Tablet Has a Politics Problem

On the publication’s connections to the West Bank settlement movement


Tablet Magazine wants you to want to be Jewish.

It wants you to feel free to talk about taking off your sheitel, putting on your sheitel, and marrying a non-Jew (as long as the kids are Jewish). The magazine’s religious and cultural coverage leans liberal, even progressive, but is rarely edgy. It takes on topics like intermarriage, ritual practice, and spirituality with the studied pluralism of good evangelists: everyone is welcome, regardless of denomination or observance. Its cultural content — articles about Yiddish theater, nominally Jewish rappers, and Israeli movies — aims to interest both college graduates gentrifying formerly blighted areas of Brooklyn and their bubbies. But the magazine’s arts, culture, and religion sections are secondary to its news and politics sections that do not evince pluralism or openness of any sort.

Tablet uses its tolerant, liberal bent on issues of culture or lifestyle as a counterweight to its staunch, right-wing position on Israeli politics, hiding in plain sight an ideology far to the right of that of its readership. Tablet’s politics, though buried between stories about hamentaschen recipes and potentially Jewish celebrities, amount to justification and support for Israel’s illegal occupation and settlement of the West Bank. And the publication’s relationship to the settlement movement is not limited to cheering along from the sidelines. Tablet Magazine and its parent company Nextbook Inc. are closely tied to people and organizations that work to make the creation of a future Palestinian state, and a just and peaceful resolution to the conflict, impossible.

Tablet Magazine describes itself as “a project of the not-for-profit Nextbook Inc., which also produces the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters book series.” Nextbook’s executive director is Morton Landowne who, as the website informs us, “is responsible for overseeing all facets of the project.” His short biography on the site mentions that he “also serves as vice-president of the Ohr Torah Stone Institutions of Israel, a network of institutions for Jewish Education, focusing on social justice and Jewish unity, founded in 1983 by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.” But what Landowne’s brief bio fails to mention is that Ohr Torah Stone Institutions are based not in Israel but in the West Bank, and that Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is not just an orthodox rabbi but the founding rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Efrat. The equation is simple enough: the executive director of Nextbook, which runs Tablet Magazine, finances and organizes the intentional violation of international law.

In 1983, the same year Nextbook executive director Morton Landowne marks as the founding of Ohr Torah Stone Institutions, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin became the founding rabbi of the settlement of Efrat. A city of more than 9,000 (mostly Americans or the descendants of Americans who moved to Israel after 1967) and an independent municipality, Efrat is nestled inside of the West Bank, south of Bethlehem and north of Hebron. Efrat’s city center is located a mere ten kilometers down Highway 60 from the Dheisheh refugee camp, a squalid area of about 1 square kilometer inhabited by 13,000 people. Efrat, like many other settlements, looks like a California suburb: houses with red-tiled roofs and swimming pools abound. Dheisheh barely has a sewage system; it is known as one of the tougher refugee camps. Its residents like to claim the first intifiada started there.

The Deheishe refugee camp (via Mondoweiss)

Efrat has grown closer to the refugee camp since 2011, when the Israeli government recognized an outpost called Givat HaDagan located only several hundred meters from Dheisheh. Israel’s recognition of the outpost came as a response to UNESCO’s admittance of Palestine as a full member. To call settlements like Efrat “obstacles to peace,” as the Obama administration has, is an understatement. The settlements, always expanding, are more like peace’s poison. Since 1967, they have done their damage. Even as negotiations stumble along, more houses in the settlements are being built. And now, in 2014, the two-state solution looks dead on arrival.

The contrast between Efrat and Dheisheh is ugly: American-born settlers lounging poolside while less than ten kilometers away Dheisheh’s residents live in crushing poverty under a brutal military occupation. The leisure of the former is built on the suffering of the latter. And it is this uncomfortable, ugly reality that Tablet Magazine consciously works to hide.

Tablet Magazine wants you to forget about the occupation.

Its writers try to pretend the dispossession and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes by the Israeli army in 1948 does not matter or did not happen. They want you to remember one thing: Israel is always the victim, and in the end it can do no wrong. Sometimes they convey this subtly. Yair Rosenberg, in an article about “leading Modern Orthodox rabbi and political dove Aharon Lichtenstein,” demonstrates Tablet’s signature erasure of the occupation. Writing about Gush Etzion, a large cluster of settlements in the West Bank, Rosenberg notes that “the area had been inhabited by Jews until they were massacred in 1948, and was resettled after the Six Day War in 1967.” And while it is true that one hundred and thirty Jewish settlers were killed in Kfar Etzion by Arab militiamen and Arab Legionnaires in 1948, Rosenberg instrumentalizes their deaths to claim Jewish indigeneity and justifies the military subjugation of a civilian population. “Well, we were there first,” is the underlying message. Using the term “massacre”, he turns the occupying force into a victim. Somehow, for Rosenberg, the American ex-pats enjoying West Bank suburbia are the ones who suffer, not the inhabitants of an over-crowded, filthy refugee camp. And this is only one, recent instance of Tablet’s role as the makeup artist for the occupation’s messy face.

On numerous other occasions, Tablet has shown its true colors as the Jewish blogosphere’s most respected defender of the occupation. Tablet’s writers seemed to miss the irony of demanding that Mahmoud Abbas recognize Israel as a Jewish state when their own publication fails to recognize the future boundaries of a Palestinian state. Conservative writer and Tablet columnist Lee Smith predicted, almost gleefully, that “ it’s good news then that the lake of crocodile tears shed for 80 years over the Palestinian cause is about to evaporate into the thin desert air.” With a combination of condescending smarm—best exercised by Liel Leibowitz when he referred to BDS supporters as “political idiots”—and turns of phrase you might find in a hasbara pamphlet, Tablet Magazine portrays Israel as the subject of undue opprobrium and labels nearly all criticism of Israel as misguided, if not anti-Semitic.

Tablet Magazine wants you to worry that there are anti-Semites everywhere. They publish paranoid stories about the ever-lurking specter of anti-Semitism. “Are Ylvis doing the quenelle?” They ask about the politics of the dancing fox in earnest. “Is NYU hosting secret conferences about Israel and Palestine?” They worry that academics are gathering covertly to defame the Jewish state; though apparently covert means live-tweeting and posting on Facebook. The number of Tablet articles trafficking in base paranoia is too great to count. The speculative, “they could be anti-Semites” article is a signature of the publication, second only to the outright propagandistic attempts to pretend the occupation does not exist.

Gush Etzion today (via The Guardian)

Tablet Magazine has a politics problem.

To see it, you must look at the magazine and its parent company as a totality. The executive director of Nextbook is the vice-president of one of Efrat’s central educational institutions. The magazine is part and parcel of the organized Jewish community’s attempts to prevent the realization of the two-state solution. Just ask Shlomo Riskin, the close colleague of Nextbook’s Morton Landowne. “This land is too small for a separate Palestinian state,” he said in 1995 during the Oslo Accords. “To the victor belongs the spoils if the victor is moral…For the immoral loser, there can be no spoils.” Riskin is a warrior in a holy war and Landowne is his “vice-president.”

The link between Tablet and the West Bank settlement enterprise is not anomalous. Instead, it is indicative of a fact that the mainstream American Jewish community has refused to acknowledge and in many instances has attempted to hide: American Jewish money pays for the building of settlements in the West Bank. The Ohr Torah Stone Institutions, while serving some Israelis, mostly bring young American Jews to the West Bank. These high school graduates, college students, and sometimes post-graduates, serve, whether they admit it or not, as the foot-soldiers in Riskin’s holy war. They are facts on the ground, guaranteeing that the occupation will continue into perpetuity. Some American Jews participate as much, if not more, than Israelis do in the occupation and settlement of the West Bank.

Tablet’s political writing gives the occupation and the deprivation of the Palestinians’ right to national self-determination an acceptable sheen. It is the mouthpiece of a community that, knowing its policies are unjustifiable and immoral, obfuscates its true ideology behind a well-designed website, a liberal affect, and a hip, young-ish vibe. Tablet lets Gen Y yuppies read about how to make their grandmother’s cholent as long as they don’t ask about the occupation. When it comes to culture, Tablet is like the cool parent who knows which bands are in and which bands are out. But when it comes to politics, Tablet is like the grandparent you can’t introduce to your friends because he’s still babbling about the schwarzes. Except, your racist grandfather is not participating in the violent subjugation of a civilian population.

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