Ari Blaff on Bari Weiss
Fighting anti-Semitism rarely comes with fashion advice. However, The New York Times columnist Bari Weiss suggests otherwise in her latest book, How to Fight anti-Semitism. As Jewish communities across the globe increasingly contemplate their belonging within European and North American societies, Weiss prompts readers to consider one’s comfort in wearing a kippah or Magen David. “Ask yourself: Can I safely assert my Jewishness where I live?” Weiss writes. The Kippah Test, in Weiss’s opinion, is the ultimate gut-check. Such a thought-experiment dismisses idealism and, instead, challenges readers to concentrate on the plane of fear.
Unfortunately, for many Jews, recent events have only added urgency to Weiss’s question. The bubbling over of anti-Semitic conspiracies into targeted violence against Jewish communities in Poway and Pittsburgh at the hands of far-right extremists revealed the precariousness of Jewish life in America. Even the Democratic Party, the historic home of American Jewry, has witnessed the rise of politicians alluding to Israel’s power to hypnotize the world and sympathizers of Louis Farrakhan. Across the pond, Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent within the Labour Party and his decades-long fraternization with Holocaust deniers, proclaimed genocidaires, and outright antisemites, alarmed British Jewry. So sullied had Labour’s reputation become as a bastion of antisemitism, that Corbyn’s successor, Keir Starmer, sternly vowed to put an explicit end to it: “I will tear out this poison by its roots and judge success by the return of Jewish members and those who felt that they could no longer support us.”
Jews thus have good reason to seriously consider whether to wear a religious symbol that will publicly out them. As Adam Garfinkle, the founding editor of The American Interest, hypothesized last year in Tablet, “Whatever American Jewish ‘golden age’ there may have been is over, folks.” Although Weiss does not travel all the way to Garfinkle’s final intellectual destination, Weiss is not far off in proclaiming an end to the postwar golden era of Jewish diasporic life. If you feel uncomfortable wearing a symbol of Jewish identification, Weiss argues, “you should make a plan to improve your neighbourhood or make a plan to leave it.” Such brutal calculus is clarifying. Focusing the book’s narrative, in barely over two-hundred pages, Weiss provokes readers to reflect upon the uncertainty modern Jewish communities are grappling with.
The book is sub-divided into the three predominant threats Weiss views as posing an active threat to Jewish communities, loosely defined as the Right, the Left, and Radical Islam. The case against the Right is rather easy to construct and likely well-known by most audiences familiar with the Holocaust and fascism. Pointing to the perpetrators of the Pittsburgh and Poway massacres, Weiss outlines the ideology of white supremacy as one motivated by fear of ethnic dilution, cultural takeover, and racial purity. Such overarching bigotry reveals the historical continuity of right-wing antisemitism sprinkled throughout American history, connecting figures such as Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh with modern manifestations witnessed today.
Softer, subtler, displays of right-wing antisemitism never failed to find a flag-bearer either. In the 1990s, Pat Buchanan alleged that Israel and American Jewry–the latter he termed “its amen corner”–played a central role in entangling the United States in Middle Eastern wars. During this time, National Review founder William F. Buckley pursued a campaign to remove antisemites and Holocaust deniers from the publication. Throughout the decades, the conservative media constellation has periodically been littered with outlets bartering such tropes. Breitbart, a publication vocally supportive of Donald Trump, ran an article denouncing The Washington Post journalist Anne Applebaum, proclaiming, “Hell hath no fury like a Polish, Jewish, American elitist scorned.” Donald Trump’s proximity to such institutions remains a source of great consternation for Weiss. For example, Trump failed to disavow an endorsement from Ku Klux Klan (KKK) affiliate David Duke during the 2016 presidential race. The following year, Trump downplayed the white nationalist “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville.
Nonetheless, Weiss’s positioning of Trump within (or adjacent to) the orbit of right-wing antisemitism is less convincing. Trump is too-often brushed with a broad stroke, compressing the uncomfortable complexities his presidency provokes: at least from an American Jewish perspective. His strong condemnation of Iranian threats to Israeli survival and denunciation of antisemitism following the Pittsburgh massacre are difficult to dismiss and reconcile with a belief that he is antisemitic.
Weiss challenges readers to meditate on whether simple pro-Israel legislation is synonymous with philo-semitism, particularly given Trump embrace of Israel like no other president in recent memory. Nonetheless, when evaluated in totality, Trump is not an open-and-shut case and Weiss’ aside to the end the chapter is rather telling of the difficulties in placing Trump comfortably within the overarching structure of the book. Concluding the chapter on right-wing antisemitism with Donald Trump’s attack on the norms of American society, Weiss believes such norm breaking ultimately undermines American Jewry’s safety. The point is fair, though more abstract in comparison to the explicit, violent and verbal threats, American Jews regularly confront.
Taxonomizing Trump is complicated by Weiss’s own acknowledgement that right-wing antisemitism is characterized by its bluntness. Far-right bigotry, as Weiss argues, presents itself in unabashed terms making it easier for people to identify and oppose. “There are two comforts, if it’s possible to say such a thing, when it comes to right-wing anti-Semitism. The first is that it does not hide its face. It is blunt in its goal. The second is that in fighting neo-Nazis, Jews are aligned with our natural political allies: liberals.” The problem, as Weiss demonstrates throughout the following chapter, is that many of American Jewry’s liberal allies failed to confront antisemitism within their own ranks, favoring condemnation of Republican shortcomings instead.
The resurgent popularity of Louis Farrakhan is perhaps the most striking feature of this newfound liberal antisemitic spirit. Core members of the Women’s March–Linda Sarsour, Carmen Perez, and Tamika Mallory–have all to varying degrees professed their adoration of a man who has proudly compared Jews to vermin. Furthermore, Democratic upstarts Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, have trafficked in the antisemitic tropes of the blood libel and dual loyalty. Such incidents raise difficult questions for subscribers of identity politics and intersectionality, Weiss writes. On the one hand, such women are outwardly progressive, espousing equality. However, braided within such advocacy is a deeply uncomfortable intolerance:
When a right-wing person attacks us [Jews], it is a relief. In the circles American Jews tend to travel in, calling out politicians like Steve King is easy. Calling out Ilhan Omar is not. That is because Omar is herself targeted by racists and lunatics who wish her harm because of her faith, her gender, or the color of her skin.
Two things can be true at once: Ilhan Omar can espouse bigoted ideas. And Ilhan Omar can herself be the hate-object of bigots, including the president of the United States. Yet many people seem unable to hold both of these truths in their heads at the same time.
The recent spate of antisemitic attacks in New York and New Jersey are a case in point. The surge in African American violence targeting Jews, as opposed to exclusively white supremacists, is an uneasy reality running against the grain of progressive politics in which racialized groups supposedly cooperate. Though too recent to be included for consideration, one wonders how Weiss would interpret the emergence of the once-marginal – though increasingly violent – sect of Black Hebrew Israelites.
Left-wing antisemitism is particularly difficult to diagnose due to the dog-whistles employed and its messenger challenge the traditional mould of an antisemite. Weiss re-appropriates Susan Sontag’s famous quote that communism is merely fascism with a human face, in arguing that anti-Zionism is antisemitism with a human face. Historical portrayals of antisemites relied upon well-worn archetypes: white men, buzz-cuts, clad with boots and swastikas. Today, as Weiss argues, we must recalibrate our parameters and revise our internal models of an antisemite.
Weiss emphasizes the twin evils of right and left wing antisemitism confronting American Jews, but only when discussing Europe does Weiss’ so-called “three-headed dragon” of antisemitism truly crystallize. The final head–that of Islamic fundamentalism–is more pronounced in this theatre than on American shores. “The Jews of Berlin know that you can be beaten for wearing a kippah or speaking in Hebrew in public. The Jews of Stockholm and Malmo know that when they enter a synagogue it might be firebombed. The Jews of Brussels know that the Jewish Museum is not a tourist site but a place where Jews were murdered,” Weiss writes. Each antisemitic incident Weiss referenced was perpetrated by European Islamic fundamentalists.
The widespread antisemitic attitudes prevalent within such Islamic communities across the continent is truly unsettling. Even Mehdi Hassan, a left-wing journalist and staunch critic of Israeli policies, confided in a 2013 New Statesman piece: “The sorry truth is that the virus of anti-Semitism has infected the British Muslim community. It’s a shameful fact that Muslims are not only the victims of racial and religious prejudice but purveyors of it, too.”
Accordingly, a survey conducted on the views of French citizens on antisemitism found that the proportion of anti-Jewish views amongst Muslim respondents were two to three times higher than the national average. In 2015, against the backdrop of the unfolding European refugee crisis, European, and particularly French, acts of antisemitism markedly rose. Beginning in January, with the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket shootings, a Jewish community center was attacked the following month, and later that year a Jewish teacher was stabbed in Marseille.
Following the Charlie Hebdo shooting, Jeffrey Goldberg’s penned a provocative essay in The Atlantic questioning whether it was “time for the Jews to leave Europe?” The article was derided by many commentators as misplaced alarmism. Responding to Goldberg in The New Republic, a Parisian writer, Diana Pinto, concluded, “So please, dear American Jews, leave aside your fears, and listen to a living European Jew who has no intention of becoming a plaster cast.” Such rhetoric has aged quite poorly. Less than four years since Goldberg’s article, the first interviewee, French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, was harassed during French street protests opposing government labour and tax reform. Cornering Finkielkraut, the Yellow vests (as they are known), called him a “dirty Jew,” “dirty Zionist shit.” Some also told Finkielkraut, “you’re going to die,” and “You’re going to hell.” Despite Pinto’s dismissal of Goldberg, French Jews did emigrate. In 2015, alone, 8,000 made aliyah. By 2017, The Jerusalem Post reported that over ten percent of the community had emigrated to Israel, half in the past five years.
Weiss cites the infamous French case of Ilan Halimi, a Parisian Jew, kidnapped by the self-proclaimed Gang of Barbarians as an illustration of the potential consequences failing to confront the “three-headed dragon” poses to Jewish communities. The gang reasoned that as a Jew, Halimi was rich, and blackmailed the family. Brutally tortured, Halimi eventually died. Nonetheless, French authorities refrained from labelling the murder an antisemitic attack. “There isn’t a single element allowing us to attach this murder to an anti-Semitic purpose or an act,” the investigative magistrate claimed in an official statement. “In the end, Ilan Halimi was murdered, and then he was sacrificed so as not to disturb France’s illusions about itself,” Weiss concludes.
Such illusions remain powerful and continue to hold sway today. The United States and Europe are macrocosms illuminating the antisemitic complex modern Jews navigate. On the right, lingering religious hostilities and conspiracy theories rekindle Jewish fears of resurgent neo-fascism. From the left, demonization of Israel continuously challenges the boundaries of acceptable discourse, often blurring imperceptibly with intolerance. Lastly, the endemic antisemitic strand running throughout European and American communities will only be exacerbated following the refugee crisis. Jewish life throughout the diaspora is thus perhaps at its most vulnerable point since the end of World War II.
Apart from identifying the strands of hatred arrayed against Jewish communities, the leitmotif woven throughout How to Fight anti-Semitism is what Jews and their allies must do to arrest this trend. In the book’s final chapter, “How to Fight,” Weiss opens by retelling Columbia University alumnus Ze’ev Maghen’s 1990 article entitled, “How to Fight anti-Semitism.” The essay was written in response to the Jewish community’s passivity following a public address by Leonard Jeffries, then-chairman of City College’s African American studies department, at Columbia during which he accused Jews of financing the slave trade and controlling Hollywood. Maghen denounced the Jewish community’s naïveté in the face of such accusations:
A man calls you a pig. Do you walk around with a sign explaining that, in fact, you are not a pig? Do you hand out leaflets expostulating in detail upon the manifold differences between you and a pig (“A pig has a snout, I have a nose; a pig wallows in mud, I only occasionally step in a puddle, and then, of course, inadvertently…”)? Do you stand on a soap box and discourse eruditely on why, in general, it is extremely not nice to call people pigs, and appeal to the populace to please have no truck with an individual rude and nasty enough to say such things about an upstanding citizen like yourself?
Weiss confesses that she, too, is guilty of such shortcomings. “How much time had I wasted cajoling, trying to convince people who thought I was nothing more than an animal that I was a person just like them?” For Weiss, Maghen’s article “fundamentally reoriented my posture. It moved me from crouching to standing, from defense to offense, from doubt to confidence, from shame to pride.” No intellectual exercise better clarifies the insecurity many Jews feel that when forced to reflect on the Kippah Test: as a Jew, can you true embrace your heritage without fear?
Indeed, despite the intolerance around which she centers the book, in the end Weiss believes that the path forward is internal; it is found in the re-commitment to one’s Judaism. Quoting Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Weiss holds that “Non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism, and they are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism.” So, wear a kippah, wear a Magen David, for there is no better way to combat antisemitism than the bold public affirmation of one’s own faith.
Ari Blaff is a freelance journalist and graduate student based out of Toronto. His writings have appeared in National Review, Tablet, and Israel Studies. Follow him on Twitter at @ariblaff.