It is not often that I am afforded the opportunity to write a book review with the potential of being longer than the actual book I am reviewing. Though I write this somewhat tongue-in-cheek, How to Fight Anti-Semitism by Bari Weiss can be characterized by its brevity. Bound in a 7 ½ by 5-inch format, this book is packaged for portability and accessibility, fitting easily in a briefcase, a purse, or even a large pocket. The one place it does not fit is on a bookshelf because it is so much smaller than every other hard cover book I own and so it is continually pushed behind other volumes. The book is filled with ample white space, short simple chapter titles, clearly marked informational breaks, provocative directives in bold print, and an unmistakable absence of footnotes or traditional annotation. Instead, all references and clarifications are inserted in the text in narrative form. The net effect is a work that is more missive than book.
This should not surprise anyone familiar with the author Bari Weiss’s body of work. Prior to joining The New York Times editorial staff in 2017, Weiss was an op-ed and book review editor for The Wall Street Journal. Herein lies the rub. She has been criticized at the Journal for being too progressive and at the Times for being too conservative.1 Her writing is always cogent, concise, personal, emotional, and provocative. Whether discussing the #MeToo movement or her proudly Zionist views, she neither shies away from a fight nor retreats to a predetermined, prepackaged party position. This generally makes her insightful, thought-provoking, and, for some, unsettling. For those who are fans of Weiss, however, How to Fight Anti-Semitism should not disappoint.
The earliest stages of Bari Weiss’s conversation read in part like a diary. It is both self-reflective and, at least in part, autobiographical. The first chapter, entitled “Waking Up,” begins, “There is a shooter at tree of life.” The reference is to a text she received at 10:22am on October 27, 2018 from her “baby sister, Suzy.” The reference is to the now infamous shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh, where the author grew up. She in fact attended the synagogue and became a Bat Mitzvah there. Through a series of personal conversations and reflections, Weiss displays a visceral concern for the victims who she knew, the congregation she cherished, and her parents who were still members of the synagogue. It is clear from the outset that she does not wish this book to be a detached account of information or conclusions; rather, it is a documentary of her own reckoning with previously-held convictions and legitimate fears and concerns. This approach will prove to be both the strength and the weakness of this book.
The “waking up” that Weiss refers to is her personal lack of awareness of the present pervasiveness of anti-Semitism in contemporary American culture. She “was raised in what can most accurately be described as an urban shtetl.”2 Her family was educated and conversant with politics and history which imputed an awareness of her own family’s plight amidst the backdrop of anti-Semitism. She reflects on her grandfather, Chappy Goldstein, a poor Jewish immigrant, and on the overt Jewish hatred of the 30s and 40s that he and her grandparents lived through and endured. She cites the fascist rally in Madison Square Garden which drew twenty thousand people just six months prior to Hitler invading Poland. She also mentions Henry Ford and his anti-Jewish rants in The Dearborn Independent, as well as infamous radio personality Father Charles Coughlin who defended Kristallnacht and whose weekly audience numbered some thirty million Americans. “Henry Ford received a personal shout-out in Mein Kampf and was awarded, in 1938, the Grand Cross of the Supreme Order of the Golden Eagle, the highest honor the Nazis granted to any foreigner.” She adds, “Coughlin was so influential that his town in Michigan had to build a new post office just to keep up with the nearly eighty thousand letters sent to him each week.”3 She reflects:
Anti-Semitism, in other words, wasn’t just a German or European problem. The Jews of that continent were killed by the application of ideas—not just those in the minds of the masses shouting ”Sieg Heil!” in Manhattan, but also the eugenics movement and Jim Crow—that were then also percolating in America.
A large measure of American Jewish freedom I have enjoyed was a reaction to what happened in those bloodlands. The postwar, liberal America that rose as the Nazis fell became a fairer place to live for Jews because of the lessons that the world, and that America specifically, learned only after the murder of six million.4
What Bari Weiss woke up to, and does not want us to ignore, is that when Robert Bowers entered the synagogue in Squirrel Hill on the morning of October 27, 2018 and began to kill Jews, it was not an incident in isolation. For two-years anti-Semitic acts of violence were on the rise, and tolerance and decency during that same period were in decline. She cites several posts by Bowers on the social media website Gab:
“There is no #MAGA as long as there is a kike manifestation.”
“Open you eyes! It’s the filthy EVIL jews Bringing the filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!!”
“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people getting slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”5
HIAS is the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a Jewish organization founded in the late 1800s to resettle Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia. Today it helps to rescue both Jews and non-Jews fleeing persecution all over the world. The week prior Tree of Life was one of 270 synagogues around the nation that hosted a National Refugee Shabbat when “American Rabbis had spoken about the most fundamental recurrent theme in the Bible: Do not oppress the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”6
Bari Weiss’s waking is the shattered illusion that anti-Semitism is strictly in our rearview mirror, but it is also an awareness that Jewish hatred can be directly tied to the long tradition of Jewish fairness and freedom for all people. She concludes the first chapter with this call to action:
Yes here I am—a Jew, an American, a Zionist, a proud daughter of Pittsburgh— raising the old-new cry with all my might and hoping that will give you no other choice but to take up the fight.7
Weiss considers this fight to be one that is incumbent on all who love truth not only Jews. Her contention is that the fight must begin with a clear idea of what it is that we are fighting. So, in the second chapter, “A Brief History,” she attempts to define the term anti-Semitism. Here Weiss’s approach gets a bit murky as she explains anti-Semitism in contradistinction to anti-Jewish prejudice. Simply put, anti-Jewish prejudice appears to be a disregard or dislike of Jews, while, in Weiss’s calculus, anti-Semitism is the disdain and desire for eradication of Judaism. I think this is where the author drives out of her lane and attempts to make categorical levels of Jewish hatred defined by unique and distinctive terms. The result is a strange mashup of ideas from Jean-Paul Sartre, Deborah Lipstadt, and Peter Hayes. She rightly points out that Judaism is more than just a religion or an ethnicity, it is a culture, a peoplehood, a civilization. She reaches an odd conclusion about the mythology that undergirds anti-Semitic thought.
While racists or homophobes or misogynists see themselves as punching down, anti-Semites often perceive themselves as punching up. In the eyes of the racist, the person of color is inferior. In the eyes of the misogynist, the woman is something less than human. In the eyes of the anti-Semite, the Jew is . . . everything. He is whatever the anti-Semite needs him to be. . . . As the father of modern French anti-Semitism, Edouard Drumont, put it in his 1886 book La France juive, three years before he founded his country’s Anti-Semitic League: “All comes from the Jew; all returns to the Jew.”8
The author then lays out a history of anti-Semitism using an odd conflation of Hebrew Bible, Apostolic Writings, Jewish tradition, Egyptian mythologies, and medieval and modern historical accounts. The resultant narrative is an effective genre for illustrating the consistent patterns of anti-Semitism throughout history, but the methodology is open to criticism and eventual dismissal. Can the Hanukah story, Purim, and the Spanish Inquisition be spoken of with an historically equal voice? Then there is the evocation of presumptively anti-Semitic references in the Gospel accounts. Post-Holocaust biblical scholars have long argued whether these are inter-Jewish arguments inflated by a later anti-Jewish church or later inclusions added by anti-Jewish redactors centuries later. Some would argue that these passages are entirely misunderstood outside of the proper historical and rhetorical context. Despite the rather unorthodox approach to the sourcing of “history,” Bari Weiss paints a vivid mural that supports her premise that the Jew has been a favored nemesis for many over a long time and this is a reality that has not gone, and is not going, away.
I found the next two chapters to be most effective, simply titled “The Right” and “The Left.” I can imagine my friends who find themselves on either side of the political aisle yelling “false equivalency.” But that is exactly the point. There is a time to stop retreating into a self-protective cocoon of what-about-isms and hold ourselves, our friends, our allies, and those who don’t belong in the tent at all up to unbiased scrutiny and evaluation. Having established her definitive criteria for anti-Semitic activity, the author uses these paradigms to shine light on conspiracies, innuendos, and dog-whistles from both conservative and liberal quarters.
Is the anti-Semitism that posits the Jews are evil capitalists who control the world different from the one that posits they are evil communists who control the world? Is the anti-Semitism that insists that Jews connive and exploit gentile power different from the one that insists that they connive and exploit via their own state power? Is the anti-Semitism that says Jews are secret betrayers of the white race different from the anti-Semitism that says they are secret white supremacists? Is the anti-Semitism that asserts Jews have upended tradition any different than the anti-Semitism that they stand in the way of progress? Is the anti-Semitism that forces us to designate ourselves publicly with Jewish stars different from the anti-Semitism that insists we must not?9
It is easy to appreciate the fairhandedness with which Weiss addresses both liberal and conservative permutations of anti-Semitism. She might evoke some genuine soul searching from readers on both sides of the political continuum as she identifies cleverly disguised and often latent forms of anti-Semitism. But in the chapter that she simply labels “Radical Islam,” the challenge is much different. She identifies this anti-Semitic threat as being more overt and dangerous. In fact, she compares the present radical Islamic threat to the Rintfleisch massacres, provoked by the Christian blood libels of the thirteenth century. Weiss is careful to address Radical Islam as a unique reality within Islamic religions. She goes to great lengths to indemnify most Muslims from this label, but again her own loyalties seem to betray the sincerity of this claim. She is unapologetically a Zionist. She often conflates being anti-Zionist with being anti-Semitic, though she is more nuanced in her approach, especially dealing with the left. But this conflation begs the question, if one is opposed to Zionism, and one is a Muslim, then is one a radical Islamist? This becomes a very delicate dance.
The last chapter in this book is titled “How to Fight.” It contains suggestions under twenty-eight categorical subtitles that serve as a guide toward a purely aspirational approach to disarming anti-Semitism. The irony about Bari Weiss’s “How to” is that it is not really designed to eliminate anti-Semitism, even as she has defined it; rather, it is meant to make Jews more like herself, immune to destruction through Jewish education, Jewish values, Jewish hope, and Jewish pride. The Jewish in all of these is best understood through her own Jewish experience, that of an alert, woke, fourth-generation American Jew.
How to Fight Anti-Semitism is not a perfect book. It lacks academic accuracy in its approach to sociology and history. It is at times biased while working overtime to be even-handed and sometimes creates false equivalencies (BDS v. KKK). The title of the book suggests on-the-ground solutions to anti-Semitism while only really offering internal protections against Jewish self-implosion. But these suggestions are not without merit, and the narrative of anti-Semitism presented is more accurate than challengeable. The book is brief and accessible, it is an easy read and makes many valuable and salient points. Its attempt at fairhandedness opens the possibility for self-evaluation to the sincere. Most of all, it sounds a clear call to wake up: the threat of anti-Semitism is not in the past.
1 On July 14, 2020, as this article was being prepared for publication, Ms. Weiss resigned her position with the New York Times (https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2020-07-14/bari-weiss-new-york-times-resignation, accessed 7/19/20).
2 Bari Weiss, How to Fight Anti-Semitism (New York: Crown, 2019), 11.
3 Weiss, 9.
4 Weiss, 10.
5 Weiss, 6.
6 Weiss, 6.
7 Weiss, 26.
8 Weiss, 32.
9 Weiss, 84.