Jonathan Weisman did a lot of research for his latest book, (((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump. While he presents lots of data and information and history, he can’t bring himself to be swayed from the position he held when he began working on the book – namely, that the campaign and presidency of President Donald Trump have led to an unprecedented rise in antisemitism in the United States.
But let’s take a step back.
Weisman, the deputy Washington editor at The New York Times
, has written a very personal book about both his childhood and his experiences over the past few years. His memories are interwoven with a history of antisemitism and nationalism in the United States, with a focus on recent years.
(((Semitism))) is an engaging, quick read, and hard to put down. But Weisman – despite his efforts – can’t seem to get past the personal; the entire book is framed by his own experiences as a Jew in the United States. He exhibits a stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge that not every American Jew grew up in a world free of antisemitism; that there are those who encountered, experienced and lived with it long before, and right before, 2016.
Instead, the author urges – despite providing evidence to the contrary – that he lived an existence untouched by any hatred of Jews, until the Trump campaign emerged and “suddenly, it was neither abstract nor meaningless.”
“I hadn’t known that virulent antisemitism still existed in America; now, I couldn’t avoid it,” he writes. Indeed, Weisman writes, hatred of Jews was not something he considered too much, until it was directed at him. And that came during the Trump campaign, when he was attacked via Twitter by angry, hate-fueled alt-right trolls. They used the parentheses ((( ))), known as an echo, to mark him as a Jew, and incessantly sent horrifying photoshopped images and threats. The Anti-Defamation League said Weisman ranked fifth among the journalists most targeted with antisemitic abuse during the campaign.
At times, Weisman acknowledges that he simply didn’t have to deal with such hatred growing up, that he was “lulled into complacency.” His belief that it had disappeared “was, I now know, a bit of childish, willful ignorance. Antisemitism tends to be invisible until it isn’t.”
To Weisman, it was invisible, at least until the 2016 election campaign. But he is just one American Jew.
AT THE center of the book, Weisman details a history of antisemitic activity in the United States, which, to state the obvious, dates back to long before Trump’s rise to prominence – e.g., the lynching of Leo Frank in 1915; the popular and virulent antisemitism of Henry Ford in the 1920s and 1930s.
But Weisman wants to think – or hope – that the election of Jews to the Senate, and even to the role of House majority leader in the case of Eric Cantor in 2011, marked an end to the phenomenon: “the Jewish community dared to ask whether antisemitism was really dead.” From Weisman’s perspective, even if antisemitism existed in the modern era, it wasn’t given a public platform or attention.
It’s not just that Weisman disregards the narratives of different types of American Jews; he seems to hold them in disdain.
The author notes with some dismay that Orthodox Jews, “who tend to be politically conservative, tribalist, and fecund – are holding firm and strong,” while those like him, ones “most interested in a liberal, internationalist future, who wish to live progressive, assimilated existences free of threat, are disappearing.”
He also exhorts American Jews to “assert a voice in the public arena, to back our institutions and mold them in our image,” and five pages later notes that he does “not mean to preach.”
Before Weisman starts preaching, he provides detailed evidence that antisemitism did not just spring out of nowhere in 2016. In illuminating detail, he lays out the rise to prominence of many of the figures discussed so much today, and the movement they have pushed for.
David Duke, certainly one of the most famous American antisemites for a long time, repeatedly ran for public office – most times unsuccessfully, though he served in the Louisiana House of Representatives from 1989 until 1992. Unrepentant racist and Holocaust denier Pat Buchanan ran unsuccessful presidential campaigns in 1992, 1996 and again in 2000.
Richard Spencer, Weisman notes, coined the term alt-Right in 2008. William Regnery II founded his hate-filled National Policy Institute in 2005 and upon his death in 2011 handed it over to Spencer.
Weisman notes the circulation of antisemitic messages in chat rooms and video games around the outbreak of the War, which “allowed the dual-loyalty canard to be repackaged in contemporary garb: Jews are manipulating American firepower on behalf of weak but manipulative little Israel. In short, Jews are not to be trusted.”
There is a largely unexplored narrative that social media and the rise of the Internet have been a powerful force in linking such thinkers together and enabling them to organize.
OF COURSE, there is no denying the link between the troubling rise in public expressions of antisemitism and the 2016 campaign.
The president’s difficulties in outright condemning many of the most hateful groups and his trafficking in nationalist sentiments and playing up racial divides have undoubtedly empowered some of the most hateful elements of society. These elements may have existed all along, but they were never happier than on November 8, 2016.
With this administration, the worst kind of bigots, white supremacists and antisemites feel they have a voice in the White House and a supporter – even if just tacitly – for their agenda.
According to Weisman, Trump may have been blissfully unaware of whom he was courting, but he was “the perfect vehicle”; “the ultimate dumb vessel stepped into the cauldron and carted the alt-Right’s stew of hatred into the mainstream.”
Certainly many, if not most, of the president’s aides had no interest in appealing to the reprehensible dregs of society who like nothing more than Photoshopping the heads of Jewish journalists into gas chambers, and Weisman gives some credit.
“The Trump campaign and its supporters may have wanted nothing to do with the antisemitic shock troops that Trump was attracting,” wrote Weisman, “but antisemites wanted everything to do with Trump.”
The author details the rise of this movement, its presence on the national stage and its joy in the winking and dog-whistling emanating from the Trump campaign, and later White House.
And then he begins preaching – and assigning blame. The American Jewish establishment, he says, has become entirely too focused on, and obsessed with, Israel to pay attention to what’s going on around them.
“Jews have grown so obsessed with Israel,” he writes, “that the overt and covert signals of antisemitism beamed from the interior of the Trump campaign appeared to be disregarded by people like Adelson and Bernie Marcus, who seemed wowed by candidate Trump’s solemn promise to immediately move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.”
There is certainly something to be said about the intense focus many – though not all – Jewish organizations have on Israel. But to assign some sort of watchdog failure to the establishment as a whole is unjustifiable and one of the things Weisman has received the most pushback on. Mainstream Jewish organizations are not, and were not, silent on antisemitism.
In more than 250 pages, Weisman manages to devote an entire paragraph to left-wing antisemitism, dismissing it as irrelevant and not worthy of concern in the face of the looming threat from the Right. Such a dismissal will not quiet critics who see the book as a partisan attack.
The author has certainly experienced an eye-opening two years.
He’s experienced things we’d never wish on anyone, and learned of worlds we’d prefer didn’t exist. And (((Semitism))) is full of both personal tales and poignant insights. But Weisman paints with broad strokes, summing up events purely from his perspective, without even entertaining other ideas.
He describes himself as the ultimate assimilated Jew, living a life of “unstudied ordinariness, not particularly proud or aware of our assimilation, unconscious of the conformity that has meshed us with American society over the decades.”
For Weisman, 2016 may have been a wake-up call. But others didn’t need such an alarm.
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