Commentary, American Jewish Committee Separate

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The New York Sun

Commentary Magazine, a 61-year-old opinion journal that served as an incubator of neoconservative thought, is splitting from the American Jewish Committee.

The Jewish-themed, editorially independent magazine initiated its secession, in an effort to court new and larger donors who wish to fund Commentary directly. Its editor, Neal Kozodoy, said the magazine is committed to increasing its online presence.

In the fall, the governing board of the American Jewish Committee granted the split, beginning with the January 2007 issue. The committee has transferred to Commentary all of the magazine’s intellectual and financial assets. In the near-term, Commentary will pay rent to keep its offices at the committee’s East 56th Street headquarters.

Commentary Inc., as the magazine’s new, independent publishing vehicle is called, plans to establish a 12-person board — three members of which are to be appointed by the committee, Mr. Kozodoy said.

The committee’s president, Robert Goodkind, said Commentary editors made a convincing case to the organization that some would-be donors “want to give to Commentary — not to all of the panoply of things AJC concerns itself with.”

News of the break-up culminates a 16-year trial separation of sorts. Since 1990, the magazine — which for years previously was funded by committee dollars — has been responsible for raising money to cover its operating expenses, besides office space, supplies and utilities.

The approximately $1 million Commentary raised last year to account for the gap between its revenue and expenses went to a fund owned by the American Jewish Committee and administered by the magazine. “It was a fine arrangement, as long as we were raising money year-to-year,” Mr. Kozodoy said. “Never in the past 16 years did we approach people for major, long-term gifts.”

Now the journal has established itself as an independent, nonprofit organization. Large donors will have more input on how their money will be spent, Mr. Kozodoy said. Funds raised would likely go toward “growing and developing beyond the print magazine, while maintaining the print magazine as the jewel at the center of the enterprise,” he said.

Mr. Kozodoy said he planned to begin publishing original online content early next year.

A political strategist and historian who wrote a foreword to a forthcoming book about Commentary’s early years, Edward Luttwak, said the split makes sense. Mr. Luttwak told The New York Sun that while the right-of-center magazine is trying to shape opinions, the committee is trying to reflect the opinions of the slightly left-of-center American Jewish community.

“The reason to separate has been present for many years,” Mr. Luttwak, a senior fellow at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said. “The reason they hesitated is, essentially, the American Jewish Committee admired Commentary and was proud of Commentary. And, certainly, Commentary had no hostility to the American Jewish Committee — even if it was an inappropriate association.”

Founded in 1945 as a center-left, anti-Communist journal, Commentary had by the early 1970s shifted significantly to the right under its then-editor, Norman Podhoretz. Mr. Podhoretz, who led Commentary between 1960 and 1995, is now the magazine’s editor-at-large.

Published 11 times a year, Commentary distributes about 32,000 copies of each edition of the magazine. Despite its relatively small circulation, the magazine has been disproportionably influential in matters of domestic and foreign policy. Its many notable contributors have included a former U.S. senator of New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a former American ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and a prominent American philosopher, Francis Fukuyama.

A tagline on the cover of Commentary’s December 2006 issue, reads,”Published by the American Jewish Committee,” and a short note from the committee is published on page 2. “The sponsorship of Commentary by the Committee is in line with its general program to enlighten and clarify public opinion on problems of Jewish concern, to fight bigotry and protect human rights, and to promote Jewish cultural interest and creative achievement in America.”

The cover of the January 2007 issue looks much the same — save the committee’s cover line and note. “Commentary was established in 1945 by the American Jewish Committee, which was the magazine’s publisher through 2006 and continues to support its role as an independent journal of public opinion,” a note beneath the masthead of next month’s issue reads.

A professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, Ruth Wisse, said Commentary is an anomaly in the Jewish press because of its editorial independence and its global reach. “It’s determined to be a Jewish magazine, without limiting itself to a Jewish audience,” she said.

“That risk has paid off for the American Jewish Committee, more than it ever imagined. Had the American Jewish Committee pulled the strings, it would have held it back — originally from becoming the liberal voice that it was, and, later it would have held it back from becoming the neoconservative or conservative voice that it is.”

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