The generational divide: New Voices magazine learns a tough lesson about funders and Israel

Sadly, there’s nothing surprising in this comprehensive article by Eyal Press in The Nation about the “silencing” of New Voices, the nation’s only Jewish magazine published by and for college students.

Major funders punish an independent Jewish institution (or person) for not toeing the line on Israel — it happens all the time. What is new is that these kinds of stories are getting covered. It’s a good sign that we’re starting to examine what kind of community we want to be, and what kind of damage silencing does to the Jewish and broader world.

The Nation reports:

Two years ago, New Voices applied for and received a grant from the Solelim Fund, a philanthropic venture affiliated with UJA-Federation of New York. The grant was renewable for up to $100,000 over a three-year period, during which New Voices, which like many student publications has operated for years on a shoestring budget, would hire a publisher, expand its circulation and eventually become self-sustaining.

After a site visit that New Voices thought went well, funders requested back copies of the magazine, and New Voices got a call from the UJA-Federation saying the deal was off. The official story was that Solelim priorities had simply changed, and that the decision had nothing to do with New Voices.

But as is typical in these cases, insiders tell a different story. Why? Because groups like the UJA are embarrassed to tell the truth, not because it is illegal (donors can do whatever they want, its their money), but because actions like these violate the core liberal values they say they hold.

You know, open intellectual inquiry, free speech, honesty, compassion for the underdog, all the good stuff that tends to be embraced by the majority of American Jews. (Remember, no other major religious group is more anti-Iraq war than us.)

If anything, you’ve gotta feel sorry for the numerous professionals in these organizations who are required to make up ridiculous stories everyone knows aren’t true.

New Voices is a terrific magazine that explores a range of Jewish subjects in a thoughtful way that honors the intelligence of its readers. It seems that its crime was to cover the Israel issue without the crude propagandistic tone many conservative donors have come to expect of Jewish publications. (Or, as one East Coast editor of a Jewish newspaper told me, “those crap press releases the Federation makes us print.”)

The back issues New Voices submitted included articles like this one “casting doubt on claims made by mainstream Jewish organizations that universities are in fact awash in anti-Semitism,” and this one about alternative tours to the occupied territories for young Jews.

None of the articles in the issue were written in the hectoring tone that characterizes so much campus dialogue on Israel these days–their spirit was probing and independent, not strident or dogmatic. This was evidently the problem. “We had a conversation with a source with firsthand knowledge of Solelim’s inner workings who told us there was some controversy over our coverage of Israel, that something was said at one meeting about how New Voices put quality journalism ahead of support for Israel,” says Sarah Braunstein, the magazine’s director/publisher. Her account was confirmed by a source who asked not to be identified. Says Braunstein, “I guess prior to that they assumed this is a Jewish magazine for college students so it must be an advocacy magazine. When they discovered we weren’t, that we published articles on many sides of the Israel issue–and a lot of other issues of concern to Jewish college students, by the way–they had second thoughts.”

After a backlash from some influential supporters, Solenin agreed to a compromise which really shows how much the wiser, wealthier, older generation has to teach these naive, young college students about journalism:

New Voices was given a $10,000 grant instead of the $30,000 it had expected, and was required to offer $9,000 in free advertising to two hard-line pro-Israel groups, Stand With Us and the David Project. This scuttled New Voices‘s capacity-building plans, and one staffer had to be let go. It also left young people at the magazine marveling at how out of touch its funders are: The remaining “support” for New Voices came on condition that it feature ads from organizations that paint a hysterical picture of campus anti-Semitism and whose shrill accusations likely lead many young people to tune out, fall silent or grit their teeth and continue walking whenever anybody approaches them to talk about Israel. Far from persuading college-educated Jews to care about Israel, such a ham-handed, blatantly partisan approach will more likely alienate them.

New Voices felt they had to say yes, but not without real bitterness:

“To suddenly be told you have to toe this party line–it’s contrary to what we stand for and it’s contrary to what the Jewish intellectual tradition stands for,” says Ilana Sichel, the magazine’s current editor. Sichel, a Harvard graduate, grew up attending Jewish day school. Her mother is Israeli, and her bookshelf at home is lined with volumes of Jewish literature and philosophy. “I’m pretty much as connected to Judaism as you can get,” she said. What did she learn from this experience? She paused before answering. “I guess that the stakes are really high for speaking out, for investigating, for telling the truth.”

This story says a lot about how the cracks in the facade of unified Jewish support for all of Israel’s actions are starting to really show along generational lines.

The evidence is plentiful:
Mondoweiss’s Philip Weiss recently illustrated this divide in his interesting take on a discussion at Columbia University’s Hillel that asked, Is Zionism Racism?

And just a few months ago, the hardline Zionist Organization of America tried to purge the relatively young Union of Progressive Zionists from the Israel on Campus Coalition for helping the Breaking the Silence tour. Why? Breaking the Silence is a group of Israelis who talk about their devastating experiences serving as soldiers in the Occupied Territories.

And of course, there’s the $5 million or more that donors pulled from Brandeis after the school welcomed former president Carter. It was no coincidence that Larry Cohler-Esses of Jewish Week closed his article, Brandeis Donors Exact Revenge For Carter Visit, with this:

“I think everyone was surprised at how well he was received,” said Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar and historian unaffiliated with Brandeis. “That may be the most important part of the story. Instead of coming as partisans, they listened to Carter attentively, asked tough questions and gave him an audience. The Jewish community may have a more significant generation gap than they understand between what young people are prepared to hear and what older activists are prepared to hear.”

For those of us who want an even-handed policy that recognizes the rights of Israelis and Palestinians, this generational shift is terrific news. For those who have come to expect all Jews to move in lockstop with right-wing policies, this is their worst nightmare.

Expect the backlash to get bigger.

(To see either a terrifying image of the future of Jewish lack of support for Israel, or exciting evidence of values-based, independent thinking among younger Jews, download Israel in the Age of Eminem, Republican pollster Frank Luntz’s memo on how to “message” Israel to a younger generation.)

In the meantime, subscribe to New Voices now. These folks could use our support.

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