Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
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The Excommunicator’s Song

A story about contemporary thought-police

Alana Newhouse
March 22, 2017
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

Last week, a friend alerted me to the publication of an editorial in Yated Ne’eman—the ultra-Orthodox newspaper based in Monsey. Titled “Politics Isn’t Everything,” the piece, ostensibly about the corrosion of values in public life, used as its primary example an article that ran in Tablet ahead of the Super Bowl by Senior Editor Matthew Fishbane. In that article, Matthew—a Patriots fan and the son of a New Englander—engages in an unflinchingly critical, if heartfelt, inquiry of NFL owner and Jewish philanthropist Robert Kraft for his association with Donald Trump.

“Your coach makes clear that the way to prevail in contests is by minimizing distractions, not sowing them,” Matthew wrote. “Concentrate on the work of it, not the show. When you do win, thank everyone besides yourself who made it possible. When you lose, don’t lay blame. Recognize that victories are always won by teams and that the essence of graciousness is humility. And yet now you support a man whose campaign rhetoric includes, ‘I alone can fix it’? Whose vanity can’t seem to get over the fact that his inauguration crowds were smaller than someone else’s?”

The folks at Yated found this abhorrent. Using this lone article as source material, they confidently crafted an intricate argument about Tablet as a publication and Matthew as a person. In their worldview, Tablet is avowedly secular; incapable of seeing anything outside the blindered narratives of liberal politics and the Democratic Party; unschooled in Jewish history; and unserious about Jewish peoplehood—in short, a perfect reflection of what the Orthodox newspaper’s writers see as the big, blighted bloc of non-Orthodox, non-right-wing American Jews, tragic people who will be lost to history because of their own ignorance, meaninglessness, rootlessness.

And Matthew … well, Matthew was portrayed as a high priest of this imagined crowd: a self-satisfied naïf who likely “does not have too many friends.”

I wrote a letter to the editor of the paper, explaining that I felt compelled to push back on what seemed like the underlying intention of the piece: namely, the maintenance of a kind of cherem, or excommunication, of people or publications or ideas that, by diverging even slightly from what is designated as “acceptable,” become—in the fevered state of thought-policing—so toxic as to seem life-threatening. I offered links to other pieces that we had run (and that Matthew had edited!) asserting just the points they had in their editorial; indeed, even a cursory look at the site would have revealed hundreds of pieces that give a rich, historically grounded account of traditional Jewish religious life and perspectives.

I explained that zooming out would have enabled them to see this larger picture, in which their views were represented among those of their contemporary Jews, but that I also understood this to be the source of the conflict: “The problem from your end,” I wrote, “seems to be that the pieces above ran in a space that also allows for other opinions.” For the guardians of purity, the price of every stray atom of doubt is a potential nuclear chain reaction that could destroy the entire world as they know it. This isn’t vigilance; it’s viral paranoia—a disease that, in its zeal to eliminate all difference in the name of virtue, consumes much of what is healthy in the very society it believes it is protecting.

To the person afflicted by this toxic fear, it is of no consolation that dozens—even hundreds—of articles sharing their perspective, or something similar enough to them, have appeared in the very same publication. The only thing that matters is the one article, or the one paragraph, or the one sentence that deviates in any way from a communal party line.

I realized how silly it was to write this letter, given the likelihood that no one at Yated would even read it, let alone take it seriously. Still, I sent it off, before moving on to other things. But because apparently we all now live inside of our own personalized Kafka novels, that wasn’t the end of this particular story.


The next day, Tablet published a piece by Liel Leibovitz—who, as one of the magazine’s most vociferous anti-Trump voices (here and here and here just to start with), is presumably one of the long list of Tablet writers whose opinions would set off the alarms of Yated Ne’eman’s censors. In this particular post, Liel wrote about allegations swirling that Sebastian Gorka, an aide to Donald Trump, had been a member of the Hungarian Vitezi Rend order, and he got Gorka on the record—which had not yet happened elsewhere.

Predictably, there was backlash to the piece. Liel’s stray piece of journalism was used by arsonists on both sides to set off brush fires on social media. The flames of outrage leapt higher and higher until—about an hour or so later—someone smelled fresh smoke somewhere else, and on it went. (This is, sadly, the daily reality in the dying forest of America’s current political discourse.)

But one person stood passionately at the side of the Gorka embers. On various social media channels, I began to be tagged in posts by an assistant professor of Russian Studies and Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder and occasional Tablet contributor named Sasha Senderovich, who announced that Liel’s piece must be considered a “red line”—over which no right-thinking person should cross. Liel is a fellow critic of Trump, but he comes at this shared idea from a different political perspective. Rather than, say, pitch an article of his own about Trump or Gorka, Senderovich instead became driven by a need to eradicate all traces of Liel and Liel-ness from any space he might even tangentially share with him.

To this end, he began a campaign against Tablet because of what Senderovich said he suddenly realized was Tablet’s pernicious mind-altering right-wing political propaganda machine. According to this argument, Tablet publishes pieces like thisthis, and this as a way of hiding its true agenda—which can only be found in pieces like this and this. It’s a little confusing, since there are more of the fig-leaf pieces than the true ones, and they all get the same level of attention and word counts and quality of art. But there’s an easy fix for this: Just focus only on the ones that confirm your own bias and disregard the ones that don’t—which is how a right-wing Orthodox newspaper writer and a secular left-wing academic managed to create two diametrically opposed grand theories about the same publication.

Senderovich’s new theory became so pressing for him, in fact, that everything he had formerly known or felt he understood about Tablet had suddenly become glaringly wrong. He was the victim of a conspiracy. Other writers who might have been wiser than he had been suborned or extorted. Some were perhaps even held hostage by a “reliance on Tablet’s generous honorariums”—as though the only reason these people write for Tablet is because we bribe them, and Senderovich is here to steel their hearts against the temptation of our filthy lucre. That we are talking about generally underpaid academics and scholars, and freelance fees of a few hundred dollars—given in exchange for the rare pleasure of having their good work offered to a wider audience—made it all the more divorced from reality.

As I sat mulling all of this, something gnawed at me. I went back to the Yated article, whose final line had left me with the same creepy feeling. In it, the editorial writer fantasized about what he would say to Matthew Fishbane were he Robert Kraft. What he came up with was quite something:

“Who are you to feel that you have the right to demand of me an accounting of my life?”

Note the construction here. It is not “Who are you to demand of me an accounting of my life?” but “who are you to feel that you have the right to demand of me an accounting of my life?” The universe that these people want to police is not our public conversation, which would be bad enough; what Yated’s writers—and their secular counterparts like Senderovich—want to control is what is permitted to even get close to our brains, because we can’t be trusted to think or feel for ourselves.

This isn’t Nazism; it’s Stalinism—and neither one should be allowed to take root in our community, or in our public life. You don’t like Tablet? That’s fine. There are, literally, thousands of other publications—most of them entirely free!—and they all need more readers. Just don’t isolate yourself inside an echo chamber where the only views you engage with are the ones you currently hold. Choose to read writers and publications that challenge your own biases—even, or especially, if your goal is to sharpen the overall positions and loyalties to which you already feel existentially committed.

I never did end up hearing back from the editors of Yated Ne’eman. But if they happen to be reading this and are in the market for new writers, I know of at least one former Tablet contributor—now in needless exile of his own choosing—who might be a good fit.


Alana Newhouse is the editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine.