Bari Weiss: The lunatic fringe has gone mainstream

#7: Bari Weiss

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September 28, 2019 20:50
Bari Weiss: The lunatic fringe has gone mainstream

Bari Weiss. (photo credit: TWITTER)

Bari Weiss catapulted to fame after the massacre on October 27, 2018, at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, in which 11 Jews were murdered by an antisemitic gunman.

As a New York Times opinion page editor, the Pittsburgh native had grown up attending the Tree of Life synagogue. The massacre had a profound effect on her – not only because it is the synagogue where she celebrated her bat mitzvah, but because it became a place of worship for her entire family after a fire destroyed their previous synagogue.


That day changed her life – and the 35-year-old realized that she had been writing her new book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, for years.

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“I have been writing this book since I was a kid waiting for the school bus and a bus full of students from the local Catholic school... called me and my little sister ‘kikes,’” she said. “I have been writing this book since I heard the name ‘Ilan Halimi’ and read about the modern-day lynching” in Paris.

As she recalled the deadliest attack on Jews in US history, she said that the massacre was her “wake-up call,” and she has since used her bold and candid voice to share her strategy on fighting the evils of antisemitism plaguing the world.

Weiss is not afraid of honesty and controversy. She is outspoken and sees beyond the simple, beyond the black-and-white – and revels in the complex and provocative.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1984, she grew up in the same neighborhood as Mr. Fred Rogers. Like many across the US, and especially in her hometown, she reveres the beloved man who taught so many about the goodness of people and the importance of dealing with ones feelings.

In a piece she wrote for The New York Times, she stated that one of her favorite quotes from Rogers embodies the community she grew up in: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

After high school, she participated in the Conservative Movement’s Nativ gap-year program, where she became “a progressive, feminist Zionist,” she told Vanity Fair. During that year in Israel, she helped to build a medical clinic for Bedouins in the Negev, studied at an egalitarian yeshiva and took classes at Hebrew University.

She went on to study at Columbia University, where she co-founded Columbians for Academic Freedom.

“The group said that professors were intimidating students who expressed pro-Israel sentiments in classroom discussions that the professors disagreed with,” Weiss told The Jerusalem Post a few years ago.

Vanity Fair also described Weiss as “a Trump-loathing theater nerd who...popularized the ‘intellectual dark Web.’”

The National Review wrote that “it’s too much to call Bari conservative. A better description might be heterodox. On some issues, particularly social issues and immigration, she’s a woman of the Left,” the Review wrote. “On others – regarding, for example, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict – she’s on the Right.”

She has criticized the #MeToo movement and shared deep concern about two former leaders of the Women’s March.
However, in the same breath, she said that the march itself moved her, expressing that it hits back at Trump’s “attacking the weakest and most vulnerable in our society.”

After graduating in 2007, Weiss was a Wall Street Journal Bartley Fellow. From 2007 to 2008, she lived in Jerusalem through the Dorot Fellowship, a program designed to empower a network of young Jewish lay leaders to enliven the American Jewish landscape.

She worked for two years as an editor at Tablet Magazine before returning to The Wall Street Journal in 2013 as a book reviews editor. Today, Weiss is a staff editor and writer of the opinion section at the Times.

In an exclusive interview with the Post, Weiss talks about what prompted her to write her new book. “As ever, our best strategy is to build, without shame, a Judaism and a Jewish people and a Jewish state that are not only safe and resilient, but self-aware, meaningful, generative, humane, joyful, and life-affirming,” she says. “A Judaism capable of lighting a fire in every Jewish soul – and in the souls of everyone who throws in their lot with ours.”

Tell me a little bit about what inspired you to write ‘How to Fight Anti-Semitism.’

Antisemitism was always something I was keenly aware of. I can tell you how Ilan Halimi was murdered. And who died in Sbarro’s Pizzeria. But I was of the view, I think like many American Jews, that antisemitism was something that happened to Jews in other places. I believed we were uniquely innoculated from this virus.

The massacre in Pittsburgh – and then, six months later, in Poway – woke me up from that delusion. I realize now that I had spent most of my life on a holiday from history. I think what we are living through now is very clearly a return to it.

Tell me a little bit about your upbringing and how your Judaism influenced your upbringing and where you are today.

My parents have always canceled out one another’s votes, so politics was not something you could avoid in our house. We – I am the oldest of four girls – were always debating with my parents, with one another, and with the many guests who were always around our Shabbat table.

I grew up in what I would described as a 21st-century shtetl. In Pittsburgh, the Jewish community was small enough that we had to venture out of our political and denominational lanes – something that you can avoid in bigger cities like New York. It was not unusual for my family to begin a Shabbat morning at Beth Shalom, where my sister and I learned to read Torah at a young age, then go to a frum family for Shabbat lunch before heading to basketball clinic at the JCC. The word that leaps to mind when I think of my hometown community is haimish. And I am just very grateful that this is the place where I got to grow up.

How would you describe your relationship with Israel? (I know you spent some time here when you were younger - tell me about that too!)

Long-standing and deep. When I was young (around six years old and six years old) my family spent two summers living in Jerusalem. My sister Casey and I went to camp, and my parents tried their hardest to learn Hebrew at Ulpan at Hebrew U. Our apartment was covered in Post-it notes so they could attempt to memorize the words for cabinet and toilet and spatula.

In the years since, I have traveled regularly to Israel. I spent a gap year on Nativ (2002-2003) and then a year following college on the Dorot fellowship. I was most recently there in March to do a big story on the City of David dig and the future of Jerusalem. But I think the highlight of that trip was getting an hour with Natan Sharansky, one of my heroes.

I should add – though it is apparent to anyone who reads my columns – that I am deeply critical of various Israeli government policies, not least the stranglehold that the rabbinate holds over religious life. But I think – I hope! – readers hear my criticism within my broader belief that we are unspeakably lucky to be alive during the Jewish return to political sovereignty.

Why do you think we’re seeing such a surge in worldwide antisemitism and what are the different types we are facing? Is it the same type of antisemitism we saw with the rise of Facism and Nazi Germany?

This requires a very, very long answer and you’re writing a short piece. I’ve written about the three-headed dragon that Europeans are facing, and that is the structure I used in my book, too.

My answer for the US: There are deep cultural and political forces surging on the Right and on the Left that are transforming the country, with profound implications for a group that constitutes less than two percent of the American population. Among them:
We are living in an era in which the Center is not only not holding, it is increasingly bending toward and being distorted by the extremes on both the ethno-nationalist Right and on the anti-colonialist Left. Each day, it seems, faith in liberal institutions and ideas – respect for free speech and for intellectual gadflies, faith in the open society and the value of immigration, admiration for expertise and reason – erodes further.

We are living in an era where the foreign policy consensus – a bipartisan commitment to NATO, to the liberal international order – is being undermined by neo-isolationists like Democrat Tulsi Gabbard and Republican Rand Paul, who seek a fundamental restructuring of America’s role abroad, including its longstanding alliance with Israel.

We are living in an era in which the lunatic fringe has gone mainstream, a process aided and abetted by our politicians and spread like a virus by regular Americans on social media.

We are living in an era in which conspiracy thinking is thriving, and antisemitism – which stipulates that the nefarious force playing the starring role in spreading evil in the world is the Jew – is the ultimate conspiracy theory.

There is much more to say, but for a short piece, I will leave it at that.

As for Trump: People have rightly seized on Trump for the various antisemitic tropes he has trafficked in, the notion of dual loyalty, chief among them. All of that is bad. But what is far, far worse is the larger charge for which he stands guilty. And that is, as my colleague Bret Stephens has put it, the systemic removal of “the moral guardrails that keep bigotry down.” A president who suggests that Mexicans are rapists, that immigrants sully America, that some of us belong here less than others – that is a president who is very dangerous for Jews.

What’s your message to the Jewish world as we continue to face the rise of antisemitism?

There are many forces in our world trying to insist, once again, that “all Jews must die.” But there is a force far, far greater than that. And that is the force of who we are.

We are the inheritors of Abraham’s iconoclasm, of Ruth’s compassion, of Rabbi Akiva’s faith, of the Maccabees’ audacity, of Theodore Herzl’s prophetic vision, of Hannah Senesh’s sacrifice, of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s spirit, of Natan Sharansky’s optimism.

We are a people descended from slaves who brought the world some ideas that changed the course of history. One God. Human dignity. The sanctity of life. Freedom itself.

That is our inheritance; that is our legacy. We didn’t survive because we were anti-anti-Semites. We survived because we are heirs to a world-changing civilization. The question for us is only: Do we believe in our own epic story? Can we make it real once again? I believe that we can – and that we must.


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