Last year, Bari Weiss was one of a small group of student activists on the Columbia University campus protesting the alleged anti-Israel bias of some Mideast studies professors, which became an international issue.This year, as a junior, she has channeled her energies into helping to found The Current, a campus journal at Columbia dealing with current politics, culture and Jewish affairs.“I’m an activist at heart,” Weiss said this week, “but I think that a journal of ideas may have a longer lasting impact than protests and rallies.”
Weiss, a religion and history major, says she is proud to have produced the first issue of the planned twice-a-year-journal with a staff of five editors this past semester. Its topics range from female chauvinism to concern about admitting Turkey to the European Union to qualified support for Israel’s security barrier.The issue features “some of the best writers on campus,” according to Weiss, though she hopes to have more Jewish content in the next issue.The new journal is part of an ambitious project undertaken by the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem-based think tank, to foster the creation and support of serious journals dealing with Israel and Jewish life at campuses across North America.In addition to The Current at Columbia, new journals were published this fall, with the help of Shalem, at the University of Toronto and Brandeis. Next semester the list will grow to include New York University, the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton.Shalem also provided a grant to the existing periodical at Yale, the Yale Israel Journal.
The goal of the program is to “facilitate a place for Jewish students to have open discussions on contentious issues on their minds,” said Aharon Horwitz, 25, coordinator of the Azure Student Journal project.Azure is the Shalem Center’s quarterly “on issues concerning the Jewish public,” with both Hebrew and English editions.Horwitz is a graduate of Columbia University and fellow activist with Weiss in last year’s campaign that highlighted how some pro-Israel students feel intimidated by their professor’s Mideast statements.He made aliyah in July, an d started working on the Azure project the next day, running workshops for about 20 American college interns. About half the interns were budding journalists focused on the art of starting and sustaining a campus journal, from writing and editing skills to fundraising.
Shalem fellows like Michael Oren, a historian; Yossi Klein Halevi, a journalist; and David Hazony, the editor in chief of Azure, met with and advised the college students.Having observed the political activism at Columbia last year, Hazony said the Shalem officials felt “the fight needed to be taken to a deeper level,” noting that some of the student activists told him they “felt outgunned on an intellectual level, and it hurt them.”Hazony said college life lends itself to like-minded students bonding intellectually and socially over a common vision, and that producing a Jewish thought journal can be the center of the vision. He noted that many Jewish students on American campuses “feel in a profound way that they are in alien territory, and their fundamental assumptions about their identities as Zionists and Jews are not sustained by the intellectual atmosphere” around them.The Azure project is intended to create “a safe haven” for Jewish students to “think more deeply about Judaism, Zionism and the Jewish people in a non-hostile environment,” Hazony said. Providing an intellectual and social home for them through the journals can make them “feel they are not alone,” he added.The funding, in the form of grants of up to $2,500 per journal, came from a $100,000 gift from Roger Hertog, a New York businessman and president of Shalem, and his wife, Susan.
Hertog, board chairman of The New Republic and The New York Sun, said he became involved in the project because “universities can be lonely places for Jewish men and women, especially if they identify with Jewish or Israel interests.” He said that “while rallies and speakers are important, ideas really do matter” and that “journals can have a large impact” on the thinking of college students.Weiss agrees. She said her intense activism at Columbia last year taught her that “protests are really important sometimes” — Weiss still recalls attending the huge rally for Soviet Jewry in Washington in 1987 at the age of 3 — but that “ideas are very powerful,” and that Jewish students at Columbia are looking for something more compelling than “falafel and cool parties” to make them identify with Israel.An activist for the American Jewish World Service and on behalf of Darfur, Weiss had planned to go to Uganda last summer to work with the Jewish community there, but decided to go to Israel as an intern with the new Azure program, hoping to start a Jewish journal at Columbia.She said she wanted to challenge herself in terms of writing skills — she has a column every other Thursday in the Columbia campus daily, The Spectator — and help “build a community” around Jewish ideas and concerns.
Another Azure summer intern was Sarah Breger, a student at Penn who helped produce the first issue of Kedmah three weeks ago on her campus.In keeping with its name, Kedmah will focus on the future, she said, noting that the original title of Kadima was changed after Ariel Sharon used it for his new political party.“We switched it because we wanted to be clear that we have no particular politics or ideology,” she said.
Like the other new Jewish campus journals, Kedmah is a mix of long and short articles, interviews, reviews and fiction. It is open to a wide range of views and opinions on Jewish and Israel topics, Breger said, with the only red line so far that it will not take articles calling for the dissolution of the Jewish state.Breger, a co-editor, said Penn is about 30 percent Jewish, and the new journal “should draw from a large group of students who care about their Jewish identity.”
At the University of Toronto, which has about 3,000 Jewish students, the editors of the new journal, Notebook, which came out few weeks ago, say they are hoping to attract readers from outside the Jewish community as well.Non-Jews wrote one-third of the articles in the first issue, according to editor Brauna Doidge, a sophomore. She said Jewish life is thriving on campus, but there were no Jewish publications and she thought a journal would be “a great forum for ideas.”Horwitz, the coordinator of the journals project, emphasized that each journal was conceived according to its own vision and that Shalem was not imposing any ideological or political imprint.
“We are looking for quality and commitment, and we have faith in the students’ interests and talents,” he said.
Shalem has set up a listserv for the student editors to stay in touch, and hopes to sponsor a conference with well-known writers to attract more attention to the project.
Horwitz noted that a century ago modern Zionism was founded by young men and women who shared and debated their dreams and politics through their writings.
“If we can create a forum for dealing with the major issues facing the Jewish people,” he said, “these ideas could be with us for the next 50 years.”