Peretz’s beef with the world is broad. “He is grumpy about modernity—there is an oldness about him,” says Fouad Ajami, the conservative Middle East scholar at the Hoover Institute at Stanford and a close friend of Peretz’s. The two have traveled together in the Middle East—Israel, yes, but also Egypt and Saudi Arabia—and Ajami says the Arab world, unexpectedly, suits Peretz. “Arabs understand Marty. He has that Middle Eastern quality: me against my brother, me and my brother against my cousin, me and my cousin against the world.”
Even Israel worries him now. “There are very many ways,” Peretz admits, “in which Israel is getting worse.” The early leaders of Israel, he says, were all kibbutzniks and ascetics; now he sees a gaudy oligarchy, with twenty business groups, many of them built from single families, that control a quarter of the country’s large companies. When he visits Jerusalem—“a very poor city”—he notices ultra-Orthodox boys running everywhere, and he disdains the sanctimony of the very religious and the “superpatriotism” of the Russian immigrants. And yet set against these growing groups is only a tiny liberal society. Peretz participates now and then in a vigil in the East Jerusalem neighborhood Sheikh Jarrah, in solidarity with Palestinians threatened with eviction. The demonstration has drawn great attention in Israel, but there are at best 120 people there, he says. “Take away my friends, and there would be 115.”
But Peretz isn’t just defending a state, with its flaws. He is defending an idea, of Israel and of himself. “Marty regards himself as a watchman,” says Leon Wieseltier, the longtime literary editor of The New Republic, “one of the people who stands on the wall and makes sure nobody who intends to harm what he loves is approaching.”
On Israel, the watchtower has become a very lonely place—TheAtlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg is on it with him, Peretz says, but there aren’t too many others. Even at The New Republic, there are only four people who Peretz believes really understand what is at stake in Israel: Franklin Foer, who has just departed as editor; Richard Just, who is now the magazine’s editor; Peretz; and Wieseltier. (“John Judis”—another, more left-wing writer—“knows zero.”) Among this small group, Peretz is closest to Wieseltier (“one of my two or three closest friends”), but he finds he no longer calls to talk to Wieseltier about Israel. “It always has to be more complicated with Leon,” Peretz says. “He always has to have this extra piece.”
There is an old Dwight Macdonald story about the fragmentation of the Trotskyist left in which—after many, many factional splits—the fate of the masses eventually rests in the hands of a lone married couple with a mimeograph machine: the Weisbords, heroes of the Passaic textile strike. Then, Macdonald writes, there was a divorce, and “the advance-guard of the revolution was concentrated like a bouillon cube in the person of Albert Weisbord, who sat for years at his secondhand desk … writing his party organ and cranking it out on the mimeograph machine.” Like Weisbord, Peretz is divorced. And in place of a mimeograph machine, he has a blog.
“My thesis adviser used to say to me, ‘You’re the last guard at Thermopylae,’ ” Peretz tells me. He likes the image. “Although the last guard died, didn’t he?” He was slaughtered. Peretz thinks again. “So maybe I don’t like the comparison.”
Here is Marty Peretz in crisis. It is September 25, several weeks before he is scheduled to depart for Israel, and he has just parked his Prius at Harvard, on his way to a set of receptions that have been designed, in part, to honor him. It is the 50th anniversary of Harvard’s social-studies program, a radical’s redoubt where Peretz spent four decades, first as the program’s director and later as a lecturer. Peretz is fifteen minutes late to the ceremony, and he passes a crowd of about 25 protesters facing the lecture hall. He notices one sign in particular: MARTY PERETZ IS A RACIST RAT. But the protesters have their backs turned to him, and he manages to slide through unnoticed. He has that momentary, juvenile feeling of escape, of having gotten away with something.
The night before—a dinner in his honor at the Cambridge restaurant Harvest—had been spectacular. Peretz’s career had not been a conventional academic’s. Having married into wealth in his twenties, Peretz had never needed a professor’s paycheck, and he never had a scholar’s instinct for the esoteric. But he was a superb teacher, close to his students, and a mentor outside the classroom, too: He began lasting friendships with Al Gore, Yo-Yo Ma, James Cramer, and dozens of powerful lawyers and Wall Street types. His former students had endowed a research fund in his honor, with more than half a million dollars, and at the restaurant they all said the loveliest, most intimate things: how he had taught them what it meant to be a friend. How you could go a career without seeing someone inspire such affection. His children—Jesse, a filmmaker, and Evgenia, a writer for Vanity Fair—were at the dinner, too. This was Peretz as he wanted to be seen. “I’m a pretty vain guy, but it never occurred to me that my students were going to raise some money,” Peretz says. “I felt very touched.”