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Alan Wolfe: Why I Was Dropped at ‘TNR’

“Hughes Drops Jews” is one eye-catching title for a news item. “Hughes” is the young, rich, and well-connected Chris Hughes, new owner of The New Republic. “Jews” are some contributing editors of the magazine. The item appeared online in TheWashington Free Beacon, which bills itself as “dedicated to uncovering the stories that the professional left hopes will never see the light of day.” It is edited by Matthew Continetti, a Sarah Palin enthusiast and son-in-law of Republican neoconservative William Kristol.

The post was credited to the “staff,” and it was clear that, from the Free Beacon’s perspective, the fact that four of the dropped Jews were strong supporters of Israel implied that TNR, long known for its pro-Israel sympathies, was positioning itself to be more welcome in the halls of the Obama administration. (The president is not a hard-liner who supports all of Israel’s policies, including those, such as support for settlers, that threaten the peace process. Hughes had secured an interview with him, prominently featured in the same issue of the relaunched magazine absent the names on the masthead.)

As it happens, however, 12 people were dropped in all, and while four are indeed Jewish hard-liners, two (former TNR editor Peter Beinart and myself) were not, and the remainder were either not Jewish or not frequent contributors. All this led Jonathan Chait, a former senior editor of the magazine and now a commentator for New York magazine, who for some reason called me “reportedly Jewish,” to post on his own blog a mocking of the Free Beacon’s claims. “Hitler Alive and Well, Owning Jewish Magazine” is not as catchy a title—actually it’s something of an absurd one—but Chait was correct in at least some of his mockery. Surely a magazine anxious to shift to the left on Israel would not dump two leftist Jewish critics like Beinart and me.

Chait was wrong, however, about a number of points—and the errors, like the original article, say much about what is happening to journalism and about our polarized discussion of Israel. He argues that the title of “contributing editor” is a meaningless one, for “former staffers, friends of the owner, or people generally enlisted to fill out a masthead without getting paid.” True, I was not paid. But the invitation to be on the masthead, offered after I had been writing for the magazine for years, was one of the proudest moments in my life. I cited it on my vitae, it was routinely mentioned when I was introduced to audiences, and it served to help locate me politically, given that I had previously held a similar position at The Nation, a rival magazine of opinion.

TNR, of course, was as free to drop me as it was to invite me. My biggest regret is not that I no longer write for the magazine, but that the long reviews of multiple books on the same subject, the genre in which I specialized, were already being cut back in this age of electronic publishing even before I stopped.

If one believes, as I do, that the title “contributing editor” matters, then Chait also gets wrong TNR’s reasons for its decisions. I do not know why I was dropped, but it is not hard to guess. Memories at TNR are long—and they linger. In my 2011 book, Political Evil, I had criticized the views of a number of writers generally called “liberal hawks,” many of whom were identified with the magazine. (These were thinkers who, in the wake of Vietnam, believed that the United States had become too reluctant to deploy troops to further democracy and human rights; many of them supported the invasion of Iraq.)

Not only had I written favorably about Beinart’s recent book book on Israel, The Crisis of Zionism, in The Chronicle; I had also  been profiled in these pages, and my disagreements with such TNR contributors as Paul Berman and Jean Bethke Elshtain (even if she, too, was dropped from the masthead) were made public. Some people at TNR, I believe, took that personally. In any case, the message had been strongly conveyed to me that my days writing for the magazine had come to an end. It was only a matter of time before my name would be removed from the masthead.

With sharp differences at stake over Israel and its future, it is not surprising that both the Free Beacon and Chait would simplify matters and insist that the masthead was altered to reflect one thing and one thing only. For the Free Beacon, it was only about a shift in position over Israel. For Chait, politics had nothing to do with it; it was a matter of getting rid of people with little connection to the magazine. I believe there were a number of reasons—housecleaning, to be sure, but also an effort to drop voices considered either too far to the right or too far to the left on the ever-delicate subject of the Middle East. I am a big fan of Chait’s writings, and I have said so publicly. But in this case, his sarcasm is so far over the top that it misses the mark. Political magazines take political stands. By changing its list of contributing editors, TNR was doing precisely that.

I will miss writing the essays that I had regularly published in the magazine. I have no animosity toward it and wish it well. I hope that TNR does soften the tone of its Middle East writings and, especially, continues to distance itself from some of the ugly words about Palestinians written by those long associated with it. My only recommendation to the editors, for whatever it is worth, is this: When you drop someone who has written for your publication for as long as I did, let him know in advance. At the very least, respond to, rather than ignore, his request for a reason.

Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and a professor of political science at Boston College.

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