wrote.

In 1961, Arthur Hays Sulzberger stepped down as publisher, three years after he suffered a stroke. He gave the position to his son-in-law, Orvil Dryfoos, but Dryfoos died two years later from heart failure, so his brother-in-law, Arthur “Punch” Ochs Sulzberger, took over. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, who died in 2012, identified as “nominally Jewish, although not at all religious.” He was “much more comfortable with his Judaism” than his father, former Times religion reporter Ari Goldman, who worked there from 1973 to 1993, wrote. Still, stories related to Jewish topics were edited carefully, Goldman said.

“Those stories got a little more editorial attention, and I’m not saying they were leaning one way or another, but the paper was conscious that it had this reputation and had this background and wanted to make sure that the stories were told fairly and wouldn’t lead to charges of favoritism or of bending over backwards,” Goldman said.

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger and his wife raised their son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., in his wife’s Episcopalian faith. But Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. still had some connections to his Jewish background. In high school he went on a trip to Israel that left him slightly intrigued by his background, Jones and Tifft wrote. While criticism from the Jewish community under his tenure was less harsh than during his grandfather’s time, many, particularly on the right, still saw the newspaper as being biased against Israel.

Nevertheless, given its owners’ family history, its disproportionately large Jewish readership, and its frequent coverage of Jewish preoccupations, the Times often is regarded as a “Jewish newspaper” — often disparagingly so by anti-Semites.

That perception is “largely because of the family and because of the family’s Jewish name and Jewish roots, so whether they’re Jewish or not today, there’s a feeling that this is still a newspaper with a heavy Jewish influence,” Goldman said.

And that family history lives on. A.G. Sulzberger is part of a generation at the paper that includes his cousins Sam Dolnick, who oversees digital and mobile initiatives, and David Perpich, a senior executive who heads its Wirecutter product review site. Dolnick’s mother, Lynn Golden, is the great-great-granddaughter of Julius and Bertha Ochs, the parents of Adolph S. Ochs, and was married in a Chattanooga, Tennessee, synagogue named in their memory. Perpich, a grandson of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, was married by a rabbi in 2008.

A.G. Sulzberger is best known for heading a team that in 2014 put together a 96-page “innovation report” that was meant to prod the Times into moving more rapidly in catching up with the new digital media landscape. Asked recently about his working relationship with Dolnick and Perpich, A.G. Sulzberger spoke of their strong backgrounds in journalism and invoked the family ethos.

“If they weren’t members of the Ochs/Sulzberger family, our competitors would be bombarding them with job offers,” he said. “But they are deeply devoted to this place, and the three of us are committed to continuing to work as a team.”

JTA Wire Service

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