Once Again, Sophomoric and Substandard Journalism at the Yiddish Forward


by Dovid Katz

Over many years, the jaundiced personal attacks by the Yiddish Forward (Forverts) on colleagues in the field of Yiddish who may hold different opinions, or are just not part of the “Yugntruf” or “Sovetish Heimland” cliques that took over the paper at the turn of the century, have been a cause for concern. For that matter, not the only cause for concern at the many millions of dollars squandered that could have built a genuine revival of Yiddish-in-Yiddish culture among younger generations worldwide that has instead gone on these two clubs and their very specific agendas. I have myself over the years been the object of a number of attacks, for the most part published without the name of the author, in the worst traditions of a yellow press. On one occasion, back in 2011, when “Mr. Jacob London of Oxford” wrote about the Vilnius-based issues of Yiddish studies in the city and its abuse by far-right elements intent on rewriting history in the spirit of East European ultranationalism, we responded on these pages with a piece entitled “Has the Forward Association Abandoned Elementary Ethics?” that was, naturally, signed by its author.

Even more unprofessional — and vindictive — than hit pieces replete with insults, putdowns, and discernible defamation are pieces that pretend to be “fair” to the point that outsiders to the field, and the issues at hand, might think they are reading a journalist’s piece of journalistic work.

Yesterday, the Yiddish Forward published a “news article” whose headline reads, in translation “No Yiddish Summer Program in Vilnius Next Summer” (as PDF). It is signed by Fórverts redáktsye (Editors of the Yiddish Forward). No name(s). Let us then seek some transparency on the “About page“. Again no names, but under the heading “Editorial” there appears an email starting with the name “Schaechter”. On the “Masthead” page we find the name of but one editor: Sore-Rokhl Schaechter, whom we assume takes responsibility for pieces signed by “editors of the Forverts”. But there is also the name of the publisher, Samuel Norich, who might begin to take responsibility for the paper’s elementary ethics after the decades of decline into something that brings no honor to the proud traditions of the Yiddish press, of the Forverts itself, or to answer for the many millions of dollars (from the sale of buildings and a radio station) that have been so sadly squandered. This is a lamentable legacy of huge opportunity mercilessly thrown to the deuce.

The article claims that there will not be a Vilnius summer program in 2019 “because of a lack of money”. The source quotes by the unnamed “journalist” is identified as “a person who knows all about the situation but did not want to give his name because of his connection the program”. But there is no quote from the Vilnius Yiddish Institute itself at a time when its own website continues to advertise the 2019 summer program as the prime content of its front page (as PDF), and links to an application form with details of the tuition fee and deposit payable (as PDF). Is the Forverts article claiming that the Yiddish institute’s website which features the 2019 summer course as its only major forthcoming activity, is, in fact, a fraud? The Forverts article’s very first line reads: “For the first time since 1998, the students of Yiddish will not be able to study the language in Vilnius.” Whether in the spirit of sadness or Schadenfrede, “this part of the report” is likewise factually incorrect. There was no program in 2005 after a long law suit during which Los Angeles tycoon Richard Maullin wound up purchasing from a Tel Aviv based plaintiff  “$25,000 worth of shares of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute” which enabled the program to continue in 2006.

The article does however cite just one name, my own, five times, though the mysterious author never contacted me to ask for my view or invite me to provide a response. So, the secret author quotes a secret source for the news, and then feels free to tell the story (in part correctly, as it happens), of my founding of the Oxford Yiddish summer program in 1982, and my moving it to Vilnius in 1998. But when it comes to my parting ways with the Vilnius Yiddish Institute in 2010, the reason given that I criticized the Lithuanian government’s policies on the Holocaust (indeed, I had never missed a class during my eleven years of incident-free, complaint-free service as a professor at Vilnius University). That is quite correct in a  general sense but fails to convey the precise reason: I stood up for the honor of the Jewish partisan heroes who escaped the ghettos to fight the Nazis in the Lithuanian forests who were being accused by Lithuanian prosecutors (and remain accused in the history books and on the web for posterity) of “war crimes”. Specifically, I stood up for Dr. Rachel Margolis (1921-2015) and Fania Brantsovsky (born in 1921, going strong!), both of whom are mentioned in the unsigned Forverts article as historical stars of the program. In other words, two of the programs stars (whom I was honored to recruit), amazing women who are heroes of the free world. Yes, I knowingly risked my career and dared to protest, by assembling the Western diplomatic community here in Vilnius (including the embassies of Austria, France, Ireland, Norway, the UK and the US). Yes, I went public with articles in the Algemeiner Journal, The Jewish Chronicle, The Irish Times, the Guardian, and Tablet, in 2009-2010. For my part, I shall be proud, to the end of my days, of assembling the Western diplomats on behalf of maligned Holocaust survivors and Jewish partisan heroes, and of these articles, and of founding Defending History. As for the story of my “discontinuation” from the Yiddish institute and the summer program that I founded, I accept that there may be disagreements. But if you are going to write about me and my discontinuation from the institute and the program that I created, please have the integrity to link to my own page on the subject which is heavily documented. But perhaps the unnamed editors do not want people to know the views of the one personality in the tale whom they do mention by name in their piece, five times in fact. Moreover, there is a series of documented reports in Defending History on the effective hijacking and manipulation of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute by the state’s commission on Nazi and Soviet crimes. It would be in order for anything in that series of reports to be responsibly tested or challenged by journalists, but to fail to mention it is to be dishonest to one’s readers. The disregard in which the Forward’s Yiddish readers are held continues to be astounding, and at a level that the Forward Association would never begin to tolerate in its English edition.

But the unnamed journalist with the unnamed sources doesn’t leave it that. There is some topping on the cake: “Later on, Dr. Katz criticized the program that he founded, for allowing itself to be supported by the Lithuanian government, even though the same government claims that the Lithuanian people also suffered a genocide during the course of the Second World War, just like the Jews.” Perhaps the unnamed authors could be kind enough to show me where I said this? The thousands of pages of DefendingHistory.com (of course not mentioned or linked in the article…) would surely provide ample evidence of what its editor thinks and said over the years. This particular point, it so happens, was indeed made by Dr. Yitzhak Arad, famed Holocaust scholar and former director of Yad Vashem (who was also accused of war crimes by Lithuanian prosecutors for having survived the Holocaust by joining the anti-Nazi resistance). Incidentally, Dr. Arad decided to publish his own study on the subject on the pages of Defending History.

The primary issues have included the campaign to defame Holocaust survivors who resisted (or who nowadays disagree with the state’s revisionism); the state glorification of Holocaust perpetrators by street names and plaques in the public space; the campaign of Double Genocide Revisionism; the gifting, since 2008, of city center boulevards for neo-Nazi marches on independence days. I was proud to co-author, with Professor Danny Ben-Moshe, the 2012 Seventy Years Declaration, a response to the 2008 Prague Declaration, a subject of a documentary that has recently been made available free online, Needless to say, neither the declaration nor the documentary ever achieved mention in the Yiddish Forward.

There has been a prominent free speech issue too. Lithuania is a robust democracy with a lot of rough and tumble debate. It seems that it is only on these questions of history that state-sponsored agencies engage in campaigns of legal or professional destruction of people with dissident views [update of 30 Jan: see mention in AP/Washington Post report]. Perhaps colleagues in New York City and elsewhere, in cozy and secure positions, might deign to provide a modicum of moral support to the embattled few here standing up for the truth, instead of joining the series of gang-ups and gleeful stone-throwing engineered by, among others, various “experts on dealing with the Jews” at the state’s commission on Nazi and Soviet crimes, often in return for some morsels of glory (medals, honorific T-shirts, junkets, funding, and more), of the genre biblically known as a pot of lentils.

I have explained my views in detail in a series of academic papers over the last decade. They are all available online. As ever, colleagues’ criticism, feedback and corrections are most welcome.

In addition to criticizing support for these policies, and efforts to deflect attention via “Yiddish” and the honoring of “Useful Jewish Idiots” who enjoy the junkets, medals and red carpet treatment in return for silence on the issues and participation in defamation of all of us who disagree, there is an issue very specific to Yiddish.

The Yiddish Forward has still not mentioned existence of the online Yiddish Cultural Dictionary that is in progress in Vilnius. Why not? Perhaps petty gossip credited to unnamed sources is nowadays more in line with its mission statement?

When my contract at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute was not renewed in 2010, I was not replaced by another Yiddish specialist. For eleven months a year, the Yiddish institute has had no Yiddish (or for that matter, Jewish) faculty or courses. Its director and “professor of Yiddish” is a Lithuanian historian who is himself a member of the state’s “red-brown commission” that is responsible for enacting the Holocaust revisionism (it’s official name, right out of Orwell, is “International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupational Regimes of Lithuania“). He has never written a paragraph of Yiddish in his life, and I predict he never will. The Commission discovered in Yiddish and its institute a remarkably effective tool for covering for the policies that should be debated in the open marketplace of ideas. It is also great PR to open the place throughout the year as a Hollywood set for foreign VIPs and wheel out a Holocaust survivor and student to for the purposes of creating a misimpression. I have also criticized the appointment of afternoon summer faculty who are themselves among the chief disseminators of the government’s revisionism, without ever exposing students to other opinions. Over the years, I have welcomed groups of students for “private lectures” on Yiddish and the Holocaust, as reported in the Guardian, and elsewhere.

On the subject of the Yiddish institute’s board, the unnamed author reports that there is just “one big donor”, an apparent reference to California tycoon and pollster Richard Maullin who was honored by the Lithuanian foreign minister after agreeing to turn the institute into a PR tool for the ministry that would eject any who might disagree with the state’s Holocaust policies (and after Yiddish faculty during the academic year was reduced to zero; in other words he was given the medal after he stopped, years earlier, financing academic-year Yiddish studies and the place was turned into a prime PR unit for the Holocaust revisionists). But the article doesn’t mention that the Board once had some ten people, some of whom did not less than Mr. Maullin for the institute. One after honor, persons of honor resigned from that Board precisely to protest the politicization of the institute in the cause of far-right, ultranationalist East European Holocaust revisionism (the resignation letters are documented on our page about the curious history of a Yiddish professorship in Vilnius).

It is time the Forward Association understand how much damage is done by the substandard Yiddish edition. And, finally, that it take some moral responsibility.

“The Vilnius Summer Program in Yiddish can (and should) be saved. To do so with integrity means to disassociate it from the government’s ‘red-brown commission’ and other state-sponsored bodies that promote ‘Jewish things’ tied up with Holocaust revisionism. A simple liberation of Yiddish from politics in the grand academic tradition of language and culture studies open to people of diverse backgrounds and views.”

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