Jewish journalists make a difference in the world

#47 - My pen is my sword: Bari Weiss and Jonathan Swan

(L-R) Jonathan Swan and Bari Weiss (Photo credits: Courtesy/ Sam Bloom) (photo credit: JERUSALEM POST)
(L-R) Jonathan Swan and Bari Weiss (Photo credits: Courtesy/ Sam Bloom)
(photo credit: JERUSALEM POST)
The concept of Jewish journalists making a difference in the world is almost an overblown Hollywood cliché, but in the cases of Bari Weiss and Jonathan Swan, the facts could never ring more loudly.
Weiss had already made her mark as a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, and since 2017 for The New York Times, as a singular voice who brought fresh and frequently controversial viewpoints to Left-wing darling issues like cultural appropriation and intersectionality, as well as calling out what she saw as antisemitism and anti-Zionism in the politically correct world.
But her profile drastically rose in July when she created a major storm in the Jewish and journalism world by publicly announcing her resignation from The New York Times. She claimed she was bullied by her colleagues for her views and accused her bosses of bowing to the vocally progressive Twitter-verse in their decision making.
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“Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times, but Twitter has become its ultimate editor,” she wrote, adding that “Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions.” In pulling the curtain away from the mighty Oz, Weiss and her whistle-blowing may have started a process of self-examination by media organizations and how they fit into the increasingly polarized debate on virtually every subject that is conducted online and in print.
AUSTRALIAN-BORN SWAN has been breaking scoops since moving to the United States and writing for The Hill, and since 2014, among them, that the US would pull out of the Paris climate deal, that Trump aide Steve Bannon was going to be fired and that the US president was going to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
But, it was his televised HBO interview with Trump last month that significantly raised Swan’s profile and switched the tables by making him the subject of stories. Politely but firmly, Swan held Trump accountable for every statement he made during the 40-minute interview. For example, when Trump said “people say…,” Swan hit back with “Which people?” In doing so, he exposed the president as woefully unprepared and unequipped with the facts surrounding the coronavirus pandemic in the US.
However, it was the telegenic Swan’s facial reactions to Trump’s claim that the US was doing better than any country in tackling COVID-19, from bemusement to astonishment, that instantly created a social media star and launched a thousand Swan-inspired memes.
Swan’s father is Dr. Norman Swan, Australia’s pre-eminent health journalist, whose family name was originally Twirsky and who was active in Habonim. According to BuzzFeed, the younger Swan regularly calls his father to “workshop and talk through strategies ahead of big interviews.” He must have trained him well for the Trump interview.
As a commentator in the Sydney Morning Herald wrote, “In Jonathan’s gobsmacked expressions as Trump spoke, we saw ourselves – wondering how such a man as this could hold such an office at such a time, and give such answers – but Swan the Younger was doing it in the White House.” Bari Weiss – a woman with a mission
Just because she is no longer with The New York Times and admits with a chuckle that she’s “unemployed,” doesn’t mean that Bari Weiss isn’t keeping busy.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post recently from California while planning a corona-era wedding to her longtime partner and writing new sections of the upcoming paperback edition of her 2019 bestseller How to Fight Antisemitism, Weiss is anything but idle.
More than a month after her public resignation from the Times caused tremors in the media and Jewish world, she is able to reflect on the resultant social media onslaught, as well as touch on the threats facing American Jewry and the upcoming US presidential election.
Were you taken by surprise by how much of a storm your resignation letter caused?
I don’t think anyone in their right mind could expect their own resignation letter to become such a big story.
But what gratified me was not the fact it was trending on Twitter. What gratified me were the heartfelt, moving personal notes I got from people in every single industry you can imagine, in the US and beyond – ranging from high school and college students to people working in left-wing non-profits, people in law firms, from Silicon Valley, advocacy organizations that you would think would have all the freedom in the world to speak their mind. I heard that many of them are scared to say at work what they can say in the company of friends.
That was, to me, an incredible validation that I wasn’t just speaking for myself, but that I hit on something that resonated for a lot of people. And I hope it gave them some feeling of solidarity.
Which do you perceive as the greater threat to US Jewry – the far Right or far Left?
They’re both existential threats that present themselves, as I write in my book, in very different language and in very different ways. The threat from the far Right is explicit, it says what it means, and we don’t need to have a Talmudic debate about what the neo-Nazi that walked into Pittsburgh believed. He said, ‘kill all the Jews’ and then he tried to do it.
In addition, the thing I said [on Real Time with Bill Maher in late August] rings true, in that we have a president in Donald Trump who created the environment in which Americans think it’s now normal to dehumanize other Americans, and in which he has dismantled the moral guardrails which keep bigotry down. His flirtation with conspiracy thinking is directly related to the rise in flirtation with the ultimate conspiracy theory, which is antisemitism.
The antisemitism of the Left is less explicit, it cloaks itself in the language of progress and it has wound its way into so many of the institutions that are essential for a healthy American culture. And that is deeply concerning to me.
Do you agree with the claim that cases of antisemitism are never widely condemned in the manner that discrimination against other minorities is?
Because American history is what it is, aside from what happened to native Americans, the original sin of the country is slavery. And because of that, every kind of oppression is seen through a racial or colored lens.
And if that’s the case, then discrimination against Jews doesn’t seem to fit, because in this country, unlike Israel, the majority of American Jews are white Ashkenazim of European descent.
To steal a line from a wonderful writer, John Paul Pagano, who wrote this for the Tablet in 2016, “Anti-racism erases antisemitism.”
That makes a lot of sense to me. Just to choose an example from dozens, P Diddy (Sean Combs) on his digital Revolt TV channel for July 4th featured a major address from Louis Farrakhan. He advertised it proudly on Twitter to his 15 million followers.
Is he going to be denied production of his next album? Is he going to be shunned from culture and society? Of course not.
Contrast that to the writer Carlan Romano, who was the subject of a hearing over whether he should be kicked off of the board of the National Book Critics Circle because he criticized some aspect of the Black Lives Matter platform. [The board later voted to let him stay].
Can one be a vocal supporter of Israel and still be included under the liberal/progressive umbrella in the US?
The old school of the Democratic Party would insist that the answer is yes. And I always insisted the same.
That is what so many of us have been fighting for – but I would be lying if I told you we were winning the battle at the moment. The fact that we have to fight for it at all says nothing about the fundamental justice of Israel’s existence and everything about the lies that have been told about it.
What do you think about the Biden-Harris ticket?
I watched the breathless coverage on CNN of Harris’s speech and Biden’s speech, and I was wondering if we were watching the same thing.
I heard a lot of understandable disgust – the disgust we’ve felt for four years of Trump and the Trump administration, but I really didn’t hear what they were going to do to get millions of people back to work and improve the economy.
I didn’t hear much there, but is it an improvement? It’s hard to see how it’s not.
What are you planning on focusing on next?
I think we’re living at a hinge moment in the US. I want to be part of fighting for the values that I think have made this country so exceptional, that I think a lot of people have lost sight of. They don’t understand that these values can disappear really, really quickly. And that’s at the center of my thinking about what I want to do next.
I think it will be some iteration of building something new with other people that share that vision. There’s a lot of nihilism out there and there’s this trope I’m increasingly hearing that America is the same today as Nazi Germany. It’s being said by some really prominent people.
If that becomes conventional wisdom, if that’s what some of our brightest minds believe, then I want to be doing everything I can to fight that lie.