You don’t need to convince me, but for anyone who remains skeptical that rising domestic anti-Semitism is a threat, Bari Weiss’s How to Fight Anti-Semitism offers a compelling survey of the present scene. The New York Times opinion editor and writer examines anti-Semitism on the right, the left, and among Islamists.
Weiss describes her book as being “for anyone, Jew or gentile, who cannot look away from what is brewing in this country and in the world and wants to do something to stop it.” I appreciate her casting a wide net, especially on such a civilizationally important topic, but this is primarily a book by a center-left writer for a center-left audience. That said, because I agree with Weiss that leftist anti-Semitism tends to be “more insidious and perhaps more existentially dangerous,” I didn’t mind that addressing the left was not only her clear passion, but also her strong suit.
This book should still engage readers from the right, though, even if it isn’t pitched squarely at us. Weiss writes knowledgeably about her topic, deftly weaving historical episodes, observations from writers and thinkers, and her opinions into one coherent argument that feels something like an extended version of Weiss’s columns on the subject.
Different Kinds of Anti-Semitism
Weiss traces the roots of anti-Semitism to ancient Egypt and confronts centuries of religiously based anti-Semitism. She also shares images readers won’t soon forget, like the horrifying story of “the Cossack rebellion in Ukraine in the mid-1600s.” As the Cossacks fought for independence from the Poles, “some one hundred thousand Jews were slaughtered. These were massacres in which, according to a contemporary account . . . the wombs of pregnant women were sliced open, the babies ripped out and replaced with live cats. Then the women’s hands were cut off so that they could not remove the cats inside their bodies.”
Weiss cites numerous books that the curious can pursue for a deeper dive. Those quoted add thought-provoking insights, like novelist Dara Horn’s observation that all anti-Semitism “can be divided into Purim anti-Semitism and Hanukkah anti-Semitism.” The first focuses on murdering Jews, the second on erasing Jewish civilization.
As for politics, Weiss and I will have to agree to disagree that the political left is either the natural or better home for American Jews. But in a book filled with comments that could offend various readers, Weiss is at her bravest when she critiques anti-Semitism from the left (and acknowledges the existence of Islamist anti-Semitism), presumably highly cognizant of the inevitable attacks.
Weiss observes, “leftist anti-Semitism, like communism itself, pretends to be the opposite of what it actually is.” She points to campus antisemitism, the exclusion of Jewish symbols at LGBT marches, the rise of anti-Zionism, and the movement to boycott Israel. Weiss notes that “whereas Jews once had to convert to Christianity, now they have to convert to anti-Zionism” to remain progressives in good standing. This is a major personal sacrifice considering that only “3% of Jews . . . say they aren’t pro-Israel.”
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.
Assessing the Right
The weakest section of Weiss’s book is her chapter on the political right. Perhaps that’s inevitable since Weiss writes as an outside observer. Whereas Weiss writes fluently about the left, this section didn’t flow in quite the same way.
“At this point, I can feel my conservative and Trump-curious readers rolling their eyes,” Weiss writes, before recounting the reasons conservatives, many Jews among them, consider Trump pro-Israel. “So, okay, they’ll admit: Trump is disgusting. He has said horrible things about minorities. He’s even said anti-Semitic things.” Weiss doesn’t specify who “they” are, or what those “things” are, but I, for one, wanted clarification.
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.
A Public Service
All in all though, Weiss’s book is an important read. It isn’t exhaustive, but it’s an excellent overview. There are insightful gems worth consideration for those new to the topic, as well as those who are well versed in it.
Because a battle over normalizing anti-Semitism is already underway, Weiss’s real public service is encouraging mainstream Americans to join the forces of light. Weiss offers not only a wake-up call, but also a how-to guide for opposing this three-headed hydra that threatens not only American Jewry, but also the American republic and life as all Americans have known it.
That is the key, because whether or not Americans want to face the forces of darkness, they are already facing us. The first step is to recognize the extent of the problem. The next is for all of us to fight it.