How Not to Fight Anti-Semitism

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.

Bari Weiss.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Sam Bloom.

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.

Bari Weiss does not do any of these things, or any of these sorts of things, in her slim new volume, How to Fight Anti-Semitism. In theory the book is Weiss’ response to the October 2018 massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. This was a personal tragedy for Weiss: It unfolded not only in her hometown, but at the very synagogue where she was bat mitzvahed. Unfortunately, she has used the attack as a launch pad for a bizarre and undercooked exercise in rhetorical bothsidesism, in which she argues that American Jews should be just as worried about college students who overzealously criticize Israel as they are about the aspiring Einsatzgruppen who shoot up shuls.

“One form of the hatred originates on the political right, the other on the left,” Weiss explains. “They may seem wildly different at first glance, but they are mirror images of the same derangement. And each one reaches the same conclusion, though perhaps at slightly different speeds: Eliminate the Jew.”

This is disappointing, but on brand. As a writer and editor for the New York Times’ op-ed section, Weiss has quickly become infamous in media circles for being a centrist gadfly who delights in irritating progressives. She’s a devoted Jew and Israel backer who has half-jokingly referred to herself as an “unhinged Zionist.” She dislikes Trump and the alt-right. But like the stars of the “Intellectual Dark Web”—a phrase she popularized—Weiss is preoccupied with the dangers of Islamic extremism and the excesses of left-wing activists, especially at Ivy-plus universities. She is an energetic advocate for free speech on campus—who happens to have a fabled history of attacking and attempting to silence anti-Zionist professors. From these facts alone, you could largely guess the gist of the book.

Weiss begins with a sophisticated definition of anti-Semitism, then tries to tease out its variations on the right and left. Anti-Semitism isn’t mere prejudice or run-of-the-mill racism. Rather, she writes, it’s a “culturally inherited disease,” an ancient, ever-changing “conspiracy theory” that turns Jews into symbols of whatever society most despises—whether that’s a banker, a white oppressor, or a Communist—and then aims to get rid of them. On the right today, anti-Semitism manifests as white nationalist rhetoric. On the left, Weiss argues, it mainly manifests as criticism of Israel that treats the country as “uniquely diabolical” or questions its right to exist. Right-wing anti-Semites are simple. They are threatening because they want to kill Jews, like Haman in the story of Purim, or Hitler. But left-wing anti-Semites are more complex. They are threatening because they want to snuff out Jewish identity, like the Hellenizers in the story of Hanukkah or the Soviets. (Islamic anti-Semites are a menacing mashup of the worst of both kinds.)

“Today, Purim anti-Semitism, as always, is clear and easy to spot. It is the Pittsburgh killer. It is Iran. It is Hamas officials like Fathi Hamad, who called on the Palestinian diaspora to murder Jews this summer,” Weiss writes. “Hanukkah anti-Semitism, which asks the Jews to commit cultural genocide, to abandon their traditions and to worship false idols to survive, is more insidious. You see manifestations of this tragic strain in what has become of the British Labour Party and in the activist and academic left in the United States.”

And which is more threatening?

“Hitlerian anti-Semitism announces its intentions unequivocally. But leftist anti-Semitism, like communism itself, pretends to be the opposite of what it is,” she writes. “Because of the way it can be smuggled into the mainstream and manipulate us—who doesn’t seek justice and progress? who doesn’t want a universal brotherhood of man?—anti-Semitism that originates on the political left is more insidious and perhaps more existentially dangerous.” Not for nothing, Weiss is essentially talking about the progressive left and Muslims—an “insidious” force hell-bent on committing “cultural genocide”—the same conspiratorial way white nationalists talk about, well, the Jews.

The nonhysterical version of Weiss’ argument about progressives is that, by stigmatizing Israel and Zionism, parts of the American left are asking many Jews to either shave off an important part of their cultural identity or feel ostracized from the people they would otherwise be naturally comfortable with, like their social justice–loving friends at college. Weiss writes of meeting Jews (all anonymous) who say they have to keep their love of Israel “in the closet.” I don’t doubt that’s true for some, the same way some evangelical Christians feel maligned on elite campuses over their opposition to gay marriage or abortion and may be careful about revealing their religious identity. That phenomenon is worth exploring, as are the various forms of anti-Semitism on the left.

But Jewish students feeling uncomfortable revealing their support for the Israeli government isn’t the same as violence, and a controversy over Jewish pride flags at the Dyke March isn’t as serious a threat as the rise of the alt-right. Weiss sees this criticism coming and tries to address it. “How dare I use my platform, some say, on a phenomenon so much less urgent, a phenomenon that is certainly far less lethal?” she writes. “It leaves me wondering: When can we speak about it?”

The question isn’t whether “we” can speak about it, though. It’s about how we do it. Left-wing anti-Semitism is a very real thing—you can find it in the white, black, and Muslim communities, here and abroad. Sometimes it emerges in bizarre ways that speak to its quiet prevalence—remember when a D.C. Council member said Jews control the weather? Sometimes, it shows up in grotesque incidents on campus. Weiss describes the awful harassment of a professor at Kingsborough Community College, who now needs security after someone graffitied the words “kill the Zionist entity” on a picture of his father, the school’s former president. Many Americans also fail to appreciate the dire situation in Europe, which Weiss rightly devotes a decent chunk of her book to: An EU* survey found that more than one-third of the Jewish community there has considered emigrating thanks in part to the grinding daily reality of harassment. Could that ever happen here? I don’t know, but exploring it as a cautionary tale isn’t crazy.

But Weiss seems incapable of describing these incidents with any sense of proportion. Take her primary concern about the shifting conversation around Israel on the left. “Whereas Jews once had to convert to Christianity,” she writes, “now they have to convert to anti-Zionism.” But the reality is that Zionism and Judaism are not in any actual danger of disappearing from the public square. College Hillels are not closing en masse, and there are plenty of pro-Israel groups on campuses. New York’s governor and mayor still march in the Israeli Day Parade. Our most powerful politicians on both sides of the aisle are pro-Israel in the most traditional sense of the term. Birthright trips, designed to foster American Jewish connection to Israel, may be declining, but J Street just launched a more progressive alternative. Meanwhile, none of the examples of the intolerant left Weiss assembles can begin to explain frantic passages like this:

The mutilating condition of being fully accepted [by the left] is making war against anything that smacks of Jewish particularism, the boundaries of which are always unclear. Is it affinity for the State of Israel? Is it too much emphasis on Jewish themes in your plays? Or too many Jewish characters? Is it talking with your hands? The lines are always moving.

As a liberal Jew who sometimes attends a socialist happy hour, although I myself am not a socialist, I can safely tell you that nobody there has ever told me to cool it with my hand gestures.

Part of the reason Weiss takes such a catastrophic tone, I think, is that she doesn’t just think anti-Zionism will lead to “cultural genocide,” as she puts it. She is worried about real genocide. She writes that “it is hard for many to see [left-wing anti-Semitism] as threatening because it attempts, at least at first, only to marginalize Jews rather than to murder us.” That ominous at first is important. Later, she argues that if Israel and Palestine are ever combined in a one-state solution, it would end in slaughter. “And what happens when the anti-Zionist dream—a one-state solution or the elimination of Israel—is imposed? To have even the most superficial understanding of Middle Eastern politics and history is to know that it would result in massive carnage or genocide less than seventy-five years after the end of the Shoah.”

Leave aside the question of whether her fears are justified, or that many experts believe Israel’s settlement policies are effectively making a two-state solution impossible, forcing it to choose between one state or permanent occupation. This is the dark hypothetical playing in the back of Weiss’ mind. She seems to think that a lot of activists are, in their “insidious” way, trying to get Jews killed. This doesn’t necessarily make the book any better. But it does help explain its volume and pitch.  

There are other, less political problems with Weiss’ work. Some are mechanical—she repeatedly name-checks people and events without bothering to explain them fully. We are told that U.K. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has “transformed one of the country’s great parties into a hub of Jew hatred,” but not how. We are told that activist Linda Sarsour has had repeated “anti-Semitic outbursts,” but Weiss oddly never quotes them. Weiss’ preference for asserting rather than persuading gives the whole book a sloppy, preaching-to-the-choir feel that will make it difficult to parse for anyone who isn’t already deep in these issues, unless they are just inclined to take Weiss’ word for it.

And I’d advise against it; Weiss does not always present a full picture of events. For instance, she fails to mention that droves of progressive sponsors, including the Democratic National Committee, pulled their support from the Women’s March after it was engulfed in an anti-Semitism controversy over its ties to Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam (among other things). Instead, she writes: “Anyone who dared criticize the leaders [of the march] … was chided as racist-adjacent at best, while these women appeared in glossy women’s magazines as modern-day Rosie the Riveters.” At a different point in the book, she claims that America’s bipartisan foreign policy consensus is “being undermined by neo-isolationists, like Democrat Tulsi Gabbard”—who most recently could be seen complaining about how she can’t even make the Democratic debate stage.

There are also some puzzling omissions in the book. Her section on the right, for instance, never touches on anti-Semitism among evangelicals, even though many powerful evangelical leaders have made comments about Jews being “spiritually empty” or suggesting they will need to be converted. This is notable, given the critical role Christian Zionists play in the politics of Israel.

The fact that so much of Weiss’ conception of who is and who isn’t anti-Semitic comes down to how supportive they are of Israel could, ironically, end up fueling an emerging thread of anti-Semitic thought. Addressing the vocal Jewish groups that oppose Israel’s occupation with language Weiss considers anti-Semitic, she writes, “As many well-intentioned people look to understand why a very small but very vocal group of Jews seems as deeply opposed to Jewish interests as many of our community’s enemies, these Jews ought to be understood in context, as part of a long history of left-wing anti-Semitic movements that successfully conscript Jews as agents in their own destruction.” The rhetoric is eerily similar to Donald Trump’s comments about how Jews who vote Democrat are “disloyal” to Israel, a recent theme on the right, and could easily feed into the demonization of liberal Jews more broadly.

In the end, though, the thing that bugs me the most about How to Fight Anti-Semitism is Weiss’ disdain for the people who are actually trying to do it. Specifically, she criticizes journalists who have spent time documenting and understanding online radicals. “A cottage industry of columnists has created an entire taxonomy of the Internet activity of the far right. After a bigot attacks a church or a mosque or a synagogue, these folks analyze each aspect of the attacker’s online persona and behavior,” she writes. “The benefit to the reporter is clear: It seems like she knows about a secret world inaccessible to the average reader. But this pseudo-sophisticated process of decoding makes the subject seem almost mystical, when it is the opposite. A cartoon swastika on 8chan is still a swastika.” Weiss doesn’t seem to realize that part of stopping online radicalization, and perhaps the murders it leads to, is understanding how it works. Her own tips for fighting anti-Semitism, meanwhile, tend toward self-helpy platitudes. “Know that one person can change history.” “Lean into Judaism.” “Build community.” Those are lovely sentiments that won’t prevent the next Robert Bowers.

If Weiss did stop to ponder the radicalization process, it might lead her to some uncomfortable places. For instance, a recent study that tracked YouTube users’ viewing behavior found that videos by figures on the Intellectual Dark Web may be a pipeline to more hardcore racist fare. Weiss might find that difficult to confront. But she does encourage readers to “call out anti-Semitism” on their own side. Maybe she could practice what she preaches.

How to Fight Anti-Semitism book cover.

Correction, Sept. 9, 2019: This piece originally misstated that the survey was conducted by the U.N. It was conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights.