Bari Weiss’s ‘How to Fight Anti-Semitism’ Is Just a Frustrating, Book-Length Op-Ed

Bari Weiss’s ‘How to Fight Anti-Semitism’ Is Just a Frustrating, Book-Length Op-Ed

The Op-Ed Dead End

Bari Weiss’s How to Fight Anti-Semitism.

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Bari Weiss, a staff opinion editor at The New York Times, has acquired, and capitalized on, a certain infamy among progressives online. The resultant controversies that her writing and commentary have spurred—from a tweet about Asian American athlete Mirai Nagasu to her promotion of the reactionary scribes of the “Intellectual Dark Web”—has gained her a following among those who consider themselves above petty ideological conflict. She has also garnered a level of fame the average Times editor does not enjoy: Weiss is a regular on HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher and was the subject of a recent favorable (and lushly photographed) profile in Vanity Fair.

The launch party for her debut book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, was covered in detail by New York magazine and featured such luminaries as New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger, ViacomCBS chair Shari Redstone, and MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle, among other members of a well-heeled media set that New York dubbed “the Moderate Chic.” At the center of it all was Weiss—with a friendly, open smile, blocky Clark Kent glasses, and a seemingly harmless affect.

Despite this placid mien, Weiss’s book has a more combative aim and she hopes that it will encourage her readers to “take up [the] fight” against anti-Semitism. The book is meant to have a mass appeal as well, written from the viewpoint of someone who claims to speak neither to the right nor the left—nor, as she terms them, to “the braying mob.” How to Fight Anti-Semitism is for “anyone, Jew or gentile, who is concerned not with what is fashionable,” she writes, “but with what is true.” And so, in the spirit of comity and a concern for truth, I will lead with what I have found to be true—and resonant—in this slim volume, whose brevity belies the immensity of its purpose: to strike a blow against an ancient and deadly prejudice. While the majority of its points are poorly argued and alarmingly ahistorical, I have unearthed precisely two on which the author and I agree.

The first is a principle, derived from scholars like Deborah Lipstadt, that anti-Semitism isn’t easy to map onto a standard material analysis of racism and its consequences. Anti-Semitism, as Weiss describes it, is an “ever-morphing conspiracy theory”: Regardless of the cultural context, it is a story in which the Jew is “whatever the anti-Semite needs him to be.” Rather than a simple prejudice, it is a “grand unified theory of everything” that serves as a crude substitute for an analysis of power and systemic injustice.

It is easier to direct one’s ire at the Jews, those perennial éminences grises of evil, than to identify and dismantle injustice. (In this sense, anti-Semitism is distinct from merely disliking Jews.) This explanation elucidates the ideology’s mutability, its ability to fit squarely into both the misplaced blame and persecution that occurred during medieval outbreaks of the Black Death and contemporary anti-capitalist rhetoric that strays into anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.

The second point we agree on is that the American public and the national media are quicker to seize on incidents of anti-Semitic violence when they are perpetrated by the far right. Such stories are more appealing to the national palate, featuring as they do “the right kind of victims with the right kind of enemies.” Weiss notes that a rash of physical assaults on Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn has not made headlines beyond the Jewish and local press and that Jews, “don’t get to choose who hates [them].” Whether it comes in a punch on the streets of Brooklyn or a verbal jab doused in layers of leftist irony, anti-Semitism crosses social boundaries with the readiness of any virus.

So far, so accurate. Yet I must admit my stash of Alka-Seltzer has been depleted by the agita of reading the rest of Weiss’s book.

She states that there are, functionally, two types of anti-Semitism, that of the far right and the far left. The first kind, the anti-Semitism of the far right, is primarily interested in violence and seeks to eliminate the Jewish people through mass murder. This is the “simple face” of anti-Semitism—a phenomenon so bald, in Weiss’s estimation, that she doesn’t find it worthy of intellectually serious exploration. In her view, the “cottage industry of columnists” creating “an entire taxonomy of the Internet activity of the far right” are looking to gain fame and promote themselves by painting an overly complicated picture of a relatively straightforward phenomenon. “The benefit to the reporter is clear: It seems like she knows about a secret world inaccessible to the average reader,” Weiss writes. Those who demystify 4chan and the Ku Klux Klan for readers, who work to understand the relationships between these extremist groups, are engaging in a “pseudo-sophisticated process” of decoding something that is quite obvious: hate.

Those who report on the far right in hopes of identifying and isolating threats to Jews and other minorities might point out that exposés on white nationalist groups have constrained some of the major online gathering points for those who traffic in a violent anti-Semitism, from The Daily Stormer to 8chan, by putting pressure on technology companies to deplatform them. Despite Weiss’s acknowledgment that “there is a very high likelihood that if someone walks into your synagogue with a gun, that person will be a creature of the far right,” she makes the markedly anti-intellectual argument that studying the far right is a mug’s game, an exercise in intellectual autofellatio.

Perhaps this disinclination to explore further is congenital to Weiss’s intellectual approach to the matter of anti-Semitism, as evinced by the fact that her own analysis of the left is breathtakingly shallow. According to Weiss, the far left (a category never delineated but which seems to include everyone from the Women’s March to Rashida Tlaib to all of academia) engages in a less violent but no less troubling form of anti-Semitism. The left, she says, “asks the Jews to commit cultural genocide, to abandon their traditions and to worship false idols to survive.” In the typical airy manner of someone more used to writing polemic than fact-based analysis, Weiss posits that “intersectionality” has created a “reverse” caste system on the American left, in which the more marginalized people are, the greater their credibility. Jews, designated as white, are thus “incapable of being victims.” As is the case throughout the book, she furnishes no evidence for her claim, thereby failing to prove how widespread this mode of thought is, what groups it permeates, and how it is materially expressed.

Another of Weiss’s hobbyhorses is anti-Zionism on the left. She writes that leftist positions on Israel are absolutist and are directed at the complete destruction of the Jewish state and, moreover, that they conveniently exclude every other state around the world that commits similar abuses. This plaintive call to focus on other human rights abuses—any abuses other than Israel’s—ignores that it is precisely the left that brings up such issues as, for example, the detention of Muslim Uighurs in China. (Weiss has not addressed this deplorable state of affairs in a single column.) Anti-Zionist Jews, meanwhile, are compared to members of the Yevsektsiya, Stalin’s committee to control the Jewish community, whose members terrorized their coreligionists. Jews who support the BDS movement or oppose Zionism, she asserts, are “part of a long history of left-wing anti-Semitic movements that successfully conscript Jews as agents in their own destruction.”

For someone who is just 35, Weiss sounds an awful lot like an old fashioned cold warrior, and her anticommunism has the stale smell of a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing room about it. With the ferocity of someone for whom “healthy centrism” is the only solution to America’s current ills, she conjures up a nebulous far-left menace whose objections are not solely to Israel’s policies but to the very existence of Jews.

Some days after How to Fight Anti-Semitism was published, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the throes of a difficult reelection bid, issued a blatantly racialized vision for his nation. He foreclosed on even the possibility of a governing coalition that included Arab parties and called the decisions of those who voted for them a rejection of “the very existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” And yet Weiss herself says she believes the current government of Israel “is betraying the six million murdered [in the Holocaust] by cozying up to far-right nationalists, like Viktor Orbán.” Nonetheless, she doesn’t acknowledge that a leftist critique can say the very same thing without being eliminationist—or that the Israeli government’s willingness to embrace Orbán could be symptomatic of a greater problem with its animating ideology.

In the book’s chapter on Islam, which focuses less on the “judenrein” Muslim world and more on Islamic radicalism in Europe, Weiss performs a dainty two-step that edges up to but does not fully enunciate her planned solution. Despite paying lip service to “the value of immigration,” she blames the torture and murder of French Jew Ilan Halimi on France’s “inability to assimilate Muslims.” She also notes that Muslims in Europe outnumber Jews by the millions. Though she doesn’t call for an outright ban on Muslim immigration to Europe, she does state that Jews have “reason to worry” because of the Muslim presence there. It is an exercise in slippery sophistry, the kind that courts outrage but retains plausible deniability.

Ultimately, Weiss’s sole gift as a thinker is her ability to smuggle right-wing talking points into the perspective of a self-described “reasonable liberal.” (As proof of this status, at one point she cites someone telling her in college that she’s “a reasonable liberal.”) Yet the arguments her book endorses are hardly reasonable. Rather, they demand a racialized paranoia from Jews concerned about anti-Semitism. In the end, her vision of the world undermines the possibility of solidarity between Jews and others who are marginalized, thereby cutting out a powerful locus of allyship.

All told, How to Fight Anti-Semitism is a book that launders prejudice under the guise of fighting prejudice. It also renders a real and frustrating problem—the existence of anti-Semitism on the left—flat and parodic. I have encountered leftist spaces, from podcasts to activist meetings, where the use of the term “Zionist” became a euphemism for bigger, darker maladies in the world. But from Weiss’s sealed intellectual aerie, constructed of blithe generalities about leftist thought, little of this real, messy, troubling dynamic is visible. Worse, her open dismissal of journalists and researchers studying the far right denigrates those who work daily, under severe harassment, to understand and combat threats to the safety of Jews in their homes and places of worship.

As a Jewish woman who has faced the same anti-Semitic harassment as Weiss and who has felt twinges of discomfort in leftist spaces, I found myself doubly frustrated: I had genuinely hoped to locate some commonality in struggle with this woman who claims to be my sister in it. Yet the profound lack of intellectual curiosity, proportionality, and material analysis in the book renders it worse than simply useless. Instead of being the jagged, urgent cri de coeur Weiss imagines herself to have written, the book suffers from the limitations of one particularly sophistic opinion columnist. I have written numerous op-eds in my time, and while the form is excellent for advancing a polemic or highlighting some facet of a broader problem, it does not lend itself to a book-length analysis of one of the knottiest issues in the modern world. Weiss is in the business of delivering weekly hits of dopamine to a right-of-center readership, and perhaps those readers will enjoy a book that offers more of the same. But readers who seek a more robust and rigorous analysis of contemporary anti-Semitism are advised to look elsewhere.

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