Robert Silvers, the founder and longtime editor of The New York Review of Books, died three days ago and is being justly remembered for his devotion to the editor’s anonymous calling and for his leftwing leadership. Silvers was a guide to the intelligentsia on how to think about US foreign policy. Adam Gopnik at the New Yorker summarizes:
His greatest achievement, in retrospect, was to make the Review, and with it American intellect, unapologetically opposed to the Vietnam War, even before that position was morally obvious. A satirical cover showing how to make a Molotov cocktail branded the Review as a magazine of the “radical chic” (though the joke was that his readers would need help to make the device), but in truth it published I. F. Stone and Noam Chomsky and so many of the others who helped distinguish the resistance in the dark Nixon years.
In The New York Times, William Grimes takes that achievement up to the present:
After the election of President George W. Bush and the advent of a more interventionist American foreign policy culminating in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Mr. Silvers recast The Review as a leading critical voice. Recapturing its militant spirit of the 1960s, he filled its pages with long, scathing critiques of the government’s diplomacy, its conduct of the wars and its record on civil liberties.
The great exception to Silvers’s political daring was Palestine. He embodied the Zionist values of his generation of Jews. He at times struggled with those values in his magazine, but the Zionist won out.
Silvers ran some exceptional pieces on Palestine, notably, Tony Judt’s Israel: the Alternative, in 2003. It urged readers to imagine one democratic state in Israel and Palestine because of two undeniable trends: 1, Jewish nationalism is an anachronism at a time when Jews are safe in the west and so many are getting intermarried and 2, the reality of Israel and Palestine is one oppressive state.
The true alternative facing the Middle East in coming years will be between an ethnically cleansed Greater Israel and a single, integrated, binational state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. That is indeed how the hard-liners in Sharon’s cabinet see the choice; and that is why they anticipate the removal of the Arabs as the ineluctable condition for the survival of a Jewish state.
But what if there were no place in the world today for a “Jewish state”? What if the binational solution were not just increasingly likely, but actually a desirable outcome? It is not such a very odd thought. Most of the readers of this essay live in pluralist states which have long since become multiethnic and multicultural.
Nothing has changed since 2003, it has only gotten worse over there. As Richard Falk and Virginia Tilley tried to tell the UN, it is one apartheid state.
But Robert Silvers ran away from Judt’s piece. He got a ton of opposition over it, he ran letters against it, and in the years since his magazine has been noted for Jewish writers who ennoble Zionism, Avishai Margalit, Jonathan Freedland, and Michael Walzer.
Silvers made it clear how Jewish-centric his approach to Israel was in an interview with New York Magazine four years ago.
It has become increasingly hard to write about issues involving Israel with any subtlety.
You have to get used to the fact that any serious criticism of Israeli policy will be seen by some as heresy, a form of betrayal, and we’ve had a lot of such denunciation. What such critics don’t say about the Review is that much of what we’ve published has come from some of the most respected and brilliant Israeli writers—the late Amos Elon, Avishai Margalit, David Grossman, David Shulman, among them. What emerges from them is a sense that occupying land and people year after year can only lead to a sad and bad result.
Notice the apprehension about “heresy, betrayal, denunciation.” The pressure Silvers felt wasn’t coming from Arab or realist quarters, but Jewish ones. Whatever Silvers’s instinct, his Zionist public overwhelmed him. I imagine there was a funding element in that. As Leon Botstein told the New York Times when he ended Bard College’s association with an academic organization that was calling for the boycott of Israel: “As an active member of the Jewish community, I recognize that the American Jewish community is disproportionately generous to American higher education… For the president of an institution to express his or her solidarity with Israel is welcomed by a very important part of their support base.” Similar forces surely operated in Silvers’s world.
I said exceptional pieces: David Shulman has done excellent reports on the occupation for the NY Review of Books. But that was inter alia. Silvers had an inability to take on the Jewish establishment in any way like the way, say, Frederick Crews smashed the Freud establishment time after time in the New York Review of Books.
Silvers told New York Magazine that he told “Golda” (Meir) in 1969:
“I come from a Zionist family, and I’ve seen, as I expected, remarkable accomplishments in Israel—in agriculture, in education, in technology, in helping people to start new lives. But I do keep asking myself about what happened to the Palestinians who lived here and the Palestinians who are now living under military occupation. And it’s very hard for me to reconcile the two.”
Silvers had that equivocation to the end. Jonathan Freedland reflected his liberal Zionist handwringing. He never ran a review of The Israel Lobby, by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. (Though he did run Michael Massing’s strong report on the initial controversy). He never ran Walt or Mearsheimer as authors, which would have been bold and generous. He did run Peter Beinart’s landmark 2010 piece, The Failure of the American Jewish Establshment, on the failure of the leading Jewish organizations to criticize the occupation, but that piece came from a very Zionist point of view.
It would be churlish to end this article with criticism. The magazine came to my house when I was a boy, and it comes to my house now. The joy of it for me is the essays on literature and history; they are a pleasure and an education. I bet that very few of those pieces arrive at the magazine in the form that I read them; that reflects tremendous cultivation by Silvers. The Times obit quoted Silvers on the craft:
“The editor is a middleman. The one thing he should avoid is taking credit. It’s the writer that counts.”
That is the model.