What Bari Weiss misunderstands about America and the Jews

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By Phoebe Maltz Bovy

A memorial for victims of the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, October 2018.
Photo by Matthew Hatcher/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

TORONTO — There’s a reason our moment demands a book called “How To Fight Anti-Semitism,” and it’s not just anti-Semitism’s violent global resurgence. American Jews — at least the liberal, pro-Israel majority — are at risk of becoming, as New York Times columnist Bari Weiss puts it, “politically homeless.”


Right-wing anti-Semitism is, Weiss grants, the more in-your-face threat to American
Jews, extending from the “alt-right” all the way up to the Trump presidency, which in her view (and mine) has brought once-fringe views into the mainstream.

The left poses a danger less due to overt anti-Semitism than from its refusal to take anti-Semitism seriously on account of Jews’ (presumed) privilege, and its wishy-washy response to radical Islam. (Weiss makes the point — laughed at on progressive Twitter, perhaps, but valid all the same — that “the vast majority of Jews in the world identify as Zionists,” so anyone who’s fine with Jews as long as they’re anti-Zionist Jews is not, in fact, fine with us.)

https://www.washingtonjewishweek.com/enewsletter/

Weiss’s new book was prompted by the tragic 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, her hometown, but extends into a far-reaching portrait of what she calls “a three-headed dragon — the far right, the far left, and radical Islam,” and a centrist defense of the center-left politics that Weiss believes has the potential to keep us safe.

The central conceit of the book is that until 2018 — well into the Trump presidency! — Weiss had believed America loved the Jews, only to have this vision of the nation shattered. Upon further investigation, she realizes just how much anti-Semitism has been floating around, from all sides, even earlier, and even in the United States.


Frustratingly, she doubles down on American exceptionalism, this despite offering a
persuasive case that America is not, in this area, all that exceptional.

Weiss is entirely right to describe anti-Semitism as “an ever-morphing conspiracy theory in which Jews play the starring role in spreading evil in the world.” This flawlessly pinpoints how the issue with anti-Semitism isn’t a specific anti-Jewish stereotype but the notion of Jewish centrality to global affairs. Any explication of anti-Semitism needs to take into account the otherwise divergent ideologies that converge around the idea of Jews being the worst. Because anti-Semitism is shape-shifting, there’s no obviously effective strategy for opposing it.

The book’s most curious sentence — “I do not think the best use of any minority’s time and attention is to focus on its haters” — makes sense in this context. For Weiss, the fight against anti-Semitism is only incidentally about Jews, but is actually about saving liberal democracy.

Inasmuch as it’s about Jews, “How to Fight Anti-Semitism” is a contemporary update on the age-old genre of Jewish apologetic literature, a template that swings back to ancient history and the Middle Ages to discuss, in sympathetic if historically imprecise terms, the
eternal plight of the Jews.

While Weiss at times overstates how dangerous Europe today is for Jews, the bigger concern is her insistence on America as haven. If America has been uniquely Good for the Jews, it’s been for a mix of reasons, some less savory than others. The three reasons Weiss gives — religious freedom, friendship with Israel and an absence of waves of immigrants from regions unfavorable to Jews — only tell part of the story.

She acknowledges that “the greatest shame and injustice in American history was slavery,” but doesn’t see how the centrality of the black-white divide to American life has made things easier for American Jews, who by and large read as white. Things go off course when Weiss draws a line between “anti-Jewish prejudice,” or what’s sometimes called casual anti-Semitism, and anti-Semitism proper, which is, as she understands it, inherently eliminationist.

As I see it, anti-Semitism, like every other form of bigotry, exists on a spectrum. If you set the bar for anti-Semitism at the extreme — that is at genocide, real or attempted — you get stuck in a rut of reticence, of wondering whether something is extreme enough to call out. Just as not every racist is looking to reinstate slavery, not every anti-Semite wants Jews dead. In any event, I suspect it’s her belief in a distinction in nature rather than degree between genuine anti-Semitism and mere anti-Jewish bigotry that leads Weiss to an overly upbeat interpretation of American Jewish safety, past and present.

Weiss’s practical advice on fighting anti-Semitism comes at the end, and is not far off from what Jean-Paul Sartre suggested in the 1940s: Jewish authenticity, or in Weiss’s framing, positivity.

“What is more attractive than people confident in themselves, grateful for their
historical legacy, and proud of their culture?” she writes.

If anything, the book’s enumeration of terrible fates that Jews keep meeting — along with its clear illustration of the current political isolation of many Jews — reminds how far the myth of Jewish power is from the truth.

Actual Jewish people are powerless relative to The Jews, the fraught symbol. The abstract ideas others decide we represent fall in and out of favor, and we’re either held up as model minorities or collateral.

I don’t agree with Weiss’s choice to emphasize fighting anti-Semitism as an abstract ideology. It strikes me as more productive to focus on defending anti-Semitism’s victims than to convince anti-Semites that they’ve got it wrong. Rather than correcting anti-Semites’ abstract notions of who the Jews are with different ones, better to unlink Jews from The Jews entirely. Better to just stop using Jews as symbols, period.

Here’s the essential: The focus needs to be on Jews and perceived-Jews as people. If we’re looking for a constant, it’s been people, not liberal democracy, under attack. WJW

Phoebe Maltz Bovy is the author of “The Perils of ‘Privilege.’”
—JTA News and Features

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