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In Conversation: Robert Silvers

For many who read it in the late sixties, the Review retains a distinctly radical flavor—there was that notorious cover with a “how-to” drawing of a Molotov cocktail.
That “how to” was misleading. The diagram could not be used to make a bomb. The Molotov-cocktail cover seemed to us no more than an emblem of what was happening at a time when there were violent protests going on, and we were carrying in the paper a long account of the riots in Newark. We were not in any way recommending it. But publishing it on the cover was a serious mistake. It gave many a false impression of the paper, and some made the most of it. And now, 45 years and two generations later, here we are still talking about it.

You published Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg …
We published Chomsky’s “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” in 1967. What was it about? He said that many intellectuals in America were in some way complicit with different aspects of the Vietnam War, whether in social and political science, economics, or the uses of science for military strategy. They had been putting forward indefensible rationalizations for it. In academe and out of it, they were contributing to the war effort, and he didn’t think they should. It was the responsibility of intellectuals to seek truth and not to contribute to that kind of government violence. Few essays we published had such an effect. Later I met Dan Ellsberg, who’d been out there in Vietnam as an intelligence expert. Then he went to work for rand. He outlined to me a very cogent critical essay on U.S. policy in Vietnam, and we published it. Not long after, he released to the Times the Pentagon Papers he’d acquired at rand.

Didn’t he leave the papers in your office?
Yes. After the New York Times had published them, he said, “Can I keep some papers at the Review?” And we took the papers, and we put them in a corner, next to a radiator, in a suitcase, and they just sat there. For months.

Eventually he retrieved them.
A man called and said, I’m from the so-and-so law firm, and I’ve been asked to pick the papers up.

On the Middle East, the Review has carved out a fairly distinctive role.
We’ve had some of the most informed and today realistic articles I know of from Rob Malley, the Middle East Director of the International Crisis Group, and Hussein Agha of St. Antony’s, Oxford, particularly in their very skeptical view of the Arab Spring. They called their essay “This Is Not a Revolution.”

It has become increasingly hard to write about issues involving Israel with any subtlety.
You have to get used to the fact that any serious criticism of Israeli policy will be seen by some as heresy, a form of betrayal, and we’ve had a lot of such denunciation. What such critics don’t say about the Review is that much of what we’ve published has come from some of the most respected and brilliant Israeli writers—the late Amos Elon, Avishai Margalit, David Grossman, David Shulman, among them. What emerges from them is a sense that occupying land and people year after year can only lead to a sad and bad result.

I’ll not forget going to see Golda Meir—then prime minister—with Isaiah Berlin in 1969. Golda asked me, “What do you think of all this that you’ve seen?” And I said, “I come from a Zionist family, and I’ve seen, as I expected, remarkable accomplishments in Israel—in agriculture, in education, in technology, in helping people to start new lives. But I do keep asking myself about what happened to the Palestinians who lived here and the Palestinians who are now living under military occupation. And it’s very hard for me to reconcile the two.” And she said, “We’re not an occupying power, an aggressive power. It’s like Pakistan and the break with India. People thought they had to leave and form a different society, have their own country, defend themselves.” And I said, “Is that really the way you want Israel to be seen? As a kind of Pakistan?” She thought and said, “No, I want to say that we’re a moral people, as concerned about the Palestinian people as anybody else.” And then she said, “Isaiah, what do you think?”

She put him on the spot.
He said, “Military occupation. Seldom a good thing. Seldom works out. Shouldn’t go on and on.”

The Review has not only had the sort of life span many of its early contemporaries would envy, it’s also become, for a book review, increasingly adaptable in its subject matter—regular articles about movies and television and now about the Internet and life online.
Well, Zadie Smith is a writer I much admire. She reviewed the film The Social Network along with Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. She thought there had been illusions about Facebook; she did not feel that the “friendship” on which Facebook was based was truly a coherent idea of friendship at all. As she said, “If we really wanted to write to these faraway people, or see them, we would … What we actually want to do is the bare minimum.”