Late publisher major funder of Jewish causes

WASHINGTON — Three subjects were taboo in Katharine Graham’s childhood home: money, sex and her father’s Jewishness.

So wrote the legendary Washington Post publisher in her 1997 memoirs, “Personal History.” Graham died July 16 at 84.

Her father, Eugene Meyer, was descended from a Jewish family in Alsace-Lorraine, France, whose numbers included rabbis and civic leaders. (Her great-great-grandfather had been a member of a Sanhedrin of Jewish notables that Napoleon had convened in order to recognize Jewish rights.)

When Graham was 10 or 11, a classmate suggested that because she was Jewish, she should portray Shylock. When Graham went home, she asked her mother “if I was Jewish and what that meant. She must have avoided the subject, because I can’t remember the answer,” Graham wrote in her book.

“I’m sure my parents were not denying or hiding my father’s Jewishness from us, nor were they ashamed of it. But there was enough sensitivity so that it was never explained or taken pride in,” Graham wrote, noting the family had a pew in St. John’s Episcopal Church (“mainly because the rector was a friend of the family”). She and her siblings had been baptized by their Lutheran maternal grandmother.

Graham’s funeral service was held Monday at the Episcopal Washington National Cathedral. An estimated 4,000 mourners attended. The Post reported that Graham had no religious affiliation, but she sometimes attended the Episcopal Christ Church in Georgetown.

Although Judaism played no obvious role in Graham’s life, there were times she was keenly aware of her Jewish blood. She wrote, for example, of her family vacation home in Mount Kisco, N.Y., saying she didn’t realize until she was older that the family had little or no social life there.

“Only later did I learn that my parents had suffered from local anti-Semitism.”

While she was a student at the University of Chicago, she found out that a club had disbanded over the question of admitting her. And as a young married woman looking to buy a house in Washington in the early 1940s, she was stunned when her husband, Phil, told her the real estate broker had called to say the house that interested her, behind a Sears, Roebuck store, was located in a restricted area, “zoned against sale to either Jews or Negroes.”

The couple settled on a house at O and 33rd streets in Georgetown.

Although her father, who bought the Post in 1933, was neither “overtly religious” nor a Zionist, Graham wrote, he did support Jewish causes and charities.

One of those was the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center, and in 1939, he and his wife, Agnes, donated a wing to the building.

When the DCJCC began a fund-raising campaign to renovate the building, Graham followed in her father’s footsteps. Both she personally and the Washington Post, through its corporate donations and its foundation, were major contributors to the center.

She didn’t just write a check, but was an active fund-raiser for the center, holding donor events, according to Arna Meyer Mickelson, DCJCC executive director.

At one of those events, she stood up, pointed to a picture of her parents and said she was pleased to continue in their path.

At a DCJCC event in May, where she received the center’s Lee G. Rubenstein Award, Graham said her parents “passed on to me and my siblings their values and community spirit, minus either of their religions. Having grown up in the neighborhood, on Crescent Place, I knew firsthand how the center could be a positive force. It continues to revitalize a large portion of the surrounding neighborhood. And it provides essential services for people who really need them.”

Graham also contributed to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, where she was an annual major gifts contributor and achieved Lion of Judah status.

“She responded to every invitation she received. She RSVP’d ahead of everybody else,” said Rosanne Drurian, major gifts director. “She was certainly a lady from the old school of manners.”

Her support for the federation wasn’t so much because it was a Jewish organization, but because it was a Washington community organization, according to a spokesperson. “She gave to organizations in this community that gave back to the community, and she saw us as giving back,” he said.

In 1995, she received the Jewish Council for the Aging’s Productive Aging Award.

Graham visited Israel several times.

“The overriding thing I remember was her absolutely insatiable curiosity about the country, the people and the politics,” said Bill Claiborne, who was the Post’s Israel bureau chief at the time of her 1980 visit. She was “absolutely fascinated with the story of Masada.”

The day they visited that fortress “was hot beyond belief,” Claiborne said, “but that didn’t faze her at all.”

He called her equally attentive to Israeli officials and to Palestinians.

“When we were in the West Bank talking to Palestinians, she seemed sympathetic to Palestinians; when she was with Israelis, she seemed sympathetic to Israel,” he said.

If Graham felt any emotional connection to the Jewish state, Claiborne said, “I didn’t detect it.”

She was too much the professional to reveal such a connection, he added.

Graham’s 1980 visit to Israel was around the time some in the pro-Israel community were blasting the Post for what they saw as a bias against Israel.

“I was the object of a lot of that criticism because of a series I did on the West Bank,” Claiborne said, which detailed Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, much of it in a harsh light.

Some Jews still believe the paper is biased against Israel. Asked about the subject in a 1995 Washington Jewish Week interview, Graham was quoted as saying, the Post “doesn’t cover the Middle East differently than any other conflict. We’ve had conflicts with the ambassador, and we’ve handled them like any other conflicts.”

Her reference may have been to Moshe Arens, Israel’s ambassador in the early 1980s. Arens had prepared a survey of American attitudes toward Israel, and found the Post to be one of the larger circulation newspapers with a bias against the Jewish state. He said he expressed his concerns with Graham in what he believe to be an off-the-record conversation and was dismayed when the paper reported on the survey.

Former Ambassador Zalman Shoval recalled an editorial board meeting in 1990. “I raised the question of why does the Washington Post always refer to the Israeli government as the rightist [Yitzhak] Shamir government or the extreme rightist government. She began to reflect and she asked [her staff], ‘Why do we do this? Maybe the ambassador is right.'”

For a long time after that meeting, Shoval said, “that label was dropped” on the news pages “because she accepted [that] it showed a sort of prejudice.”

Washington Jewish Week

This content first appeared in the Washington Jewish Week and is reprinted with permission.