Despite online smears, ‘NY Times’ op-ed writer intent on bridging divides

“The Times op-ed page is trying to do something radical in our ugly, tribal time, encourage people to talk to each other across the divides.”

The sun peaks over the New York Times Building in New York August 14, 2013  (photo credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)
The sun peaks over the New York Times Building in New York August 14, 2013
NEW YORK – Bari Weiss has an opinion and she’s not afraid who knows it.
Last May, The New York Times added Weiss as a staffer to its opinion section, with the aim of facilitating a conversation between Americans of all political stripes.
“The Times op-ed page is trying to do something radical in our ugly, tribal time, encourage people to talk to each other across the divides,” the 33-year-old Pittsburgh native wrote to The Jerusalem Post in an email last Saturday.
But since her start at “The Gray Lady,” the former pro-Israel activist at Columbia University has been routinely hammered by critics, with withering attacks from detractors who accuse her of hypocrisy and much worse.
Weiss managed to stir controversy a week ago with her piece titled “We’re All Fascists Now,” a scathing rebuke of the Left for prioritizing “microaggressions” on college campuses rather than focus on despotic regimes responsible for the murder and oppression of millions across the globe.
“We live in a world in which politically fascistic behavior, if not the actual philosophy, is unquestionably on the rise,” Weiss wrote in her article, citing Italy’s renewed dalliance with authoritarian Russia and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s domestic slaughter of more than 500,000.
“Yet these are generally not the extremists that leftists focus on,” she continued. “Instead, they seem to believe that the real cause for concern are the secret authoritarians passing as liberals and conservatives in our midst.”
She went on to argue that the intolerance for the right to free speech on college campuses was a multifaceted phenomenon that touches on tribalism, the decay of  political discourse (citing US President Donald Trump), and the “concerted attempt to significantly redraw the bounds of acceptable thought and speech.”
Weiss was subsequently attacked by prominent left-wing voices who accused her of being dishonest about her pro-Israel activism while a student at Columbia University.
One of those voices was Glenn Greenwald, co-founding editor of the online publication The Intercept, who accused Weiss of smearing pro-Palestinian professors by labeling them “racist,” arguing it was a tactic designed to silence educators from expressing their views.
Weiss responded to the accusation by tweeting: “When I was an undergraduate student at Columbia, I advocated for the rights of students to express their viewpoints in the classroom.”
“I criticized various professors in the school paper,” she continued in a threaded tweet, “in campus debates and in the press. I don’t know when criticizing professors became out of bounds. Or how my criticizing them is framed as punching down.
“I never called for any professor to be fired. I’ve never in my life heckled a professor or any speaker in any context. I took classes in the Middle East Studies department, including one taught by Joseph Massad. I got an A,” she added.
Massad, a Palestinian Christian, has characterized Israel as “a racist Jewish state” and accused the Palestinian Authority of collaborating with Israel and the United States to crush Palestinian resistance.
WEISS, ALONG with former Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief Bret Stephens, was hired last May to offer brand new voices to the Times Opinion section, saying it was in need of new perspectives that can offer “many shades of conservatism and many shades of liberalism.”
But critics take issue with Weiss’s stances, which partly express a “discomfort for the excesses of leftist culture,” The Washington Post reported.
In January, Weiss was thrust into controversy after writing a piece on American comedian Aziz Ansari.
At the time, a female acquaintance of Ansari came forward and spoke to the feminist publication Babe to accuse the comedian of sexual assault after a 2017 Emmys after-party.
Weiss, a self-proclaimed advocate of the anti-sexual harassment #metoo movement, appeared to distill the encounter to a night of “bad sex,” arguing the exposé “transforms what ought to be a movement for women’s empowerment into an emblem for female helplessness.”
In the wake of the op-ed piece, an “outrage mob” began a social media blitz against Weiss, trying to shame her for her “insensitive” take on the abuse allegations.
More recently, during last month’s Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Weiss tweeted out: “Immigrants: They get the job done” after the American daughter of Japanese immigrants won an Olympic medal.
The line was from the popular Broadway musical Hamilton, with the actual lyric going “Immigrants, we get the job done.”
Immediately, Weiss was attacked on social media for “othering” the American-born athlete, while internally at the Times, at least one colleague hysterically compared her tweet to Japanese Americans’ internment during World War II, according to National Review.
“Othering” is an action or statement by which an individual or group is perceived as not bring part of the whole.
Weiss subsequently deleted the social media message, and told the Washington Post that she regrets it if the tweet “left any room for interpretation. If anyone was hurt by it, I am sorry.”
Weiss later told HBO’s Bill Maher that “saying ‘I am offended’ is a way of making someone radioactive; a way of smearing their reputation.”
In Pittsburgh, Weiss grew up surrounded by a diverse set of political views and ways to think about Judaism. Her father identifies as a political conservative and her mother as a liberal, and the family belonged to three synagogues – Reform, Conservative and Orthodox.
“We had a big Shabbat dinner every Friday night, we’d have tons of different people talking, and we’d always talk about major political and moral and social issues,” she told JTA during an interview.
This mixing of divergent opinions has arguably manifested itself in Weiss’s writing, which may explain why her thoughtful positions come off as equivocations – leaving her detractors room to attack her for not committing to a side on the moral battleground.
“Some people are opposed” to talking with others who may not share similar opinions, Weiss told the Jerusalem Post. “I believe in it – and I am deeply proud to be a part of it.”
JTA contributed to this report.