We spoke with Jewish Currents about Seth Rogen, young Jews and that Peter Beinart essay
By LAURA E. ADKINS
WOODMERE, N.Y. (JTA) — When the magazine Jewish Currents published an essay by Peter Beinart titled “Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine” earlier this month, it sent shockwaves through the corner of the Jewish world in which the future of Israel is hotly debated.
In the essay, Beinart explained why he’s given up hope in a two-state solution and instead will advocate now for a binational Israel-Palestine with equal rights for all.
In this wide-ranging conversation, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency spoke with Arielle Angel, Jewish Currents’ editor, about the magazine, its mission, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the identity crises facing today’s young Jews.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
JTA: Jewish Currents started in 1946, committed to, as you say on your site, “the rich tradition of thought, activism and culture of the Jewish left.” What does that mean in 2020? What is the vision you’re building in terms of what that looks like in practice?
Angel: This magazine has been in continuous print since 1946, but there have been real breakages in this lineage. The magazine was originally an organ of the Communist Party — which, of course, was an extremely common thing in the Jewish community, particularly in New York — until it became clear what was really going on in the Soviet Union. And then the people around Jewish Currents had to figure out well, where do we go from here?
The boomer generation’s relative economic plenty coincided with a time where the Jewish community was moving into whiteness and the middle class. Those processes took them away from a radical tradition, and on top of that, the Jewish communal structure was really changing its orientation. At the time where this magazine was founded, even the Reform movement was not yet Zionist.
The radical or leftist lineage and their values became subservient to other goals that the community had, which were about economic uplift and Zionism.
By the time our parents entered political consciousness, most American Jews were middle-class people in professionalized jobs. Now most of us are downwardly mobile. We have an Israel that is exhibiting increasing levels of authoritarianism. And the calculus that our parents made is no longer working.
We are not the direct descendants of Jewish Currents’ original lineage in most cases, and yet we are sort of reaching back into that lineage and asking, for example, why was it buried?
When I think of the of the Jewish media story in New York in particular, it’s so inextricably linked with the labor movement and Lower East Side Ashkenazi immigrants, and I think you explained very well that kind of swing to our parents’ generation of economic prosperity and Jews really, fully assimilating to a certain extent in the United States. We grew up in the system that is being critiqued as opposed to earlier generations who are really new arrivals and saw the problems with fresh eyes.
It’s not like it happened by accident. There were wealthy Jews who did not like the politics of the rabble-rousing, radical Jews, and they created the central bodies of Jewish leadership that exist today, like the ADL and the AJC. These organizations are not democratic, not based in the values of those “downtown Jews,” and that was done on purpose. Big donors to institutions like JTS, for example, changed the nature of religious education, which filtered down to the synagogues — they used to be more participatory, more of a community space, and now, they’ve become more quiet, more controlled. These things were done on purpose to try to create a vision of a Jewish white upper-class society — and it worked.
I’m wondering how the messages and the values of the Jewish left in the early to mid-1900s translate to an overwhelmingly very well educated, very high socioeconomic class of readers?
Well, I think that this gets at the generational question. On a certain level, whether you were raised with money or not, you’re probably not earning more than your parents or able to buy a house with your nonprofit job. Your job is probably precarious. We may have been raised in certain kinds of families — which, let’s just also be clear, a lot of people were not — but we are still not feeling secure, and the resurgence of white nationalism since President Trump’s election compounded these fears. So suddenly, the machinations of state power and the way that state power has come to bear on Jewish history, and the way that it’s coming to bear on other groups of people in the United States, the echoes become hard to ignore.
I think you see, both in the United States and in Israel and the Palestinian territories, this kind of reawakening of more radical ideas. Younger Israelis are more right-wing politically than their parents. Younger Palestinians don’t necessarily feel the same way as their parents about Israeli nationalism and Palestinian nationalism. There seems to be a lot of interesting things going on with just the re-radicalization of young, politically minded people.
I think everyone can feel that we are closer to some kind of break. It does feel a bit like the older generation is not paying attention to those structural limits. Even though Israeli society is moving [more to the right], they’re also responding to that same reality. Their position is basically saying “we need to get rid of these people, we need to move them out, or we need to expel them, or we need to make sure that they’re contained.” The hard line is abhorrent, but it’s an internally consistent position because it makes a decisive choice about a situation whose reality can no longer be denied or delayed.
I think that’s a good segue into talking about Peter Beinart’s essay for Jewish Currents in which he revealed he has lost hope in a two-state solution and is instead now advocating for a binational state with equal rights. What have the reactions been like? Is it what you expected?
It is what we expected. I mean, I was extremely aware of the critique we were going to get from the left about Peter’s positioning and about some of the terms of the argument. We knew that was coming. As the editor, I tried to correct for that as much as I could. At the same time, I think Peter was very aware of being edited from his left and speaking in some ways to his right. The response from the mainstream Jewish community was very expected, and in fact, I think it actually went better than I thought in that he mostly wasn’t “excommunicated” or anything like that.
I expected that people would attack him. I certainly didn’t expect that the organizations that have put their hopes in the two-state solution and have refused to engage with the reality on the ground would just suddenly say, “yeah, Peter, you’re right.” But I also saw the immediate impact on people who have been struggling with this and looking for a way to move forward. And we did hear from a lot of people along those lines.
From the outside, Jewish Currents has a reputation — even though it’s been around forever — of being young, scrappy, fresh and really pushing lines on things. And Peter has been around for a long time as an American intellectual voice of the Jewish pro-Zionist left. Walk me through the vision and expectations of bringing someone like Peter onto Jewish Currents.
I think it was a very interesting decision for him to come to work with us, and it wasn’t something that I expected when we took over Jewish Currents.
I do think that for Peter, there’s a question of what his legacy will be, the direction that he’s going and who he is in conversation with. I think that for most of his career, he’s been in conversation with his parents’ generation on some level.
Peter is very adept at figuring out where the mainstream conversation is going, and also at figuring out who in the Jewish community he might be able to have the most interesting conversations with.
I can’t speak for Peter, but I think there may have been a sense for him that the conversation he had been having was not as interesting anymore, and that in order to move into the future and actually move to where the conversation is going, he might have to start talking more to the next generation. I think we see that in a lot of the responses to his piece by community leaders and thinkers: A lot of people actually didn’t engage with the content of the piece and used it as an opportunity to just reiterate the same old talking points. To me it seems like he made a decision about what the more honest conversation to be having is right now, and the ways that conversation will have to move in order to achieve something that resembles a just solution.
Peter notes that the centers of Jewish power are pro-Israel and that Israel has become the core tenet of American Jewish identity. But I think there might be a subtle distinction between identifying as pro-Israel, which 97% of American Jews do, and how people are actually operating day to day. I don’t actually know if Israel is such a focal point of American Jewish identity.
We have some good polling, but we don’t have enough polling to actually know. What we do know is that Israel is the last [legislative] priority among American Jews. Beating Trump is the No. 1 priority, but then you have health care, immigration, all the things that progressive Americans care about because most American Jews are progressive. Israel may be at the heart of mainstream Jewish identity, but it is not the primary concern for American Jews.
Also, we don’t know what they mean when they say “pro-Israel.” If you start to probe on what American Jews think should happen to Israel, if they had to choose between it being a democracy and the Jewish state, for instance, you get a much higher percentage of people saying it should be a democracy. Turns out American Jews care about democracy quite a bit.
Already we know that Israel is not a democracy — that millions of Palestinians cannot vote for the government which controls their lives — and annexation gives us an opportunity to say definitively “this will be a non-democracy, this will be an apartheid-like situation.” So I do think that the more this penetrates the American Jewish consciousness, the more you’re going to see people really questioning what it means to be pro-Israel.
I listened to the Marc Maron interview with Seth Rogen this morning. It was a fascinating conversation, but something that really stood out to me is this juxtaposition: Seth Rogen grew up going to liberal Jewish summer camp. He didn’t live in a particularly observant family. He brings up in the podcast that he doesn’t believe in religion or religious motivations for being in Israel having any weight. But also, he talks about sitting shiva and mourning rituals and how, as he gets older, those things begin to take a more central role in his life while simultaneously having very passionate feelings that Israel doesn’t speak for his Judaism. It’s not where he’s engaging.
I didn’t get the sense from listening that he necessarily has thought much about two states versus one state versus anything. I think there’s a lot to unpack there because I would speculate — and I’m curious to hear your perspective — that among non-Orthodox Jews under 40, that combination of general apathy about Israel put together with kind of questioning what role formalized Judaism has to play in their modern existence is something that’s far more interesting for them to engage with than the politics of the Middle East.
I think a lot of us are going through some measure of this kind of thing. And I do think that the real tragedy in this is that the mainstream Jewish community and the philanthropic community has totally abdicated its ability to reach someone like Seth Rogen, who’s clearly talking about wanting to know more, who’s clearly talking about wanting a certain kind of Jewish community. They’ve just left people like him in the lurch. A lot of young people don’t want to put an ethnonationalist project at the heart of their identity, which is partially because they are what this community purportedly wanted them to be: people who believe in fairness and equality and multicultural society. So I think it really does speak to that major failure of the American Jewish establishment that Peter wrote about 10 years ago.
For many people who are a little bit younger than me, the process of becoming disillusioned about the community’s support for the occupation is a very central experience. And I think that by essentially casting them out, and not actually providing opportunities for them to reengage in Jewish community from a place of wanting to learn or wanting to engage on their own terms, makes it so that now Israel is the primary lens by which we engage in Jewishness.
I wonder if you see any organizations or decentralized ways of operating being successful. Coming from the perspective of someone in the Orthodox community, as we’re talking, I’m thinking that this is kind of why kiruv and the kiruv movement have worked for a lot of young American Jews. It doesn’t necessarily engage with Israel and questions of statehood. The Orthodox community being overwhelmingly Zionist is very, very new in the evolution of Jewish thought. But when you center Jewish identity around community and meals and engaging with texts, there is something powerful, and I wonder what the not explicitly religious version of that is and if you’ve seen any manifestations of that.
I think it’s really hard because in the Orthodox community, you still have the funding. I don’t fully understand how Chabad’s finances work, but it does seem as though there are a lot of donors. And there are people who are paying for services from them because they also teach about Jewish life and text, provide child care and schooling, etc.
I think ultimately, in the secular community, it’s about philanthropy, and philanthropic models are so completely out of touch with young people and have no desire to give up power or decision-making to young people. I think Jewish Currents is a great example of what can happen when you turn over the reins. What the previous editor did was just give us the magazine. And it was painful for him, and it was painful for the board that we had at the time. Because you’re basically watching people do something different than you intended with the thing that you built. But that is how these things are going to survive.
There are a lot of organizations that are catering to the secular, progressive Jewish community in big and small ways. But not so much at the institutional level. For example, if I had a child right now, as a left-wing Jew, where would I send them for Jewish education? Not to mention that in many ways the American Jewish community has completely defunded its arts and cultural programs, which are essential to building meaningful secular Jewish life, in favor of sending the money to Israel.
As we’re talking, I’m realizing most if not all of the people that we’re either explicitly mentioning or alluding to are American men of a certain generation. Even us having this conversation right now is super rare; most Jewish publications are run by men and the board is filled with men. I’m constantly checking my own biases about who is allowed to speak in this conversation. And I’m curious from your perspective what we miss out on when female voices, Palestinian voices, Israelis who don’t speak English well are missing from this conversation.
I mean, how much time do we have? It’s almost obvious what we miss when we don’t have these people in this conversation. Like, it’s just not representative of anything. It doesn’t actually bring us to where the real conflicts are or to where the most promising, just solutions are. But it’s not just the kinds of conversations that we miss. It’s the conversations that we’ve literally destroyed.
When I go to work with Palestinian writers — and it’s actually difficult to do that because there’s so much broken trust between Jewish media and Palestinian writers — but when I reach out to Palestinian writers to ask them to talk to a Jewish audience about something, what I will sometimes get is a first draft that expends precious space arguing for their own humanity, or arguing that there is indeed an occupation, because those are the terms that Jewish media has laid out.
This means we’re never even allowing the conversation to get to the place where we’re actually talking about the things that we need to talk about. That is extremely intellectually destructive.
I think that’s such an important point. The questions we ask, and the answers we elevate, dictate what people come to us to say. So what are the more relevant questions when we’re at an impasse here?
Part of our process since publishing the piece is reaching out to Palestinian intellectual leaders. We’re going to try to have those conversations in Jewish Currents and make room for them to dictate the questions that they think need to be asked. We do have an editorial baseline and that is that Palestinians must be free, and that is an urgent issue. You can’t just defer it by saying it’s complicated.
That’s why a lot of the responses to Peter’s piece really rang hollow. A lot of them basically said we know how bad it is, but we have to stay the course. And that’s not acceptable to us.