Bari Weiss, a staff editor and writer for the New York Times opinion section, investigates the global resurgence of anti-Semitism and offers helpful tactics to prevent its spread. Weiss's cri de coeur is an unnerving reminder that Jews must never lose their hard-won instinct for danger, and a powerful case for renewing Jewish and American values in uncertain times.
Weiss’s book, whose careful organization and articulate prose belie its hurried composition in the wake of last October’s Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, is not just about the left ... Though not claiming to be original, Weiss is admirably succinct in her explanation of why groups having nothing else in common are united in their dislike or hatred of Jews ... It is in writing about the left, however, that Weiss is at her most passionate ... I found How to Fight Anti-Semitism disappointing, because nowhere in her book does Weiss indicate that — apart from its anti-Zionism — she has any problem with the deadening mental conformity of contemporary American liberalism ... Weiss fails to realize that she herself is an example of the wishful thinking about Judaism that is ubiquitous among American Jewish liberals. One might call this the Judaism of the Sunday school, a religion of love, tolerance, respect for the other, democratic values and all the other virtues to which American Jews pay homage. This is a wondrous Judaism indeed — and one that has little to do with anything that Jewish thought or observance has historically stood for ... Weiss has delivered a praiseworthy and concise brief against modern-day anti-Semitism, but if she thinks this long tradition is ultimately compatible with contemporary American liberal beliefs, she might want to take a closer look. Honestly regarded, Judaism tells another story.
In theory the book is Weiss’ response to the October 2018 massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. This was a personal tragedy for Weiss: It unfolded not only in her hometown, but at the very synagogue where she was bat mitzvahed. Unfortunately, she has used the attack as a launch pad for a bizarre and undercooked exercise in rhetorical bothsidesism, in which she argues that American Jews should be just as worried about college students who overzealously criticize Israel as they are about the aspiring Einsatzgruppen who shoot up shuls ... Part of the reason Weiss takes such a catastrophic tone, I think, is that she doesn’t just think anti-Zionism will lead to 'cultural genocide,' as she puts it. She is worried about real genocide ... She seems to think that a lot of activists are, in their 'insidious' way, trying to get Jews killed. This doesn’t necessarily make the book any better. But it does help explain its volume and pitch ... The fact that so much of Weiss’ conception of who is and who isn’t anti-Semitic comes down to how supportive they are of Israel could, ironically, end up fueling an emerging thread of anti-Semitic thought ... In the end, though, the thing that bugs me the most about How to Fight Anti-Semitism is Weiss’ disdain for the people who are actually trying to do it. Specifically, she criticizes journalists who have spent time documenting and understanding online radicals ... Weiss doesn’t seem to realize that part of stopping online radicalization, and perhaps the murders it leads to, is understanding how it works.
Weiss’s book turned out to be both passionate and disappointing. She repeats her urgent pleas for the reader to wake up and avert a recurrence of a nightmarish history. At the same time, she does not take up the issues that make the matter so vexed for those who oppose both antisemitism and the unjust policies of the Israeli state. To do that, she would have had to provide a history of antisemitism, and account for the relatively recent emergence of the view that to criticize Israel is itself antisemitic. To fight antisemitism we have to know what it is, how best to identify its forms, and how to devise strategies for rooting it out. The book falters precisely because it refuses to do so. Instead, it elides a number of ethical and historical questions, suggesting that we are meant to feel enraged opposition to antisemitism at the expense of understanding it ... It is not only the lack of a broader political approach, but also a lack of historical analysis that afflicts this impassioned book ... Weiss encourages Jews to 'practice a Judaism of affirmation, not a Judaism of defensiveness.' A fine idea! But if Judaism and Zionism are conflated, then what precisely is to be affirmed? And how are we to judge? Shall we not be permitted to ask all of our questions, so that we may become more wise as we pursue the answers? More courage, Bari Weiss!