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Peretz Agonistes

The ‘TNR’ editor heads for the Holy Land

Marc Tracy
December 28, 2010
Martin Peretz during earlier, awesomer times.(New York)
Martin Peretz during earlier, awesomer times.(New York)

The most surprising thing you learn in New York’s generally fantastic profile of longtime New Republic owner, editor, and all-around maven Martin Peretz—assuming you know something of Peretz’s politics and recent controversies (and chances are, if you have already read the profile, you do)—is that he has been known to attend the protests in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, “in solidarity with Palestinians threatened with eviction.” This is astonishing, given that these protests have become something between a rite of passage and a shibboleth for the Israeli left (Todd Gitlin gave his first-hand account of the ritual earlier this month in Tablet Magazine) and that, on the question of Israel, Peretz is, shall we say, no dove.

But the profile depicts someone much more complex than the caricature of Peretz, furthered by his enemies but buttressed by his own blogposts, as a ranting, right-wing, and—there’s really no denying it—occasionally racist pundit. Partly, this more balanced view of Peretz is the result of a peace process so stagnant that someone on the right cannot help but seem like a moderate (Palestinian President Salam Fayyad is “a very modernizing person, but I would doubt that he commands loyalty,” Peretz says, and one can easily imagine someone with opposite views nodding in agreement). And partly, this more balanced view of Peretz may also be the result of the fact that Peretz—despite being, as the article’s title has it, “in Exile” from most of the things that have defined his seven decades (the United States, Harvard, his now-ex-wife, The New Republic)—cooperated with the profile and so presumably had some ability to craft the narrative it tells. This is not pure supposition on my part: Earlier this fall, a reporter on assignment for Tablet Magazine tried to interview Peretz about his participation in an English-language teaching program in Jaffa (which the profile opens with), only to be told Peretz wanted nothing written about his trip.

The article’s most important contribution to the public record is its filling in of the recent controversy surrounding Peretz’s remark, “Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims,” and the brouhaha it led to at Harvard. There good reporting about his unhappy childhood and about his long, tapering, and finally finished marriage. There is some choice inside-baseball stuff (longtime literary editor Leon Wieseltier remains a close friend of Peretz’s, but they no longer discuss Israel, which makes sense; TNR writer John Judis “knows zero” about Israel, Peretz opines, which isn’t true). There is one timeless line—“I mean, fuck these fancy Upper West Side rabbis,” Peretz complains—and another, from the writer Fouad Ajami, that seems really to get at the man: “Arabs understand Marty. He has that Middle Eastern quality: me against my brother, me and my brother against my cousin, me and my cousin against the world.”

And yet the true defense of Martin Peretz (besides the fact that he and his wife funded the presidential campaign of maybe the most worthy politician of the past fifty years, Eugene McCarthy) comes in one of those indelibly New York-y sidebars that runs alongside the article. It depicts the chronology of The New Republic’s editors: Michael Kinsley; Hendrik Hertzberg; Andrew Sullivan; Peter Beinart; Frank Foer. Those are some of the best and most important journalists of the past quarter-century, and Peretz sponsored them all, and in certain cases discovered them. You could add in a dozen or two-dozen more writers—Charles Krauthammer; Margaret Talbot; Jonathan Chait; Hanna Rosin; James Wood; Ruth Franklin—whom we perhaps would not have heard of were it not for Peretz. This is to say nothing of Wieseltier, whom Peretz has given rein to run the back of TNR’s book for 30 years, to nearly everyone’s benefit (I say “nearly” because one is obliged to spill a drop for some of the writers reviewed there).

Peretz’s legacy is his magazine. And so the best news the article brings is that Peretz’s magazine will soon discontinue the worst thing about it—Peretz’s blog.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

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