Why I Don’t “Like” Tablet Online Magazine — Corporate Money & the New Read on Jewish Life

(Eli Valley, detail from Metamorphosis, a comic about “hip” Jewish projects {I’m posting this image with generous permission from the artist} {You can see the whole strip here})

Having recently joined Facebook, I see how many of my friends and colleagues inside and outside academe actually “like” Tablet Magazine, an online rag promoting new Jewish politics and culture. Myself, I’m not sure what’s to like about this Nextbook production, and figured that someone might want to say something about it. Part of it has to do with how 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.  But most of the time, I’ll confess that I just don’t find it interesting, and I’m trying to figure out why.

No matter what their editors and writers might say or even think, there’s a lot of dishonesty at and about Tablet, which only pretends to be [1] independent, [2] post-ideological, [3] journalistic, [4] cool and [5] edgy.

[1] Tablet pretends to be independent.

Tablet is an amazing product. Having assembled a diverse group of contributing writers, it is a rich format for the cultivation of Jewish culture and the promotion of Jewish ideas. It’s big and glossy and full of intelligence, both in terms of its design and its contents. But it’s not independent. It’s not a little disenguous, the claim by Alana Newhouse, editor-in-chief at Tablet and its most prominent public voice, that “Launching a new journalistic site devoted to Jewish life now is, in many ways, an act of audacity.” quoted by Michael Weiss in the New Criterion) http://www.newcriterion.com/posts.cfm/Introducing-Tablet-Magazine-5896

Deep pockets bankroll this operation and secure its short term future. Tablet is a production of Nextbook, which is funded by Mem Bernstein, who is the widow of Zalman (Sanford) Bernstein, who was the Wall Street investment broker who was the money behind the neoconservative Tikvah Fund and the cultural-conservative platforms it funds. About the cultural conservativism at Tikvah, I have had in the recent past churlish things to say. http://zeek.forward.com/articles/117374/

I’ll say it again. There’s nothing wrong with taking money from neoconservative sources. But one should be upfront about the support and privilege that corporate money secures; which means there’s nothing “audacious” at all at Tablet venture if by audacious one means financial risk-taking. Alas, the suspicion that Newhouse is less than transparent about the politics of money and culture is buttressed by the opening question/answer portion at a conference on “The Future of Jewish Culture.”

The questioner asked: There have been a number of concerns raised over the years about the funding of Jewish culture. Some have complained that the Jewish community simply doesn’t fund culture enough, especially compared to the amount it invests in Israel and education. And others have complained that when the Jewish community does fund culture, it funds it for the wrong reasons, i.e. not for its own sake, but as a tool to reach and excite young, disinterested Jews. Do you agree? Do you think the Jewish community primarily funds culture for its potential as an outreach tool?

Newhouse answered: What’s “the Jewish community”? I don’t mean to be flip, but I can’t ever really get exercised by arguments that begin from the premise that there is one monolithic Jewish body — whether those arguments are about Israel or tax policy, foreign policy or philanthropy. I’m also almost tickled by the assertion stated above: that some people are upset because they believe “when the Jewish community does fund culture, it funds it for the wrong reasons.” I might remind these undoubtedly well-meaning folks that Jewish tradition places little premium on motivation, and much value on action. Naaseh Vnishma, we are taught: We will do, and then — maybe! — we will understand.

Someone says she or he is not being flip precisly when they are being flip, incredibly flip and condescending. Newhouse completely dismisses the very serious concern about the funding and politics of Jewish culture. The snark about “undountedly well-meaning folks” can’t be taken without insult. The response is apologetic and aggressive, like her criticism of Peter Beinart in the Washington Post, about which I’ll say more below.

Newhouse may or may not herself be liberal. But that’s not the point. I don’t believe it’s true to say that what matters is action, not motivation. This sounds like a dodge, since the action, in this case Tablet Magazine, will reflect, in at least some part, the motivations and motivators behind it, namely the money. The people who bankroll this stuff are sophisticated investors. It’s naïve to think they don’t know what they’re doing. Tablet is expensive. The stable of editors and writers is expensive. The evasion by Newhouse, who edits an online magazine that wants to be taken seriously, is not a serious answer to a serious question.

I agree with Newhouse that there is no monolithic Jewish community suppressing dissent. But there are pools of well established money dominating, or attempting to dominate the conversation about Judaism, Jewish culture, and Israel these days. More and more these days, it behooves us to follow the money.

[2] Tablet pretends to be politically neutral.

Tablet skirts closely to political neutrality. The blogroll at the site is fair and balanced beyond reproach. Included are Jeffery Golberg, Mondoweiss and Andrew Sullivan, Commentary and Haaretz. As for contributing editors at Tablet, they are from the best and brightest of the Jewish cultural universe. You can see them at:  http://www.tabletmag.com/about

But there’s something fishy about the operation. Consider the heavy hitters at Tablet, the authors who appear most consistently on its pages.

–While Liel Lievbowitz and, more rarely Etgar Keret, provide some leftwing oomph, Lee Smith is an odd choice to have advance new Jewish culture. Smith is a senior editor at the neoconservative Weekly Standard. His churlish omnipresence at Tablet makes you wonder.

–Alex Joffe, from Jewish Ideas Daily, which everyone should know is a rightwing operation, was appointed in 2004 as director of Campus Watch. He’s a self described expert in Levantine Archaeology, weapons of mass destruction and environmental security, intelligence reform, nationalism, and cultural politics. He writes a lot about Arabs, as does Smith.

–Adam Kirsch takes on the literature beat along with anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

–It doesn’t buttress the non-partisan bonafides at Tablet that editor-in-chief Newhouse chimed in fracas about Beinart and The Crisis of Zionism. Even as she refers to herself as a critic of the occupation, that’s not the point for her. “Should American Jews take stands on Israel’s future? Of course. But whatever the reality of Jewish power in America, it’s fantasy to imagine that American Jews can pressure Israel into making any significant movements its leaders do not want to make.” That may indeed be true, but then why all the efforts by “the Jewish establishment” to shore up support for Israel and to tamp down criticism of it?

Once again, Newhouse denies that there is such a thing a monolithic Jewish establishment, with nary a mention of AIPAC. But it’s the conclusion to her op-ed that has drawn the most critical attention. According to Newhouse, Beinart’s book is “calculated to appeal to disillusioned Jewish summer camp alumni, NPR listeners and other beautiful souls who want the Holy Land to be a better place but do not have the time or ability to study the issues, learn the languages or talk to the people on both sides whose hearts have been broken over and over again by prophets making phony promises.” Whether she understands this or not, it’s this pure snark and the animus it reflects towards liberal Jews that group Newhouse and Tablet Magazine with writers like Lee Smith, Andrew Breitbart, and other voices on the neoconservative right.

[3] Tablet pretends to be journalistic

Newhouse cut her teeth at the culture desk of the Forward, but Tablet is less about journalism and more about boosterism. Its mission is to engage Jews in whatever way possible, politically and/or spiritually. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s “promotionalism,” not journalism.

[4] Tablet pretends to be cool.

The anxieties that animate Tablet are anything but cool. They verge on hysteria, these constant anxieties expressed about the Jewish future, Judaism, Israel, and Israel. These anxieties are ideological to the core. They tend to characterize rightwing Jewish political thought and philosophy.

For example: in his very intelligent review, no, his much more intelligent than Wieseltier’s review of the New American Haggadah, Adam Kirsch writes, “The rising, or perhaps they are now risen, generation of American Jewish writers cannot but suffer by comparison with that stellar cohort [Roth and Mailer]. Putting aside the question of native talent, there is a great freedom in rebellion when you are certain that the institutions and values you are rebelling against are immortal. But if you are an American Jew under 40, you were raised with the constant awareness that American Jewish life, and Jewish life, is precarious. The themes of our Jewish education were assimilation and intermarriage, Arab-Israeli wars and the Holocaust—each a different name for Jewish disappearance.” http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/90589/sentimental-journey

I’m almost sure this is not right. American Judaism and Jewish life seems much more taken for granted, much less insecure, more integrated into the American scene. I think Kirsch, and by extension Tablet, and by another extension the Jewish conservative culture critics get this completely wrong, or at best half right.

[5] Tablet pretends to be edgy.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Tablet is that the articles on it are usually uneventful and monotonous. It’s all Jews, all the time. Compare this with the Jewish Museum back in the 1950s when they showed the best, period, the best there was to see in modern art.

I found this online by Ben Atlas, which I think is very smart. He complains, So suppose you want to publish a Jewish publication. You are forced to drop to the lowest denominator (see ‘All that Music that Rises to the Middle’). For example you search the Google news for the stories that have a “Jewish” in them. The most pathetic form of journalism is practiced by every single Jewish publication today. And since there is nothing in the content of the Jewishness that the readers agree upon or understand broadly, you are virtually forced into the toilet of the celebrity culture or celebrity politics. Or since there is so little that Jews like in common you write stories about what you hope more Jews hate in common. This is why any Jewish publication, like the Tablet Magazine for prime example, sucks to high heaven. http://benatlas.com/2010/07/why-the-tablet-magazine-or-any-jewish-publication-sucks/

Consider for example, the articles and titles I found on May 29: Why do some people hate Jews? “Alain de Botton urges nonbelievers to pick and choose religion’s best offerings,” Flame is Broiling Iran’s Computers, Massacre [in Syria] Prompts Move toward Regime Change, internet parodies of Hitler, Israeli Cheese, an Egyptian Democrat Gives Up, the End of the Jewish Left, Jewish Mothers, Jewish-Czech Surrealist, Reb Nachman Explains it All, Hezbollbah’s Threat, the historical roots of support for Israel and Republican Party, and a touching testimonials about the power of Jewish ritual.

This is pretty par for the course at Tablet –hysteria mixed with cloying sentimentality, and hip, flip, sometimes naughty posturing.

The new read on Jewish life is utterly synthetic, a cross between Heeb Magazine, Moment Magazine, and Commentary. It’s an attractive and well-designed product, but I’m not going to “like” it.

(You can see the entire view of Valley’s Metamorphosis at:  http://www.evcomics.com/2009/12/12/metamorphosis/. For Valley’s homepage, go to http://www.evcomics.com/about/).

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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5 Responses to Why I Don’t “Like” Tablet Online Magazine — Corporate Money & the New Read on Jewish Life

  1. Oh what’s the point of trying to argue with this person? His mind is made up and there is nothing anyone can say to change it because he already dissected, bisected and crapped all over Tablet…I didn’t however hear him go after Commentary when they attacked my son as a Stalinist for defending me and his father at Occupy Judaism. I don’t see him railing against the tea party types. All I see is a list of criticism that just proves that no matter what Tablet does, he will never be happy. Perhaps he needs to change his view of Judaism…but that’s not going to happen either.

  2. Yoseph Leib says:

    Oh, come on Jeanette! These are pretty valid criticisms. No one thinks of Commentary as non-partisan, the criticisms of Tea Party for being whatever kind of disingenuous are well circulated– but no one has, to my knowledge, publically called out Tablet on it’s psuedo-cool, psuedo-balanced, charming but willfully toothless psuedo-journalism. Are you working for Tablet or something? The most natural thing in the world is to distrust the presumptions of scrappy independence and radicalism claimed by anyone who has the budget to be the main advertisement that pops up on every website I visit, from Cracked.com to Haaretz to my Facebook ads all the time.

  3. jzeballo says:

    Oy Vey!, While the author makes a critical and acute assertive about the shortcomings and weaknesses of Tablet, at the same time here in Chile, or the Spanish Jewish audience in general, as we like to be able to find the funding to make a project developed well. A project profecional, well designed, and able to accomplish in a generation talks elusive. Here, we are light years away from that.

  4. Pingback: The Gorka Affair - The Marginalia Review of Books

  5. zjb says:

    Reblogged this on jewish philosophy place and commented:

    Maybe I’ll just reblog this each time Tablet Magazine disgraces itself, but I’m putting in a suggestion that Jewish Studies colleagues who write for Tablet might want to consider stopping

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