I interview Rabbi Michael Berenbaum (born 1945) Friday afternoon, June 25, 2004.
"I am still a observant and religious Jew. I do not use denominational ties but we daven [by a Conservative temple]. I was ordinated [Orthodox] by Rabbi Yaakov Rabin zt'l [at 23].
"I was ordained because of Vietnam, but it proved to be one of the most important things in my life. It imposed upon me a responsibility to the Jewish past -- and the Jewish future -- and to become a producer of Torah and not just a consumer."
The content designer for the Washington Holocaust Museum, and director of the Shoah Oral History project established by Stephen Spielberg, Dr. Berenbaum is a Holocaust scholar (and part-time professor at the University of Judaism). Married twice, he has four kids, aged 31, 26, 5, 4.
As I sit on the couch, his five year old boy asks Michael, "Who's that man?"
"He wants to interview me," says the rabbi.
"Are you going to be on television?"
"I don't know."
Two minutes later, the boy asks his father again, "Are you going to be on television?"
Near the end of the 90-minute interview, the boy comes in and plays with my digital tape recorder.
I do not have the moxie to ask the question I most want to pose to the professor: Which is the best Holocaust museum to take a first date?
"Could you sketch your Jewish journalism career?"
"I got into it by accident. I was the executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington [D.C.]. It was a consensus-making body that represented the Washington Jewish community. I found myself uninterested in representing the consensus and [quit]. Dr. Leonard Kapiloff, who had just bought The Washington Jewish Week, asked me to edit the paper. I said no, but I wanted to form an editorial and opinion page section. So I became the opinion page editor and book review editor. When I quit, I went back to work for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
"I'm an academic by training. I've always remained an academic."
A journalist writes me:
"Were you pushed out?"
"Yeah. I was pushed out after I testified against Kapiloff in an arbitration with Fenyvesi. I knew that would happen when I testified, but the oath of testifying is that you have to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."
"What are the obstacles to doing good Jewish journalism?"
"There are many pressures to not doing good Jewish journalism. The first pressure in those days was -- you're not supporting the state of Israel if you tell any bad news. The second is that you will weaken the community. You're doing a disservice to hardworking wonderful volunteers. Why not only tell the good story? Why not only give a good book review? Why not only give a good opinion?
"Journalists, by their nature, should be standing apart from, not only in the center of the community. You have to be prepared to be critical, to make some enemies, and to say some tough things. We ran a story shortly after I left, but it started when I was still editor, on the bypass of Meir Rosen. There were a series of meetings at the White House at which Meir Rosen was not represented. That turned out to be the key to understanding the Iran-Contra story because they [Israeli government] deliberately kept Meir Rosen out of the loop because the Israelis didn't want to ruin the ambassador as they were raising the issues of the Iran-Contra story. Remember, they were trading arms for hostages.
"The ambassador protested. The embassy was livid. When the Washington Jewish Week puts that on the front page, it weakens the Israeli ambassador, at a time when he needs to be strong. Israel's in danger. Etc. In the same way that Gary Rosenblatt got tremendous pressure when he had his greatest moment in Jewish journalism with the Baruch Lanner story. That's the moment he entered Jewish journalism. Nobody else could've made the case. It's a shanda fer de yidden. It's a shanda fer de goyim. How can you embarrass [Lanner]? You're indicting the Orthodox infrastructure. You make a series of enemies and you pay a price. The community is trying to raise funds. Institutions are trying to survive. Israel is in a precarious situation. Soviet Jewry is in danger.
"To be a journalist, there has to be streak in you that values truth-telling over other things. Institutions are better if they have to fear the press and behave appropriately lest X, Y or Z happen. I conduct my personal affairs as if they could appear on the front page of the Washington Post and I could hold my head high. I've seen too many people get into trouble, like this guy [Jack Ryan] in Illinois today who had to drop out [of a political race]. The fear of the press is like the fear of the wrath of God. The press finds out what we'd like to hide and God apparently knows what we'd like to hide."
"Did Dr. Kapiloff fire Charles because he wrote that Meir Rosen was an inconsequential ambassador?"
"No, Charles didn't write that story. Buzzy Gordon did under editor Renee Matalon."
"Tell me about your story on Operation Moses."
"Nothing happened after we ran the story except we got a ton of heat. Nothing happened after The New York Times ran the story. It was about ten weeks later that the Israeli government confirmed the story. After they confirmed the story, the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry stopped for a period of time, and then it resumed clandestinely. We reported something in the story that ended up making the organized American Jewish community look terrible.
"It was not a secret story. Leon Dulzin [head of the Jewish Agency, which feeds and rescues needy Jews] had told it to all of the people at the GA [General Assembly of Jewish groups]. He told 3,000 people sworn to secrecy because he wanted to convince them that their new campaign was for the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry, which was not the case. The American government had allocated $85 million for the rescue. If the Jewish Agency was going to be responsible for anything, it would be for the resettlement of Ethiopian Jewry, which is significantly less sexy than rescue. It was a minor part of the story that ended up being a major embarrassment to the American Jewish community. We did not know it at the time.
"We received significant heat. It was one of the things that soured the relationship between Kapiloff and Fenyvesi.
"Kapiloff did not fire me for this [Operation Moses story]. He did fire Fenyvesi. I was not party to the decision to run the story. I was a defender of the story because my name appeared on it. Kapiloff was pissed off at Fenyvesi because Fenyvesi let me take the full heat. Fenyvesi did not cosign the story with me. Mine was the only name on the story."
"Did any part of you die during that experience?"
"Was I upset by it? Absolutely. Did I relish being called a murderer of Jews? Absolutely not. I had devoted my entire career to the rescue of Jews and the preservation of the remnants of Jewish communities. I've been active in the rescue of Soviet and Ethiopian Jewry. I traveled to the Soviet Union a half dozen times on quasi-clandestine things.
"I ended up being disinvited from a couple of forums. My income suffered significantly. Prior to that, I spoke for Federations routinely. I did not speak for Federations for years thereafter. I became a persona non grata but that's the price you pay for doing what you do."
"Do you have any regrets about the article?"
"Had I known all the elements involved in that, I'm not sure I would've run the article. In one sense, it wasn't worth the costs that it had to my life, Fenyvesi's life, Kapiloff's life, and to whatever indirect role we had, if any, in the decision of the Israeli government to release the information on the rescue of the Ethiopian Jewry.
"If anything, the heat should have gone on Arye Dulzin. If you are doing clandestine operations, you don't reveal it to 3,000 people. You don't put ads in a newspaper. You don't issue a press release."
"What do you think about Malcolm Hoenlein's attitude towards Jewish journalism -- that we should only report what he says and ignore dissenting views?"
"That's ridiculous. Malcolm may represent the dissenting point of view at this moment."
"Would you be surprised to learn that Malcolm threatened The Jewish Week (NY) that if they published an article about a slush fund he kept that he would financially destroy the paper?"
"We had an independent owner. Most Jewish journalists are supported by a Federation. Therefore, there are limits on what they can say. They know those limits. You can count on two hands the number of independent Jewish weeklies and journals (independent of Jewish institutional life).
"Gary Rosenblatt knows how to walk the line, how to not go outside the consensus. Malcolm's slushfund, if there was such a slushfund, is a perfectly legitimate story to run. The President's Conference should be subject to scrutiny. Everybody behaves better if journalists are feared as watchdogs."
"Are there any Jewish publications that you would regard as a riveting read?"
Long pause. "That's a good question. There are sometimes things in the Forward that I like reading. I read The Jewish Week (NY), not because I regard it as a riveting read, but because it is a temperature of the community. I read the local Jewish Journal because I feel I have to be part of this community. I used to read Shma regularly in [Rabbi] Eugene Borowitz's day. The first time I published was in Shma. Gene had a unique capacity to have Jews listen to a variety of points of view in the Jewish community. It was a lively exchange. It's had a difficult time after it lost Gene's voice. Moment had a difficult time after it lost Leonard Fine's voice. Herschel Shanks is a good friend of mine but he doesn't have enough of a driven voice to give the magazine passion. He's too even-keeled and it comes out parve. I don't read Tikkun or Commentary regularly.
"JJ Goldberg was under enormous pressure years ago, when he was a columnist, for some of the stuff he was writing against Morton Klein (who can't even read Hebrew. He's a holier than thou returnee, not to Judaism, but to a certain type of political Zionism). The Jewish Exponent [in Philadelphia] dropped his column. I thought the Forward in Seth Lipsky's time was vicious [towards those to the left], inaccurate and irresponsible.
"I sit on a Foundation board and interview people who get Fellowships. One of the persons applying wrote about how she covered a Tikkun convention in New York and how Lipsky rewrote her story to be vicious and hard-hitting against Lerner, when she was impressed by the Jewish energy in the room. She had submitted an essay on her cowardice. She didn't fight for her story. I wouldn't let a guy do that to me. I would've stormed out of there. Even though her essay was well-written, it confirmed everything I knew about Lipsky. I didn't understand how this woman representing her cowardice was going to be her way of getting a fellowship.
"My most important involvement with the Forward on that was on the John Roth story. (Related article.) (Michael's letter of support for his friend.) He was named as my successor as director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum's Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. The Forward issued an attack on his writing. They misquoted him completely. I met with the author Ira Stoll. Roth and I have written a couple of books together. He's one of my best friends in the world. I put a $10,000 check on the table. I said, 'If you have quoted him correctly, you can keep this check.' Ira Stoll had quoted him from a Harry Jaffe article that had misrepresented the essence of Roth's remarks and left out a series of qualifiers. It was the act of ultimate irresponsibility. He had used the Net, a right-wing paraphrase, as though Roth had compared Hitler to Reagan.
"Roth then said, forget it. Roth was a tenured full professor at Claremont. He thought, why do I want to go into a political sewer? The most interesting thing about the attack by Morton Klein on Roth is that Klein had never read a thing that Roth had written."
"What were the essence of JJ's articles on Klein?"
"He had followed Klein's career. He followed the attacks Klein had made. Klein is a bulldog. JJ wrote critically of Klein's knowledge base and attack base. Klein attacked ADL for using Tom Friedman as one of its speakers. Even Marvin Hier defended ADL. 'Friedman is part of the American-Jewish dialogue.' There was an attempt to drop JJ's column over that."
"Where are you in Israeli political terms?"
"I was in Israel for the Six Day War. I drove a truck, collecting garbage. I was part of the group that knocked down the Mandelbaum Gate. I've been to Israel 50 to 60 times. I've lived there five times. My Hebrew is roughly as good as my English. I'm there several times a year. I don't believe in a peace process. I believe we need to engage in a divorce process. The Left is wrong because it believes there can be peace. The Right has presented no viable option. I have been pragmatically in favor of Israeli withdrawal from the [occupied] territories for 25 years. Twenty years ago, I said the only viable solution was a two state solution. I saw no way to have a Jewish democratic society and control millions of Arabs who want nothing to do with the Jewish state. When you divorce, you lose things that are rightfully yours, but you get on with your life."
"What's your critique of JJ Goldberg and the Forward?"
"I don't like to read newspapers online. I like to hold it. I like to read newspapers late at night or early in the morning. I don't like to read more than a thousand words online. The Forward doesn't come out here for a week.
"I have four critiques. First, I don't think he has yet established an Op/Ed page that reflects dramatic opinion in the [style of] The New York Times and Washington Post. That you have an understanding of the issues and you shape an agenda. There are enough people writing enough powerful stuff that the Forward should be able to do it. There are usually two or three good stories each week and the rest of the paper is not worth reading. The Culture section is sometimes very good. JJ hasn't fully established his own voice."
"Is he that good of a journalist? I always found his columns tame."
"He may be too tame. Lipsky was anything but tame."
"What's your critique of Gary Rosenblatt and The Jewish Week?"
"Gary earned his place in Gan Eden [world to come] by virtue of what he did on the [Baruch] Lanner thing. He's too tame. He often comes off as if he is ball-less. When he had some good journalists working for him, he restrained them from covering anything too controversial. He had Larry Cohler [renowned investigative journalist]. I helped train Larry. You've got to let him do his stuff and stick by him and 99% of the time you will end up with something of worth. Larry was essentially driven out. He found out that Gary was without balls. Larry may sometimes be without brains but he is never without balls. Gary tends to be tame and timid.
"The Jewish Week doesn't have a good Arts section or a good book review section. Jewish life in its intellectual sphere is flourishing. How a paper like that in New York isn't covering books and literature and arts and dance and theatre at the epic-center of where that is exciting, I don't understand. I don't understand that with my friend [Rob Eshman] at the Jewish Journal. How can you not cover this? Stuff gets covered in The New York Times book review or the New York Review of Books but The Jewish Week doesn't say a goddamn thing about it. The Jewish Journal doesn't say a goddman thing about it."
"They do but they assign spineless book reviewers such as Sandee Brawarsky."
"For example, compare the review of David Myers book by [Rabbi Daniel] Bouskila [in the Jewish Journal] with the way [Samuel Moyn] from Columbia reviewed it in the Forward and you see the difference between something that is serious and something that is not serious. In the areas I know well, these guys [Rosenblatt, Eshman] are not committed to it. Even if you were Gary and you wanted to play it safe, you could raise every issue you wanted to raise through the book review section that you don't want to review elsewhere."
"It's so bad. The Jewish press is so bad."
"It's pathetic because it could be so good."
"What's your critique of the Jewish Journal and Rob Eshman?"
"I like Rob. It has some good stuff. Not enough of it. I'm not sure he's given full scope to the creativity of Los Angeles."
"How much status do journalists for Jewish media have in Jewish life?"
"Jewish journalists who want to write on Jewish issues and want to have an impact and earn money are better off going mainstream and writing occasionally on Jewish issues. They get greater freedom, exposure, and financial incentives. Take Tom Friedman, Richard Cohen, Wolf Blitzer. Wolf began writing as the Washington correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. He used to work for me. I used to pay him $25 a week for his column. Wolf wasn't even that good of a journalist. Wolf got one piece of luck. He went to work for CNN during the Gulf War. He knew all the weaponry because of what he'd covered for Israel. He knew the Pentagon and the Middle East better than anyone else."
I learn that the UJ salary range is comparable to the Cal State system. A full professor gets about $85,000 a year.
"Professors have more status in Jewish life."
"Professors can wrap themselves around a specific expertise. They know something. A good journalist should know how to know something. The Jewish community likes people who are credentialed in the secular world."
"What have you learned about journalism from being a subject of it?"
"The more I know about a field, the less a journalist is accurate. I suspend my belief that they know something in fields that I do not know.
"I saw how George Will wrote a column on John Roth. I knew his exact sources because I had read all the originals. It was remarkable how little work he had done and how much he had bought hook, line and sinker the same sources as everybody else. I know exactly how Gabriel Schoenfeld did his thing in Commentary on the Holocaust thing and how little he knew. When Walter Reich was fired from the Holocaust Memorial Museum, The New York Times said Reich was concerned with scholarship rather than being a chairman. I knew how much Reich had cut the scholarly budget. He had a disrespect for learning. The Times had it completely wrong.
"I think journalism has gotten worse because people don't have to do the same legwork we had to do because they can rely on the Net to do their legwork for them. They all quote somebody else quoting it and they don't go to the original event. Take a look at those who saw the three-hour funeral for Paul Wellstone and those who saw the five minutes and series of articles refashioned by it. Peggy Noonan had never seen the funeral before writing in the Wall Street Journal. She just watched the five minute clip. I can tell you on the Roth controversy where everybody got their information. I read all the original material.
"Journalists in Israel fuel the debate. They shape the government. They shape the perceptions of society in the same way that mainstream American journalists do. People don't do that in the Jewish world. They're not regarded as having that status."
"Would you agree or disagree with the adjective dull applied to most Jewish journalism?"
"How could you disagree with that? It's a fair judgment."
Jewish journalist Allison Kaplan Sommer writes:
Tikkun magazine writes: "Michael Berenbaum, an Orthodox practitioner." Michael emails me: "Not correct. I am a most unorthodox practitioner."