Leftist Magazine Jewish Currents Is Expanding — And Hiring A Leading Writer On American Jewish Politics

The recently relaunched magazine has hired Peter Beinart, suggesting a power shift in the politics of American Jewish media.

Jewish Currents, a leftist magazine founded in 1946 and initially linked to the Communist Party USA, was relaunched two years ago; its new editors sought to broaden the media horizon on Jewish topics and appeal to young, progressive American Jews who don’t identify with communal institutions’ consensus on Israel.

Energized by the leftist resurgence in American politics since the 2016 election, Jewish Currents has carved out a progressive niche for itself in the Jewish media landscape. It has published on a range of topics from Jewish identity in Uncut Gems to, controversially, a recent illustrated guide on how to carry out a medical abortion at home. It made a splash with two high-profile commissions last year: one, a review by the feminist theorist Judith Butler of New York Times opinion columnist Bari Weiss’s book How to Fight Anti-Semitism, and two, an op-ed by Bernie Sanders about his views on anti-Semitism and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

Now, Jewish Currents is preparing to expand further — and hiring one of the leading commentators on American Jewish politics and Israel. Peter Beinart, the author of the much-discussed 2012 book The Crisis of Zionism and a key voice on the left of the Zionist spectrum, is joining the magazine with a twice-monthly column, leaving his post as a columnist for the Forward. Beinart will retain his other affiliations, with the Atlantic and the City University of New York.

That Beinart would move from the Forward, one of the central organs of American Jewish life which has been in publication since 1897 in Yiddish and in English, to a smaller journal that has an explicitly left point of view, and which has provided a home for anti-Zionist views considered taboo by more centrist organizations, suggests a power shift in the politics of American Jewish media.

Jewish Currents’ publisher Jacob Plitman said in an interview that the publication is also expanding its roster of writers in addition to Beinart, bringing on as contributing or staff writers Lara Friedman of the Foundation for Middle East Peace; Elisheva Goldberg, media director of the New Israel Fund and a former adviser to former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni; Joshua Leifer, an associate editor at socialist magazine Dissent; and Chicago-based writer Mari Cohen. Plitman said that the magazine, a nonprofit, had significantly increased its fundraising, enabling growth. He declined to discuss specific fundraising figures, beyond saying that the organization had previously been operating with a less than $500,000 budget and now anticipated “significant growth” with new pledges.

“Peter in many ways has set the benchmark for what it means to both hold the Jewish community accountable to progressive values and do it in a way that's unflinchingly Jewish and that's directly in contact with our fears, with our history, with all the things that actually make us tick. And that's exactly what Jewish Currents is trying to do,” Plitman said. Plitman referenced Beinart’s influential 2010 essay “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” which identified an increasing alienation among young American Jews from Zionism as a primary concern and disillusionment with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. The essay, Plitman said, reflected his experiences growing up in a conservative Jewish community in North Carolina.

“There’s I think a tremendous need for a kind of American progressive Jewish publication which really sees itself as trying to intervene in a whole series of debates, and confront what I see as the kind of moral corruption of the American Jewish establishment and its complicity in various ways with some of the things that Trump is doing and the direction that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is taking Israel,” Beinart said.

“It just seemed really fitting that I could try to be a part of [Jewish Currents], given that I had been yearning to see something like that built,” Beinart said.

At 49, Beinart represents a different generation than the Jewish Currents cohort and a different context for thinking about questions of Jewish identity and Israel. He described how Jewish Currents had “started to reverberate up to my kind of relatively fuddy-duddy, Gen X, Upper West Side life.”

The expansion of Jewish Currents comes as the more mainstream Jewish center-left as exemplified by Beinart finds itself increasingly alienated during the Trump presidency. Last year, Trump, who has repeatedly presented himself as the best American president for Israel, told reporters that “if you want to vote Democrat, you are being very disloyal to Jewish people and very disloyal to Israel.” This week, Trump is welcoming Netanyahu and his political rival Benny Gantz to the White House, amid the administration’s push for a new Middle East peace plan that’s expected to be radically different from what liberals have advocated for.

“I think that the institutional Jewish world, particularly for people our age, is so far away from what kind of, the average kind of progressive millennial is experiencing or thinking about,” said Arielle Angel, Jewish Currents’ editor. “And so I think that we have given expression to something that just doesn't exist anywhere else in this space.”

The Forward, from which the magazine has hired Beinart, has struggled in recent years, laying off a large portion of its staff, including its former editor-in-chief, and ending its print edition last year. Last summer, in a step out of that period, the outlet hired Jodi Rudoren, the former Jerusalem bureau chief of the New York Times, as its new editor-in-chief. Some Jewish progressives have criticized the Forward for publishing right-wing voices like Zionist Organization of America leader Mort Klein, and Jewish Currents has published criticism of the paper.

"We loved having Peter in our pages and we’re excited to see his next chapter," Rudoren said. "We’re excited to see Currents grow and that there’s more investment in Jewish journalism. It was a great run for Peter at The Forward and I hope he has equal success at his next place."

Both Angel and Plitman wished the Forward well. “The Forward is the sole daily Jewish newspaper that has the resources and capacity to do the kind of reporting we need done,” Angel said, noting that what Jewish Currents does as a smaller intellectual journal that only publishes once a day isn’t comparable to what the Forward does as an outlet that also covers news.

“My experience at the Forward was a really good one,” Beinart said, adding that he hopes they “thrive.”

This is the second move that Beinart has taken to advance his progressive agenda on Israel–Palestine in recent months; he is also part of the progressive “Hatikvah” slate running for the World Zionist Congress, a historical legislative body dating from before the founding of the state of Israel open to all Jews worldwide to vote in with power over how certain funds are allocated inside Israel with regard to settlements and religious funds. Beinart hopes to stop funds being spent on settlement projects in the West Bank.

Welcoming Beinart also shows that Currents is welcoming in a more center-left strain of Jewish intellectual writing and potential readership.

“We don't have a manifesto,” Plitman said. “We’re the magazine of a community and a community that wants to speak for itself and also have some internal conversations that haven't always been given the air they need.” Plitman mentioned Norman Podhoretz’s Commentary magazine, which published writers like James Baldwin and Hannah Arendt, as a template: “These are heavyweights, you know, and we're trying to cultivate the heavyweights of today and tomorrow.”

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