As progressive Jews braced for the announcement of the Trump administration’s proposal on Israel and Palestine last week, news of a media reshuffling tempered the dread: Jewish Currents, a publication with roots in American communism, had staffed up, bringing on several new writers including Peter Beinart, whose 2010 article “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” in The New York Review of Books prefigured a revitalized, insurgent Jewish left.
Beinart’s decision to move his regular column to Currents from the pages of the more well known Forward cements the publication’s renewal: In the last two years a great many Jews—lefty, under 40, and especially both—have found their way to Currents as readers, writers or attendees at their parties (I’m no exception, having reported for Currents’ relaunch in early 2018). Whether publishing a guide to DIY abortion, critiquing the censoring of anti-Israel sentiment on campus, publishing Bernie Sanders on anti-Semitism or Judith Butler on Bari Weiss, the editors have aimed to “intervene” strategically in the discourse, says editor Arielle Angel. Such an intervention is especially welcome at a moment when the rise of anti-Semitism and white nationalism have thrust major questions about the meaning of Jewishness directly into progressive discourse.
I spoke with Angel about the magazine’s recent work, what’s next, and how progressive journalism interacts with the movements it chronicles.
Sarah Seltzer: What are some of the major themes that have emerged in the first two years post-relaunch?
Arielle Angel: A major theme is anti-Semitism and the ways that is being manipulated by the right. It may not influence elections here—American Jews are Democrats, and they vote for their team like most Americans—but a certain segment has conflated anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel and BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions]. One of the roles we play is just being able to shine a light on this well-funded, well-oiled machine that is essentially driving not just a narrative but a legal strategy to silence dissent on campuses, down to high schools like Fieldston in New York City.
SS: The buzziness of the publication and the popularity of your events has exposed serious rifts in organized Jewish life.
AA: People say to us all the time, “I had abandoned my Jewish identity, but I feel like I have a home here.” It’s a phenomenon that we’re tapping into. So what is that about? The rise of Trump and Netanyahu and the spike in anti-Semitism have provided, for some, a desire to dis-assimilate, or the understanding that it’s already happening—that white Jews especially are losing their shield of whiteness. But for all of us, if Judaism is notably important and dangerous right now, people are then asking, “What does it mean for me to be a Jew if I’m alienated from the politics of the Jewish establishment?”
SS: When we talk about the “Jewish establishment,” it typically means major nonprofits, federations, and religious umbrella groups that have a broadly Zionist bent, but for young Jews, there’s something about it that’s more than that.
AA: Right. It’s not just about politics, it’s about creating a spirit of intellectual inquiry that veers away from being dogmatic. We’re asking the question, “What does it mean to be Jewish?” as opposed to getting people to identify as Jewish in the service of “Jewish continuity” [aka procreation with other Jews].
SS: Young Jewish activists are having a moment, whether it’s protesting the occupation or unjust immigration laws. People lump you in with these protests, but you’re also there to cover them as journalists.
AA: As these movements grow in strength, it will be part of our job to hold them accountable. Activist spaces are not traditionally the best places for intellectual inquiry, so Jewish Currents serves a different and important role: to lift them up—making them better, helping them sharpen their analysis. They’re also doing the same to us when they critique our coverage. I see us as all together in an ecosystem rather than a movement.
SS: With media contracting and layoffs everywhere, how does it feel to be expanding?
AA: This revitalized magazine almost came out of the sky like manna. Jewish Currents has been around since 1946, it was operating on a shoestring—and then we got this initial grant [from the Puffin Foundation]. Everything that’s happened since then has been a gift. I try to think of it that way: However long it lasts, it will have done something.
It’s significant that we hired Peter, that he will have a big role going forward, but also it matters that he came to us—something that younger Jews built. I’m proud that we’ve avoided the desire for bloggier pieces and clickbait. We only publish once a day and have our quarterly magazine, so we’re not trying to be first. We’re trying to make sure every piece pushes the current conversation.
SS: What do you hope non-Jews get out of reading?
AA: Some of our biggest champions on the Internet have been non-Jews, because we’re not just writing about Jewish issues, we’re writing about the political and cultural reality on the ground in the US. And some of those things, like labor, abortion, or immigration happen to overlap with Jewishness and some frankly don’t. They intersect with Jewish life because they are what Jews by and large care about.
SS: One of the things I appreciate about Jewish Currents is that you avoid hanging a news hook on a person in the story who happens to be Jewish.
AA: We want to use Jewishness as a way to open onto the world. It has to be a prism with which we view things, and not a way to retreat into ourselves.
SS: How do you respond to criticism that this media-savvy Jewish movement to end the occupation is erasing Palestinian voices in the struggle?
AA: This is a really hard thing. Behind the scenes, we’re talking with a lot of Palestinians with the intention to center their narrative. But they have to trust us, to have a reason to want to publish a piece with us. That takes time.
It’s a double-edged sword. I do think that Jewish voices do get more attention in this sphere. But it’s not like the Jewish right is shutting up. So we need to hold our space as leftist Jews.
SS: After Jared Kushner’s so-called “Peace Plan” was released, I saw abject despair from some activists on Twitter, despite all the renewed energy among young people.
AA: The group IfNotNow in particular is predicated on the idea that if American Jews shift their support to be against the occupation, it will change things. It doesn’t seem clear to me that that is going to make the difference. Christian Zionists have as much influence if not more, plus there’s geopolitical alignments, the military-industrial complex, all these things that have nothing to do with Jewish Americans. But in this process, Jewish Americans do have the opportunity to remake ourselves in a way that is not in Israel’s image.
And though I’m not on the ground, if you listen to activists who are, they will say: In order to do the incredibly difficult work they are doing, they have to believe the occupation will end. Oppressive regimes end.
SS: If Bernie Sanders, who has a Jewish Currents byline, wins the nomination, will you be following him on the trail?
AA: I certainly hope we will be able to. If we’re going to grow, we have to provide a dimension on Bernie. Jewishness is a part of the picture with him, and his popularity is coming at the same time as this energy among young Jews. Even if Bernie doesn’t always know how to talk about it, he knows there’s a connection. That’s why he wrote a piece for us!