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.”
A graduate of the University of Maryland, Braunstein was raised in a progressive Jewish household and says that, during college, she had trouble identifying with either the reflexively pro-Israel community on campus or the fist-pumping anti-Zionists who turned out at many demonstrations. In her view, what makes New Voices unique is its ability to reach young Jews caught between these camps, people who would like to read articles that address Israel’s flaws as well as its virtues, not out of antipathy but concern. “Few people on campuses believe there is such a thing as progressive, critical concern for Israel,” she says. After New Voices received the phone call from Dori Kirshner, some admirers of the magazine who are hardly committed anti-Zionists tried to impart this message to Solelim. “New Voices…allows Jewish students to hear a broad spectrum of opinions and positions on issues that have a direct impact on their lives,” wrote Wayne Firestone, president of Hillel, in a letter to the grant committee. “I hope you will be able to help them.” Kenneth Stern of the American Jewish Committee likewise expressed support while admitting he didn’t always share the magazine’s politics. “I encourage you in the strongest terms to support New Voices,” he wrote.
In the end, Solelim announced a new arrangement: 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.
Perhaps because its resources are limited, New Voices reluctantly accepted these terms. (The magazine also receives funding from a different branch of UJA-Federation that is not connected to Solelim.) But the experience left a bitter aftertaste. “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.”