Jewish Media from Right to Left

The following is a transcript of Episode 117 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, we’re recording on Wednesday, November 16th, 2022. 

Last month, there was a minor kerfuffle in the world of Jewish media. Big deal for those of us who watch this stuff closely, probably passed without notice for people who don’t. The Association for Jewish Studies, a scholarly society, had sent out a paid advertisement for a podcast produced by Tablet, the Jewish media company, following public protest by some of its members. The AJS apologized for doing so and said it was pausing its relationship with Tablet and reassessing the protocols of how it built and managed relationships like this one with outside entities.

For those of us who care about ideas and ideologies and scholars and distribution systems, it felt like kind of a big deal. Critics of Tablet argue that it has lurched rightward. Its supporters, meanwhile, insist that the shift had happened in the politics of its critics. There’s actually not a lot of venues for serious long-form Jewish writing that seeks to bridge between the scholarly and the applied. So to see this boundary materialized in real time in this way was worth paying attention to. 

Some months earlier, there was a similar story, but in reverse all the way out left. The progressive magazine. Jewish Currents, whose editor and publisher have appeared on our show, apologized for having run a paid ad for the Dorot Fellowship a year-long program for study and service in Israel. 

This was a little surprising for a lot of us in the liberal Zionist camp. Dorot is not exactly a hasbara program, and there’s been a powerful pipeline between the fellowship and activist leadership in both Israel and America advocating for peace and justice.

Nevertheless, the mere endorsement of a mainstream Israel program was apparently off limits for Currents, part and parcel of the ways that a particular type of criticism of Israel has been endemic to their rise in stature. Now, I should make clear: publications make decisions all the time about whose content they’re comfortable advertising and organizations make decisions all the time about which publications they feel comfortable to advertise in.

Most of these decisions are inscrutable because they’re not public and they reflect internal calculations. Though, obviously those calculations include the question of their ideological commitments. The reason I think this is noteworthy now is because these two incidents became public really close in time to each other, and because they surface to the light some of these otherwise hidden calculations, and maybe because they help us to see the ways that our own shifting ideological landscape here in the American Jewish community and our shifting media environment are becoming tectonic plates in ways that create tremors in our community. 

This is not yet another cancel culture conversation, but I’m very invested and very interested in exploring the map of venues where Jews get news and opinion about issues that matter to us as Jews and what happens when either those venues evolve in real time about their mission and about their commitments, or when our values and commitments begin to migrate as well.

Just before the intelligentsia turned against Tablet, there were similar echoes against the Forward whose previous opinion editor had invited controversy in the coverage and opinion writing about a number of sensitive communal issues. And I can speak personally here cause I do a lot of public writing for a living. It’s always a careful calculus to decide where to pitch something, but that decision feels more fraught now than ever before. 

Paradoxically, there are many more venues to pitch to than there ever been, but I still find myself deciding, do I wanna speak to those who will agree with me or those who don’t? And what are the costs socially and politically when you make that decision? Or even to the style of writing you’d have to do in order to publish in this venue or that. And my institution and I care about this a lot because we feel that a constant free and serious flow of ideas are vital to Jewish communal life and to our society more generally.

The more narrowly each of us consumes our media and opinion, we lose access to how other people think the. We can are resolved to understand the other as a means of even if you wanted to defeat competing views. And we participate in what I would call a collective epistemological decline about some notion of a shared landscape of where truth lives.

So we at Hartman have been trying to engage this problem in two ways. First, we launched our own long-form journal of ideas sources, even as we know that a lot of people are gonna do the same thing to us as they do to others, right off its content because they disagree with our institutional values. By the way, it was noticeable that other long-form journals emerged at exactly the same time, including Sapir, a project of the Maimonides edited by Brett Stephens, which is different from our product stylistically, and in some ways politically. I don’t know whether the proliferation of new publications represents a solution to the problem of diminished shared knowledge or a furtherance of it. 

And then our second intervention we tried to do is we launched a seminar for journalists. I mentioned this program a few weeks ago when I interviewed Emily Tamkin, but I’ll reiterate here. Expanding the category of thought leadership to journalists was our acknowledgement at Hartman that the people who lead and curate Jewish content as journalists and through various media outlets are some of the most important individuals in shaping what we all think, what stories we hear, and which ones we choose to tell. 

So I’ve invited two of the participants in that program here today to talk to us about the Jewish media landscape right now in light of all of our ideological, philanthropic, and other landmines. Laura E. Adkins is the opinion editor at the Forward. She previously held that position at JTA, and writes widely on antisemitism, Orthodox Judaism, data, and gender. Probably not about all of those topics in the same articles at the same time, but maybe sometimes. 

Ari Hoffman is a writer and assistant editor at the New York Sun, was previously a columnist at the Forward, and also teaches at NYU. Those are only small pieces of their extensive resumes, but I wanna start with your two lays of the land. 

Laura, you’re in the house. Ari, you’re one step removed now from the house, so I, I’m sure you’ll have different perspectives just as people, but also given those vantage points. Laura, we’ll start with you. What’s interesting and different right now about this work that you do? Curating voices and ideas about Judaism, from Jews, um, in the public square. And if you can give us some sense of where you think it has changed over the last three or four years, I think that’ll be helpful too.

Laura: Sure. Absolutely. Thank you for having us. Um, it’s a big question and I think what’s not new is deep ideological divides within the Jewish community. The Forward has been around since 1897 and since the very beginning we’ve had American Jewish critics, um, sometimes from the orthodox community, sometimes from other secular corners of the Jewish world very strongly pushing back on the editorial lines that the paper took when it had an editorial line and you know, pieces that we’ve published in the 125 years since. 

But the biggest thing to me that is challenging to navigate is there are parts of American Jewish life that are very homogenous. We know that most American Jews in general tend to vote for Democrats, are concentrated in New York, Los Angeles, and various suburbs in those states, as well as New Jersey. And we know that most Jewish Americans tend to be very plugged in to the news and have higher education. 

Now, we can all think of 15 exceptions within our personal lives to all of those things, but something that is challenging because of that is that we wanna represent the diversity within our community, but we also want to avoid either tokenizing people and having them write. As you know, I’m a Jewish Republican and I think X, Y, Z, and we also want to avoid creating the sense that there’s not consensus on issues that there is broad consensus on. I think for example, you know recently Kanye West’s antisemitism controversy. That was not something that I was looking for perspectives, on why Kanye West’s antisemitic grant was perfectly acceptable, but, but most issues are a lot grayer than that.

And it’s always a challenge to figure out how do we represent the multiplicity of views on this issue without normalizing views that we feel are dangerous, but also without creating the false sense to our audience that there’s vigorous debate around topics that there really isn’t a debate around.

Yehuda: Okay, so before I come to you, uh, Ari, let me just push on this for one second with you, Laura, which is the interesting thing about looking at the demographic map. What it suggests is, let’s say 72% of American Jews agree on public policy X and 28% disagree. That might suggest that if you ran two opinion pieces, one that was pro and one was con on any particular issue, you’re actually misrepresenting the Jewish debate.

What you should be doing is running approximately seven out of 10 on one side of an issue, and approximately three out of 10 on the other, and that too would invite an argument of, you know, you’ve got your thumb on the scale, because as opposed to just reading the map or the market, you’re actually reinforcing those opinions.

Does that sound right? to you 

Laura: A little bit. I think it’s also knowing. knowing both perspectives or the multiplicity of perspectives well enough to find the smartest people representing that perspective. For example, if you’re trying to understand Jews who voted for Trump, the average Jew who voted for Trump is an Orthodox Jew. That would be a representative member of the constituency of Jews who voted for Trump. I

t would not necessarily be representative of the mainstream position to, you know, find a random secular Jew in New Jersey who voted for Trump. He might speak to issues happening within American life, but the trend that’s happening within American Jewish life that’s interesting in that particular conversation is the fact that Orthodox Jews trended much more heavily to the right. 

So I, I think it also requires a deep understanding no matter where one sits ideologically, a deep understanding of the representatives of different perspectives in order to really bring to readers the best perspectives.

Yehuda: And when do you feel people get most mad at you based on those choices?

Laura: You know, I’m often surprised when I publish things that I think will get more pushback and then they don’t. I think it really depends. Sometimes I’m surprised and sometimes I’m not. But you know, anything around Israel,pro or con, you’re going to find dissenting voices. I think anytime we write about orthodox life, you know, there’s Orthodox Jews who critique the way that their community is covered.

And there’s a lot of secular Jews who feel very strongly and negatively about aspects of the Orthodox community. So, I mean, it really depends.

Yehuda: Yeah. 

Um, so Ari, you, as I mentioned before, have been journalist and commentator and writer in Jewish media publications. You made this shift kind of to a not overtly Jewish publication. You know, I, when I read that, I was like, oh, that must be such a relief in some ways. I’d love for your, give a little perspective on what you see in terms of the Jewish media landscape, and it would be great if you could bring kind of the comparative viewpoint by not currently working in that kind of publication.

Ari: Sure. Thanks so much. And I just wanna reiterate what Laura said. What a thrill it is to be here. Well, my first instinct was to kind of comment on your opening Yehuda, uh, in a personal way. And that is, I’m someone who at one point was a member of the Association of Jewish Studies as a graduate student in Jewish studies. 

I’ve written for Tablet and count its staff and leadership as among my mentors in the world of journalism. And I was awarded a Dorot Fellowship years ago. Although I, I didn’t end up going. So just to say that for many of us, these different worlds are actually just part of our autobiographies.

And so there’s a strange kind of fracturing and fragmenting that happens as we kind of move through them. And for me it would be a sort of tragedy if that kind of intellectual and ideological promiscuity that was available to me, right, as a 35 year old growing up through and in this world will no longer be available to people of younger age and generations.

So that’s the first point. I also want to say that although my own, uh, let’s say sympathies in this sort of AJS Tablet kerfuffle, my natural impulse would be to sort of side with Tablet. You know, I think Tablet has also made its own choices of who its audience is, self-declaratively.

So I think this question of sorting is happening on both sides and, and on all sides. And there’s an ideological element to it, but there’s also just a business element to it, right? Every publication needs to know who its readers are. They have to know what their readers want. And they have to, to some extent give it to them or at least sort engage with them on that level.

In terms of working at a general, uh, interest newspaper. And then of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that my editor in chief, Seth Lipsky, was the editor in chief of the Forward, before he came to to the Sun. I’ll sort of just share an anecdote that happened to me this week. I’ll sort of walk you through a little bit, how we thought about this. And that’s the Trump speech at the ZOA gala. 

We had worked on an editorial a couple of weeks ago, basically arguing that, when it con came to Israel again, when it came to Israel, Trump was a worthy honor for the ZOA, given the ZOA’s politics, and sort of came out in support of that award in an unsigned editorial. I then was assigned to go to the dinner itself, at Pier 60 and cover that event, as a member of the press, with a press badge, but not a member of the Jewish Press.

I sat next to a reporter from Haaretz who was there, also covering it, maybe as part of the Israeli press, she writes in English, and sort of maybe also the Jewish press in some overlapping sort of way. So, you know, my sense in that world was this was a very particular corner of the Jewish world, a corner of the Jewish world, that is probably unimaginably, intellectually, and emotionally, to vast swaths of the Jewish world that still enthusiastically support Donald Trump. 

And for me, you know, I covered that as a news story, right? And so, you know, in that moment, was I being a Jewish journalist or a general journalist? Well, I felt that my familiarity with that world, you know, enabled me to cover it in a way that, that to me seemed fair. I’ll just say one more thing and that is that many of the problems of Jewish media around polarization and around trust are of course problems of media in general.

Um, in anticipation of this conversation, I looked up a Gallup poll for last month, and that’s that 38%. Americans have no trust at all in the media. That number was only 4% in 1976, right? So our answer is to build something new. We’ve sort of relaunched and our ideas kind of from scratch, we try to build a product that people trust. And I think Laura, in her own way is, is doing that in terms of, you know, reimagining and sort of, her work at the Forward as well.

So just to say that I think the problem of trusts and the problem of polarization, are truly, everyone is going through it in media. And that’s not to negate the Jewish side of things, but it is to say that these are problems I think about on a daily basis. I’ll just say one more quick point about working at a general interest newspaper, and that is that when we run a story on Israel, and whether that’s editorially or news, we have to justify its inclusion as of interest to a general audience.

Um, and so that has sort of made me, I think, a different consumer of news from the Jewish world. And I think in some sense it’s made me a little, maybe I don’t quite have my finger on the pulse as much, but I have a little bit more of a bird’s eye view. And so I think that’s, there’s a kind of trade-off, um, and tension there.

Yehuda: Yeah, you get to care less about the minor versions of the stories that if you’re inside the system, people think are a big deal. You can be evaluated based on, is it actually objectively a big deal. And I, I do agree with what you said, which is, I, I find like the best problems for the Jewish community to talk about our version of larger societal problems, right?

As opposed to the unique types of things that emerge just because of the nature of our community. So certainly the larger question of ideological polarization is a critical window with which to understand that story, both in the Jewish community in America, and even in the state of Israel. Like if you’re not talking about Hungary and Sweden and other things when you talk about the rise of the far right in Israel, you’re kind of missing a big piece of the plot. And you, you alluded to a bunch of pieces here around philanthropy and other things. 

I do wanna pick up on one thing that you started with, and I’ll ask you this and then I’ll ask Laura the same question, which is, you started with, uh, I think the term you used was like ideological promiscuity, right? And I, what I like about that is I also like, as a writer, I like publishing in a lot of different places, right? It surprises people and also like there’s different styles and there are different audiences, and it’s a challenge as a thinker to say, what do I wanna say and how do I wanna say it?

Um, I’m curious about you as individuals, because it feels to me like when you work in this industry, you, you have at least three different kind of columns of your professional identities that are being navigated at all times, right? You are, publications are like a public trust and a part of your work is to be an instrument of, or a cog in the machine of the public trust. I think that’s an incredibly valuable piece of what journalism is about. 

The second is you contribute to the political identity of the particular publication you serve. You have to advance it, like it or not. If you really don’t like it anymore, you leave and go somewhere else. 

And the third, which feels it’s definitely not new, but it feels more central today than I think I remember in the past, is that you are individuals with a brand, right? You’re a person with a website or a LinkedIn profile, and individual voice becomes really important to, especially early career journalists, that people see you not just as a person who works in the system, but a thinker, a thought leader, you know, a relatively new term that we have. 

I’m curious if you could share some insight into how you hold and navigate all three of those commitments cause they would seem to push in very different directions of how you write and what you choose to write and where you choose to rattle the cage or sometimes just serve the purposes of your publication.

Ari: Yeah, no, thanks for that, um, Yehuda. I mean, my first instinct is, you know, and again, thinking about what is the, what is the turf of overlap between sort of Jewish media and general media. And I think you’d have to say, or where the tensions kind of come to a head in that respect, something like Twitter, right? Where people often are, you know, you write under your own name and yet, you know, as more and more people get their news from things like Twitter, right? The first two of those pillars sort of evaporate a little bit.

And so, you know, if an institution can hold diversity opinion. I think an individual in some sense, much less. There might be more to say on that, but, but just to say that if I’m getting my news, my ideological position from a single person, I think I’m in some sense impoverishing my ability to get it from the sort of collective voice that any newspaper or publication necessarily is, let alone obviously, you know, the work Laura does at the Forward where she brings together, you know, so many different kind of voices.

You know, I think how I think about it, the first pillar is, is sort of a question of integrity. I mean, that’s just on the basic level, sentence-by-sentence reporting level, right? Am I sort of, you know, writing things that feel true? I mean, to be kind of obvious about it, right? Am I telling the story fairly, um, whether that’s in opinion or in news? 

The second pillar, is sort of right, am I in as much as I’m on this team, right? In as much as I’m part of this effort, am I acting as a good faith member of that team, that to me comes up when something like writing unsigned editorials, when you hash out a position as a group and then it falls to someone to write that, right. I think there are interesting moments there. When a paper decides who to endorse, for example.

These are moments, I think, when that second pillar really comes into focus. And you’re right. I mean there’s living in ambivalence, um, there’s living in pluralism, you know, at some point, if your own sensibility is too perpendicular to the sensibility of where you’re at, then it might be time for a move.

And then in terms of the last one, the brand question, there, I think it’s much more about attention and how to grab attention and how to hold attention. And tere’s a sense in which, you know, I, I sometimes, every time I post something or, or, or share something, I, I’d love for the work to speak for itself, right. That’s sort of what one wants, I think, at a certain level. 

But there’s this sneaking suspicion that that’s not actually enoguh. That there’s a kind of alchemy that comes with a combination of platform and personality, and that somehow the kind of mixing of those two is, is what kind of gives purchase, or gives grip. And that, that is sort of a merger of both of, I think like the person and their microphone kind of into one.

Yehuda: Cool. I definitely wanna unpack that alchemy. But Laura, how do you think about the, the relationship between these three?

Laura: I feel like I could write a book about just this question, but it’s also kind of the challenge of Judaism, right? It’s how do I balance who I am as an individual with who I am as a part of this collective enterprise that I’m trying to advance? And that’s the challenge of being a community paper in some sense.

I think one of the biggest changes in the past 20 years in journalism that we’re all still trying to figure out, unless you are speaking about the ultra-orthodox press that still has a very robust advertiser and print subscriber base, most of the independent Jewish newspapers not only have to understand their readers, but have to understand what motivates their readers to give their time and give their money? 

The Forward is a 50c3. We don’t do endorsements because of that and because we try to straddle the ideological divides. But I see my role not just as cultivating a really interesting and diverse slate of pieces for our readers, but also I feel a big obligation to really be a part of this community that is the, you know, American Jewish community is the global Jewish community, and I do think, for me, at least, a part of that is bringing my full self into my work, both in the pieces that I write, and a lot of my work, especially now as COVID is hopefully wrapping up, at least the pandemic portion is, is really just being in the community.

I mean, this past week, I, you know, I’ve been at a, a gathering for Orthodox Jews, a gathering for LGBTQ Jews, a gathering for the Israeli Philharmonic. And these all touch and overlap in various really interesting ways. 

But I actually think that my and Ari’s generation of journalists, because we have so been forced to really be in the trenches of building our own reputations, it’s also kind of forced us to be in relationship in what I think is a really beautiful way with our communities and I, I see it less about building a personal brand and more about showing readers and others who engage with my work in various formats, this is who I am, this is how I understand the world, and these are perspectives that I think will help you better understand the things that you’ve told us, you know, looking at the site traffic data, through reader responses, that you’ve told us you wanna understand and that you care about. 

So I think integrity, as Ari mentioned, it’s absolutely about truth and it’s absolutely about fairness. But I think, you know, in the last several years we’ve had a greater appreciation for the diversity of identities and experiences that people bring into their work and being transparent about that or at least letting that influence how you write, I think can be, can be really beneficial.

Yehuda: So it, it feels to me like there are two things that emerged here still feel that their in tension with each other. I like very much the language of being in relationship together with both the people you cover and the people who you expect to read what you write. And I, for sure it’s the case that the pandemic was an impossible moment around this. And even like the examples what was actually taking place in American cities, and seeing the difference in coverage, across the board. I still, I actually still am not sure what happened in American cities over the last two and a half years. 

Certainly even the ones I live in, um, and definitely the ones that are other parts of the country was a window to the fact like, you, you’re just not gonna be able to do that story effectively if you’re sitting in your work-from-home set up at home in your slippers and trying to figure it out. So there’s no doubt about that. 

At the same time, the whole Twitter thing, uh, and the cultivation of a personal brand and Ari, you alluded to this, that, when you write every, every single person, by writing RT not equal endorsement means that they’re basically defining their own identity as disconnected from their institutions and becoming like a unit of one, a thinker, a writer, a brand. 

Those feel like they really do rub up against each other, because those relationships definitely shape and form how you think, but the sum total of what you think becomes kind of isolated, uh, in the individual.

And I, I’ll, I’ll just add to that. I felt it in our program. Where we brought together, what was it, 12, 13, 14 journalists, many of whom had actually interacted on Twitter before and had never met, and as a result had like, I don’t wanna say corrosive relationships with each other, but suspicious relationships until they actually were able to humanize those encounters.

So don’t, doesn’t that feel to both of you, like what we want as the ideal way of journalists being part of our communities understanding each other is like running against the need for, or the impulse to kind self differentiate journalists as like people who are separate or other from the system and even self-differentiate against one another?

Laura: Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting. I think that there’s a lot of different aspects to any social network. Let’s take Twitter since it’s the example you brought up. Yes, Twitter is a place where a lot of journalists might be self-promotional or even grandstanding at times, but I think it’s also a place where folks have built genuine community.

I mean Orthodox Twitter, Jewish Twitter more broadly, a lot of it is trading where to get kosher ingredients or someone experienced an antisemitic attack and it happens to be the cousin or the brother of one of the people you interact with regularly on Twitter. And that’s much more the space that I hang out in online.

I certainly post the articles I write and you know, the events that I’m speaking in, but I’m much more interested in engaging with the people I’m in community with and writing for and everyone being very afraid of what’s gonna happen with Twitter as Elon Musk takes over. 

Some of the concern is antisemitism. I think a lot of concern is also that that community is in jeopardy that, that space, that gathering space. and you know, it’s, it’s kind of fascinating. We saw in the last Pew study that a full 42% of American Jews actually read Jewish newspapers. And that seems very high until you realize that people actually are craving these spaces for community and social media and even traditional synagogue memberships just, just aren’t doing it for a lot of people.

I certainly understand the negative effects that social media has had on discourse, especially when bad actors get involved and on, you know, children’s ability to focus and concentrate. But it’s a tool like anything else. And I think it has been instrumental, particularly among marginalized communities, in really building community and, and drawing out disparate views to the surface.

Ari: Yeah. I mean, I, I think, I think that’s right. I think I can just say again personally, I mean, one thing that we’ve been trying to do is sort of, in this two-step tango where you both have to identify your community, learn who they are, learn what they want, especially if they’re not a given community. And for all of its issues, the Jewish community is essentially an existent community. 

And on the other hand, kind of guide that community or sort of lay out the principles, lay out a sort of vision for what the community we want to have as our readers, right? So there’s a kind of push and a pull. In some sense we think people will come to us because of sort of maybe dissatisfaction or searching. On the other hand, you know, we want to sort of figure out, what are the subjects, where the perspectives, what are the stances, that not only show that community itself, but also build and galvanize it.

So, and I think I might have a little bit of a different perspective on this than Laura just because of, of where I am is, when I was at that ZOA dinner, you know, of course I recognized 25 people. It’s my community in one sense, but I was not covering it as in that community.

And I think that when I think about what is the community of my paper, I think, well, I’d like it to be all of New York, or I’d like it to be millions of people. So I think the sense of scale is also kind of important. And maybe in some sense I may an envious of Laura’s kind of, of the tangibility of Laura’s sense of community, the thickness of that being in the community and writing about it and through it and with it.

I feel my position to be a much, just at one sort of degree of, of removed. And partially that’s because a lot of what I write about is just American politics and the Supreme Court, and so I have to think about, well, what does that mean? Right? Who is my community if I’m thinking about the American scene more broadly or I’m thinking about American culture or American politics.

Yehuda: Have either of you, I’m curious if either of you feel comfortable speaking about this, experienced social or communal consequences for either being identified with publications that took stances that people consider to be problematic or unpopular or because of something that you, yourself wrote about or tweeted.

Because I hear the thrust of what you’re both talking about, which is the community of people who are in ideas and reporting, its juxtaposition to the actual Jewish community, why that can helpful and productive. And the very nature of tight-knit community means it’s also, it’s like dangerous, right? Cause if say the wrong thing, position the wrong thing, belong to the wrong publications, you endure some consequences. And I certainly have stories to that effect. Laura, go ahead.

Laura: No, I mean, I think one has to develop a very thick skin to be a journalist. So I think there’s two categories of what we’re talking about, right? There’s, there’s cancel culture and people facing very real financial and professional consequences for behavior, rightly or wrongly.

And then there’s boundary keeping within the Jewish community, which to some degree is affected by your willingness to suffer the consequences. And some communities are, are more tightly policed than others. The pushback that I’ve gotten most recently that’s coming to mind actually was the opposite.

It was, you know, as a journalist, even as an opinion journalist, balancing your personal associations with your professional coverage is difficult. It’s all the more so difficult when you’re covering your own community. And, um, a dear friend had been fired from his synagogue very publicly. And, you know, first thing in the morning I dashed off a very strongly worded tweet condemning, you know, those who sacrifice community on the altars of their own egos. 

And my publication did not appreciate that that made it a little bit difficult for my colleagues to cover the story without being perceived as biased. But I think this gets back to actually a fundamental question that, that Ari alluded to earlier, which is, a conversation everyone is having within journalism is like, truth and fairness does not mean removing your own understanding of an issue and navigating how to cover something fairly, especially when it’s affecting your own life, is something that you butt up against, I think a lot more in, in Jewish media than perhaps in other conversations or when covering aspects of the Jewish community. 

But I mean, I personally 

Yehuda: Wait, say another sentence. Why? Why does it come up more in the Jewish community?

Laura: I mean, I think there are, there are material threats to Jewish lives that have not existed in the way that they’ve existed, and we’re still trying to understand them in real-time. I have been looking at the data for years very closely. I still couldn’t tell you precisely who and who they’re inspired by, who is beating up Jews in the streets of New York.

But it happens very often and it happens more frequently, every month it seems. Um, I can tell you that antisemitism online has also dramatically increased. And I speak to people who research that in a very scientific and professional way. That affects me materially, that affects my safety. And it’s hard to cover things when you’re affected by it.

I mean, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in the 1930s had people on the ground, Jewish journalists in Nazi-controlled territory reporting on what was happening. And lehavdil, like that is not the situation that we are in right now. But I mean, I, I read some of our archival coverage and, you know, Ab Cahan, one of our early writers, the way he thundered against Hitler’s rise, there was nothing impartial about the way he covered that.

And he was speaking truth and he was speaking fairly. And I just think American Jews sit in this really unique position that we are in some ways a part of, and is seen as a part of white America and comfortable middle class America, and in some ways are experiencing difficulties that other minority communities face.

So having the privilege to cover things from a journalistic perspective and not day to day be necessarily physically affected by them is a privilege. But then there is also the reality that, that you’re a part of, of a targeted minority. I, I am sure that other minority communities and journalists in those communities could articulate similar challenges.

Yehuda: Right. So because there are threats against Jews, there are material concerns for Jews, the stakes of using a journalistic platform to either advocate for Jews or to engage in self-criticism, right? Has different stakes around the question of loyalty, accountability to the community, enabling a community to be strong and resisting this.

And you see it right now, like in this climate around, commentary about antisemitic incidents that are not violent antisemitic incidents is probably where the rubber meets the road, right? So commentary about Chappelle, Dave Chappelle’s Saturday Night Live monologue is not the same as commentary about a shooting in a synagogue.

But it is about a set of ideas that are assumed to be part of the toxicities in atmosphere that contribute to Jewish vulnerability. And I feel it too. If I write something about it, you’re playing with fire, even if what you think you’re doing is useful thought leadership in helping people to respond or account to something that they’re, they’re still sorting out.

Laura: Right. And I mean, I, I think about this a lot when I write about antisemitism from a data perspective. I’ve written very strong critiques of the way that some Jewish organizations manipulate intentionally or unintentionally data on antisemitic incidents in a way that is misleading and sometimes overstates the threat to Jews.

I’m very cognizant as I’m writing those pieces that they can be misused by people who hate Jews. I’m, it’s something that I think about every time. I mean, every time you write something critical of Israel or critical of the way that Jewish institutions are operating, it’s not, it’s not a perception question as much as a, am I fueling people who want to harm me by telling the truth about something? That’s a very complicated question.

Yehuda: Yeah, and I would add to that there’s also trolls and therefore giving trolls more fodder. It’s not necessarily endanger people and there’s a lot of opportunists out there who are, have been banging on one particular issue and searching for data to serve that objective. And Twitter gives you the platforms to do it.

And I’ve heard multiple occasions in the last six months where somebody either had like a story that happened to them that was really bad and they knew if they pitched it to this journalist they could get a lot of people angry about it. And it wouldn’t necessarily help them. Or they had like a statistic they were like, oh, if I shared this, then this, you know, radio host or podcast host would drill into it and exploit it, but like that actually would set the agenda backwards. 

So there winds up being like a weird curation of even information and news because we fear where it might get played out somewhere else. Ari, well, I guess what I’m getting to is like, there’s a weird way in which the real business of journalism, whether it’s opinion, whether it’s news or investigation that we haven’t talked about, is paradoxically both like indispensable to the thriving of a community, especially within the framework of democracy, and also like viewed as a threat, right? Right. The existence of these dis discourses is viewed as a threat.

Ari: I mean, one thing just to build off what Laura said, I mean, I, I think part of it also when, when you think about stories, um, that erupt into the, the consciousness or the, the ecosystem and, you know, part of what I think about, um, in sort of helping to envision our coverage is, well, do I have something new to say about it, right?

I mean, so for example, the Kyrie Irving story, which went on for over a week. I, I sort of was following it. I, and I just said, you know what? I don’t really have anything to say on this that’s not already there. It just doesn’t feel kind of, that if you crack it open, you’ll find something enlightening and interesting.

And so that’s not an argument for, for silence, but it is an argument to say that like, the notion of picking one’s battles and sort of like telling the most compelling stories, right? And sort of intervening at points and at moments that feel like they really matter, and given that these stories are going to have their own kind of life cycle, not only on Twitter, but on Instagram, right, on other social media platforms as well. So what is the role of the journalist given that kind of churn, right? To kind of intervene and frame or provide insight or, or steer the conversation in a way that’s provocative and interesting and true and with integrity.

So that’s just an, a confession that I felt like I should have written something about that and I just, every time I sat down, it’s just not, I just didn’t have something to say. Right, so I think

Yehuda: I’m just, I’m just putting a pin in this and then I’ll let you get to the second half of that, which, I like the admission of I should write about this, but I don’t want to, I should write about this, but I can’t because it also gets at one of the things that I find most toxic in the Jewish “idea-a-sphere,” which is “why is nobody talking about this?” Which is people say that and it is like the most easily falsifiable claim, right? 

Why are, um the latest one that got me really irritated is why are American Jewish groups silent about the rise of Ben Gvir? I was like, you’re kind of subtweeting one or two individual organizations that you don’t like, but there’s a lot of organiz, so it’s like, why or why has this particular concern not entered into my four amot of the things that I’m thinking about, which is not the same as, are people talking about it? So, sorry for interrupting.

Ari: No, no, no, entirely. Iin terms of, you know, journalists as, as, as threats or as as indispensable, I mean, I think, you know, every, everywhere needs, needs storytellers. And you know, I think, the Jewish world these days is in a lot of sense, you know, thick with Jewish professionals. It’s, it’s thick with philanthropists. It’s thick with sort of programs, but I think it’s thin in storytelling and narrative making. That’s what I think. And I, I think America generally is impoverished that way. 

So for me, that’s how I think about it is sort of what is, what is the story of, of this idea? What is the story of this community? What is the story of this person? Again, to Laura’s point said, with my particular vantage point and my particular idiom and beliefs. But I think we’re thirsty for that. And so, so that’s where I think the, the imperative at this moment is, and that’s why, you know, when, when I think about sort of being at odds with, with a community, um, and of course I felt that as well.

One, you know, I think one has to really think who is my community? And you know, it doesn’t mean that you write just for your narrow chevra. It doesn’t. But I do think it probably means that you admit that the person who believes opposite from you is not gonna be convinced or not gonna be persuaded, right?

And, and at a certain point, life is just too short, right? And the people who you do speak for need you to urgently. And so I think speaking to the people, not who already agree with you necessarily, but who are already in conversation, I know obviously this is something you at Hartman think about all the time, you know, is, is sort of where I’ve landed or where I’ve up on that question.

But, you know, on the, on the kind of sense of being in and out of the community. I mean, you know, so for example, on the Trump question, and you know, someone can look at that and say, okay, who in the Jewish community is pro, who’s anti, but if you take one step up, it’s, what is the story here of this community and this, you know, incredibly polarizing figure and, and you’re already seeing the ground start to shift in ways large and small and talk about literal community.

I’m home for shul in Great Neck for Shabbos and, you know, no, no secret that that world is, is at the vanguard of the pro-Trump, you know, sort of Ortho, Modern Orthodox world. And I’m, I already in private conversations at Kiddish, already starting to see a shift. So it’s like, it’s so dynamic, it’s so volatile that I think like telling that story and framing it, that’s where I think like I come in and it doesn’t have to it doesn’t mean I’m alienated from my community, but it means I’m a storyteller.

Yehuda: Yeah, I like that a lot. And I, it does feel personal to some of the work that we try to do. I sometimes feel at the core as a think tank, we are trying to, whether it’s storytelling or maybe it’s how do we help people understand the context of Jewish history in which they’re living, right? 

And that’s a hard piece of work. It requires some extraction, being outside of something, which is sometimes a luxury that we of kind of work, we can do. That’s not the same as I need to get stuff to populate an opinion section every single day of a publication. So you’ve been generous with your time. I’ve really love this conversation because it feels like artisans exploring their own craft, and I, I generally love that. 

I’ll ask you one last kind of lightning round question, which is we, we touched a little bit on money throughout this. Um, the way obviously money, subscriptions, advertisement, a diminishing base of dollars, philanthropy, the, by far, the biggest driver of, um, of this work, um, the way that that material affects this materially affects this world.

So I’ll ask you this question. If you could kind of use a magic wand to change the way Jewish philanthropy was operating in the Jewish media climate. It could just be more money, I guess, but that’s kind of easy. If you could do some, one intervention in that space. And then second lightning roundy question is, we’ve talked about what you do, what’s one thing you would want readers to do more of when it comes to the stuff that you write or the stuff that you put out?

Ari: Laura, go ahead.

Laura: Nice, easy question. I, I’m gonna go with two interventions that I would make. There’s a real independence problem in most Jewish newspapers outside of, you know, the big nonprofit ones. And with that comes a dearth of investigative reporting that is sorely needed for institutional accountability. So I, I would fund that much more heavily.

Um, and I also think that people are very hungry for community and we need just more live event engagement with our community and our readers, and that also requires money. Um, but, you know, I actually don’t have any asks of readers because I see my job as serving our readers and my ask of my fellow Jewish journalists is to always approach the world with curiosity and the readers will respond. 

Yehuda: Hm. Thanks. Ari?

Ari: I mean I think, you know, and I know it’s easy to say, but I, I think I would, when I ask of, of philanthropy and, we’re sort of in a little bit of a different model because we’re sort of subscription based. And so there’s a, and, and that of course has strengths and weaknesses to it. Um, but I’ve, I’ve also spent plenty of time in a world where it’s giving that makes the ideas possible.

Um, and the, the first would just be to kind of be like a little bolder and riskier with what they fund. You know, I think there’s a certain sense of doing the same old thing. And I think a lot of those certainties are now wobbling and giving away, and we could have a whole conversation, I’m sure you’ve had other conversations on this podcast about the changing Jewish institutional landscape and changes in, in Jewish philanthropy.

But it almost feels like this is a time of, of such, uh, volatility. Like why not make a few sort of weird and strange bets, you know, um, yeah, I don’t know. Just sort of like, why bet on the safe thing? Why not sort of look around and see who’s, who’s doing really interesting work, even if you disagree with it and support it? That would seem to me to be what would be exciting about being responsible for the landscape. 

I was thinking about this, I just read this book by Gal Beckerman, who was at the Times for a long time, is at the Atlantic now, I think it’s called The Quiet Before, and he looks at revolutionary moments or movements and what, what was the incubation period right before they kind of burst? And he’s looking at political movements, but also intellectual scientific.

He identifies it as, you need a small cadre of people, sort of well connected, well integrated, and sort of a little bit of sense of being off the grid for a while, working out their ideas. And so I think it’s like sort it’s hard. I mean, prophecy is always hard, but sort of just seeing kind of like, who are the people, who are the groups doing kind of interesting work and betting a little ahead instead of sort of on the status quo.

Um, I, I’m a little bit torn on Laura’s point about experience or I, I couldn’t agree more about live events. I love live events, um, but sometimes I think the Jewish philanthropic world invests too much in like experiences and not enough in ideas. And I don’t know how to square those two things or how to triangulate them with my love of live events.

So I would love kind of live events that are ideas-driven, if that makes sense. Or kind of a vibrant intellectual culture that I think would involve lots and lots of in person events. But I worry a little bit, we do too much like Shabbat dinners and not enough sort of like funding of like great essays or something. I don’t know how I would, how I would do it basically.

Yehuda: I love it. I mean, you heard it here first folks, invest in basically elitism and big ideas. Although I will say, Laura, to your point, one of the projects that I’ve played with is to try to figure out how to drive serious philanthropy towards what you described as essentially a Jewish ProPublica, a serious Jewish investigative reporting arm that wasn’t tied to a particular publication, kind of like a wire service. It would be a transformative effort. 

But thank you both, uh, Laura E. Adkins and Ari Hoffman for being on, uh, Identity Crisis today. Um, and for this really rich conversation about this complicated field in which you’re both leaders and which implicates all of us. And thanks to the rest of you for listening to our show.

Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman and was edited by Gareth Hobbs and Corey Choy at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M Louis Gordon. The show is produced with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz, with music provided by so-called. 

Transcripts of our show are now available on our website, typically a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, visit us online shalomhartman.org. We’re always looking for ideas of what we should cover in future episodes. If you have a topic you wanna hear about or comments about this, please write to us at [email protected] 

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