Three recent pieces elicited a curious kind of reaction: Paul Berman on the story of the Weather Underground’s Judith Clark; David Samuels’ defense of The New York Times’ op-ed by Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti; and Liel Leibovitz’s latest on White House aide Sebastian Gorka. According to some critics, in the first two pieces we defended terrorists; in the third, Nazis. And by “we,” they meant the magazine as a whole.
The pieces couldn’t be more different, especially politically, yet these critics share in common a misunderstanding about Tablet and its mission.
In 2010, I published an article in The New York Times Magazine about the photographer Roman Vishniac—a story I reported and researched before and while launching Tablet. It was then, and remains, the inspiration for this magazine.
The piece was ostensibly about a discovery, made by a young curator at the International Center of Photography named Maya Benton, of previously unseen pictures made by Vishniac as the machine of the Holocaust rolled over Europe. Vishniac had long been considered “the official mortuary photographer of Eastern European Jewish life,” and the portrait created by his work was one tailor-made for, first, sympathy, and then nostalgia: Almost uniformly poor and pious, his subjects asserted a vision of authenticity lost—no, not lost. Murdered.
It was a vision that became wildly influential, first in Vishniac’s own bestselling books and then as inspiration for various expressions of the Eastern European Jewish story in American pop culture—Yentl, Fiddler on the Roof, and more.
But the more complete archive that Benton uncovered revealed a very different picture: a layered, roiling, diverse community. In large part because Jews were forced to live among other Jews for hundreds of years, they lived with co-religionists who were often sharply unlike one another—politically, religiously, culturally, socioeconomically.
These were not people who disagreed with each other; they loathed one another with a burning intensity that makes Twitter look like kindergarten. The fights they had—about religion and art and socialism and Communism and Zionism and much else—were brutal, but they also ultimately created a great many minds impressively fluent in the role that ideas play in how the world can be made better and worse.
It was this mechanism that struck me as potentially powerful, especially at a time when Jews (like all Americans) had begun to cluster themselves inside of smaller and less-challenging intellectual and experiential bubbles. What, we thought, if we could build a space that would be, above all else, heterodox—religiously, politically, culturally, socioeconomically?
And so Tablet’s purpose is a clear and simple one: We want Jews who are different—definitively, impolitely, even offensively different—to share a space with one another. We want them to face each other, to cajole, and push and shove each other into feeling or thinking something important. Jews cannot be forced to live among each other anymore, thank God, but there was something accidentally valuable for Jews and Jewish ideas in that arrangement—and Tablet was designed as an experiment in figuring out whether we can replicate the benefits of that closeness without the constraints of oppression.
The answer may ultimately be no. This idea may or may not translate well on to the web—or onto today’s political landscape. We may not be able to take historical babies without the abusive bathwater. We’ll know in hindsight.
For now, we are here and our tent is surrounded by open doors. If your response to this invitation is to be afraid that space is too secular, too religious, too smug, too fun, too unapologetically left-wing or nefariously right-wing, you are in the right place. If you’re still willing, please come on in.
There is only one group that I’m sure won’t like it here: The Jack Merridews. These are people who are, at base, anti-intellectual and anti-communal bullies. When they see a piece they do not like, they first seek to isolate and demand that the writer be removed from the shared space. When that doesn’t work (because it won’t ever with me), they up the ante: It is the magazine that is toxic, and everyone should run quickly from its confines, unless he or she wants pitchfork-wielding Twitter orcs coming after them, too. (You can see a recent, truly awful example of this here.)
Maybe it’s that these people can’t envision a circumstance in which a publication or individual isn’t subordinate to a party line, in which the articles mean what they say rather than being instrumental. Or maybe they just want people to think they’re smart and to like them. Either way, they miss the point and power of magazines. Harper’s has published some idiotic things, but using a single article to argue that “Harper’s is a dumb magazine” says less about the magazine than it does about the person saying this. Indeed, none of the truly great magazines in American history were ever wholly represented by an individual writer. They were instead known for being contentious places where various egotists fought their battles. And the people who benefited most from this setup were readers—who became smarter, often at crucial moments in American history.
A lot has changed since we started Tablet. Over the past few months, I’ve gotten letters from readers on both sides of the aisle arguing, essentially, that desperate times call for desperate measures—that this moment is too dire for political heterodoxy.
But, well, I don’t know how to say this, except: These are desperate measures. In my read of modern Jewish history, this is a vital part of how Jews have faced important moments: by engaging with all of the ideas swirling around us, even those we find abhorrent, especially when they are espoused by other Jews; by passionately embracing the ideas that feel right and true, and by using the rest to exercise our brains into stronger weapons to fight for what we believe in. It’s a messy and complicated tradition, but it’s ours—and we abandon it at our own peril.