Beyond Freedom of Speech

Reconsidering TARB's values in light of the New York Times Tom Cotton controversy.

Earlier this month, the New York Times published a controversial op-ed by US Senator Tom Cotton. Entitled “Send in the Troops,” the article called for an “overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain, and ultimately deter lawbreakers.” Publication sparked something of a rebellion by Times staff, many angry that the liberal newspaper had published a call for the government to use military force against its own citizens. The newspaper eventually published an apology, with editorial page editor James Bennet standing down.

The Tel Aviv Review of Books watched the story unfold with interest. In our original mission statement, we wrote that “TARB is committed to free speech, thus providing a platform for all views, including controversial ones.” However, what we—or the Times, we imagine—would or would not publish is not related to freedom of speech per se. “Freedom of speech” is the freedom to express one’s opinion without fear of government repression. It does not mean a citizen can say whatever they want without consequence; nor does it mean that a newspaper or journal has an obligation to publish something—or anything, for that matter—on any particular topic. A person’s right to freedom of speech has not been impinged if a comment piece is not published in the outlet to which it has been presented for publication. But at the same time, there is some value, we would argue, in publishing contrarian, and indeed controversial views. Put differently, shouldn’t editors feel free to publish contentious material without fearing for their jobs? Common sense suggests that there should be a threshold, a limit of sorts. But set by whom? And to what end?

The challenge for us has been, and remains, in respecting a broad plurality of opinion. Many publications with a similar orientation to ours, such as the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books, have a clear ideological line. Closer to home, there are any number of Israel-related publications with a clear ideological line, such as +972 and Mida. We set out to do something different. We seek to commit to diversity in the broadest sense of the word—be this actively working toward an authentic gender balance among our contributors and publications covered, a rich representation of ethnic, religious, cultural and backgrounds among our writers, and encouraging submissions in all of the languages spoken in Israel. This is a work in progress: but we are definitely moving in the right direction.

Diversity also means a diversity of views. Our writers subscribe to a range of political opinions: left- and right-wing, Zionist and anti-Zionist, religious and secular, progressive and conservative, and many other perspectives that fall in between and beyond these broad-brush categorizations. Unlike the Times, however, we don’t publish op-eds. In fact, we consciously eschew a polemical approach. This is helped by our endeavor to see the world primarily through the realm of books: it encourages a slower, more considered response to events. On this particular issue, we suspect it might have been more useful to publish an article considering the military’s relationship with the citizenry over the course of American history. When has the military been used domestically, and why? How have the debates concerning this issue evolved? Otherwise, we might have considered running an article looking at how the role of the police has evolved over time, with a focus on the different proposals for reform.

As Moriel Rothman-Zecher writes, in his essay on David Shulman in this issue, “Perhaps there exists somewhere in the wilderness, the mythical Objective Reviewer, though I am dubious.” Whatever we publish on the role of the military or the police would of course be defined by who writes it. In our last issue, for example, we published Ari Blaff—who has a mainstream Zionist perspective—on teaching the Arab-Israeli Conflict; last autumn, we ran a piece by David N. Myers, chair of the New Israel Fund, on what he called Israel’s “illiberal democracy.” Whilst our duel review does allow for placing two perspectives on a contentious issue side-by-side, we don’t see this format as appropriate (or, indeed, helpful) in every case. Our editorial discussions don’t concentrate, however, on the narrow issue of whether we should commission a left-winger or a right-winger to explore a certain topic. Nor do we enforce strict ideological parity (whatever that may be) in each issue. Sometimes there might be more right-wing perspectives, sometimes more left-wing ones. Sometimes, we hope, it will be hard to tell. The point is that we are committed to engaging with views and perspectives on their merits, placing an unapologetic emphasis on amplifying under-represented voices.

Why do we do this? We believe that it is vitally important that we present our readership with the material with which to shape a deeper understanding Israel—and on their own terms. Diversity is meaningless if it excludes diversity of opinion. The assumption that someone who disagrees with you is your enemy is, sadly, one of the curses of the current age. It is evident, we think, that the popularity of an idea does not (in itself) mean that it warrants wide exposure; but the bar for exclusion must be set as high as is possible. For us, this point is less about the position espoused, but on its quality of argumentation. In other words the phrase “I might be wrong,” is a good place to start; not least because it forces one to think more deeply, and clearly, about one’s own positions. The writer Thomas Chatterton Williams recently observed: “Division of labor in human affairs is necessary. We need activists, and we need journalists…Journalism cannot become synonymous with activism without losing its own particular mission in the process.” Our particular mission in the process is to allow everyone to come to the table, as long as they are willing to play by the rules.

As a result of these discussions, we’ve revised our mission statement, and it now reads as follows: “The Tel Aviv Review of Books is committed to respecting and representing a broad spectrum of opinion underpinned by intellectual integrity and good faith.” It is hard, these days, to find solid blocks of intellectual integrity and good faith on social media, or even the media in general. We do hope, though, that at TARB, you’ll find it in abundance.

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