Jews Thrived on Insulting Each Other. Now Toxic Discourse Is Tearing Them Apart, Tablet Editor Says

U.S. Jews have a leadership problem, Alana Newhouse, editor of Tablet Magazine says, and warns: We can't afford to boycott everyone we disagree with

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Tablet Magazine editor Alana Newhouse.
Tablet Magazine editor Alana Newhouse.Credit: Gili Getz for Haaretz
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

NEW YORK – Shortly after Robert Bowers is alleged to have opened fire in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on October 27, killing 11 people, all six staff members of the online American Jewish magazine Tablet moved their operation to the site of the attack. The New York-based cultural and political journal changed its routine to function as a breaking-news website, covering the funerals and other events in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community following the deadliest anti-Semitic event in the history of American Jewry. Editor-in-chief Alana Newhouse and her Tablet staff remained in town through the end of the shivah period.

Newhouse, 42, grew up on Long Island and attended a modern Orthodox high school. Currently married and living in New York, she says she's proud of the diversity of Jewish identities in her family: Around the table she and her siblings' families range from ultra-Orthodox to Reform to unaffiliated Jews. She began her journalism career at The Forward, where she was editor of the magazine's cultural section; in 2009 she was recruited by the Nextbook Inc, a non-profit which promotes "Jewish literacy and culture," to establish its online magazine. Nextbook was founded by the Keren Keshet - Bernstein family's Rainbow Foundation (Keshet is also behind Avi Chai Foundation in Israel). Nextbook is the deep pocket behind Tablet, also a non-profit, free from traffic consideration, a rare privilege in the media business. Tablet has a long list of contributors, including authors Paul Berman and Matti Friedman, and a small staff, among them Yair Rosenberg and Liel Leibovitz.

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From Tablet's temporary office in Pittsburgh, Newhouse asked readers – in a column called “American Yahrzeit” – to mourn with the local community. She appealed to them to do so not by quarreling online, but by coming there in person, or by making a donation, or writing a letter of support, on paper, to Jewish community institutions. She refrained from making any political statement, as she did even more firmly when I asked about her thoughts the day after the attack on the synagogue. Newhouse said she wanted to spend time with the memory of the dead in Pittsburgh before thinking about other matters. But she did have one clear and immediate lesson to share with her readers in her column: “If there is one thing we inadvertently learned from the people of Pittsburgh this week, it is how clearly our very online lives are killing us – if not instantly, as Robert Bowers did this week, then steadily.”

Jewish children lighting memorial candles for victims of the Pittsburgh attack, at an interfaith service in New York. Credit: Seth Wenig/AP

Following the interview Newhouse gave me a few months prior to the Pittsburgh massacre, as part of a series of Haaretz interviews with American Jewish figures, I already knew something about her indictment of the new Jewish online culture. I had asked her, back then, what her views are of the current era, when American Jews seem to be battling over a huge range of issues – whether Israel, Trump or #MeToo.

"Part of what’s been interesting for me," said Newhouse, "is to see the difference between people professionally obligated to be in this conversation, and what I would call amcha, ordinary people. Increasingly, the gap between these two groups is enormous on a lot of issues, and my gut tells me that Israel is one of these. It’s another issue in American Jewish life where the conversation you see elites having online is not the same conversation, and doesn’t express the feelings, worries or concerns, of regular people.

A bubble. Where do you see the gap?

It’s very hard to poll American Jews. But I think the jury is out on whether and how BDS, for example – whatever your feelings are about BDS – has taken hold in the imagination or thinking of many average Jews. For many people, it’s not something they engage with, in either direction. I think for most of them, the idea that someone is trying to delegitimize the state [of Israel] is bad. But I think we might be surprised if we learned just how many American Jews don’t care about this issue one way or another. Not necessarily that they don’t care about it at all, but it passes them by. If you are pro-BDS, this would bother you; and if you’re trying to say that BDS is a huge problem, it may bother you too.

I think we might be surprised if we learned just how many American Jews don’t care about BDS.

What does it look like from the editor’s chair? Do you see an escalation in the way readers engage with Tablet’s content through social media and elsewhere online?

Absolutely, we feel it, and there is a clear escalation over the past three or four years. It’s a new level. There has always been a bell curve. Most people were normal engagers. I mean, they may not like our magazine, they may like it, they may be a little rude, they may be a little nice, and then there was a minority who were exceptionally smart and interesting and diplomatic, and another minority who were exceptionally toxic. Now, more people have reflexes toward toxicity. This toxicity has become contagious, so that now more good people, people I know and [whose writing] I am familiar with, immediately go on the attack. And it’s because they have become fluent in the language of the platform. I see strong signs that more and more people believe that the way to make an argument, to put your point across online, is to be obnoxious. I don’t think they mean it half the time.

Other than BDS, what drives people to use this toxic language?

Simply anything, anything that could be made to seem that it’s about politics. A few years ago we published a recipe. Someone wrote about his or her grandmother’s recipe for some Polish-Jewish dish, I don’t even remember what it was. We got a letter from someone who wrote: “What kind of moron makes this dish this way? Anyone who knows anything about Jews in Poland knows that Jews in Poland didn’t have whatever the ingredient was, and that if the writer had been a ‘real’ Polish Jew, she would have known better, blah blah blah.” I remember thinking: This guy managed to make a kugel or whatever it was, about politics. People are getting mad about everything.

A makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue for the 11 people killed during worship services Saturday Oct. 27, 2018 in Pittsburgh.Credit: Gene J. Puskar,AP

What does this mean to your average day in the office?

We get threats, something that didn’t exist three or four years ago. Some of it comes from the left, some comes from the right, from Jews, non-Jews, from everywhere. I’d rather not read you these letters, because I don’t want to be invested in hysteria and I don’t want to make a big deal out of it.

'Thread' fight

So many people are eager to fight, and Tablet, like other news outlets and social media, feeds into that. But fighting and arguing isn’t a new idea in Jewish culture.

People don’t know how to talk to each other. One of the things I would like to do in Tablet is to show people that they can have strong opinions, sharp opinions, but express them in a way that, even if it doesn’t convince anyone else, it doesn’t insult them so quickly that they leave the room before they hear the full argument. Everyone who is involved in a “thread” fight [on social media] knows that when the other person stops, people feel they have won. Just because they made someone leave the room, that’s winning. Winning online is doing that as fast as you can. But if you are trying to have a conversation about Jewish identity and the bonds of the Jewish community, that is exactly the wrong method.

I believe that Jews thrived on insulting each other; it’s a big part of our life, it’s a big part of Jewish history. We should love it and live with it. I’m not talking about that, I am talking about essentially calling a herem [social ban]. I’m talking about saying there are people we would want to throw out of the room. We don’t have enough people in the room to start throwing everyone out.

What are you trying to do about it in Tablet?

We have had fights among our own staff about a lot of these questions – Israel, religion. These are battles between people who have worked together for many years, in some cases have been friends for many years. The fights can be very sharp, but they have always ended with somebody understanding something they didn’t understand before. Take for example our weekly podcast, “Unorthodox.” What we really wanted to do was to create a podcast where we could essentially mimic that kind of talk for our listeners. The idea is that three people who don’t agree talk about the news of the week – offering a model for how you could talk to your uncle who is pro-Trump, or your uncle who is a Bernie Sanders voter, or whatever. How those people would come together and actually talk about stuff. The audience for “Unorthodox” has become so attached to it that people started emailing us before Passover asking if there would be a Pesach episode. So we made one for them.

The people who created “Unorthodox” wrote and produced an “Unorthodox Haggadah,” based on the original but with a twist, and 30,000 people downloaded it. That’s a lot of people, and looking at this number you also saw that people got the model. People wanted something that would be both traditional and modern, a conversation rooted in a commitment to Judaism and Jewish history and its principles, and a desire to be part of the modern world and self-define. This tension caused people to come to us, people wanted our help. Listeners shared their own pictures reading the Haggadah on Instagram.

Do I really want to write about politics all day? It’s not all about Trump, it’s not all about Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu]; it’s not all about the Kotel or intersectionality or BDS. Living your life that way is what’s going to prevent you from having the society you want to have.

But today, and we see it in Israel too, the debate is not only about opinions, it’s about facts. Media diversity is not a cure for that.

U.S. Jews have a leadership problem. They don’t feel they have leaders who can teach them how to engage with Israel.

I agree. Historically, big news events drove people’s feelings, but in 2018 it’s very hard to parse the difference between big news and small news. Not so long ago, if there was a big headline from Israel, the average person would turn on CNN. A lot of average people don’t know how to prioritize media today. It’s disintegrating and becoming partisan.

I’ll give you a good example: A few years ago, there was a lot of conversation about anti-Semitism and violence against Jews in France. We wrote about it, and some of the responses to our stories – including from American Jewish leaders – were that we were being hysterical and paying too much attention to stories that should get less. And then [in January 2015], there was the Hypercacher attack [on a kosher supermarket] in Paris, and people said: You are not giving this enough attention! It was literally almost the same people who had criticized us before. When the news changed, the way they viewed the coverage changed. This is where I believe media plays an important role, and that American Jews should have a national communal conversation. The platform is important, and if we are having these conversations online, I believe the conversations will become more fractured, more about politics, more about what divides us, and Israel is included in that.

But it seems obvious from all kind of platforms: Israel used to be a pillar of American Jewish identity, and now it’s fading away as such.

Sometimes, when people talked about the relationship between Israel and American Jewry, they would say things like “American Jews don’t care about Israel.” I think that’s simply not true. American Jews have a leadership problem. They don’t see leaders who are engaging with the Jewish state – both as a concept and as the Jewish state that exists in reality – in a way that feels representative of them and of their politics. Jews in America simply don’t feel they have leaders who can teach them how to engage properly with Israel. I don’t know what you do about that.

Could you identify the last successful American Jewish leader? Or a time when there was one?

A demonstrator holds a sign reading "I am Charlie, I am Jewish" during a rally in Paris, Jan. 11, 2015.Credit: AP

I don’t remember. It’s important not to romanticize the past. American Jews’ relationship with Israel is complicated, and always has been, maybe with the exception of 17 hours in 1967 when Jews were uniformly excited and felt uncomplicated solidarity with Israel. But it’s not fair to ask American Jews to have uncomplicated feelings when we don’t ask that of Israelis.

Ambivalence as a good old Jewish narrative.

There is a lot of ambivalence in the idea of home. Is home good? It can be, but it can also be stifling. And has the Diaspora been good to Jews? Yes, but it has also been vicious. These are interesting and complex historical ideas that Jews are very alive to. A home is a huge part of what is both exciting and also maddening about Jewish existence, and so I want to say it’s okay to have rough edges. I’m not a person who asks anyone to have uncomplicated feelings. I don’t want Israelis to have uncomplicated feelings about their own country and I don’t want them to have uncomplicated feelings about American Jews or America.

I don’t think it is realistic or even good to expect American Jews to have uncomplicated feelings about Israel, about each other, about their Jewishness. What I would like to have is more knowledge and experience. I don’t really care what their views are, but I feel right now that in America, from every side of the political spectrum, Jews have a lot of ideas and not a lot of experience; a lot of ideology, not a lot of kishka. There’s a ton of posturing, politicking and ideology; there simply isn’t any true effort to think and feel and know and experience.

What, in fact, makes a magazine “Jewish”? In Israel, so-called Jewish journalism would typically have a religious angle. Whether it is Reform or ultra-Orthodox, there would be some kind of religious aspect. Here, in America, you’ll have Jewish sports and Jewish success stories and stories about Jews in Hollywood. Is there any definition of what makes a story a Jewish story?

Do you know [the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice] Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography? He said “I know it when I see it.” Same here. There are a lot of stories that somebody else might think are obviously Jewish, but will bore me to tears. We would never publish them. And then there are stories that I find very compelling and very interesting.

We had a wonderful series by an Asian-American on how the U.S. would deal with a situation in which those who identify as whites become a minority in this country. I got hate mail on that piece from both left and right, people telling me it doesn’t belong in Tablet, but I think it has a lot to do with the Jewish experience. I understand exactly why such pieces belong in Tablet, even though I’m not sure if the word “Jewish” is mentioned even once. Tablet functions in a unique way: Our content is very much driven by the people who work here and what is of interest to them. We send out different bullets that hit different targets.

Mishnah vs. Broadway

Tablet Magazine editor Alana Newhouse.Credit: Gili Getz for Haaretz

But does Tablet define Jewishness differently than other Jewish magazines do?

To me, the idea behind Tablet is to reflect the expressions and challenges and possibilities for Jewish identity – which involves history, religion, tradition and inheritance, yet also dynamism, reinvention and modernity. We want Tablet to create a platform where people can play with their own identity and make it richer. I can’t tell them in what direction they should take their identity. Maybe what is missing from one person’s life is a real understanding of Mishnah, whereas for another person it’s a deep understanding of the Jewish contribution to Broadway. We want to find ways to help and encourage everyone to find their way to whichever door is best for them, not to create a single door for everyone.

Who reads Tablet? What is the profile of your typical reader?

If Israel decides to block the ability of U.S. Jews to find meaning there, then it’s presumptuous to imagine that ‏U.S. Jews should care about Israel.

Tablet readers look like the broad profile of American Jews – that is to say, similar to the Pew study [“A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” from 2013, the most extensive and cited research of recent years about American Jews and Jewry] in terms of affiliation etc. Tablet readers are compatible with this profile, but they are not as troubled as the people who pretend to represent them [i.e., activists and people using social networks] with regard to their Jewish identity or religion or relationship to Israel. They do not have extreme, detailed, passionate feelings one way or another.

These are people who are dentists and lawyers and PhDs and people who go to work every day; they’re worried about their kids. Maybe they take a trip to Israel every once in a while and they feel some solidarity with Israel and some kind of concern about the Palestinian issue. There are some in American Jewish life who would say that this is the problem – that people are not engaged. That’s not what I’m seeing, at least not from Tablet readers. These are people who are engaged. We asked them what they would like to see more of in Tablet, and the answer was more content on American and Israeli political issues and more history. In fact, when we asked them what they felt was our weakest point, many answered Jewish history. That’s not a description of people who are unengaged.

Where is the blind spot of Israeli writers when they look at the United States? What don’t we see in American Jewry?

I don’t think that’s a fair question. American Jewry is very complicated, and most American Jews don’t understand American Jewish life. I think it’s a lot to ask of Israeli writers or thinkers. But you picked up on something: If you ask me what I think is the biggest problem between Israel and American Jewry, it’s presumptuousness on both sides.

Which means?

Worshippers attend a "Show Up For Shabbat" service at JCC Harlem following the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, in New York, November 3, 2018.Credit: \ ANDREW KELLY/ REUTERS

American Jews assume they are important to Israel and Israelis, but they may not be. In fact, there is an argument to be made that Israelis assume Israel should be important to American Jews. But if Israel decides to be, in many ways, a country that blocks the ability of American Jews – rightly or wrongly – to find meaning there, then it’s very presumptuous to imagine that American Jews should care about Israel. I feel that when I sit in on these conversations [on this subject]; half the time everybody walks in swaggering. Everyone. And everyone walks in talking about the problems they have with the other side. The conversation right now is very ungenerous.

Are you [personally] on Twitter and Facebook?

I am, but on a good day I don’t even look at Twitter. I have more and more of days like that. In the recent past I’d been more active on Facebook, but I have been staying away from Facebook too.

How is that possible? Isn’t social media an integral part of an online magazine editor’s job?

I’m trying to understand my readers, trying to speak in person with more Jewish communities. Since the presidential election in this country, I’ve been trying to do this more frequently. I am trying to understand what people would say to me, to my face. There is a wide gap between what somebody would say to you in person and what they’d say online. People come up to me at events and yell at me about things they have read on Tablet. I don’t mind yelling, I don’t mind sharp opinions, because they also want to tell me things about themselves. It gives me ideas for stories, and more dialogue. Talking face to face is approximately 6,000 times more effective and meaningful in my job then spending hours on Twitter.

Here is my problem: You see very smart people fighting online about Israel Apartheid Week at New York University. I’m not trying to tell anyone what they should care about, and I believe that’s an important story to cover. But it’s very hard to leave a Jewish guy in Ohio or Maine who’s fighting for his Jewish identity, and say his story doesn’t deserve as much play. It is as important, if not more important, than what, say, 48 kids at NYU have decided to fight about in their dorm room today. Limiting our communal conversation to bold headlines that sound alarms is preventing us from hearing how much Jews all around this country want to be part of a community with other Jews around the world.

You are a nonprofit magazine, but isn’t online traffic a factor? I’m guessing a piece about 48 kids at NYU would boost your traffic.

We are a nonprofit, yes. If I wanted more readers, I would just write about politics all the time because that’s what gets you more readers. Just make the whole thing about the IDF and JVP [Jewish Voice for Peace] and some Gal Gadot, and you have a sizzling website. That’s not what we are here for. This year we published two great pieces. One was about a Russian Jewish lullaby, I’m not going to ruin it for you because you should read it, but it’s a part of history I never knew. It’s terrific, I love this piece and I learned something so interesting from it. Before Pesach we published a short story about the prophet Elijah. I couldn’t stop thinking about it during all of Pesach; I think I had a nightmare about it. I have no idea how many people read these two stories, and I don’t care. As far as I’m concerned, I will end this year feeling that these two stories are the ones I’m most proud of.

A Hebrew version of this interview will be published on the Shalom Hartman Institute blog.

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