This is the first of a two-post series that will appear today and tomorrow. Read part 2 here.
Tablet Magazine is, according to the PR blurb its editor Alana Newhouse sent me, in answer to questions I posed to her:
…A site devoted to coverage of Jewish life, identity and culture in all of its forms and expressions. As frustrating as it can be for some readers, we adhere to no orthodoxy — religious, cultural or political. We publish avowedly secular pieces alongside ones than assert the supreme rightness of observant Judaism; authors who think Philip Roth should win the Nobel as well as those who think he’s an overrated abomination; pieces that argue vehemently that Jews must celebrate Christmas with Chinese food but never with trees on the same day as well as ones that say precisely the opposite
That’s a disingenuous statement as you’ll find later when I address it. But before I explain why, I want to credit Tablet as a serious, but deeply flawed attempt to create a cultural institution that embodies the richness and vitality of contemporary American Jewish life. In this age of cheap gotcha-gossip journalism and ersatz kitsch passing for Jewish identity, it was a bold stroke to put forth such vision. In an era when organized American Jewry seems in retreat on many fronts, Newhouse should be credited for creating this vision. It was even luckier that Tablet found, in pro-Israel philanthropist Mem Bernstein, a deep-pocketed donor who shared the vision.
The problem with the implementation of such a vision is that Tablet assumed so many of the bad habits of the American Jewish “consensus.” There is the suffocating pall of anti-Semitism haunting its pages, along with the unexamined assumptions of solidarity with Israeli state policies, including the embrace of the “13 Principles of [Zionist] faith” by which American Jewish communal life operates. They say the unexamined life isn’t worth living. Tablet is examining American Jewish life, but barely scratching the surface.
In the New York Observer, an op-ed took Tablet to task on precisely this issue. The piece questioned Tablet’s stridently pro-Israel coverage during last summer’s Gaza war, which included attacks on the supposedly-biased reporting of the NY Times:
By denying their bias, Tablet is guilty of exactly the journalistic sin they attributed to The New York Times: “By playing coy with readers about the reasons why coverage is so imbalanced, the Times may think that it’s defending the work of its reporters and photographers. In fact, it’s making them and the paper look foolish …”
Joshua Leifer elaborated on this theme in his own piece in Medium:
“Tablet uses its tolerant, liberal bent on issues of culture or lifestyle as a counterweight to its staunch, right-wing position on Israeli politics, hiding in plain sight an ideology far to the right of that of its readership. Tablet’s politics, though buried between stories about hamentaschen recipes and potentially Jewish celebrities, amount to justification and support for Israel’s illegal occupation and settlement of the West Bank.
The Observer article calls Tablet “hip and hawkish.” Following on that, I find it an odd amalgam of serious literary journal, lifestyle, spiritual quest, kitsch, schmaltz (literally), gossip, and Jewish identity politics (including a strong dose of bad-will-hunting, in the form of finding anti-Semitism where it exists, and even where it doesn’t). It’s The Forward meet Rolling Stone. A cross between Jan Wenner and Jeffrey Goldberg.
Here’s how Syracuse University’s Prof. Zak Braiterman described his qualms about the Jewish publication:”
…Beneath the slick, flip, lavishly financed new electronic Jewish tribalism at Tablet lurk the old parochial anxieties about the Jews, Judaism, and the State of Israel. Looking past the youthful cool so intentionally cultivated, I am more and more convinced that anxiety is the hallmark of the new Jewish conservatism, both in the culture at large and at Tablet.
I especially like Braiterman’s phrase, “electronic Jewish tribalism.” As he notes, Tablet cultivates a high gloss/high concept style with breezy, colorful graphics. It offers Joan Nathan’s “Chosen Food” for the Chosen People. Adam Kirsch even reads a daf yomi (“daily page”) of Talmud, which he slicks up with suggestive titles like: Virgins, Sodomy, Bestiality, Prostitutes, Marriage, and Forbidden Sex. Just imagine: get your daily dose of Talmud spiced up with naughtiness. What more could a Jew ask for?
Why schmaltz, of course, and lots of it. This week’s issue features a profile of the Secret Sauce of Ashkenazi Jewry. Editor Newhouse even managed a promotion for the issue, getting a favorable mention in the NY Times food section:
Although rendering poultry fat is a simple task for chefs, the technique is a lost art for many home cooks. To help remedy this, Alana Newhouse, the editor of Tablet magazine, has an annual schmaltz-making party at her home in Brooklyn that she calls the “schmixer.”
Not only does she show people how to make traditional schmaltz, she also encourages guests to flavor individual batches with herbs, spices and even chiles. Everyone takes home a small Mason jar of the gorgeous fat.
All her guests love it. “One can easily peg this to nostalgia, and maybe that’s part of it,” Ms. Newhouse said. “But it’s also real engagement.”
Yes indeed, schmaltz as a form of Jewish ‘engagement.’ Jewish food as the path to the Yiddishe neshumeh! Reminds me of that old saw: the way to a man’s heart is…You may’ve thought such stereotypes went the Way of All Flesh, but not in Tabletworld.
And who can forget Jeffrey Goldberg in the pages of Tablet cajoling Mormon Sen. Orrin Hatch to write and record a “hip-hop” Hanukah song, saved for posterity here. I thought nothing could surpass it till I read this:
“Watching Orrin Hatch in the studio, I said to myself that nothing this great will ever happen to me again,” said Alana Newhouse, the editor-in-chief of Tablet.
The most controversial aspect of what Tablet does is its vociferous flag-waving on behalf of pro-Israel politics. It features one of the most notorious, scuzzy of Jewish journalists, the Weekly Standard’s Lee Smith. One of his claims to fame is calling Stephen Walt, Phil Weiss, Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald “agents of anti-Israel influence” in a Tablet piece. Reading him is like reading a pro-Israel version of a pulpy Grade B crime novel in which the bad guys are furtive anti-Semite-leftists and the good guys, the Israel Lobby. His pieces drip so full of vitriol and hate you feel like you need a shower (or in Tablet’s case, a dip in the mikveh).
The irony of this is that the founding editor, Alana Newhouse, had this to say about the concept of lashon hara (words that can mean ‘gossip’ or ‘speaking ill’ of someone) in an interview with her hometown Jewish newspaper:
Regarding the principle of Lashon Hora, Newhouse was more direct. “A big part of your job is speaking about other people — sometimes ill. I think we balance speaking ill with the good of the community,” she explained. “We know that journalism can be radioactive, so we try to use it sparingly and responsibly.”
Apparently, Newhouse believes that some Jews are so bad that it’s appropriate to speak ill of them because, after all, you’re doing it for the good of the community. You might justify this to yourself, but what if you’re wrong? What if there are Jews you view as the enemy who aren’t? What if they have an important useful contribution to make and you view them as, and publicly label them “anti-Semites?” As for ‘radioactive’ journalism, after reading these posts I’ll let you judge whether Tablet uses it “responsibly.”
She once told Luke Ford this about her background in an interview:
“What clique did you hang out with high school?”
“The JAPpy clique. I grew up in Lawrence, Long Island, and I loved it. To this day, I can do a better French manicure than any French manicurist you can get in Manhattan. I can put lipliner on in a dark cab. I was pretty focused… I’m a well-honed JAP.”
I don’t know many Jewish women who would call themselves JAPs. She’s either very candid or very foolhardy.
One of Tablet’s more recent articles featured former AP Israel reporter, Matti Friedman excoriating his ex-employer and the entire foreign press corps in Israel for supposedly giving the Palestinians a ‘free pass’ when it came to tough coverage. Jeffrey Goldberg appears to have loved his reporting, because The Atlantic, where he’s a contributor, published yet another version of Friedman’s sour grape’s story there (Goldberg was once a regular Tablet contributor and Newhouse has labelled him one of her journalistic heroes). Though much of what Friedman wrote in both stories is tendentious and based far more on pro-Israel ideology than journalistic critique, I want to take issue with one aspect of his story with which I’m personally familiar. Readers here will recall the story ginned up by the pro-Israel media accusing Al Quds University of sponsoring a “Nazi-style” rally in support of Palestinian terrorists. A mystery photographer was on the scene and shot supposedly incriminating footage of masked protesters in black garb raising their arms in what was termed a “Nazi salute.”
Friedman complains that he brought these pictures and story to his AP editor, who turned it down. His boss said it wasn’t newsworthy, which drove Friedman into high dudgeon and fueled his narrative of an overly fawning foreign press eager to protect Palestinians. There’s only one small problem with the Al Quds story: though the rally was real and the pictures were as well, everything else about the reporting of the incident was a charade.
The rally was not sponsored by the University, but by Islamic Jihad. The group had promised not to hold public rallies on campus and broke its promise to the administration. The president immediately after the protest, criticized it, while affirming the right of students to resist Occupation, on a campus where Israeli Border Police regularly assault students and ransack the school and its equipment. There was no “Nazi-salute,” merely a raising of arms toward Al Quds (Jerusalem) as a place sacred to them and Islam.
Neither Friedman, nor Tom Gross, the blogger who eventually did publish the pictures, would reveal who took them. If you were an editor and one of your reporters brought you pictures and you refused to identify who shot them, wouldn’t that raise a few questions in your mind? And even if you knew the identity, if you couldn’t report that to the public, how would that look journalistically?
In the Beginning was Nextbook
Before there was Tablet, there was Nextbook. It was a higher brow version of Tablet, primarily focused on Jewish literature, culture and arts. It regularly published volumes (mostly biographical) on major Jewish figures like Spinoza, Abraham Kahan (Seth Lipsky), Menachem Begin (Daniel Gordis), Moses, Rashi, Judah Maccabee (Jeffrey Goldberg), Ben Gurion (Shimon Peres), and Maimonides. Hardly an effete galusdikeh (Diaspora) Jew among them, except perhaps Kahan. Certainly no pointy-headed liberals like Einstein or Arthur Hertzberg, no Ahad Ha’Am, Yochanan Ben Zakkai, nor any of those provocative prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah or Amos.
Show Us the Money
Roger Hertog, age 73, is a wealthy Wall Street trader who co-founded the brokerage, Sanford C. Bernstein. After his partner Sanford (who became “Zalman Chaim” after a late life turn toward Orthodox Judaism) died in 1999, Hertog and Bernstein’s widow and third wife, “Mem” (Miriam), founded Nextbook in 2003. They cumulatively pumped $5-million a year into it. In 2005, Hertog bailed on the project to devote more time and resources to his efforts, under the aegis of his Tikvah Fund ($152-million in assets in 2012), to create the controversial Tikvah Advanced Institutes. These are Jewish studies institutes which are semi-independent projects within their respective campus communities . As Prof. Zak Braiterman wrote in an e mail to me (his published critique is here), their goal is:
…To do an end run around these academic institutions to create para-academic, autonomous think tanks as a way to insinuate [Jewish] right-wing conservative culture into the liberal mainstream.
Nextbook’s publishing venture became subsumed under the Tablet website. But Tablet notes that Nextbook remains its parent, saying the former is:
“…A project of the not-for-profit Nextbook Inc., which also produces the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters book series.”
In light of this, it’s important to note that Morton Landowne, the executive director of Nextbook, is “responsible for overseeing all facets of the project.” Presumably this means he’s Newhouse’s boss. He’s paid $250,000 according to the group’s IRS 990 report. Leifer notes in Medium that Landowne is also a vice-president of Ohr Torah Stone Institutions, which is the educational outreach arm of the West Bank-empire of settler Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. Landowne’s bio claims that the institution is “in Israel,” but that all depends on your ideological perspective, I suppose. A number of the foundations mentioned above and in the next paragraph offer annual mid-six-figure donations to Ohr Stone.
Bernstein and Hertog made their fortune selling their brokerage firm to Alliance Capital in 2000 for $3.5-billion. It enabled them to become Jewish philanthropic entrepreneurs. Hertog founded the Tikvah Fund and Mrs. Bernstein founded the Avi Chai ($571-million in assets in 2012) and Keren Keshet ($223-million in assets in 2012) Foundations. They sunk a large portion of their newly-minted wealth (over $1-billion, cumulatively) into the various philanthropic funds.
Keren Keshet is Bernstein’s vehicle to fund Tablet. Its last recorded gift to the online media outlet was $3.5-million in 2013. That originated in a donor-advised gift from the Jewish Communal Fund of New York. Bernstein gives over $15-million yearly to JCF, which in effect shields the identity of her donees. But her foundation IRS reports do note gifts to some right-wing groups and educational institutions including a $600,000 annual gift to the David Project, $55,000 to Commentary Magazine and $1-million to Yeshiva University.
It’s extremely rare for a publication like Tablet to have a single donor funding its entire operation. That may be why Tablet has begun fundraising from its readers. But it’s dubious such fundraising will bring in meaningful sums compared to what Bernstein offers. Despite the high gloss and doses of “serious journalism” it offers, Tablet is a vanity enterprise of a wealthy widow honoring her and her husband’s pro-Israel right-wing politics.
In comparison, The Forward, a competing national Jewish publication has an annual budget ranging from $7.5-8.5 million. But it has a much longer history, a large endowment, and supports a larger editorial and reporting staff. Though it covers some of the same territory, the Forward prides itself on breaking much more hard news and does so with a firmer journalistic footing. Its politics skew more liberal than Tablet, though decidedly liberal Zionist.
Alana Newhouse: Tablet’s Self-Described “JAP”
Tablet’s Alana Newhouse comes from a Long Island Orthodox Jewish background. She attended a local modern Orthodox day school, Hebrew Academy of Five Towns Rockaway High School, and Barnard College. Newhouse’s idea of a “mixed marriage” was having a parent who was Ashkenazi and another who was Sefardi. A profile in the Long Island Orthodox paper, The Star, notes this about the editor’s office. It gives you an idea, even as a joke, of the parochialism of her Jewish interests:
Behind her desk, a red and white poster outlines the laws of Muktzah (Shabbos prohibitions). The poster was a gift from her parents when she was in first grade. She even has a favorite, which she pointed out on the yellowed poster: Muktzah machmas kis, a prohibition on objects whose main use and value is forbidden on Shabbos. Examples on the poster included a hammer, a checkbook and a slaughtering knife.
After college, she gravitated into the circle of David Garth (who passed away yesterday at age 84), the media whiz who made the political career of Ed Koch and a number of other New York Democratic power brokers. After burning out on NY politics, she went to Columbia University’s School of Journalism. Later, she made her way to the Forward, where she became arts and culture editor. When J.J. Goldberg stepped down as managing editor, Newhouse was passed over for his job, which went to Jane Eisner.
Newhouse departed for the media start-up, Tablet, which launched in 2008. According to its last filed IRS 990 report, she was paid $220,000 (Eisner earned only $200,000 in 2013) in 2012. One may assume Newhouse earns more today. According to those who knew her earlier in her career, Newhouse’s expertise is not in Jewish history, sources or traditions. “Buzz” is her middle name.
The underlying principle behind both Nextbook and Tablet for their elderly Jewish donors is the same principle driving Sheldon Adelson’s $100-million bet on Birthright. It’s a form of kiruv, drawing assimilated or alienated young Jews back to their tradition and, by extension, to pro-Israel politics.
What better way to do this than to mix a page of Talmud with a dash of forbidden sex? The question is what are they selling and is anyone buying? For her roughly $16-million investment, Bernstein and Newhouse have a website which Alexa ranks 25,000 globally. In comparison, the Forward ranks 29,000, (L.A.) Jewish Journal 23,000, JTA ranks 67,000, the right-wing Algemeiner 50,000. There’s no question that Tablet is read. But does it have influence? In terms of hard reporting, the Forward beats Tablet hands-down. In terms of soft features, it probably has found a niche. But it’s one that Haaretz is filling as well with its revamped English edition (Alexa rank 6,500), devoting lots of column inches to Jewish recipes, lifestyle, travel, etc.
Newhouse refuses to concede an ideological bias to Tablet. But in her encomium above, she boasts mainly that Tablet embraces both secular and religious Jewish lifestyles. The proud Jewish secular tradition represented by Abe Cahan, the Jewish Forward and the Bund, doesn’t revolve around whether or not you may eat Chinese food on a Jewish holiday.
As for politics, Newhouse again boasts of her Big Tent approach:
Our political coverage — of Israel as well America and the rest of the world — is no different. We give platforms, via profiles or features or interviews or podcasts, to a wide spectrum of views, from Noam Chomsky and Ron Dermer and Tzipi Livni to Michael Oren and Maen Rashid Areikat to Avi Shafran and the Reverend Al Sharpton and more. We are also proud to have published a collection of writers — including but not limited to Seth Lipsky, Victor Navasky, Lee Smith, Michelle Goldberg, Daniella Cheslow, Jon Emont.
There’s a problem here: Newhouse believes that because she commissions her husband, David Samuels, who seems to be the liberal conscience among the writing staff, to do interviews with Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, that she’s fulfilled her obligation to the Jewish left. To prove this assertion, look at the “left-wing” writers she boasts of publishing: Victor Navasky at age 82, represents the oldest of the Old Guard, who has minimal impact on progressive Jewish thought these days. Michelle Goldberg though liberal on many issues, recently wrote a piece denouncing BDS. That would certainly make her appealing to Newhouse, who uses the liberal Zionist Todd Gitlin to serve that role at Tablet. But that doesn’t qualify Goldberg as progressive on the Israel-Arab conflict. I suppose in Tabletworld, Tzipi Livni qualifies as an Israeli “leftist” since she’s only a former leader of the Likud. But for most of the rest of us in the Jewish left, she’s not a figure offering much beyond warmed over liberal Zionism.
There are many writers who Tablet has never published and will never publish. Writers that fall far outside what Newhouse and Bernstein view as the acceptable Jewish consensus. You won’t find bylines of Judith Butler, Corey Robin, Neve Gordon, Max Blumenthal, Shlomo Sand, Shlomo Avneri, Avi Shlaim, David Schulman or many others there. If free-thinking Jews like Spinoza, Einstein, Trotsky, Jacob de Haan or Ahad Ha’Am were alive, you wouldn’t find them in Tablet either. They’re far too frightening to the consensus-driven Jewish identity Tablet cobbles together for itself and its readers.
The second post in this series on Tablet will appear tomorrow.