In 1959, the founders of the New York Review of Books responded to an essay “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” published in Harper’s Magazine. Decrying the blandness, passionless praise and uncritical spirit of the contemporary book review, and its production by a homogeneous and insular elite, they launched a new initiative. Almost 60 years later, with journals modelled after the NYRB from Istanbul to Dublin and from Port of Spain to Shanghai, the challenge to critical thought remains. But the cause differs both around the world and here in Israel.
The Tel Aviv Review of Books (TARB) aspires to follow in the footsteps of these publications, and provide an in-depth insight into Israel’s cultural and intellectual life. By way of book reviews, essays on a broad spectrum of topics ranging from religion and history to geopolitics and current affairs, literary criticism, original fiction and poetry, the TARB wishes to offer the international reader a much-coveted, yet rarely available, glimpse into the Israeli world of letters.
Israel is a bundle of complexities. As such, it attracts a great deal of international attention, fed in part by a bustling English-language media scene. However, often absent in these publications is a rigorous exploration of the ideas that make up the debate in and around Israel. Behind the headlines lies an expanse of cultural production that does not receive the coverage it deserves.
Today we are awash with media written with a critical spirit. But this bounty has paradoxically weakened its effect. With so many destinations, multiplication has led to fracturing. And so the divisions in the media mirror the divisions in society: ideological, religious, cultural, ethnic, and so on. So too with communities of interest, sensibility, and taste. And these divisions have themselves become blurry. What is clear is the result. Instead of encounter and enrichment we often find polarization and homogenization. Instead of being challenged we are often dulled by repetition. Arguments seldom face the blade of a sharp opponent. In Israel, as elsewhere, these developments are part of the media landscape. This is our response.
The TARB is an assembly of editors and a board of editors who agree on very little. We differ ideologically, culturally, ethnically, and religiously. Our interests run from the arts to the social sciences. We are united only by our understanding of the value of presenting different and often irreconcilable views on the same pages. We offer our readers a chance to peruse the thoughts, analysis and opinions of those against whom they might even fight a war. The purpose is not some Hegelian synthesis. Nor is it our objective to validate all opinions under the umbrella of an unstated relativism, or diversity for its own sake. This will only serve to present an artificial unity, such that does not exist in or about Israel. The goal is instead to surprise, or perhaps even to outrage, to inform, to delight. These are the qualities we look for when presenting our international readers with essays, books reviews, fiction, interviews, and poetry on topics by writers in Israel or related to Israel.
The TARB also has another objective: to offer an international audience a range of viewpoints. Authors who write in English or have connections with media abroad have a distinct advantage. But such connections and languages skills are often embedded in the very ideological, cultural, religious and social differences of Israel itself. We hope to offer instead to the international and domestic reader the diversity of voices one finds inside Israel. TARB publishes authors in the language of their choice, and offers a translation in English for an international audience. English here serves as a lingua franca, for those for whom it is both familiar and foreign.
We hope that this inaugural issue live up to this standard. It features articles tackling many aspects of contemporary Israel: its leadership, economy, diplomacy, attitudes to religion, politics of language, literary production and entertainment industry. We also present the “duel review” – two authors from different sides of the political spectrum reviewing the same books (here, Naomi Chazan and Ben-Dror Yemini on the decline of the Israeli Left) – as well as a section called “Reading Lolita in Tel Aviv,” offering a local perspective on regional and world literature. We are also fortunate to include an exclusive excerpt from the English translation of Assaf Gavron’s forthcoming novel Eighteen Lashes.
The TARB is a nonprofit endeavor. We, the editors, have invested countless hours in making it a reality, driven by our conviction that there is a void that needs to be filled. Equally, unlike an increasing number of publications, we believe our contributors must be remunerated for their work. A quarterly magazine, the TARB is a modest publication working on a modest budget. We therefore turn to you, our readers: if you, like us, think there is merit in this endeavor, please consider making a donation. You will find a “donate” button on our homepage.
We would like to thank the Romay Foundation for providing the seed funding that enabled us to get the first issue off the ground.