Bari Weiss' revolutionary anti-antisemitism action plan

Book Review: How to Fight antisemitism

APPLE CEO Tim Cook speaks at the Anti-Defamation League’s ‘Never is Now’ summit in New York in December 2018. (photo credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)
APPLE CEO Tim Cook speaks at the Anti-Defamation League’s ‘Never is Now’ summit in New York in December 2018.
In seeking to understand the surge in contemporary antisemitism in the United States, and how to oppose it, one could do no better than to read Bari Weiss’s new work.
How to Fight antisemitism, Weiss’s book, provides powerful insights into Jew-hatred and delivers a kind of revolutionary anti-antisemitism action plan.
I do not invoke “revolutionary” in the sometimes pejorative sense; rather, Weiss shows how human beings can experience change and how Jews, and Jews together with non-Jews, can alter their character structures so as to combat modern antisemitism.
Weiss is able to overcome the excessive pessimism in many quarters about waging war against antisemitism, especially the most ubiquitous form of eliminatory antisemitism—the genocidal loathing of the Jewish state.
Weiss, a native of Pittsburgh and a staff writer and editor for the opinion section of The New York Times, raises the curtain of her book with the mass murder at the Tree of Life synagogue in her hometown.
Robert Bowers, a right-wing xenophobe and anti-Jewish fanatic, carried out the deadliest-ever attack on the US Jewish community at the Tree of Life, murdering 11 people in October 2018.
Weiss wrote on the day of the bloodbath that “… my third youngest sister, Molly, told us she had heard something on the police scanner. ‘He’s screaming all these Jews need to die.’”
In the opening chapter of her book, Weiss captures what she learned from the lethal antisemitism of Bowers: “Those words would wake me up to the fact that I had spent much of my life on a holiday from history. And history, in a hail of bullets, had made its unequivocal return.”
Weiss cites Johannes Fest, an anti-Nazi schoolteacher and the father of the German journalist Joachim Fest, who believed, according to Joachim Fest’s memoir, that German Jews “had, in tolerant Prussia, lost their instinct for danger, which had preserved them through the ages.”
Weiss declares: “My primary goal here is to wake us up, to help recover what Fest’s father rightly feared his friends had forgotten.”
I believe this book, if read by large swaths of American Jewry, will jolt mainstream Jews out of a soggy complacency.
Weiss, a proud Zionist, is steeped in American Judaism and the ideals of the United States. Her work crisscrosses between outbreaks of antisemitism in Europe, the US, the now-defunct Soviet Union, the Arab world and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Yet the real target of her book is the US. “It is important, here at the outset, to grasp the stakes of this struggle. The object of our protection is not just the Jewish people. It is the health and future of a country that promised to be a New Jerusalem for all who sought it,” Weiss writes.
In her chapter “A Brief History,” she debunks the fantasy that lumping antisemitism together with other forms of racism makes it possible to understand the phenomenon.
“Antisemitism, which has as its ultimate goal the elimination of Judaism and the Jewish people…,” writes Weiss. Put simply, the urge for genocide is the driving motor of Jew-hatred.
Her overview of the history of antisemitism demonstrates that Weiss has unquestionably immersed herself in the academic literature of antisemitism, including Bernard Lewis’s seminal work Semites and Anti-Semites (1986) and Jeffrey Herf’s Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (2010).
The next three chapters cover the troika of contemporary anti-Semites: The Right, The Left and Radical Islam.
In the chapter on right-wing antisemitism, Weiss grapples with the idea of a pendulum of history in America that seesaws back “into the darkness of the Old World that my grandparents’ generation was sure they’d left behind.”
Her chapter on left-wing antisemitism is packed full of nuggets about the post-Holocaust merger of anti-Zionism and antisemitism.
Weiss wittily addresses the respectability that the idea of dismantling the Jewish state in the name of teleological progress has acquired in many Middle Eastern Studies departments in the US. “Neo-Nazis, in a way, are easy. We know they wish us dead. Anti-Semites with PhDs, the ones who defend their bigotry as enlightened thinking, are harder to fight.”
As for Karl Marx: “The most important and enduring leftist philosopher succeeded in fundamentally identifying Jews with capitalism, the great evil of leftist ideologies. Much flows from this linkage,” she writes.
Weiss lets her reader judge whether Marx’s essay “On the Jewish Question (1844)” is infected with Jew-hatred. Marx’s antisemitism can be found in a letter he wrote to his co-writer Friedrich Engels, in which he uses anti-Jewish language to describe the German Jewish socialist Ferdinand Lassalle. Engels was not, in contrast to Marx, an anti-Semite.
The great Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri revealed that Marx, in a rare show of sympathy for the Jews, devoted this astonishing paragraph to the dire plight of Jews in Jerusalem, in an 1854 article for the Daily Tribune:
“Nothing equals the misery and the suffering of the Jews of Jerusalem, inhabiting the most filthy quarter of the town, called hareth-el-yahoud… between [Mount] Zion and [Mount] Moriah…. [They are] the constant objects of Mussulman oppression and intolerance, insulted by the Greeks, persecuted by the Latins [Catholics], and living only on the scanty alms transmitted by their European brethren.”
Unsurprisingly, anti-Israel leftists studiously avoid citing the aforesaid passage in their diatribes against the Jewish state.
Perhaps one of the great contributions of this book is Weiss’s scathing criticism of the deleterious effects of the concept of intersectionality—a sort of competition in suffering—on Jews and the US. “It retribalizes us, preventing us from treating people as individuals—an idea as un-American as the right-wing notion that white Americans are somehow more truly American than those who aren’t.”
In Weiss’s chapter on radical Islam, she marshals a solid stream of statistics and expert views on the dangers of Islamist-animated Jew-hatred. “The hate comes from state leaders and is not limited to Arabic-speaking nations. Look no further than Iran, whose supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, regularly says things like this: ‘This barbaric, wolflike, and infanticidal regime of Israel which spares no crime has no cure but to be annihilated.”
The Islamic Republic of Iran remains the largest state-sponsor of terrorism, lethal antisemitism and Holocaust denial. Weiss says of Khamenei’s genocidal declarations that he “…sounds like a twenty-first-century Hitler—and one on the brink of getting nuclear weapons.”
I am intellectually curious about Weiss’s thoughts on the fourth pillar of antisemitism that contaminates Western Europe: Guilt-defensiveness antisemitism.
The Israeli psychoanalyst Zvi Rex famously remarked, with biting sarcasm, that “The Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz.”
Based on my nearly 20 years of writing and analyzing contemporary antisemitism in Continental Europe, I posit that Rex’s formulation about German society punishing Jews because of the memory of the Shoah, which infuses pathological guilt into many Germans, needs to be updated.
In a modernized version of Rex, one might say that Western Europeans will never forgive Israel for the Holocaust. In short, that Western European countries such as France, Sweden, Austrian, Italy and others that were complicit in the Shoah are intensely focused on imposing discipline and punishment on Israel because of their guilt associated with Holocaust. What other plausible explanation exists for Western Europe’s relentless attacks on Israel and its singling out of Israel, only Israel, for a punitive demarcation of its products from the disputed territories in the West Bank and the Golan?
There has been progress recently in Germany in the fight against contemporary antisemitism, Weiss notes, for example the Bundestag decision to classify the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign targeting Israel as anti-Semitic.
However, there is still the problem that John le Carré described so forcefully in his novel The Little Drummer Girl (1983), when the Palestinain terrorist Khalil says, “We have many friends in Germany. But not because they love Palestinians. Only because they hate Jews.”
A 2017 German government study revealed that nearly 33 million Germans, out of a total population of 82 million, are infected with contemporary antisemitism–that is hatred of the Jewish state.
The report said, in a section titled “Agreement with Israel-related antisemitism,” that 40% of Germans who were polled approved of the following statement: “Based on Israel’s policies, I can understand people having something against the Jews.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s administration adamantly refuses to outlaw in Germany the entirety of the lethal anti-Semitic terrorist entity Hezbollah. According to German intelligence reports, 1,050 Hezbollah operatives are active in the Federal Republic.
In the final chapter of Weiss’s book, “How to Fight,” she brings her entire intellectual toolkit to motivate action and attitude change in the campaign against Jew-hatred. It is a breathtaking piece of writing and engenders optimism.
One hopes that Weiss’s book will be translated into other languages, especially for European Jews, many of whom have given up on resisting antisemitism and turned inward, hoping to hide from the tidal wave of Jew-hatred sweeping across their countries.
Of course, aliyah is also an important escape hatch.
The writer is a fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.