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Peretz in Exile

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Peretz as radical, in the early seventies.  

Peretz is nine years older than the state of Israel, and before independence, he was already dreaming of it, singing ditties for Jewish Palestine. He was raised in a family that was not religious—each Yom Kippur, his father would dance a ludicrous jig outside the synagogue, mocking the faithful—but which was deeply Yiddish. He had a difficult home life and a terrible relationship with his father, “a very belligerent man.” Peretz swore that he would be less awful to his children than his father had been to him, and he left home as soon as he could, graduating Bronx Science at 15, heading to Brandeis and then to graduate school at Harvard and a brief first marriage. Still, he held fast to a vision of home—not his parents’, at 176th Street and Grand Concourse, but Israel. “My father was a member of one Zionist party, my mother was a member of another,” Peretz says. “They had a terrible marriage, but their terrible marriage was fought over where the lines of Israel should be.”

In his twenties, Peretz’s world was the organized left. He and Anne Farnsworth became close while working on a doomed insurgent congressional campaign in Cambridge and married in 1967, each for the second time. She was a painter who would become a family therapist; she also happened to be enormously wealthy. “While there were many reasons that someone with no agenda would find Anne winning,” one of Peretz’s friends says, “for the man in question, the partner had to be rich.” Anne Peretz’s money gave the couple access rare for their age—they were, in their twenties, among the leading donors to Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign. For Peretz in particular, it allowed him the opportunity to conjure a world. They turned their house into a constant salon and gave the intellectuals who clustered around Harvard a social home.

“Arabs understand Marty: me against my brother, me and my brother against my cousin, me and my cousin against the world.”

Peretz’s ideological commitment to the left, though fervent on civil rights, had always been a little thin. By 1967, it was near total collapse. The problem was Israel. In the aftermath of the Six-Day War, some leftists had begun to see Israel as an imperial power. The black youth group SNCC circulated a pamphlet depicting the Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan with dollar signs covering his epaulets. Peretz and Walzer wrote an essay in Ramparts, the radical magazine, trying to convince the left that it was a just war, not another Vietnam, but they could feel themselves losing the argument. The Peretzes helped fund, that year, a 5,000-person convocation in Chicago of civil-rights and antiwar activists, designed to generate a third-party ticket to the left of the Democrats. It was a disaster. A black-nationalist caucus introduced a set of proposals not only condemning the “imperialistic Zionist war” but also proposing committees to reform the nation’s “beastlike white communities.” Some delegates ordered lavish dinners, charged them to the conference, and left Peretz to pick up the tab. “I just saw a black-Jewish conflagration coming,” Peretz says.

By 1974, Peretz had found a more effective way to shape the future of liberalism: He bought The New Republic. The magazine had an august if faded history, with a politics well to the left of his own. For nearly all of the 36 years since, Peretz has kept it roughly that way, hiring editors more liberal than he and punctuating the magazine with neoconservative ideas. “Marty always wanted the magazine to be left of where he was,” Kinsley says. “He felt he owed that to the institution and his audience.”

The New Republic also served another purpose. Peretz adores collecting people. Even early in his career, at Harvard, he had assiduously cultivated the role of mentor, and his friendships with younger men were sometimes so intense that they could seem to border on the erotic. “Every so often, we’d talk about how he would sometimes grow obsessed with young men,” says one of his friends from that time. He had an equally fierce compulsion to promote them, and The New Republic soon becamea platform to turn graduate students into public intellectuals. From Harvard he brought E. J. Dionne Jr., Kinsley, Hertzberg, Wieseltier, and Andrew Sullivan. His joy in their ascent was palpable: When he hired Hertzberg the second time, Peretz impulsively took him to his own tailor and paid for a bespoke suit.

At its best, the magazine was an ideologically contentious mixture that prodded liberalism and cultural criticism forward. At its worst, it could be a self-indulgent enterprise, prone to scandal, its young editors alienating its long-term subscribers. Peretz assigned stories about Israel and foreign policy. Otherwise, he gave his editors broad latitude. “I’m perfectly comfortable,” he likes to say, “with people smarter than me.”


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