Zachary Braiterman takes on the Tikvah Fund, Jewish Review of Books, and Jewish Ideas Daily

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.

9 responses to “Zachary Braiterman takes on the Tikvah Fund, Jewish Review of Books, and Jewish Ideas Daily

  1. He accurately pegs JROB of aspiring towards Commentary at its 1965 heyday. He neglects to include an important corollary: All Jewish scholarship since 1965 has no place in the journal. Most notably, that includes Neusner’s discovery that things they say in the Talmud ain’t necessarily so, as well as the post-Hertz acceptance of the Documentary Hypothesis. The result is a journal incapable of reviewing the university press volumes that advertise in its pages.

  2. Come on. Braiterman needs a lot more than that to substantiate an accusation like that. Otherwise I could do the same thing back – Braiterman is a (if I remember correctly) secular Jew specializing in liberal Jewish thought, and wants to undermine anything put out by the Tikvah Fund by painting it with the brush of evil right-wingedness. Any suggestion that he is merely interested in the effect the Tikvah Fund has on academic freedom is merely a front for his pugnacious secularism and creates a neutral space for his anti-religious ideas that would not receive the same positive attention otherwise.

  3. There’s so much to investigate and discuss with Tikvah’s influence. Instead, Braiterman goes ahead and “proves” that the Jewish Review of Book’s politics are right-leaning. And therefore? And Zeek’s are left leaning. And therefore? I view that as a wasted opportunity . Also, I challenge anyone to read the review and substitute the word “liberal” for “conservative” – for those readers who don’t view “conservative” as a bad word, it’s unclear what the problem is. Finally, his mental acrobatics for defending Posen are more than a stretch – especially when he admits to receiving funding from them.
    Finally, he hopelessly confuses “Neo-con” and “Orthodox Jewish” and much much more in his misguided “numerical” analysis of JRB.

  4. Taking the first review – I often wonder whether certain neo-conservatives use of the Noble Lie/Useful fiction doesn’t undermine their project in the long term.

  5. This article has two parts that make different points. One is about the activities of the Tikvah fund in connection with academic Jewish Studies. This seems to me to be the more problematic issue. Yet, it seems that with a somewhat more open declaration of its agenda the problems would be mitigated to a large extent. The second issue, that the JRB has an agenda, seems like something of a non-issue. If you are reading it on a semi-regular basis then you could probably figure that out without too much difficulty, and as far as I know few magazines or journals put the words “liberal,or “conservative” in their masthead. Now, whatever the ultimate goal of Tikvah is vis a vis JRB, can we all agree that giving money to people to write articles with little mass appeal will have little effect on much of anything? Further, Braiterman really pushes an idea of ideological guilt by association: Take for instance his remarks on a review by Shaul Maggid:

    “Appearing in a Review whose animus against liberalism and Jewish Renewal is across the board, even the most cautious embrace of a religious tradition or the mildest criticism of new forms of Jewish expression take a conservative slant the reviewer never intended.”

    This seems to me more attempt at at a subtle rebuke of the author for deigning to be published in JRB. The idea that the review takes a slant not intended by the author is ludicrous unless it was subtly edited by the magazine.

    One last point: “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.” Whether this is true or not, look at it from a right wing Israeli academic’s perspective: conservative ideas about Jewish religion and culture are used to insinuate left of center political opinion related to Israel.

    Instead it seems to me that this simply is the hybrid position of places funded by Tikvah like the Shalem Center: attempts at reconstituting traditional aspects of Jewish religion and culture with (at least by Israeli standards) left of center political thought.

    In any case, as someone who is both younger and part of a younger branch of academia that has attained degree of political importance I tend to see this kind of ideological background as part of the academic landscape that one learns to navigate. In my field the perceived liberal tilt of the academic mainstream is now countered by a concerted effort to fund conservative think tanks and publications. And that fact is not apparent by merely visiting their websites. Perhaps it has been naive thus far of those in Jewish studies to deny that the field, by its very subject matter is , at its core, intensely political.

  6. Methinks the lady doth protest too much. Isn’t he implying that absent the Tikva Fund, there might be similar opposite sources at play that may have denied people the freedom to express more conservative views in academia? Aren’t the Liberal rabbinical schools and related institutions almost reflexively liberal? So what would the world look like without Tikva (or rather, what did it look like before Tikva)?

  7. The cynicism that AS trots out with his quip about “navigating” the ideological rapids of academia strikes me as incompatible with many of the self described goals of many academic fields. It does not seem clear to me how american notions of Liberalism or Conservatism would map onto, lets say, Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, Leone Modena, Paul Celan. Or what it would tell us about Phenomenology for that matter. It seems like the dichotomies of our politics are a lot less fertile than the same fissures in (for example) German politics in the 18th-20th Centuries, which gave us everyone from Bruno Bauer and Arnold Gehlen to Adorno. For some reason, the fights between Habermas and Schmitt seem more relevant even to understanding Zohar than whatever the American equivalent would be. So yeah, its all political. And all politics are not created equal.

    • I don’t disagree, but I didn’t think I was being cynical. As a student of academic Jewish studies one proceeds at one’s peril without any sense of the various aims that were present from the beginnings of Wissenschaft and the continuing tensions within academic Jewish studies and its place in Jewish secularism.

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