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I read Bari Weiss’s new book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism out of curiosity. I wondered if she would really speak truth to power and slap the hand that pays her salary, the New York Times. She did not. She is a woman of the left and a talented columnist, both of which come across in this small, easily read volume. I do not envy her the task she set for herself. I do not know if anyone could write an approachable appeal, that would both address the prominent sources of anti-Semitism and keep the ear of even one major faction on either side of the great political divide.
This is a lengthy and critical review, arranged with the following section headers: “A few administrative details,” “Book outline,” “Too far right?” “Not far enough left?” “Naming radical Islam,” “Review of reviews,” and finally some closing thoughts under “Civility?” Fair warning: this ended up being a very critical review. For balance, you should go read Cathy Young’s review, and Melissa Langsam Braunstein at the Federalist, both of which I link and excerpt in the “Review of reviews” section.
A few administrative details:
How to Fight Anti-Semitism was published 10 September 2019. At 206 pages plus four thank-you pages, it fits nicely in a cargo pocket or pocketbook. There are no footnotes, no endnotes, no index, and no references. The prose is very approachable, making it a fairly quick read.
I borrowed the book from my local library, first in line for one of two copies being processed for library use. There were no other patrons jumping on the waitlist. I got it on a Thursday afternoon, read it cover to cover with one cup of iced coffee, closing the book with my notes about three hours later.
It has been three weeks since reading and first drafting some rough thoughts, as I mulled things over. A check of the Mesa library kept showing no one else requesting the book. Checking the Maricopa County Library District, there was only slight interest. Usually, when a new book shows up in the cue to be processed for library loan, there is a bit of a waiting list. Not so with this book. Indeed, even in the Phoenix library system, the vibrant Jewish community in Phoenix has not generated a strong demand for Bari Weiss’s warnings and recommendations.
Bari Weiss begins with a personal account of hearing about the deadly attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, October 27, 2018. She grew up in that community and was bat mitzvahed in the Tree of Life congregation. This raised in her mind the question of whether and how America had become dangerous for Jews. While a woman of the left, she is determined to clearly identify the full spectrum of threat sources, not just those approved by Democratic Party partisans. Weiss describes “a three-headed dragon” of anti-Semitism: far right, far left, and radical Islam. She seems to invite all people of goodwill in America to consider her warnings, yet from the very outset there are hints her notion of people of goodwill excludes a great many Americans:
This book is for anyone, Jew or gentile, who is concerned not with what is fashionable but with what is true. This book is for anyone, Jew or gentile, who loves freedom and seeks to protect it. It is for anyone, Jew or gentile, who cannot look away from what is brewing in this country and the world and wants to do something to stop it. (p.25-6)
Weiss seeks to build a brief historical case for each of these threat sources and then address the current environment and possible near future. She starts with the right wing, then, having tried to bank some credit with the left, turns to criticize the left, followed finally by the especially sensitive (to the left) Islamic source of modern anti-Semitism or Jew-hatred. Having made the case for concern about a rise in violent anti-Semitism, Bari Weiss ends with a series of recommended actions for Jews to take.
Yes, the recommendations are for her fellow Jews, not a mix of recommendations that include that wider audience she seemed to invite at the beginning. This disconnect was noted in a relatively favorable review we will come to in a bit. Ultimately, then, Bari Weiss has crafted a readable threat-assessment and self-help book. I cannot speak to the efficacy of the self-help portion, and invite Ricochet members with a better vantage point to address this. Choosing such a self-limiting approach might help explain the lack of interest, at least in the Arizona reading public.
Too far right?
Bari Weiss seeks to keep Jews on the liberal left, painting an inflated picture of the far right. She includes the Ku Klux Klan when Jonah Goldberg laid out in Liberal Fascism the plain truths that the KKK was reborn in the early 20th Century as fanboys of The Birth of a Nation. [Liberal Fascism, p.259] As any informed journalist should know, this movie was given a rocket fuel boost by the first Progressive Democrat in the White House, President Woodrow Wilson, a stone-cold white supremacist. Wilson shows up nowhere in this brief account, certainly not on the left side of the ledger, and we do not learn that the KKK’s party was the Democratic Party.
Father Coughlin is entered into the right side of the ledger as a prefigurement of the dangerous demagogue Weiss wants to make President Trump out to be. Yet, if she had consulted Jonah Goldberg, at least before he was undone by the 2016 electorate, she would know that this is a mistake. Father Coughlin was far more of a leftist. He hated the KKK because they hated Roman Catholics, but he advocated for FDR and state control of the economy.
In painting the standard liberal left picture of populism and nationalism leading up to World War II, Weiss smuggled in the assumption that Nazism was of the far right, when Jonah Goldberg showed many years ago now that:
The Nazis’ ultimate aim was to transform both the left and the right, to advance a “Third Way” that broke with both categories. But in the real world the Nazis seized control of the country by dividing, conquering, and then replacing the left. [ Liberal Fascism, p.70]
At the heart of this chapter is President Trump, and his supporters, who Bari Weiss paints in all the ugly and false terms one expects of a New York Times writer. Her perceptions were certainly not contradicted by those on the conservative side who she acknowledged:
In our collective fight against anti-Semitism, I am grateful to be connected to . . . Meghan McCain . . . . And to have deepened my friendships with . . . David French . . . .
While Weiss believes she is proceeding fairly, reasonably, her circle of friends and advisers cited are well within the left and anti-Trump establishments. Missing from her list of friends and allies are such names as Dennis Prager, Ben Shapiro, and Jonah Goldberg. She name-checks Ben Shapiro as another public figure who has been deluged with vile anti-Semitism online, but even though her previous job was with the Wall Street Journal, Ben Shapiro is probably too politically toxic in her professional circles. The same likely holds for Dennis Prager, who just happens to be the co-author of a 2003 book, Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism. In short, those on and off her acknowledgments list help explain her tone-deafness to how her choice of words misdirect threat perceptions and reinforce divisions rather than build a broader defense against violent anti-Semitism, including ultimately genocidal hatred of Israel.
Not far enough left?
Bari Weiss showed journalistic courage in turning a light on the left as a source of anti-Semitism. She points out the path Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has taken, both in its direct anti-Semitism and in its alliance with radical Islam. The result has been a movement of the Labour Party to the extreme left. Weiss names Rep. Ilhan Omar and the Squad, and points to the Democratic Party’s failure to reject or discipline Omar in their party. Weiss even calls out President Obama on one point, criticizing his outrageous circumlocutions about the attack in France on a Jewish deli.
In providing context for the current threat on the left, Weiss never mentions Woodrow Wilson as an instigator of the modern KKK. She is silent on FDR and the Holocaust. Both of these Democratic Party giants also imprisoned many thousands on suspicion of disloyalty during war. See Johan Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, generally, on both of these presidents.
Of course, to bring up FDR, who Father Coughlin supported, would be to open the door to questions about her current employer. The New York Times and its owner covered themselves in disgrace with suppression of credible reports of the Holocaust. They had earlier been all but the American branch office of Pravda during the Holodomor and the Great Terror. Two weeks before How to Fight Anti-Semitism was published, another book, very relevant to this portion of Weiss’s argument, was published: The Jews Should Keep Quiet: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust.
The Jews Should Keep Quiet further reveals how FDR’s personal relationship with Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, American Jewry’s foremost leader in the 1930s and 1940s, swayed the U.S. response to the Holocaust. Documenting how Roosevelt and others pressured Wise to stifle American Jewish criticism of FDR’s policies, Medoff chronicles how and why the American Jewish community largely fell in line with Wise. Ultimately Medoff weighs the administration’s realistic options for rescue action, which, if taken, would have saved many lives.
The New York Times, in its Holocaust coverage during the war, was part of that establishment effort, to hide the full truth and keep everyone on the side of the FDR administration.
The publisher at the time, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, and his family were members of the “our crowd” German Jews in this country, and they didn’t want to alienate the powers that be in government and business. So questions of Jewish identity were often diluted in the paper’s pages, lest the Sulzbergers be seen as being on the “pro-Jewish” side. A conscious decision was made from the top to downplay stories which might give the impression that The Times was a “Jewish newspaper.”
Today, apparently, questions are not to be asked of a newspaper that publishes blatant, classic anti-Semitic cartoons. Nor are questions to be asked of Michelle Obama, who may be the Democrats’ future nominee. While the long streak of attacks on Jewish men in Brooklyn are seen on film to be perpetrated by young black men, no one is to raise questions about African-American anti-Semitism, personified in Al Sharpton, Jessie Jackson, and Jeremiah Wright, in whose church Barack and Michelle Obama sat for all those years.
Jews being hit with rocks. Jews being chased down and punched. Jews being beaten with belts. Jews being stabbed on the street. Jewish school buses being set on fire. Jewish women having their wigs ripped off. Swastikas being painted on sidewalks. Jews being forced to take off their kippot. These are scenes that could be straight out of 1940s Nazi Germany, or perhaps from France today, but they’re not. These recent assaults have all happened in Brooklyn, New York. The worst part is, no one seems to care.
See my earlier piece on Jamestown 1619 for more detail on the disgraceful response by local Democratic politicians and media. Further, consider the behavior of the New York Times since World War II, including in the middle of Weiss’s book project. Deborah E. Lipstadt started a review of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016:
In late April 2019, the New York Times international edition published a cartoon depicting a blind, kippa-wearing President Trump being led by a dachshund with a Jewish star around its neck. The dog’s face was a distorted caricature of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visage. The message was indisputable: Israelis qua Jews, despite being the national equivalent of lapdogs, have the unique ability to blind presidents and shape political events. Beguiled, not only does Trump do their bidding, but he is, like the other unwitting victims on the world stage, blissfully unaware of what is going on. The cartoon gave vivid expression to the conspiracy theory, or rather myth, that is at the heart of anti-Semitism and did so in an image that, as was widely noted, could have appeared in Der Stürmer. How did it end up receiving the New York Times’s imprimatur?
Bret Stephens, another columnist recruited to the New York Times from the Wall Street Journal, clearly denounced his own paper.
Imagine, for instance, if the dog on a leash in the image hadn’t been the Israeli prime minister but instead a prominent woman such as Nancy Pelosi, a person of color such as John Lewis, or a Muslim such as Ilhan Omar. Would that have gone unnoticed by either the wire service that provides the Times with images or the editor who, even if he were working in haste, selected it? The question answers itself. And it raises a follow-on: How have even the most blatant expressions of anti-Semitism become almost undetectable to editors who think it’s part of their job to stand up to bigotry?
So, Bari Weiss already had some evidence that she could put her employer’s publication under critical scrutiny without losing her job. Since the infamous New York Times cartoon was published in late April of 2019, there was time to consider the paper’s responses in the fuller context Weiss sought to apply to other current actors and incidents.
The Times faced increased backlash after their non-apology and was forced to issue a new statement claiming the paper was “deeply sorry” after a white nationalist terrorist opened fire at a synagogue in California on Saturday, killing one and injuring three others.
“We are deeply sorry for the publication of an anti-Semitic political cartoon last Thursday in the print edition of The New York Times that circulates outside of the United States, and we are committed to making sure nothing like this happens again,” The Times said in a new statement. “Such imagery is always dangerous, and at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise worldwide, it’s all the more unacceptable.”
Were it not for the white nationalist, and the need to attack President Trump with clean hands, would Bari Weiss’s employer ever have made the revised and extended apology? There was time, especially with this book’s format, to include the Times April cartoon as an instance of the link between the left and radical Islam.
In citing authority for the problem of the left’s near singular focus on Israel as a villain, Bari Weiss quotes Susan Rice instead of Nikki Haley:
[A]s Susan Rice put it less poetically but just as clearly: “No country is immune to criticism, nor should it be. But when that criticism take the form of singling out just one country, unfairly, bitterly, and relentlessly, over and over and over, that’s just wrong—and we all know it.” [106-7]
Weiss could have had the same and better from Haley, but that would raise questions about Trump and Obama. Why is this choice especially problematic? Weiss is silent on Susan Rice, as President Obama’s U.N. Ambassador, engineering the U.S. abstention, on a vote only days before President Trump took office, so the rest of the Security Council could pass the infamous U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334, declaring Israeli settlements illegal. So, Weiss might just wonder if Susan Rice and her old boss were a bigger part of the problem on the left. Are the moves in American politics, against Jews and Israel since 2018, a continuation of what President Obama set in motion in 2009?
Naming radical Islam:
Bari Weiss gives an accurate account of the reemergence of dangerous enmity towards Jews (and Christians) from Muslims in the Middle East, radiating out to the world. She starts with an account of medieval Roman Catholic Europe generating blood libels that excused large scale murders of Jews, and claims:
until the twentieth century, it was Christianity that was responsible for the murder of more Jews than any other ideology on the planet.
We do not have good enough records to compare the pagan Roman empire, or earlier pagan conquests, each with their own ideology, if Christianity is an ideology, but the point should be taken. At the same time Weiss does not whitewash the systemic oppression in the Islamic world, under a form of legal segregation and discrimination called dhimmitude. By this account, it is Western Christian European empires, in the 19th Century that brought their virulent blood libel accounts into the Islamic world, and the Islamic world was already fertile soil.
Once majority Muslim societies experienced Christians and Jews empowered not to submit to dhimmi status, the reaction was extreme. Contrary to self-flattering secular Western intellectuals’ belief, more education brings with it deeper anti-Semitism, through reading and connecting texts supporting an account linking abandonment of the old-time religion with decline in material and political success. Weiss points out that the same thing actually happened in Germany leading up to the Nazi regime. While she does not make this claim, beliefs of Prussian, then greater German, superiority and rights to more territory, lebensraum, was observed at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century.
Weiss believes in America, as a unique solution that has allowed Catholics and Protestants, who once slaughtered each other in religious wars, to brunch together. That same American system was relatively hospitable to Jews, living in their faith, from the founding, as Weiss recounts. She also holds to a positive assessment of the European Enlightenment, and the related modernizing or moderating of both Christianity and Judaism. This may be another unexamined Western secular elite myth, assuming that education and modernity bring skepticism and bending of religion, rather than the world being put under the lens of religious texts and teachings.
This all passed for uncontroversial opinion until recently. Now, however, Weiss is speaking secular heresy, as any moderately aware observer of our time knows. Weiss dares call anti-Zionism, as it is actually practiced, anti-Semitism, and challenges the weaponization of intersectional theory in the service of anti-Semitism. The response from the left was swift and strongly negative, as several reviews below illustrate.
Of course, riding the intersectional social justice tiger is tricky. The Forward was harsh in its treatment of Bari Weiss, yet their opinion editor just experienced the inconvenient truth Weiss wrote: there is no separating anti-Zionist agitation from Jew-hatred:
[Forward opinion editor Batya] Ungar-Sargon was asked to speak at the conference hosted by Bard’s Hannah Arendt Center, where she was to be part of a discussion on “Racism and Zionism: Black-Jewish Relations.” Prior to that, she was slated to take part in another panel that was to discuss anti-Semitism along with Harvard University scholar Ruth Wisse and a Holocaust survivor. Students for Justice for Palestine, a group that actively promotes the BDS movement and which engages in anti-Semitic incitement, planned to protest at the conference. But what threw Ungar-Sargon for a loop was that these opponents of Israel weren’t going to be satisfied with protesting at the session about Zionism but would first seek to disrupt the one about anti-Semitism.
The chapter on extremism in Islam is the one that most signaled the need for notes and references. It was here that Bari Weiss’s strength as a columnist worked most against her as a book writer. The book would have been strengthened by even a two-page appendix of suggested readings and internet resources for each chapter.
Review of reviews:
Bari Weiss’s effort to speak inconvenient truths to all sides was not well received by her own side. Both Slate and the New York Times were not kind. It seemed to go downhill from there on the left, in the Forward, the Nation, and JewishCurrents. She got a more sympathetic view from across the pond at the Observer, and from National Review because of their agreement that President Trump is horrible and that he is responsible for destroying our civic discourse and politics, not those who have sought to nullify the 2016 election. Finally, I comment on your reading reviews by Cathy Young and Melissa Langsam Braunstein.
Jordan Weissmann at Slate attacked Bari Weiss’s research and her focus:
Bari Weiss’ new book on combating hatred of Jews in the Trump era is more interested in condemning the left than actually confronting the problem.
Here are a few things that a journalist might want to do if she were attempting to write a good and worthwhile book titled How to Fight Anti-Semitism.
The journalist could carefully explore the online radicalization process that leads men to violent white supremacy, and detail possible ways to curb it. She could talk to students involved in the campus boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement to more clearly understand their motivations, before unpacking whether or when the effort is anti-Semitic. She could go to Crown Heights in New York, where a long history of tension between the black and Hasidic communities has lately erupted into violence against the neighborhood’s Jews, and perhaps interview local leaders trying to bridge those divides. She could explore why American schools are doing a miserable job teaching the Holocaust and how that affects discourse about Jews and Israel.
The New York Times review by Hillel Halkin of How to Fight Anti-Semitism goes right at Bari Weiss’s core beliefs about the natural fit between Jewish identity and history and the liberal left. The reviewer directly attacks Judaism’s history from an intersectional politics perspective:
Weiss approvingly quotes a friend of hers, hurt to the quick by the proposed banning of “Jewish pride flags” at the 2019 Washington Dyke March. Always? As if the right to define oneself sexually as one pleases were a cause Jews have fought for over the ages!
As a matter of historical record, it was Greek and Roman high society, not the Jews, that practiced and preached polymorphous sexual freedom. Judaism fiercely opposed such an acceptance of sexual diversity, against which it championed the procreative family, the taming of anarchic passions, and the cosmically ordained nature of normative gender distinctions that goes back to the first chapter of Genesis: “So God created man in his own image. … Male and female created he them.” And while we’re at it, it was the Greeks, not the Jews, who invented democracy. What mattered to Jews throughout nearly all of their history (and still does to a considerable number of them today) was the will of God as interpreted by religious authority, not free elections.
Judaism as liberalism with a prayer shawl is a distinctly modern development. It started with the 19th-century Reform movement in Germany, from which it spread to America with the reinforcement of the left-wing ideals of the Russian Jewish labor movement. As much as such a conception of their ancestors’ faith has captured the imagination of most American Jews, it is hard to square with 3,000 years of Jewish tradition.
Tell it to Greek and Roman women. That “sexual freedom” was for the powerful, like today’s Afghan warlords with their pubescent boys. I learned that truth indirectly from translated Greek classics long before intersectionality was a thing. We read to understand the art and thought of the time, as progenitor to our “Western Civilization,” not for the sexual politics, but there were the powerful men with their young male objects of desire.
There was real debate over the morality, the ethics of elite sexual behavior at the time, debate clear in the literature, but it was the successful spread of Christianity, which came out of Judaism, that imposed limits on men’s appetites. Nevertheless, the New York Times makes clear the intersectional hierarchy and places both Christianity and Judaism, as a religion, in the position of privileged oppressors.
These were the good reviews from the left. It got a lot uglier with Talia Lavin at the Nation:
As a Jewish woman who has faced the same anti-Semitic harassment as Weiss and who has felt twinges of discomfort in leftist spaces, I found myself doubly frustrated: I had genuinely hoped to locate some commonality in struggle with this woman who claims to be my sister in it. Yet the profound lack of intellectual curiosity, proportionality, and material analysis in the book renders it worse than simply useless. Instead of being the jagged, urgent cri de coeur Weiss imagines herself to have written, the book suffers from the limitations of one particularly sophistic opinion columnist. I have written numerous op-eds in my time, and while the form is excellent for advancing a polemic or highlighting some facet of a broader problem, it does not lend itself to a book-length analysis of one of the knottiest issues in the modern world. Weiss is in the business of delivering weekly hits of dopamine to a right-of-center readership, and perhaps those readers will enjoy a book that offers more of the same. But readers who seek a more robust and rigorous analysis of contemporary anti-Semitism are advised to look elsewhere.
Right-of-center? Talya Zax at the Forward attacks both the general thrust of the book and especially her look at radical Islam:
Despite the preponderance of space Weiss gives to analyzing what she sees as the landscape of contemporary anti-Semitism, her book isn’t actually about ringing an alarm bell. What it’s fundamentally interested in is providing reassurance: No, we aren’t making this up, yes, we have the power to fight, yes, the other side is delusional — even though yours is, too. Most consoling of all, the solution comes through embracing our identity, by having confidence in our values and bravery in applying them. “Trust your discomfort,” Weiss advises. “Don’t trust people who seek to divide Jews. Even if they are Jews.” And: “Never, ever forget to love your neighbor.” And: “Choose life.”
The dangers of that perspective are most apparent in the book’s chapter on “Radical Islam,” and specifically in Weiss’s insistence on using the term “Islamist.” That term technically refers to Muslims who believe that Islam ought to be the strongest political force in a country, but in common American parlance generally refers to extremists bent on establishing fully Islamic states. Yet Weiss uses it to apply to every instance she cites of an alleged anti-Semitic attack by someone of Arab origin, and to the problem of Muslim anti-Semitism at large. These instances follow a familiar pattern, she writes, beginning when “An Islamist does something terrible.” “It is very hard,” she writes, “to absorb the extent of Islamist anti-Semitism in Europe.”
Judith Butler naturally was unhappy with the whole project, especially Bari Weiss’s criticism of the reality of intersectional politics and of questioning the existence of Israel.
Weiss’s book turned out to be both passionate and disappointing. She repeats her urgent pleas for the reader to wake up and avert a recurrence of a nightmarish history. At the same time, she does not take up the issues that make the matter so vexed for those who oppose both antisemitism and the unjust policies of the Israeli state. To do that, she would have had to provide a history of antisemitism, and account for the relatively recent emergence of the view that to criticize Israel is itself antisemitic. To fight antisemitism we have to know what it is, how best to identify its forms, and how to devise strategies for rooting it out. The book falters precisely because it refuses to do so. Instead, it elides a number of ethical and historical questions, suggesting that we are meant to feel enraged opposition to antisemitism at the expense of understanding it.
Weiss makes clear that there can be criticisms of Israel that are legitimate, but only if they take the form of demanding that Israel live up to its higher ideals. Under such conditions, we are barely permitted to ask the more fundamental question: what political form would lead to the flourishing of all the people who now lay claim to that land?
And yet another line of history runs through and past the Naqba, a history that intersects with the story Weiss tells: state Zionism provided sanctuary for Jewish refugees even as it dispossessed more than 700,000 Palestinians from their homes, producing more refugees for whom there is no clear sanctuary. 1948 was a year in which multiple histories intersected. There is no one line of history. If we accept wholesale Weiss’s proposition that Israel exists and is therefore legitimate, then we are excused from asking too many historical questions about why it was established in the way that it was—on what legal terms, and at what price, and through the vanquishing of what alternative possibilities.
At the Guardian, a British paper of the left, Yehudah Mirsky praised Bari Weiss’s effort generally, before using the occasion to go where the left wants to go, targeting Donald Trump and evangelical Christians, along with the majority of voters in Israel:
Loosely written, going not deep but wide, she brings together trends whose crisscrossing makes for much current confusion. And her observations generally ring true. Her taking aim at both right and left will infuriate some but is on the mark. What, for Weiss, is antisemitism? “An ever-morphing conspiracy theory in which Jews play the starring role in spreading evil in the world.”
Enter today’s conspiracist-in-chief. Calling Donald Trump antisemitic mistakes him for someone with beliefs. Rather, stereotypes that make Jews’ flesh creep – greedy, power-hungry, tribal, ruthless – are his idea of virtues. Demagogic egomaniacs like him are Jew-haters’ natural friends. His relentless assaults on minorities’ rights, free speech and the rule of law strike at the very things that for most American Jews are not only strategic pillars but deep articles of faith.
Trump’s version of pro-Israel policy is meant to please not the majority of American Jews, most of whom side more with Israel’s center-left, but the harder-line and Orthodox and, above all, evangelicals, whose professed love for Jews is, it often seems, not so far from its opposite.
Jews met this strange, frightening new hatred in different ways: religious retrenchment or, alternatively, reform, political liberalism, socialism, nationalism – and Zionism, which mixed and matched with them all. Ironically, the sheer diversity of Jewish responses to modernity’s dangers and opportunities, with Jews on all sides of the ideological barricades, set fevered imaginations wild.
Brian Steward at National Review took to Bari Weiss’s book like catnip, predictably taking the same course as their counterparts in the Observer:
As Weiss is fully aware, her book is most apt to court controversy by providing a political guide to these fresh outbreaks of anti-Semitism. She begins rather dauntingly by noting that Jews in the West, especially in Europe, are confronted by a “three-headed dragon.” First, there is an antagonistic environment for Jews, thanks in large measure to the rapid growth of Islamism on the Old Continent. Second, there is ideological vilification by the political Left, which increasingly regards Israel as an illegitimate state serving no other purpose than as a bastion of Western (read: white) colonialism. Third, there is a recrudescence of reactionary populism on the political right that, while often professing sympathy for Israel, evinces a fervent commitment to blood-and-soil politics that seldom ends well for Jews.
Not everybody will agree with Weiss’s portrait of the hydra-headed enemy, which itself points to part of the problem. The tribal impulse in our political life has grown so pronounced that it has overwhelmed a common civic culture, rendering many classical liberals politically homeless. There is a well-oiled habit among the political class and in the press of excusing obvious, often deplorable, transgressions by one’s “own” side. The acid test for fighting anti-Semitism, as with so many other derangements, is to face it down with equal enthusiasm and commitment when it flares up on one’s team — or, better yet, to be more discriminating about which team one belongs to in the first place.
In addition to being more diffuse than many imagine, the lunatic fringe is also thicker than is generally understood. Weiss is justly concerned by the spike in violence against Jews and other minorities from the identitarian right and about the grisly ideology behind it. After some years of dormancy, in August 2017 it flared into the open in Charlottesville when a “Unite the Right” rally of white supremacists gathered at the University of Virginia to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Carrying tiki torches, these doughy goons shouted the slogans: “Blood and soil,” “White Lives Matter,” and, in a nod to the ancient anti-Semitic notion of the Jew as the evil puppeteer, “Jews will not replace us.” Lest we forget, President Trump’s reflexive response to this wicked nonsense was to put in a good word for such “very fine people.”
That last sentence is a lie. National Review knows it is a lie. Now pay close attention to the conclusion:
If the populist-nationalist view of Israel continues to dominate the right side of the ballot in both Israel and America, and if that view continues to command electoral majorities, it will help vindicate the Left’s suspicion that Israel is in essence an ethnocracy, or will soon evolve into one. As progressive politics lurches to the left, the Israeli Right will find new support in subverting democratic institutions and entrenching the occupation. In place of a smaller, plucky Israel punching above its weight against fearsome enemies while upholding a laudable multiethnic democracy, the cycle of dueling left and right populisms risks helping to foster a Greater Israel that loses sight of the liberal Zionism that birthed it. If this comes to pass, it will be a moral and political catastrophe, no matter where America’s embassy in Israel is situated.
Never mind that Israel was recast as oppressor by the left in the early 1970s, after the economic class warfare gambit failed in the 1960s. Arabs became the virtuous victims of colonization by the victorious Israeli colonizers. The deplorables of Israel and America, as they dare to elect the wrong people, are to blame, according the National Review‘s review of How to Fight Anti-Semitism.
Melissa Langsam Braunstein, with the Federalist, offers an even-handed review. You should really go and read her review after what I have written.
Weiss deserves credit for calling out not only “the Squad,” but also President Obama’s response to the attack on Paris’ Hyper Cacher supermarket, which he pretended was random rather than anti-Semitic. However, the example I wish she had used was President Obama’s handling of opponents to the Iran deal.
I would also have added The New York Times shamefully discussing Iran deal opponents in reference to their districts’ Jewish populations. Lest anyone miss those statistics, The Times highlighted the figures in yellow, recalling the Nazi-era yellow star. If we’re going to speak honestly about how we arrived at this moment, it’s important to acknowledge not only what’s happened since 2016, but also what happened the year before.
The closest I found to an explanation of Trump’s antisemitic remarks were three examples offered 18 pages earlier. One example is a behind-the-scenes insult from Michael Wolff’s first book about the Trump White House. So is the anecdote definitely true? I know not.
The other two were comments Trump made at Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) events (one of which I covered for The Federalist), which sound terrible out of context. However, as a Jewish conservative familiar with those gatherings having joined the RJC decades ago, I’d say those examples mostly underscore the gap between how Jews in those rooms heard Trump’s words and how liberal journalists chose to cover them.
To maximize the impact of this chapter, especially for conservative readers, I would have selected different examples. The two times President Trump has made comments related to Jews that have concerned (at least some, if not all) Jewish conservatives were his response to Charlottesville and his recent remarks about Jewish disloyalty. The first emphasized the president’s unwillingness to definitively tell off his alt-right fanbois, while the latter saw him dipping into anti-Semitic language.
Cathy Young comes at the book from a different viewpoint, but is similarly fair-minded:
In fact, Weiss has written a smart, thoughtful book that defends increasingly embattled liberal values. That means it has something to offend both major political tribes right now. It’s pro-Israel and against the “social justice” progressivism currently dominant on the left. It’s also resolutely against the populist/nativist ideology prevalent on the right. It’s against “The Squad” and against Donald Trump.
How to Fight Anti-Semitism is a thin book without endnotes (and one that, at times, could have used a bit more explanation and sourcing), but it does a remarkably good job of examining the three main strands of anti-Semitism today: right-wing, left-wing, and Islamist.
A liberal by any rational standard, she stands perpendicular to most of her social milieu, demanding the right to differ from its groupthink. And it certainly seems to drive people nuts.
It should be clear that I do not share Young’s assessment of the book and, at least in part, of the author. Way back in 2010, Dennis Prager wrote:
Liberal Jewish columnist Frank Rich of The New York Times wrote recently that Tea Partiers had engaged in a “small-scale mimicry of Kristallnacht.” The November 1938 Kristallnacht (“Night of the Broken Glass”), with its murdered Jews, broken and vandalized Jewish businesses and homes, and burned-down synagogues, is widely considered to be the opening act of the Holocaust.
Where liberal and conservative Jews differ is where each group thinks the greatest danger to the Jews lies. Jews on the Left are certain that the greatest threats to Jews come from the Right. Conservative and centrist Jews believe that dangers to the Jews can come from the Left, from the Right, from Islam, from a renewal of Christian anti-Semitism, indeed from anywhere, but that at this moment the world’s Left is far more an enemy of the Jewish people than the world’s, not to mention America’s, Right.
Yes, the Tea Party was being compared to Nazis when these good citizens dared politely stand up and civilly protect the bipartisan crazy deficit spending, driving our national debt into a near vertical climb. “Clinging to their guns and God?” “Basket of deplorables?” Who was really being uncivil in their discourse? Though the book and in her speaking appearances, Bari Weiss shows a consistent lack of self-awareness:
…Weiss, who describes herself as center-left politically and holds pro-Israel views that include criticisms of the Jewish state, went on to speak about her own family’s wrestling with the politics of the day, with her sisters and her mother not allowing their “Trump-curious” father to vote for Donald Trump for president in 2016.
“We prevented him from voting for Trump, and he wrote [on his ballot] Steph Curry [the NBA star]. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next election, especially if it’s Bernie [Sanders] or Elizabeth Warren [as the Democratic candidate],” Weiss said. “I think a lot of Jews could be writing in Steph Curry.”
Weiss said while she supports Trump’s relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, his scuttling of the Iran nuclear deal and his recognition of Israeli control over the Golan Heights, Trump’s disregard for civil discourse has had a poisonous effect on the country.
Yet, Bari Weiss calls Congresswoman, and U.S. Army major, Tulsi Gabbard “an Assad toady [language warning].” On camera, she spelled it “t-o-a-d-i-e” when asking for someone to look up the meaning, after Joe Rogan asked her what she meant. In the book, she goes with -y, and offers precious little justification beyond the vague hand-waving she offered on air. Of course, this is perfectly acceptable in the Democrat media complex bubble, as the New York Times and CNN proved together in the lead-up to the October Democratic Presidential primary debate sponsored by CNN.
Oh, and many Ricochet readers and me? When I had just finished reading How to Fight Anti-Semitism, I mentioned it to a friend. He expressed interest and I handed him the book copy, brand new from the library, only ever read by me. He opened it towards the middle and this is what he read:
When the president of the party of Lincoln praises Robert E. Lee as a “great general,” they hear the whistle. When the president talks not about patriotism but about nationalism, they hear the whistle. When he denigrates immigrants and declares “America first,” they hear the whistle loud and clear. [p.63]
“Dog whistles!? She’s going with dog whistles?” he exclaimed derisively, snapping the book shut and thrusting it back to me. I could not disagree.
In the end, Bari Weiss may be in the position of the young stock-trader woman after the 1984 election. The woman was completely unashamed to tell a news periodical that she was so thankful that President Reagan was so far ahead in the polls because that let her vote for Mondale to feel good about herself. Weiss, her sisters, and mother can gang up on her father again, and maybe even join him in voting for some socially acceptable sports figure, safe in the knowledge that the object of her fear and loathing will secure real safety for another few years. At the same time, it may be up to us to pick up the pieces of a political culture that she and her fellow leftists and TruCon lapdogs, not we, helped imperil, as both Peter Robinson and Kimberly Strassel explain.