What happens when a student magazine committed to fostering dialogue and to featuring a diverse range of opinions opens its pages to critical views on Israel? The sobering consequences were brought home recently to the staff of New Voices, a magazine put out by the Jewish Student Press Service that features a lively blend of essays, reporting and commentary on issues of particular concern to Jewish undergraduates.
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. An initial $30,000 was disbursed, and in May 2006, representatives from Solelim and UJA-Federation visited the magazine to advise its staff on attracting more advertising revenue. By all accounts, the meeting went well; New Voices staffers emerged confident that their funding was likely to be renewed. Yet a few weeks later came a phone call from Dori Kirshner, director of the Jewish Leadership Forum at UJA-Federation, who had attended the meeting. She informed the publication it might not fit into Solelim’s plans after all.
What happened? The official story is that Solelim decided to shift its focus to a more pressing matter: underwriting those at the forefront of combating what groups like the Zionist Organization of America have depicted as a rising tide of campus anti-Semitism. Kirshner says it was Solelim’s priorities, not its feelings about New Voices, that changed.
But it’s hard to avoid concluding the decision was also political, a pointed message from a well-heeled group of Jewish donors to an undersized publication with a small but important audience that the magazine was not propagating the right message in a crucial battle: the campus wars on Israel. At the meeting back in June, the representative from Solelim on hand had asked New Voices for some copies of the magazine (a request that left its editors wondering whether their benefactors had ever bothered to read it before). Among the copies passed along was a May/June 2006 issue devoted to how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was unfolding on campuses. Included in that issue was an article casting doubt on claims made by mainstream Jewish organizations that universities are in fact awash in anti-Semitism. Another piece documented the emergence of alternative tours that take young Jews curious to see another side of Israel to the occupied territories.
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.”