November 21, 2018

On Bari Weiss, Franklin Foer and the Values that Sustain Our People

Photo from YouTube

Are Jews who like President Trump’s policies on Israel making a deal with the devil?

Last Friday on “Real Time With Bill Maher,” New York Times op-ed editor and writer Bari Weiss made this comment in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh tragedy:

“I hope this week that American Jews have woken up to the price of that bargain,” she said. “They have traded policies that they like for the values that have sustained the Jewish people – and frankly, this country –  forever: Welcoming the stranger; dignity for all human beings; equality under the law; respect for dissent; love of truth. 

“These are the things we are losing under this president – and no policy is worth that price.”

“For Jews who are appalled by Trump’s incendiary rhetoric but who still appreciate his policies on Israel, what should they do? Tell the president not to bother trying to ‘woo’ us with Israel?”

In other words, American Jews are paying too high a price for President Trump’s unbridled support of Israel, which includes moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, scuttling the Iran deal, defending Israel at the UN and enforcing consequences for Palestinian support of terror.

So, for Jews who are appalled by Trump’s incendiary rhetoric but who still appreciate his policies on Israel, what should they do? Tell the president not to bother trying to “woo” us with Israel? That he so violates Jewish values that his favorable actions on Israel just aren’t worth it? That after Pittsburgh, we’re no longer willing to pay the price of that bargain?

And how would that work exactly? Weiss didn’t specify, but Franklin Foer, writing in the Atlantic, did have a suggestion to enhance Jewish security after Pittsburgh: 

“Any strategy for enhancing the security of American Jewry should involve shunning Trump’s Jewish enablers. Their money should be refused, their presence in synagogues not welcome. They have placed their community in danger.” 

Never mind that after Pittsburgh, the President said: “Anti-Semitism represents one of the ugliest and darkest features of human history. Anti-Semitism must be condemned anywhere and everywhere. There must be no tolerance for it.”

According to Foer, however, any Jew who still supports the president must be ostracized and shunned.

I wonder if Foer would be willing to stand outside a synagogue on Saturday morning with a sign repeating his message: “If you support Trump, your presence is not welcome. You have placed your community in danger.”

“Weiss could have said: ‘We can appreciate the president’s support for Israel AND ALSO speak out against his incendiary and divisive rhetoric. One doesn’t preclude the other.'”

I don’t mean to be snarky or cynical, but I’m just chastened by this Jewish instinct to blame other Jews under any circumstances, even when a Nazi comes to murder us. 

Weiss could have said: “We can appreciate the president’s support for Israel AND ALSO speak out against his incendiary and divisive rhetoric. One doesn’t preclude the other.” Foer could have said: “If you have friends or community members who support Trump, make your case vigorously, but there’s no need to go as far as cutting them out.”

Both of those options would have been consistent with the values that have sustained the Jewish people.

The Paper Rebellion: An Excerpt

The Internet is an unending conversation; every argument is rebutted, shared, revised, and extended. It is a real-time extension of happenings in the world, exhilarating and exhausting.

I suppose my abandonment of the Kindle is a response to this exhaustion. It’s not that the Kindle is a terrible device. In fact, it’s downright placid compared to the horns and jackhammers blaring on social media. But after so many hours on the Web, I crave escaping the screen, retreating to paper.

It was predicted that e-books would overtake the paper book, that they would become the totality of publishing. Well, doomsday has come and gone. Paper books have held their ground, and e-book sales have failed to accumulate at their predicted pace. Actually, they have plummeted.

My hunch is that a good portion of the reading public wants an escape from the intense flow of the Internet; they want silent reading, private contemplation — and there’s a nagging sense that paper, and only paper, can induce such a state. The popular gravitation back to the page — not the metaphorical page, but the fibrous thing you can rub between your fingers — is a gravitation back to fundamental lessons from the history of reading.

I apologize for the following disclosure, which isn’t intended to implant any insoluble images: My favorite place to read is the tub. A warm soak, the platonic state of mental openness and relaxation but for the possibility of water damage to the page. If the tub is occupied by another member of my brood, I will tolerate the bed. Obese pillows behind the back, a strong lamp spotlighting the text.

It’s a banal disclosure, really. These are quite common locales for reading, perhaps the most common. Indeed, the entire history of the printed word points toward consuming books in such intimate settings, toward reading alone in our place of refuge. We choose to read in private to escape, but also because of the intellectual possibilities that this escape creates.

My hunch is that a good portion of the reading public wants an escape from the intense flow of the Internet; they want silent reading, private contemplation — and there’s a nagging sense that paper, and only paper, can induce such a state. 

During the early Middle Ages, the book was quite literally a miracle. It was the means by which the priest conveyed the word of God. Literacy was sparse. In Europe, maybe one in one hundred people could read. As the historian Steven Roger Fischer puts it, “to read” was to read aloud. Silent reading was a highly unusual practice. There are only a handful of recorded instances of it, worthy of note because they so shocked observers. Reading was perhaps the ultimate social activity. Storytellers read to the market, priests read to their congregations, lecturers read to university students, the literate read aloud to themselves. Medieval texts commonly asked audiences to “lend ears.”

Despite the relative intellectual bleakness of the era, literacy slowly crept beyond a small elite. The growth of commerce created the glimmerings of a new merchant class, along with professional texts that catered to its needs. Texts — once imposing blocks of letters, with one word jammed into the next, no white spaces separating them — were tamed by new syntactical rules. There were increasingly breaks between words, punctuation even. Reading grew less strenuous, more accessible. It took several hundred years for the changes to fully register, for public reading to give way to silent reading.

It was one of the most profound transformations in human history. Reading ceased to be a passive, collective experience. It became active and private. Silent reading changed thinking; it brought the individual to the fore. The act of private reading — in beds, in libraries — provided the space for heretical thought.

If the tech companies hope to absorb the totality of human existence into their corporate fold, then reading on paper is one of the few slivers of life that they can’t fully integrate. The tech companies will consider this an engineering challenge waiting to be solved. Everyone else should take regular refuge in the sanctuary of paper.

From “World Without Mind” by Franklin Foer, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Franklin Foer.

What will New Republic exodus mean for American Jewish thought?

Last week’s departure of most of the editorial team at The New Republic — including Franklin Foer, Leon Wieseltier, Judith Shulevitz and Julia Ioffe — didn’t just blow a hole in the landscape of American journalism. It also threw into doubt the future of what has long been a primary address for American Jewish thought.

The New Republic celebrated its 100th anniversary last month, and for much of the magazine’s history — particularly since Martin Peretz took over in 1974 — it has been one of the elite American media outlets with a strong focus on Zionism and Jewish intellectual life.

Now in the wake of the decision by owner Chris Hughes to replace Foer, the executive editor, with Gabriel Snyder of Bloomberg Media — and formerly of Gawker and The Atlantic Wire — The New Republic’s identity is now in doubt. Many of the magazine’s former mainstays worry that its DNA, including its engagement with Jewish life, is in question, with nothing on the secular landscape to replace it.

“It does leave a void,” said David Greenberg, a former acting editor at the magazine who surrendered his contributing editor title on Friday, and an associate professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. “It’s hard to imagine without Marty [Peretz] and Leon [Wieseltier, the former literary editor] and Frank [Foer] there, that the new regime will give much thought to these issues at all.”

Evidence of The New Republic’s Jewish DNA could be seen in the lists that have circulated on the Internet of the approximately 60 percent of the masthead who quit. Easily half are Jewish — including Foer and Wieseltier, whose resignations on Thursday under pressure from management triggered the general exodus — and many have written about their own Jewish lives.

A number of prominent Jewish staffers at the New Republic have gone on to greater prominence at other publications.

Michael Kinsley, an editor under Peretz, was the founding editor of Slate, one of the first influential online magazines. Peter Beinart, who also led the magazine under Peretz, became a prominent voice on American Jewish criticism of Israel with the publication of his book “The Crisis of Zionism” in 2012. Jonathan Chait, a longtime New Republic writer, now writes on politics at New York magazine. Hanna Rosin, a former staff writer, went on to co-found Slate’s women’s issues vertical, Double X, and to write the 2012 book “The End of Men.”

But the Jewish identity of the New Republic runs much deeper. One of its co-founders was Walter Lippmann, a German Jew, albeit a secular one. Peretz noted in an interview that one of the magazine’s early intellectual patrons was Louis Brandeis, a Jewish Supreme Court justice and a leading Zionist, and one of its early editors, Horace Kallen, was part of a circle of New York Jewish intellectuals. It was a group that included Morris Raphael Cohen and Marvin Lowenthal, who flourished in the 1910s and ’20s and published in the New Republic.

The magazine subsequently continued to engage with Jewish concerns — in December 1942, for example, Varian Fry wrote one of the first reports on the Holocaust, titled “The Massacre of the Jews.” But Peretz said that by the time he took over in the 1970s, the magazine’s engagement with Jewish issues had faded significantly.

“There was nothing inherent and, in fact, some of the staff was, I would say, from hostile to utterly indifferent” to Jewish concerns, Peretz told JTA.

Peretz, a former Harvard lecturer who purchased the magazine and installed himself as both its publisher and editor in chief, brought to it a passionate interest in Yiddish, as well as an intense, often hawkish, Zionism. The magazine’s Jewish focus intensified in 1982 when Peretz hired Wieseltier, himself a scholar of Jewish history and mysticism, to edit the arts and culture section.

“I think that it made a specialty of certain Jewish questions,” said Paul Berman, who resigned his contributing editor post last week. “All editors come in and endow their magazine with some specialty that’s theirs. Marty has a specialty in the Middle East, and Leon has a specialty in Jewish history.”

Under their leadership, The New Republic flourished as a center for Jewish writers on Jewish subjects. Authors such as Primo Levi, Robert Alter and Ruth Wisse wrote on topics ranging from the Holocaust to biblical scholarship, from Yiddish literature in translation to the State of Israel from perspectives across the political spectrum. It also published a number of Israeli writers, including Benny Morris, Moshe Halbertal and Anita Shapira.

The magazine also came to serve as a sort of successor to the mid-century journals, like The Partisan Review and Commentary, that had served as homes to Jewish public intellectuals. Wieseltier famously joked that The New Republic saw itself as “a sort of Jewish Commentary” — the joke being that Commentary, which was founded by the American Jewish Committee and continues to publish, is explicitly Jewish.

The New Republic was never explicitly or exclusively Jewish, either in its staffing or its focus, and it was defined as much, if not more, by its self-declared (albeit idiosyncratic) liberalism. Still, it retained what Berman described as a “Jewish sensibility,” and became a center for young Jewish writers and journalists.

Writers who were on staff until last week and primarily wrote on other subjects have published articles, and even books, about their own Jewish experiences. They include science editor Judith Shulevitz, whose book “The Sabbath World” explores her relationship with the Jewish Sabbath; senior editor and economics correspondent Noam Scheiber, who published an article about speaking Hebrew with his daughter; and Foer, who co-wrote “Jewish Jocks” with Marc Tracy, a former staff writer and an alumnus of the online magazine Tablet.

At the same time, other writers have seen The New Republic as a narrow and at times blinkered, even bigoted, institution. In an essay published this week in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, “If one were to attempt capture the ‘spirit’ of TNR, it would be impossible to avoid the conclusion that black lives don’t matter much at all.” He added, “TNR might have been helped by having more — or merely any — black people on its staff.”

Coates reported that he was only able to identify two black staffers who worked on the magazine in recent decades.

In 2012, following years of financial instability, as well as controversial comments by Peretz widely regarded as bigoted against Arabs, Peretz and his fellow investors sold the magazine to Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook. Although Hughes rehired Foer and retained Wieseltier, observers noted a shift in its focus on Jewish issues.

“Chris Hughes really has a different sensibility than Marty Peretz,” said Shulevitz, who just stepped down from The New Republic. “He didn’t have the lightning-like focus on Israel and foreign policy that Marty did.”

It is unclear what the editorial voice of the magazine will be going forward. The New Republic hasn’t announced any significant hires and said recently that it was postponing the December issue until February. A request for comment directed to the magazine’s media department was not returned.

JTA also emailed Snyder requesting an interview but did not immediately receive a response.

Unclear also — at least on Jewish issues — is whether any other publication can fill the void, though several writers, such as Shulevitz and Greenberg, have pointed to Tablet as a burgeoning center for Jewish thought.

Meanwhile, former New Republic devotees worry that it will be an intellectual shell of its previous self.

Said Greenberg, “It’s hard to think it’s going to have any impact on anybody, let alone Jewish life.”


Spirit of Sportsmanship Boycotts Israel

The Olympic Games are, of course, more than just games. As Bob Costas and the event’s organizers constantly remind the world, they are a festival of humanity, a great coming together, the one moment when the planet gathers in a friendly spirit of healthy competition. Dogging your viewing of pummel-horse routines and synchronized diving, there is ample talk of the "Olympic movement," a phrase intended to highlight these aspirations.

Last week, however, as the Athens games got under way, an Iranian judo champion exposed the hollowness of this rhetoric. Rather than compete against an Israeli, Arash Miresmaeili quit the Olympics entirely. As he told the Iranian government’s official news service: "I refuse to fight my Israeli opponent to sympathize with the suffering of the people of Palestine, and I do not feel upset at all."

His one-man boycott earned him encomiums from President Mohammad Khatami. According to reports, the Iranians planned on rewarding Miresmaeili with $115,000, the purse handed out to gold medalists.

Under Olympic protocol, such ad hoc political boycotts are forbidden. (The prohibitions placed on South Africa’s apartheid-era teams, by contrast, were official and the product of international consensus.)

They fly in the face of everything the Olympic movement proclaims about sportsmanship and fellowship. Indeed, if the Iranians had owned up to their intentions and the Olympics officials had felt inclined to follow their own rules, the country would have been subject to stiff sanctions.

But facing the prospects of punishment, Miresmaeili turned coward. Just before his match against the Israeli, he seems to have binged on food, stuffing himself to the point that he no longer fit his weight class, earning an automatic disqualification.

Rather than taking Miresmaeili to task for his stated political stunt, Olympics officials have accepted his highly contrived alibi. The Iranians will apparently pay no price for their transgression. Unfortunately, this is a typical tale. Israel continually suffers sporting boycotts, and officials, Olympic and otherwise, continually turn a blind eye toward this injection of politics into sport.

Ever since Israel’s founding, some Muslim nations have refused to compete against the Jewish state. In 1962, when Indonesia hosted the Asian Games, it chose to officially cancel the event rather than permit Israeli participation. After the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the boycott intensified and has come to permeate almost every venue.

Earlier this year, for instance, Israeli fencers were initially not allowed to attend that sport’s world cup in Jordan. Organizers feared that the mere presence of Israelis would cause the entire Muslim world to drop out. (Jordan ultimately caved in to international pressure and invited the Israelis.)

Even the mentally impaired have suffered this exclusion. At last year’s Special Olympics in Ireland, both Saudi Arabia and Algeria refused to play Israel in soccer and table tennis.

Not surprisingly, Saudi Arabia has been one of the leading proponents of the boycott. In 2002, Prince Sultan signed a letter endorsing an Arab Football Federation proposal to ban Israeli competition in all international soccer matches. And when the Saudi Nabeel Al-Magahwi refused to play an Israeli at the 2003 world table tennis championship in Paris, he became a cause célèbre.

"In addition to the great support I received from government officials, residents and expatriates, I have received a special certificate from the Palestinian President Yasser Arafat that I’m very proud of," Al-Magahwi told a news conference. Even as the Bush administration has applauded Libya’s baby steps toward reform, the Gadhafi family has been another boycott stalwart. Earlier this summer, it refused to let Israeli chess players attend the world championship in Tripoli. (Chess’ governing body is affiliated with the International Olympic Committee.)

Because Gadhafi’s sons are sports fanatics, the country has aggressively lobbied to host other major events. But it dropped its bid to bring the 2010 soccer World Cup to Libya, rather than provide the International Soccer Federation with assurances that Israeli players and fans would be granted visas.

This boycott has created a garbled sporting geography. In soccer, for instance, Israel doesn’t compete against other Asian teams for a World Cup berth. International soccer officials have placed Israel in the European federation. (For a time, Israel was forced to compete even further afield, in the Oceania Division against Australia and New Zealand.)

Unfortunately, this means that Israel must beat the likes of Italy and France to make its way to the World Cup — a far fiercer set of opponents than it would face in Asia. Despite having some great players and solid teams, Israel hasn’t qualified for the quadrennial tournament since 1970.

But there are good reasons for Israel to play against its Mideast neighbors. On the one hand, the high-toned Olympic rhetoric has truth to it. Sport can bring nations closer.

The soccer player Haim Revivo, one of the best Israeli athletes of his generation, has starred for the clubs Galatasaray and Fenerbahce in Turkey. He has become nearly as beloved a figure in that Muslim nation as the Jewish one. That’s not to mention the Arabs who play for Israeli clubs like Maccabi Haifa and even represent Israel in international competitions.

On the other hand, sports can provide a relatively harmless vehicle for letting off political steam. During the shah’s reign, Iran was the one Muslim nation that bucked the boycott. For a time, the masses could go into the stadium and root hard against Israeli teams and athletes. Naturally, nasty slurs echoed through the crowds.

But the events may have also helped buy the government leeway to pursue a friendlier policy toward Israel. According to one strand of folklore, the Israelis aided their friend the shah by intentionally losing soccer matches against his teams.

Of course, if international sports officials wanted to, they could easily stamp out the anti-Israel boycott. As punishment, athletes could suffer long bans from competition. In the context of the Olympic movement’s gentle treatment of genuine dictatorships, this inaction becomes even more obscene.

International sports bureaucrats, it should be remembered, turned a blind eye to Uday Hussein’s treatment of his athletes. During his tenure as head of Iraq’s soccer federation, Saddam’s son subjected losing players to the worst torture. His goons would drag players across pavement until their bare feet turned raw. Then the players were forced to jump in raw sewage.

Even though these human-rights abuses were amply documented, Olympic and soccer officials never really voiced a substantial complaint against them.

Olympic officials, however, have sent Israel a clear message. Two years ago, representatives from various Olympic federations gathered in Kuala Lumpur to prepare for Athens. There were 199 flags, including the Palestinian standard, hanging in the hotel ballroom. Sadly, one was missing.