The world was an exceedingly dangerous place — especially for Jews — when Philip Slomovitz published the first issue of the Jewish News on March 27, 1942. Coming just months after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, and with Hitler’s war machine overrunning most of Europe and singling out Jews for slander, degradation and destruction, Detroit’s Jewish community needed a strong, unifying, trusted voice who could rally it in the midst of its darkest days.
Framed by the internationally disseminated anti-Semitic rants of locals Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin, Detroit Jews had been feeling the sting of bigotry for decades. It was Slomovitz, a diminutive man with Coke-bottle-thick eyeglasses and a passion for Zionism, who pushed back against these demagogues via his writing for the Detroit News and the Detroit Jewish Chronicle.
Displeased with the editorial direction and business practices of the Jewish Chronicle, and convinced it could not bring the community together at a time of great peril, key community leaders backed Slomovitz as he launched the competing Jewish News.
The Jewish News Slomovitz edited was mostly serious stuff as was fitting for the times. Huge headlines and front-page stories told of the demise of European Jewry, and included Slomovitz’s calling out Rabbi Stephen Wise, Abba Hillel Silver and other global Jewish leaders for not doing enough to save our brethren. Pages were devoted each week to our men and women in uniform, sharing collective pride at their heroism and sorrow upon news of their capture or demise. Slomovitz was a full-throated supporter of the annual Allied Jewish Campaign and an incessant peddler of War Bonds.
But the Jewish News also had the stuff of life — birth, engagement, wedding and anniversary announcements, specials at Cunningham Drugs and Gardner-White Furniture, the weekly social scene column that was his generation’s version of Facebook … and “Detroit Youth’s Listening Post,” a weekly column by Danny Raskin that appeared in the very first edition and whose purpose was to “bring youth closer together in their work, social endeavors and play, and to inform them of what others are doing — to co-operate and help you in every way possible in whatever tasks you may partake and to be your ‘listening post’ on whatever information or situation may interest you.”
Seventy-five years later, and at 98 years of age, Danny Raskin continues to produce a weekly column for the Jewish News, a feat of writing that would draw a tip of the cap from Cal Ripken Jr. and Lou Gehrig. The “youth” in his “Listening Post” column was quietly dropped in the late 1940s.
By the end of World War II, the Jewish News had eclipsed the Jewish Chronicle as the community’s primary communications platform. In July of 1951, Slomovitz acquired the Jewish Chronicle and absorbed it into the Jewish News. He continued to edit the Jewish News with independence, passion and undimmed Zionistic zeal until selling it in March 1984 to a group that published the acclaimed Baltimore Jewish Times. Though totally blind by this time, Slomovitz continued to write his long-running weekly “Purely Commentary” column until his passing in 1993 at age 96.
Now And Then
On one level, today’s world and Jewish community appear to be dramatically different than the one Slomovitz faced in 1942. Social media and the worldwide web have eclipsed traditional communications platforms. A president tweets to more than 20 million followers, and Facebook helps to overthrow regimes. Israel is a reality, militarily and economically strong, but its legitimacy remains under constant assault. American Jews are more integrated into the fabric of society and less connected to each other and their traditional institutions.
But on another level, the world is still a dangerous place — including for Jews. The “alternative facts” of Henry Ford, Father Charles Coughlin, Joseph Goebbels, Adolph Hitler, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Saddam Hussein are being regurgitated by the American “alt-right,” the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement against Israel, Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, Iran’s mullahs and the ultra-nationalists gaining followers across Europe. Holocaust deniers abound, as do those who seek to dilute its uniqueness as a war of destruction against the Jews.
Seventy-five years later, “the whispered word of bigotry” referenced by Gov. Van Wagoner is still a lie that undermines American society. As Jews, we are still a target of this bigotry, joined by “others” whose religion, customs or low economic standing trigger baseless hatred. Unlike the 1940s, today’s technology assures the whispered words of even one bigot can be amplified, reaching a global audience with the push of a button.
With this issue, the Jewish News embarks on a year-long commemoration and celebration. In addition to honoring the legacy of Philip Slomovitz, the 75th anniversary will serve as a springboard for reimagining ways we can better serve the changing needs of our community. It will also offer many opportunities to express continuing gratitude to you, our readers, advertisers and partners in community building, for your support, encouragement and expectation that we can always do better.
Gov. Van Wagoner’s final request in his 1942 letter to Philip Slomovitz is that the newly launched Jewish News sow “the friendliness and understanding” that can reap “the friendliness and understanding for the Jew and can help us preserve our democratic tradition.”
In a world that remains dangerous and threatening, we reaffirm our commitment to continue to educate and inform our Detroit Jewish community, keep them connected to their neighbors, and unflinchingly uphold the democratic traditions and institutions that continue to make America great.
“Lay before the public the achievements and associations of Jewry. Interpret for us the tolerance, the charity, the love for human freedom under God that fires your people. Do it, not only for the Jew’s sake, but also for the sake of us who are not Jews.
“Make us see that the whispered word of bigotry is a lie, and that the lie spreads and undermines the security of the whole nation and all that is good in American democracy. Hitler sowed racial hatred and reaped the hatred of every people he conquered. You, by effective sowing of friendliness and understanding, can reap friendliness and understanding for the Jew and can help us preserve our democratic tradition…”
— Murray “Pat” Van Wagoner, Governor, State of Michigan, in a March 13, 1942, letter congratulating Philip Slomovitz on the upcoming launch of the Detroit Jewish News
Arthur Horwitz is publisher and executive editor of the Jewish News.