By Philip Weiss
Bari Weiss has been everywhere lately promoting her book that says that criticizing Israel too much is dangerous anti-Semitism, and oh by the way, white nationalism is also a threat to Jews.
I listened to the New York Times opinion editor’s Sept. 15 appearance at the 92d Street Y over the weekend. In it Bari Weiss likened anti-Zionist Jews who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel (BDS) to Jews who had surgery to reverse their circumcisions, just so they can fit in with the cool goyim.
“What do you think about Jews who support BDS?” Jake Tapper asked. Weiss:
I will give you a historical example that I have been thinking a lot about. Around the time of the Maccabees and the Hanukkah story [160 BCE]… the Jewish boys, teenagers young men were so desperate to fit into the surrounding society and they wanted to pass off as non Jews in the gymnasium where you obviously exercised in the nude, so they actually underwent an ancient surgery to undo their circumcisions… [laughter] This is real, it’s really real and the details are– The reason I bring that up, is that the desire to be a part of the cool group and the desire to be a part of the group that you always thought was your home, and the deep psychological discomfort of realizing it might not be, is very powerful.
Look at what happened in Stalin’s Russia. There was the anti fascist committee… It was Stalin’s p.r. group that was made up of Jews… Lenin had the same thing… They were determined to prove that they were loyal Bolsheviks… They write about, we need to prove that we are loyal members of the Bolshevik party and in order to do that… we need to go harder against the rabbis and against our coreligionists and especially against the Zionists to show that we are loyal members…
So this is something with a very, very long history. And frankly when I look at Jews who support the BDS movement, I feel sympathy because I understand emotionally what is driving that. It’s a deep, deep desire to feel a part of a tribe.
Weiss urges Jews to love Jewish “particularism,” our special role in history. We should be proud that we had “radical ideas” that changed the world. We invented the idea that people shouldn’t be slaves, and that “human life is sacred.”
And our specialness is “frankly why we drive people crazy still,” she said.
The political thrust of Weiss’s presentation is that BDS is a form of “anti-semitic conspiracy theory,” that singles out Israel and Jewish power for condemnation. If progressives were fair, they would be worried about other far-worse actors, from Saudi Arabia to China.
The idea that the energy on the left is not inordinately, crazily focused on this tiny local conflict is ridiculous… I think that the obsessive focus on this is evidence of an antisemitic conspiracy theory. I’ll tell you why. The very idea that peace in the Middle East runs through the Israeli Palestinian conflict and not through say Sunnis and Shiites is a lie.
Weiss then mentioned all the UN Human Rights Council resolutions against Israel, none against China, just a few against North Korea, a slave state.
Tell me how that’s not evidence of a conspiracy theory against the Jewish state. [On Face the Nation, Rep. Ilhan Omar] didn’t talk about the Uighurs, she didn’t talk about probably the greatest democratic movement in the 21st century… Hong Kong… She talked about the BDS movement and… Omar Barghouti, the founder of that movement, has said, No Palestinian will ever accept a Jewish state, period. Again I just don’t understand how that is anything other than anti-semitism. If the Jews are a people, and peoples have a right to a nation state, then why do only the Jews not have a right to it?
This sort of talk is hugely helpful to a Zionist cause that is flagging in liberal circles. The young Jewish anti-occupation group IfNotNow reports, “We’re hearing many stories of Rosh Hashanah sermons blaming the rise of antisemitism on ‘the left’ and praising @bariweiss’ book on antisemitism.” (Weiss agrees: she’s hearing of “so many of these sermons, from members of communities in Mexico City, Manhattan, Dallas, DC, Detroit, and more.”)
Stephen Lurie attended one such synagogue, and the rabbi started sermonizing from Bari Weiss’s book and segueing to AIPAC. Lurie posted at Medium that his rabbi moved on from a few comments on the threat of white nationalism to anti-Zionism. That’s what he really wanted to talk about.
Instead, he had to move on to what he said, word-for-word, was the “the more dangerous antisemitism” of the left. For the next twenty or so minutes, we heard plenty of specific threats hiding under a “veil of progressivism,” although they could all have been verbalized as “people of color”. There was the obligatory Farrakhan quote, criticism for the Women’s March, and instances of anti-Zionism on college campuses. The largest segment was reserved for the Jewish people’s greatest contemporary threat, I suppose: a professor at Oberlin (who was fired for social media posts in 2016). This catalog naturally led into the more familiar territory of how anti-Zionism is antisemitism, and segued into the crescendo, the High Holiday call to action. What we must do to fight antisemitism? Don’t try to persuade antisemites, he said, call it out. Rally our allies, he said. Support Israel. “Join AIPAC.”
Lurie took action.
I walked out.
If in other years, I could deflect the insinuation I was a self-hating Jew for being critical of Israel — for the sake of the rest of the service — in 2019, it was the last nail. In a hall full of hundreds of Jews experiencing a new generation of antisemitic violence and fear of it, I could not sit in my synagogue and hear the rabbi who bar mitzvah’d me tell me that I was the one at fault for it. I had to leave, as a proud Jew and proud leftist, clearly unwelcome in his analysis. More importantly, I walked out during the sermon yesterday because his analysis, spread far and wide this High Holidays, is historically irresponsible, morally repugnant, and it will prevail unless we do something about it…
If we don’t figure out how to contest ideology in public, the leaders of Jewish institutions will continue to mislead our families and communities en masse, preventing them from identifying the real threats in front of us and the real allies beside us.
(A year ago during the High Holidays I did a post about all the rabbis celebrating AIPAC, the rightwing Israel lobby, from the altar.)
IfNotNow recommends Talia Lavin’s review of Bari Weiss’s book in the Nation, where Lavin says that Weiss’s rhetorical achievement is packaging rightwing ideas as liberal ones.
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…
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.
There is also Judith Butler’s review at Jewish Currents where Butler asserts a Jewish particularism different from Bari Weiss’s:
Is it ok to criticize the crimes of the Israeli government without ceding one’s Jewish identity? Must I give up my fight against antisemitism if I believe that the occupation is wrong or if I question the legitimacy of the Israeli state in its current form?
What Weiss refuses to tackle is this particular anguish at the heart of Jewish families, communities, and congregations throughout the diaspora and even within Israel, one that often tears at the heart of individual Jews overcome by a strong sense of the need for justice—frequently derived from Jewish ethics—that compels them to distinguish their Judaism from prevailing forms of Zionism. It may well be, as Weiss avers, that Zionists feel censored and marginalized within certain progressive circles, but so too do those who wish to raise questions about Zionism within broader circles.