Last week, I asked you to send me your comments, ideas, and critiques—and you did not disappoint. I’ve tried to get back to everyone individually, but for this mailbag, I wanted to highlight the most controversial questions. It’d be easy to sidestep these in favor of safer subjects, but precisely because they are so vexing, I thought my answers might be particularly helpful for the broader Deep Shtetl audience. Also, when you spend your time covering Israel-Palestine, everything else feels positively pedestrian by comparison.
First, I wanted to address a smart question that came from Twitter, because the answer gets to the heart of what this newsletter is all about. The tweet comes from the International Crisis Group’s Mairav Zonszein, in response to last month’s profile of Yair Lapid, Israel’s prime minister in waiting, and his drive for Arab equality in the country:
For those unaware, since entering politics, Lapid has publicly supported a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also opposed dividing Jerusalem as part of it. For the Palestinian side, this stipulation is a nonstarter. So why not ask him about this tension? There are two reasons.
The first is specific to this story: I’ve found that it is fruitless to press Israeli or Palestinian leaders to negotiate against themselves in the media. No mainline Israeli leader will preemptively agree to divide Jerusalem, just as no Palestinian leader will preemptively agree to give up the right of return to Israel for millions of Palestinian refugees. These are wrenching concessions that will happen at the negotiating table or not at all. (And, according to documents leaked from prior negotiations, they have happened.) Even Shimon Peres, the former head of Israel’s peace camp, who intended to divide Jerusalem, publicly said he didn’t when debating Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996. No responsible Palestinian or Israeli leader is going to gift concessions to the press rather than exchange them for tangible returns from their counterparts—and any who’d do so could never get elected by their respective populations. Lapid is a canny politician and has crafted his public positions carefully to avoid this trap. He was not going to reverse course because yet another reporter asked him about it.
Which brings us to the more important reason I didn’t ask this question: Because you didn’t need me to. As I wrote in this newsletter’s intro post:
Deep Shtetl is the stories behind the stories; the people off the beaten track who don’t appear on all your podcasts; the things and communities we think we understand but don’t. This doesn’t mean I’ll avoid the big-ticket items—far from it—but that I’ll try to ask different questions about them.
Lapid, despite disinterest from the international media until recently, is not off the beaten track. This means he gets asked all the usual questions—about Iran, the Palestinians, and so on—by the usual suspects. You don’t need me to ask those questions, because you have the New York Times and Washington Post, which will happily ask them every single time they talk to Lapid. (In fact, they did so the same week as my profile dropped.)
But you’ll notice that none of those outlets has covered Lapid’s dramatic evolution on Arab political participation and civic equality, despite its seismic consequences for Israeli politics. So that’s where I step in. I find asking the same questions as everyone else to be boring, and when I bore myself, I bore my readers. So I try to ask different questions and capture different insights. A journalist only has so many hours to devote to their craft. I work to make them count by covering the things that others aren’t.
And that’s what Deep Shtetl is all about.
Okay, now that we’ve dispensed with Israel-Palestine, it’s time to tackle something less controversial: critical race theory.
Rabbi Ron Roth writes:
I just finished an adult education series on Judaism and Critical Race Theory. I found material from many viewpoints: that Jews should embrace it, that Jews should reject it, and that there is a nuanced approach. What do you think?
I avoid terms like “critical race theory” (and “cancel culture” and other such buzzwords) because they are so politicized that they tend to obscure more than they inform. “Critical race theory,” for example, can refer to the academic approaches to racial inequality formulated by scholars like Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw; to the bogeyman of right-wing activists opposed to basic literacy about our country’s racial history; or to a popularized politics in many progressive spaces that bears little resemblance to its academic antecedents and makes dubious claims that the scholarship does not support. (See DiAngelo, Robin.)
People bring so many outside assumptions to terms like “CRT” that I can’t control, and so as a writer, I try to avoid such words and instead speak more specifically about whatever I mean. With that caveat, I’d say briefly that structural theories of racism can be quite useful for understanding the world around us. In particular, they help explain why bigotry persists in a society even when many individuals reject it. I’ve personally learned a lot from these insights, and careful viewers of my video series on anti-Semitism will notice their influence on my work.