Marty Peretz, down by the school yard

Former ‘New Republic’ editor now teaching English as a volunteer to refugee and foreign workers’ children.

Bialik Rogozin school 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bialik Rogozin school 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Spending his days teaching English to the children of refugees and foreign workers – and taking in the fine arts offerings of Tel Aviv – former New Republic editor-in-chief Marty Peretz says reports of his “forced exile to Israel” have been grossly exaggerated.
Peretz has a lot of free time these days.
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The distinguished editor moved to Tel Aviv in October, after more than 30 years as the backbone of the magazine he bought in 1974.
He’s still a partial owner of the magazine, and writes for his “The Spine” blog a few times a week, but for the most part, Peretz is a free man with time to kill – visiting old friends in Jerusalem, going to the opera in Tel Aviv and touring local art galleries.
Among the passions of Peretz’s Tel Aviv hiatus are the English classes he teaches twice a week to a group of teenage students at South Tel Aviv's Bialik- Rogozin school, famous for being home to pupils from 48 different countries. Many of the students there were born to African refugees who fled genocide or political persecution in their home countries.
This week at the school’s gleaming library, Peretz read excerpts from Richard Wright’s 1945 autobiography, Black Boy, to six students. Each of them said they were born in Israel, but had parents from Thailand, Congo, Ghana and the Philippines.
While they didn’t all seem to be rapt with the subject matter, the students appeared to have a confident grasp on English, and were able to read and comprehend the selections without too much effort.
Black Boy appears to be part of a larger theme on Peretz’s reading list – which includes excerpts from Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery, Frederick Douglas’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, An American Slave, as well as works by Kafka and Amos Oz.
He also plans to screen at least two movies, including Before Night Falls, the autobiography of openly gay Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas, and Girl, Interrupted, a 1999 film depicting a teenage girl’s extended stay in a mental hospital.
Additionally, the class will read excerpts from the books the movies are based on.
“One of the kids said to me, ‘Why do you give us such sad stories?’ I said, ‘Sadness is a big part of life,” Peretz related.
He added that he isn’t sure if the students know who he is.
“I think some of them have looked me up on Google,” Peretz said. “But I don’t think they quite understood what the New Republic is, or who I am.”
In a sense, the two have been one in the same since Peretz bought the magazine.
It would be hard to find an American publisher or editor more associated with their publication than Peretz has been with the New Republic for nearly four decades – during which time the magazine has maintained a liberal stance on US domestic issues, while being hawkish on Israel.
Peretz was majority owner until 2002, when he sold his stake in the company to two financiers, before selling the rest of his ownership rights to CanWest Global Communications in 2007.
In March 2009, he and a group of investors bought back the magazine, though he is no longer majority owner. This Wednesday, the New Republic announced that Peretz would become “editor-in-chief emeritus” of the magazine – though he told The Jerusalem Post that he is no longer carrying out any editorial responsibilities.
“I am in a symbiotic relationship with the magazine: I write the blog and I still write articles every so often,” he explained.
He added that while he is no longer an editor at the respected magazine, “my kids have to live with the fact that until I die, Marty Peretz will make an investment in the New Republic.”
With the exception of his teaching in Tel Aviv, Peretz seems to live a somewhat rarefied existence in the city.
He’s rented out a two-bedroom luxury apartment on the 19th floor of a “ghost tower” in central Tel Aviv, where he believes at least half of his neighbors are wealthy foreigners who live outside of Israel and bought the apartments as vacation homes.
The apartment affords a stunning panoramic view of the Tel Aviv bubble and Mediterranean seascape, with the din of the city streets below muted to a lingering whisper.
The walls of the apartment are replete with artwork Peretz said he bought at exhibits he’s attended since his arrival in Tel Aviv – all from up-and-coming artists.
The tower also overlooks nearby Y.L. Peretz Street, named after his great-uncle, one of the most beloved and influential Yiddish authors and playwrights of all time.
Peretz seems to enjoy the cultural distractions and comforts of Tel Aviv.
“I’ve made Tel Aviv my locale now because in Jerusalem you wake up in the morning with the Jewish problem, and you go to sleep with the Palestinian problem,” he said. “I don’t like my life to be about politics, about religion, or about conflict.
Jerusalem is a very dour city and it doesn’t suit me. It’s a nasty place – the religious politics suffuses it, the corrupt politics suffuses it and the ideological politics suffuses it.”
Peretz added that while he hasn’t attended the Sheikh Jarrah protests in East Jerusalem, as has been reported, he does plan on going just to see for himself.
At his apartment earlier this week, Peretz took issue with the narrative that has circulated in the media and in the blogosphere recently about his longterm sojourn in Israel.
The official line is that Peretz suffered a forced-exile of sorts from his long-time liberal haunts in New York and Harvard, where he was a sociology professor for decades – largely due to his fervent Zionism, and anti-Muslim leanings. This coincided with divorce of his wife of 42 years, Anne Peretz, in 2009.
Under this narrative, Peretz moved to Israel, where his bigotry towards the Arab world and unabashed support of Israel would find cozier surroundings.
When asked if he had “fled” to Israel, Peretz replied, “First of all, I don't run away from fights – and I used to be more belligerent than I am now, but I've mellowed. But I don’t pick fights, they sort of knock at my door.”
Among his more controversial statements was a blog post from September 2010 about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” in which he said “...frankly, Muslim life is cheap – most notably to Muslims.”
He added that he wonders “whether I need to honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment – which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.”
In the wake of his statements, Harvard canceled an honorary speech Peretz was schedule to give on the 50th anniversary of its Social Studies Department. Protestors took to the campus hounding Peretz, who issued an apology for his statements.
When asked about the statements, Peretz said his comment on the First Amendment was stupid, but added “Do I think that Muslim life is cheap to Muslims? Absolutely.  Unless they prove otherwise, and they haven’t.”
He referred to his observation as “self-evident.”
Peretz didn’t agree with the contention that he has become more right-wing over time.
“Well you know, I'm for health insurance, higher taxes for the rich – the emblematic issues of domestic politics, I’m there in the liberal consensus so to speak,” he explained.
However, he added that he won’t pretend to be optimistic about the possibilities of peaceful Palestinian national development.
“What do these Americans or Brits – what do these people think Palestine will be like?” he asked. “Will it be some version of Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq? Why will Palestine be different? It won’t – even though it has learned some democratic habits from you guys [Israelis]. That doesn’t change a culture.”
While Peretz denies he has moved farther to the right, he readily shoots from the hip, using colorful – at times unprintable – language to describe the United Nations, Israel Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman [“a fascist”], US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama – as well as what he calls the “outcroppings of ignorance,” where misguided hatred of Israel flourishes.
He also holds a special disdain for most of the British media, which he said “reserves a special venom for the Jews.” As for Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Peretz made its website his homepage because “I like to get upset early in the day. [Haaretz] would croak rather than write something pleasant about Israel.”
He said the difference between Jews like him and those studying at Harvard – or going into journalism today – is “a generational thing.”
“You know, when I was growing up, the establishment of the state of Israel had the grandeur of reversing history,” Peretz said.
He then smiled as he recited “a little ditty” he learned at the age of seven, singing “If you like salami, join the Jewish army. Fight, fight, fight for Palestine!” “Palestine, in an abstract way of course, was ours – it wasn’t ‘theirs,’” Peretz explained. “I mean, not that there there weren’t people there – or that there weren’t Arabs – but they weren’t sure that they were ‘Palestinians.’ There was a teensy, weensy, insignificant Palestinian national movement. People belonged to tribes and families and clans, but at least the word was our’s.”
If anything the 73-year-old seems a product of his generation – a liberal East-Coast Jew full of Yiddishkeit and heartfelt Zionism, for whom the founding of Israel remains a modern miracle.
Regardless of the reasoning behind his long stay in Israel – which he said will probably end in June – Peretz appears to be a man relishing his days in Tel Aviv, almost like a teenager who finally has the time for a daily relationship with an old flame with whom he’d always had to make due with a long-distance love affair.
The fact that the old flame still gives him new personal avenues to explore is not lost on Peretz.
“I want to do two or three new things before I go to the great rabbi in the sky.”