Conservative Money and Jewish Studies: Investigating the Tikvah Fund
by Zachary Braiterman
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 varied platforms sponsored by the Tikvah Fund reflect a veritable micro-cosmos. They include autonomous scholarly institutes (hosted at Princeton, NYU Law School, the University of Toronto, and JTS), faculty fellowship sponsorships, named lectureships, faculty working groups, summer seminars and programs for graduate students, undergraduates, high-school students, as well as rabbis. In addition to the JRB, the Tikvah Fund is behind two academic journals (Hebraic Political Studies and The University of Toronto Journal of Jewish Thought), and Jewish Ideas Daily (an online magazine primarily of articles containing general interest stories and right-wing Israeli politics). In Israel, the Tikvah Fund is the primary financial backing for the Shalem Center, a right-wing think tank in Israel which itself is the sponsor of the neo-con Jewish journal Azure. Completing the picture is Nextbook, an organization which runs a press and the online journal Tablet, and which is funded by a member of the Tikvah Board of Directors.
As a liberally-minded professor of Jewish Studies and modern Jewish thought, what interests me the most about the Tivkah Fund concerns academic politics. I understand and accept the fact that the university increasingly figures as a crucial resource for creativity and continuity in the American Jewish community. It is perhaps only natural that, with each passing year, we see the university more and more at the center of disputes regarding Jewish identity, politics, and culture – as we are seeing most recently at the recently closed Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism, which critics had faulted for failing to separate scholarship from rightwing activism. It is my view that the rigorous promotion of ideological content at institutes and in journals devoted to culture, politics and the public interest is an important component of democratic, intellectual culture. University professors and other accredited scholars provide invaluable contributions to this kind of work.
But the Tikvah Fund is different. It looks to the promise of “big ideas” to stamp Jewish tradition and the American Jewish community according to a distinct set of conservative ideological leanings, and it does so by establishing roots inside and outside the university. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that. 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.
No one can doubt that growth in the field of academic Jewish Studies depends upon the generosity of philanthropic backers. But what is the impact of outside donors and donor groups upon university research and upon the ideal of value-free scholarship and transparent inquiry? Professors of Judaic Studies have multiple, overlapping allegiances. We must constantly negotiate commitment to the university and its professional standards alongside the ideological and political convictions to which we and our donors are at the same time beholden. The lines we seek to maintain lines between scholarship, ideology, and money are crossed every day. It matters how we do so.
Indeed, in writing about the Tikvah Fund, I am inevitably caught between the structural and the personal. On the one hand, the question of university funding is beyond my ken. On the other hand, I do not want to question the right of university colleagues and friends to gather under this or any other ideological umbrella, or to make a little extra money on the side (I have done so myself at the more liberal Posen Foundation). About the intentions of individual colleagues and friends, I will therefore say nothing below. What I know about the Tikvah Fund I learned from discussions with colleagues and friends, reading the Jewish Review of Books, surfing websites. The final impetus for deciding to publish these critical remarks came from statements found online by Roger Hertog, Chairman of the Board for the Tikvah Fund. To me, his thoughts about the university and Jewish Studies are beyond the academic pale.
1. The Tikvah Fund: Jewish Studies and Political Leverage
In the world of Jewish philanthropy, the Tikvah Fund is unique in several respects: (1) its deep neoconservative profile (2) its generous assets estimated at $162,924,801, (3) its serious commitment to Jewish thought and philosophy, (4) the sheer variety and incredible ubiquity of the scholarly and popular platforms it finances, (5) the non-transparence in public mission statements and operating strategies, (6) the cynical use of universities that host its institutional life, and (7) the amount of control it seeks to exercise over a narrow and limiting range of intellectual and ideological content.
The corporate and neoconservative standards at the Tikvah Fund are blue-chip. The Fund itself was established by Zalman C. Bernstein, founder of the investment company Sanford C. Bernstein and Company. It is currently run by Chairman of the Board Roger Hertog, who is a director and vice chairman of the board of Alliance Capital Management Corporation, and serves on the board of the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute, the ultra-conservative Manhattan Institute, and the Hudson Institute. Other board members include Jay Lefkowitz, who served in the administration of George W. Bush, and that famous neo-con, the redoubtable William Kristol. On staff, Executive Director Eric Cohen is a bioethicist many of whose articles about science, human nature, and technology are cached online at First Things, a journal of politically-minded conservative Christian opinion. Cohen is the official publisher of the Jewish Review of Books and sits on the Director’s Council of the Tikvah Project on Jewish Thought at Princeton University. Senior Director Neal Kozodoy is the veteran editor who recently left Commentary magazine after a long tenure there.
At the surface, the official mission of the Tikvah Fund is innocuous: “to promote serious Jewish thought about the enduring questions of human life and the pressing challenges that confront the Jewish people.” Far less coy are the thoughts expressed by Roger Hertog in a 2010 speech, where he recommended, “Unless we populate the humanities with an alternative to the ascendant ideology, conservative ideas about limited government, rule of law, individual liberty and the role of religion will over time lose out.” (Read the full speech here.) As for journals and reviews, Hertog went on to observe that “If educational programs are the essential long-term investment, think tanks, small magazines, books and other free-standing institutions are the best middle-term investment, especially if the aim is to develop and disseminate ideas.”
The goal of the Tikvah Fund is leverage. In a roundtable talk at a panel discussion on the “The Problem of Doing Good: Irving Kristol’s Philanthropy,” Hertog explained how “[W]e look for potential leverage. We look for leverage in almost everything that we do. I don’t mean ‘debt’ in financial terms, but the ability to influence the most important people and places, be they readers of the best books and magazines or the very best students in the very best academic programs.” This is why the Tikvah Fund focuses on universities. As Eric Cohen observes, the university “is the only institution that every American Jew passes through. It isn’t the [Jewish] day schools. It isn’t the synagogue.”
The general strategy is called “cream-skimming,” a term that Hertog learned from Kristol. “What it meant to us was trying to attract the very largest customers whose retention would require the least amount of overhead per capita and thereby yield the highest profit margins.” Referring specifically to the Tikvah Center for Jewish Thought at Princeton, Hertog explained how cream-skimming in philanthropy “might mean something like starting a summer school at a university where they have already paid for the physical plant, the professors, and the costly process of attracting the very best students.”
How the Tikvah Fund implements this strategy is strikingly different from the academic norm. Usually in the field of Jewish Studies, donors are secured to fund or support individual programs, programming, or positions such as named professorships or lectureships. These are intended as permanent institutions, whose scholarly autonomy is then jealously guarded by the host institution and by the faculty in the relevant departments.
In contrast, the much broader network of academic programs, quasi-academic institutes, and popular platforms financed by the Tikvah Fund subsist outside any purview beyond that offered by its own self-selected academic directors and staff. Thus the intellectual life of Jewish Studies in the university begins to lose its independence vis-à-vis a superintending ideological interest financed by a wealthy donor organization. Universities and their academic units pay for and provide the facilities, faculty, and students, while the Tikvah Fund and its directors are allowed to establish autonomous institutes within the university in which scholarly content is controlled and leveraged politically, explicitly or implicitly.
The end result is that university professors are invited and paid, often quite well, to participate in a type of intellectual community that is actually intended to exploit and then leapfrog over the host-university. While the host-affiliations with Princeton, NYU, JTS, and Toronto would headline a scholarly mission, they are but the hosts of what is actually a larger, trans-institutional mechanism designed for conservative cultural change. According to Roger Hertog, “[U]niversities are only one piece of the puzzle. There are also opportunities to fund, or even originate, summer programs – not necessarily university-based – where the best students can be brought together with the best faculty. The advantage here is that you, the donor, can play a role in choosing the students and the faculty and influencing curriculum [sic].”
Occupying an ambiguous place in the university system, the “serious Jewish thought” sponsored by the Tikvah Fund is only meant to enjoy a limited shelf-life. As Roger Hertog makes clear, “our gifts tend to have a three-, five-, or maybe a seven-year time horizon” or in the case of the Tikvah Fund, perhaps a twenty year lifeline.” This is why the Tikvah Fund will not establish chaired professorships subject to faculty oversight. Hertog explains that, “The long term goal… is to go out of business.” In this strategic thinking, the problem with creating of permanent academic institutions is that “over time, they can lead to a runaway board, a runaway set of purposes that tends to stray from donor intent and, forgetting even donor intent, from the underlying conception of the way the world works.” As perceived at the Tikvah Fund, the danger of permanent institutions and open-ended inquiry is that “[t]hings can go farther in a different direction than any of us would have ever thought.”
2. How the Tikvah Fund Differs from Other Funders
While these thoughts expressed by Roger Hertog are inimical to the values of modern academic scholarship, there is no reason not to believe that most of the actual programming sponsored by the Tikvah Fund (in the form of fellowships, lectures, university courses, summer seminars and working groups) is anything but excellent. It is not my contention that discussions held at summer sessions and faculty workshops at Princeton are not free and open as to content and conduct. Nor do I think that every academic who contributes as an individual to platforms sponsored by the Tikvah Fund works under a direct neoconservative interest. Even were that to be the case, it would anyone’s right to do so. Certainly, it would seem that the formal frame for the expression of Jewish thought and culture has been narrowed to a conservative spectrum of rubrics, texts, and questions, dominated by scholars who either track to the right, culturally, or who accept the more general form of discourse presented at Tikvah. However, a comparison with other funders – I shall focus on the Posen Foundation here – reveals that the Tikvah Fund is, indeed, different.
As for the left-leaning Posen Foundation, the claim is often heard that its financial backer, academic directors, and scholarly programming are no less political. The effect of an argument like this is to establish a moral equivalence between two types of ideological donor organizations in order to justify, apologetically, the Tikvah Fund or participation on the part of scholars who may not share its ideological orientation. There is something to complaints about the Posen Foundation. One can easily point to the monotony of focus at the Posen Foundation on “secularism” as an organizing rubric with which a rich history of cultural and religious expression is pressed into a neat conceptual package. Nevertheless, there are at least five important differences between the Posen Foundation and the Tikvah Fund.
The first problem unique to the Tikvah Fund is lack of formal transparency. Because the Posen Foundation is more defined in scope, there is no confusion in its mission statement and program goals. Participants at an event sponsored by the Posen Foundation understand that participation is intended to explore Jewish secularism as a broad social and cultural phenomenon, if not to promote it as a cause. The same would hold for events and programming at most conservative think-tanks such as the Tikvah-sponsored Shalem Center in Israel.
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.
Institutionally, one can point to a second difference between the Tikvah Fund and the Posen Foundation. The Posen Foundation does not set up semi-permanent shop at universities, whose name and reputation its directors then appropriate for promotional purposes. The Posen Foundation may use university facilities and support university faculty and course work, but it does not do so by appropriating the name of its host institution. There is no way for an outsider to know what formal or proprietary relationship exists (or does not exist) between “Tikvah at Princeton University,” or “Tikvah at NYU Law School,” or “Tikvah at the Jewish Theological Seminary,” or “Tikvah at University of Toronto” and the universities that host them. That these academic platforms sponsored by the Tikvah Fund appear on the university websites only adds to the confusion.
Third, as for intellectual content, I would argue that the Posen Foundation is not as self-selecting in choosing students and faculty and shaping curricula as at the Tikvah Fund. At the Tikvah Fund, in contrast, content seems to have been determined according to pre-scribed canonical texts and themes (“messianism,” “love and death,” “hope and redemption,” “sex and family,” “God and politics”). Scholarly platforms sponsored by the Tikvah Fund consistently promote “community,” “leadership,” “law,” “authority,” “excellence,” “canon,” and “normativity” based on the image of “tradition” as a set of “enduring human questions.” Like all theoretical concepts and objects, these tend to bog down as static constructs. Based predominantly on ideas and book culture, the model of tradition lacks the looser conglomeration of formal and informal elements that provide for the more open-ended process of give-and-take that mark the transmission of culture and religion. Images of philosophers or modern editions of their works appear on websites like a fetish; a pile of books or a list of names is meant to impress one with seriousness. Yet in contrast to the scholarly enterprise such philosophers are meant to evoke, philosophically driven, academic programming is insistently focused on political questions and on particular theoretical configurations of the political.
A fourth difference between the Tikvah Fund Posen concerns cultural and religious polemics. It is widely assumed, if not common knowledge, that Felix Posen, who established the Posen Foundation, maintains an intense dislike for religion and traditional Judaism. The Posen Foundation is nevertheless dedicated to an inclusive platform of Jewish secularism that sets religion alongside, not against “languages, literatures, material culture, and creative works.” Reflecting on the diversity of Jewish cultural expression, those of us who have participated in its academic programming can speak to intellectual environments in which religion and traditional Judaism are discussed in an open, non-polemical manner. This stands in marked contrast to the Tikvah Fund. Regarding politics, platforms sponsored by the Tikvah Fund, with the exception of Jewish Ideas Daily, steer a middle path down the right-wing/left-wing divide. With religion and culture, the default setting is orthodox; regarding liberal religion and secular Jewish culture, the judgments are always pejorative.
To this, I would add a fifth important difference. I do not think it is a coincidence that board members and officers at the Tikvah Fund as well as faculty participants at fellowships, events, and working groups sponsored by the Tikvah Fund tend to be overwhelmingly male. Women barely if ever appear on reading lists, and gender does not seem to be on the agenda, as they are at the Posen Foundation. The same goes for critical theory, post-colonialism, postmodernism, psychoanalysis, and queer theory. The Tikvah Fund encourages vigorous debate within a more constricted field. But in seeking to secure for Jewish thought and culture “a place at the table” in the larger world of western ideas, the organizers and academic directors at the Tikvah Fund have designed a very small dinette.
3. Conservative and Anti-Liberal: A Review of the Jewish Review of Books
The claim about overwhelmingly right-wing and exclusively anti-liberal agendas at the Tivkah Fund is easy enough to track in its written platforms. While the proceedings hosted at Princeton, NYU or JTS are originally closed and private (recorded sessions of panels are available online at the website for Princeton’s Tikvah Project on Jewish Thought), the pages of Jewish Ideas Daily or the Jewish Review of Books are presented to the broader public. For present purposes, I am more interested in ideological expression at the latter because the ramifications are more serious for questions relating to university scholarship and politics in Judaic Studies. From the six numbered issues of the Review published to date, I have identified 22 items which show a significant right-wing, anti-secular, anti-liberal and/or anti-progressive slant. Innovative forms of Jewish expression are routinely ridiculed (and never defended), secular Jewishness is seen as self-destructive, and liberal Judaism in general is presented as virtually oxymoronic. These references are:
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.
• A writer commenting on the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom’s ruling against a decision by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, regarding the decision of the state-supported Jewish Free School to reject admission of a boy whose mother converted to Judaism under a Masorti (Conservative) conversion, criticizes the Court for defining Jewishness as an ethnicity, not a religion. Again there is the critique of secularism in the JRB. And the writer refuses to touch upon the internal Jewish interest, e.g. the Chief Rabbi’s decision to discriminate against the non-orthodox Jewish community in an educational institute supported entirely by the state.
No. 2 (Summer 2010)
• The reviewer of American novels relating to terrorism in the United States and London in American snidely concludes that the great anti-American novel has not yet been written.
• The author of a feature essay reminiscences on her meeting the poet Abraham Sutzkever and his impact in 1959 on the feature writer’s future academic career. The style is chatty. Railing against the philistine tide in American and Israeli culture, the feature writer regrets the lack of recognition of Sutzkever and Max Weinreich in the United States and in Israel.
• I am certain that the reviewer of Judith Shulevitz’s book on the Sabbath did not anticipate how sour the tone would sound in the JRB when the reviewer argued against the coherence of liberal Shabbat observance. The reviewer concludes that there can be no coherent form of liberal religious practice without the type of robust, traditionalist command theory rejected by most liberals.
No. 3 (Fall 2010)
• The reviewer of two books, one by Samuel Heilman & Menachem Freidman, and one by Elliot Wolfson, upholds Habad as a pillar of the suburban Jewish landscape. Habad’s “only” failure is the failure to usher in the messianic age. The reviewer (who happens to be the editor of the JRB) is anxious to protect the Rebbe’s posthumous reputation from the possibility posed by Freidman and Heilman that the Rebbe did not conduct himself according to the strictest standards of traditionalist piety during his stay in Berlin prior to the war. The reviewer is no less sympathetic of Wolfson’s postmodernism. While noting Wolfson’s close reading of the primary theological sources, the reviewer does not address the challenge posed by the radical, non-dualistic philosophy that the author takes great pains to identify in Chabad theology. In other words, the review takes no interest in the main point of the book; had it done so it might have resembled the critique of Arthur Green’s theology flagged below.
• The review of Arthur Green’s Radical Judaism was so scathing that the reviewer later had to walk back the more salacious innuendos contained therein. Distilled from a lifetime of learning Kabbalistic and Hasidic texts, the liberal, neo-mystical, post-denominational Judaism of Arthur Green, is apparently not Jewish in any genuine way. The word “blasphemy” appears at an odd moment in the review.
No. 4 (Winter 2011)
• The reviewer of David Biale’s book on secular Judaism rejects any blurring of the line between secularism and religion. Jewish religion is considered to be in better shape to secure the Jewish future than secular Jewishness, which lacks the “substance” of Jewish tradition, being merely “ephemeral.” The reviewer mentions three (!) times the Posen support behind Biale’s larger project.
• A snarky review of Elie Kaunfer’s book on independent minyanim asserts that parents are funding this kind of Judaism, even as the reviewer makes fun of thirty-something investment banker types with lots of disposable income. More to the point, the reviewer has no truck for the non-authoritarianism signaled by the lack of a rabbi or by halakhic ambiguity. An appeal is made to tradition, “first principles,” rabbis, and to recognizing twelve and thirteen year olds as “adults.”
• The reviewer of Jeremy Stolow’s book about Artscroll complains that the author writes about Artscroll’s products as objects and commodities, rather than about content and Jewish tradition. The reviewer is not really interested in the book, apart from its polemical use-function as a foil with which to promote orthodox Judaism.
No. 5 (Spring 2011)
• This issue of the JRB comes close to serving as a special edition on the Arab Spring. Muslim Brothers and Israeli security dominate the essays and reviews. One writer, a prominent Soviet dissident now active in Israeli politics, suggests that the Palestinian problem is not Israel, but their own autocratic leadership, while insisting that the west not kowtow too Muslim Brothers. There is a review of John Calvert’s book on Sayyid Qutb, as well as a very judicious review of Gilbert Achcar’s book on Arabs and Nazis. In sum, the JRB’s Arab Spring is focused on Muslims, Nazis, Jew-hatred, and Israeli security. Despite the obvious quality of many of the reviews, the concentration of pieces and themes suggests something off skew.
• In this issue, the reviewer of the Koren Siddur now writes a feature essay about trying to be a good Jew, wanting and failing to read the weekly Torah portion with commentaries, etc. To know oneself as a sinner in the eyes of the Law means believing that all of the law is God’s. This doesn’t mean that feature writer actually believes this. If only the writer could believe that God had a plan for it, then the writer would believe, like a good orthodox Jew, that God gave a law to humanity.
• I cannot believe the reviewer of an interfaith haggadah meant to be so bitter with the comment about “religiously educated, committed, Passover-experienced, and God directed Jews” not needing to “rely upon the non-Jews with whom they have linked lives … to be ‘the better Jew.’”
• A prominent liberal rabbi, a mainstay in the Conservative movement, writes about the (Orthodox) Chief Rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sacks. This contribution represents as sharp a critique of orthodoxy as one can find in the JRB; the reviewer pleads for pluralism within the Jewish community and the need to confront modernity and the modern study of religion. Yet the reviewer then asserts, without much evidence, that after his retirement as Chief Rabbi that Sacks will rise to the level of a Buber, Rosenzweig, Soloveitchik, Levinas, or Kaplan and offer “the comprehensive and compelling philosophy for which the Jewish world yearns.” The reviewer’s use of the word “compelling” plants the review, no doubt unwittingly, firmly in the universe of “serious” Jewish thought sponsored by the Tivkah Fund, in which a conception of normativity is paramount.
No. 6 (Summer 2011)
• The reviewer of two books about the eighteenth century concludes that Moses Mendelssohn’s philosophical teachings and conception of a non-coercive Judaism is not compelling. Without ever fully examining those teachings or that conception, the reviewer marshals Carl Schmitt, the ultra-conservative German political theorist who sought to curry favor with the Nazis, and Leo Strauss, another German ultra-conservative political theorist. Liberalism is identified by the reviewer with the presumptions of reason, bourgeois subjectivity, and soft comforts. The reviewer wants from his readers that they decide either for tradition or for liberalism. Liberal Judaism would have to be an oxymoron.
• The reviewer of the selected essays by Irving Kristol notes that Kristol actually claimed to be neo-orthodox. Such a claim makes sense only if one assumes that by neo-orthodox Kristol meant a generalized and nostalgic respect for tradition and traditionalism, not the actual observance of mitzvot. In the end, the reviewer argues that Kristol thought that Christianity was more interesting than Judaism, that he did not really know anything about Talmud, and that orthodox Jews need to be more involved in the modern world.
• I do not believe that the reviewer, one of the foremost scholars of Kabbalah and contemporary American Judaism, anticipated how apologetic and sour a note is left when he declares at the end of his review that the purpose of a book presenting the often unseemly, human-all-too-human history of Hasidism was to “salvage Hasidism from the mitnagedic and maskilic slaughter-knives as much as from the neo-Hasidic lava lamp.” 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.
• The reviewer of the aforementioned books on Herzl and David Biale in a new review takes up the cudgel against the anti-Zionism of Jacqueline Rose and the diasporism of Judith Butler, which he calls, among other things, “puerile.” The reviewer also faults David Myers for failing to note in his book on Simon Rawidowicz that his subject was not interested in the renewal of Jewish religion, that his morality lacked “real religious support,” and that the use by humanists such Rawidowicz of the word “God” is not genuine. The reviewer also faults Myers for not being more definitive on the very complex problem regarding Palestinian refugees, as if political definitiveness is constitutive of the historian’s task, or even the politician’s. The problem identified by the reviewer is not just anti-Zionism but of dissenting streams of Zionism and “diluted forms of nationalism” as explored by Myers and Noam Pianko, in a separate book also under review. The reviewer’s overstated characterizations of American Jewry as “assimilation ravaged” and of the prospect of Israel’s enemies wiping it off the map betray the core anxiety of the right-wing thinking at the Tikvah Fund.
• Even non-polemical and general Jewish-interest reviews buttress the ideological agenda advanced at the JRB by serving as a cover for the polemical work and setting the tone of JRB clearly in the past. These include reviews of recent translations of poems by Judah Halevy and of books about Moses Montefiorie, Pauline Wengeroff, S.Ansky’s modernist masterpiece The Dybbuk, and by Wasily Grossman, Leon Uris, Sauk Bellow, Chaim Grade, Herman Wouk, as well as Gershom Scholem and Hannah Arendt. All of these reviews are excellent in quality and interesting as individual pieces, written by reviewers who are incredibly smart and conscientious scholars. But taken as a whole, they strongly orient the JRB in the past and prop up a mythic-political Jewish culture that neo-conservatives wish to create and then “preserve.” Likewise the cover portraits on each issue, which are primarily from the past. All but one are of men. Put all together as an ensemble, these reviews and the cover art representing them lend a strong whiff of nostalgia to the entire platform. The general-interest pieces framing the JRB place Judaic Studies and contemporary Judaism securely in the past, firmly rooting them in the ethos of Commentary Magazine in its heyday, circa 1965, when it was still a liberal organ of contemporary Jewish thought reeling from the collapse of the totalitarian communism that had enchanted so many New York Jewish intellectuals in the 1930s at City College.
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.
The fighting spirit at the Jewish Review of Books shows how the Tikvah Fund is creating an intellectual environment in which “serious Jewish thought” is conceived as a twinning of old books and old ideas with consistent attention to the political. It would appear that prominence is given to theories reflecting blanket unwillingness to search out common ground between liberalism and religion. Against the present, the past is venerated as a source of eternal verities and as a foundation for the future. The self-presentation is rarified and elitist. Public mission statements are left vague and agendas kept secret – is this the esoteric legacy for contemporary Judaism of Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt? In such an environment, it should not surprise one to find the common coin of Jewish ideas being dulled down into shopworn cultural objects or whittled into blunt ideological instruments.
In seeking to position the world of Jewish ideas to the right of American and Jewish public opinion, the Tikvah Fund threatens to aggravate the very gap between liberalism and Judaism that its leadership takes as philosophically and politically axiomatic. In light of the strategic thinking behind its well-financed and ubiquitous platforms, there is every reason to fear that the narrow range of discourse advanced at the Tikvah Fund might come to co-opt in the eyes of the public at large the very “essence” of Jewish tradition, American Judaism, Jewish Studies, and modern Jewish thought. With no gates open to them, it will be no surprise if liberal Jews, especially young liberal Jews, will look at this edifice and decide to walk away from it all.
No one of us is free from ideological bias and no one contests the right of anyone inside or outside the academy to pursue this or any other ideological agenda. The argument is that the Tikvah Fund enters the university without proper respect for the rules of open transparency that a university ideally embodies. 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.”
At stake is the difference between the autonomy versus the independence of scholarship and thought. My many friends and colleagues who participate on platforms organized by the Tikvah Fund can all testify to their own professional and intellectual “autonomy.” By this I mean the sense that one’s own internal compass remains free. No conclusion is forced. Interactions are lively. Insofar as no external coercion goes into the formulation of a thought, the scholar and scholarship remain “autonomous.” But ideas are indebted once they appear under an institutional, ideological, and financial banner. This is true of the Posen Foundation as well. It is one thing to owe a debt of gratitude to one’s home university, to the Guggenheim Foundation, or to the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. It is another thing to owe that debt to the founder or manager of an investment company. Once paid for, a thought no longer stands on its own. No matter how internally autonomous, its position in the outside world is no longer “independent” – not technically, and not morally.
Zachary Braiterman is Associate Professor of Religion at Syracuse University. Professor Braiterman works in the field of modern Judaism. His research and teaching explore shifting aesthetic canons as they shape Jewish thought and culture from the 17th century until the present. Research and teaching interests touch upon the impact of enlightenment, modernity, modernism, and postmodernism upon Jewish ideas about God, ritual, text-interpretation, and community life – with special emphasis on Jewish philosophy, theoretical aesthetics, and classical Jewish sources. He holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University.
This article originally appeared in Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture; reprinted with permission.