Professor Zachary Braiterman of Syracuse University, a specialist in modern Jewish thought, takes on the conglomerate of publications coming out from the Tikvah fund. The current version is over 6000 words, over 12 pages. Below are some excerpts, the full version is available at ZEEK – here. Any thoughts?
For some time now, a professional colleague has shared with me his profound misgivings about the presence at his home university of the Tikvah Fund, a right-wing philanthropy that in recent years has invested considerable resources funding academic Jewish Studies programming as well as more popular platforms geared to a broader reading public. The original impetus for writing these critical remarks were occasioned by my deep dismay upon reading the Tikvah-funded Jewish Review of Books (JRB). Of particular concern was a raft of unfairly tendentious reviews of books and ideas relating to liberal, progressive, post-denominational, and secular Judaism. (A survey of such reviews appears below.) Really, I should not have been surprised; everyone knows that the Tikvah Fund is pugnaciously neoconservative. Indeed, anyone interested in connecting the dots between corporate capital, rightwing ideology, and current drifts in academic and popular Jewish thought and culture would do well by starting with the Tikvah Fund.
The problem is how it is rewriting the rules and compact between donors, universities, scholars, and students. An ideological organization with deep pockets that makes use of academic institutions and faculty while masking its own ideological agenda, the Tikvah Fund shows a lack of clear commitment to the values of openness and transparency. In doing so, the Tikvah Fund co-opts scholars and scholarship. This chips away at the independence upon which academic life depends and upon which the very integrity of Jewish Studies relies as a bonafide academic discipline.
In contrast, the stated mission at the Tikvah Fund to advance “serious Jewish thought” is meant to sound more open-ended and non-partisan than the political vision actually animating the organization; the neoconservative vision articulated by Roger Hertog goes unmentioned in the information provided to the general public or unmentioned by scholars who may or may not share that vision. The consistent pattern across the full range of platforms funded by the Tikvah Fund reveals a misleading mix of conservative ideological content with non-partisan scholarship or general-interest material. It is my contention that non-partisan and apolitical scholarship and even moderate left of center political opinion (usually related to Israel) are used as cover to insinuate conservative ideas about Jewish religion and culture into a more liberal American Jewish milieu. Platforms that follow a strategy of esoteric programming create a space for promoting conservative ideas about religion and culture far more effectively than would be possible in the type of purely rightwing venues from which many if not most of its intended target-audience would otherwise shy.
The Tikvah Fund acts as an interloper by setting up closed shops inside the university under the guise of misleading mission statements. Surely, any set of principles and practices should be subject to the free exchange of ideas and open argument. The intertwining of money, ideological content, and university life is one that needs to be examined much more forthrightly by all of us who seek to negotiate the creative lines between public political life and the critical and self-critical exploration of ideas inside and outside the university.
In this light, I would propose to my academic colleagues that they consider that, at the very least, their participation in academic programming and other related platforms sponsored by the Tikvah Fund supports an organization in which Jewish ideas are intended to leverage conservative theories regarding the nature of law and the role of religion in politics. It is hard to believe that the organizers and officers of the Tikvah Fund would invest such large sums of money and the extraordinary time and effort without a subtle cost-benefit analysis and an eye to long-term profit. Scholars should understand that their very participation on Tikvah-Funded platforms contributes to an arguably anti-democratic milieu, one that Roger Hertog has called a “high-order community” whose proprietary interest is to educate “new generations of Tikvah scholars.”
No. 1 (Spring 2010)
• The reviewer of the new orthodox prayer book, the Koren Siddur argues for the superiority of the Koren Siddur over Mishkan Tefilah, the new Reform siddur, and the Conservative Sim Shalom. Although the reviewer reveals that he himself is not an observant Jew, there is a nostalgia here for a form of prayer that “cuts to the quick like a knife,” a form of prayer that is in part the product of the reviewer’s own poetic fancy.
• The reviewer of two books on Herzl casts doubts on the integrity of Herzl’s Jewish identity. While recognizing the place of Jewish secular culture in the novel Old-New Land, the reviewer insists that it is nothing more than Judaism-lite. Blamed for post Zionism and even the brain-drain to Silicon Valley, Herzl’s legacy is described in terms of “subversion,” planting “seeds,” and “self-destruction.” These very words will resurface in the same reviewer’s review of David Biale’s book on Jewish secularism in a later issue of the JRB.
• A Reform rabbi is enlisted to review Dana Kaplan’s book on American Judaism. He claims that, with the exception of Orthodox Judaism and a few non-mainstream communities, American Judaism is in precipitous demographic decline. The problem is pinned on secularism. The reviewer complains that Kaplan is disproportionately interested in Renewal, pop-mysticism, and post-denominationalism, which the reviewer finds to be of only marginal importance. Parenthetically, the reviewer adds that David Biale, as a secularist, would view the decline of Jewish religion with some equanimity, but then fails to understand why Biale is in fact concerned about the decline of institutional Judaism. The reviewer also does not care for Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s afterword to Kaplan’s book, claiming that Schachter-Shalomi soft-pedals his theological radicalism, which is a comment that any reader of Schachter-Shalomi would find strange.
I have seen nothing in the JRB to contest the picture presented here. Each individual review has been paid for by the Tikvah Fund, and presumably serves its interests directly or indirectly. Now, one could argue with the points made in any single one of these reviews, fair-mindedly and on the merits. But once gathered into an aggregate under the auspices of an ideological organization, each single contribution, no matter the intention of the reviewer or even against the express intention of the reviewer, has been marshaled into a polemical bloc whose agenda is clear to see. Greater than the sum of its parts, the intellectual foundations of this agenda have been rendered so unfalsifiably secure that they can only be rejected as a whole from without, not contested from within. Early claims that the Jewish Review of Books was not going to slant rightward, that it would “range broadly from the center left to the center right” do not hold up to critical scrutiny. As per the comments cited above by Roger Hertog, this was never going to be allowed to happen.