In the course of a review of The Plot against America, Philip Roth’s dystopian novel that has the United States adopting a form of Nazi rule after the election of America-Firster Charles Lindbergh, the Australian writer Clive James confessed to never quite suspending his disbelief in this lurid alternative history. The United States, wrote James, “will never be free of racial prejudice for the same reason that it will never enshrine racial prejudice in anything like the Nuremberg Laws: it’s a free country.” He pithily concluded that “the insuperable problem with The Plot against America is that America is against the plot.”
Bari Weiss, a staff writer and editor for the opinion section of the New York Times, used to hold the same iron conviction that the United States would never succumb to the plague of anti-Semitism. In her slim new book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, Weiss confesses she is no longer so sanguine about the status of the “Jewish question” in the land of the free, even if the symptoms of a resurgent anti-Semitism aren’t as acute as they are in the Old World. A fair reading of the times suggests that her newfound anxiety is prudent.
Not so long ago, sounding the alarm about the Jewish place in American life would have been dismissed as hyperbolic or hysterical. By the standards of Jewish history, the asylum discovered in the United States after the Shoah was an almost unimaginable gift. Weiss recounts that growing up on American soil around the turn of the 21st century, members of her community knew they were “the lucky ones.” The faint echoes of anti-Semitism were at a safe remove in this secular republic so profoundly shaped by its confrontations with both the Nazi abattoir and the Soviet gulag. “Survival had no longer been our concern,” she writes. In America, the sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah managed to flourish “like no other diaspora in history,” even if ample evidence of the vehemence ranged against their tribe could be found in the foreign press: pictures of buses blown apart by suicide bombers in Jerusalem, the YouTube video showing Daniel Pearl’s gruesome beheading in Karachi, firebombed synagogues in Stockholm, Jewish cemeteries desecrated in Paris, or attacks on those wearing a kippah in Berlin.
Weiss suspects that the failure of anti-Semitism to take hold on this side of the Atlantic can be credited to the American regime’s early efforts to inoculate the country against this venomous mania. In 1790, George Washington gave his assurance to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, R.I., that American Jews would “possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.” In the same letter, America’s first president promised that the new republic would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” As a nation founded on the universalist claims of the Declaration of Independence, the United States has seemed, for all its flaws, particularly ill-suited to federally sanctioned prejudice. In addition, the “special nature of America,” in Weiss’s telling, includes an attachment to the Hebraic tradition as reflected in the dizzying array of biblical place names that dot its landscape. This, in turn, has nourished America’s long-standing alliance with the State of Israel. All of this has predisposed America to be “a New Jerusalem for the Jewish people.”
This is not to deny that American Jews occasionally found themselves (as the author did, growing up in Pittsburgh) on the receiving end of rancid jokes about “picking up pennies,” along with creepy “questions about horns.” More often than not, however, these insults didn’t escalate into injuries, in large part because this ill-concealed prejudice was understood by mainstream society to be anathema to American politics and philosophy. It was tempting, therefore, to write off these churlish anti-Jewish outbursts as nothing more than “vestiges of an uglier, more violent past.” Any suggestion that they were harbingers of a resurgent chauvinism threatening Jewish life and limb would have been greeted with mirth.
Weiss’s visceral confidence that Jews (along with other religious minorities) would continue to enjoy the fruits of an apparently eternal American exceptionalism was shattered when her kehilla, or community, was visited by evil. In October 2018, eleven Jews were murdered in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh where Weiss became a bat mitzvah. In that event, her hometown temple earned the awful distinction of suffering the deadliest attack on Jews in American history. The perpetrator of this heinous act was decidedly “homegrown,” to use the contemporary argot, attacking a synagogue that had opened its doors to persecuted people of all faiths as part of National Refugee Shabbat, a project of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
Those who insisted that this was a singular episode of mass murder would be proved wrong a few months later when another white supremacist struck a synagogue in San Diego. The roots of anti-Jewish violence (if not yet anti-Jewish pogroms) that had long found infertile soil in the United States at last discovered a more hospitable patch of terrain.
Anyone familiar with the sordid record of fear and loathing toward Jews knows that severing these roots will be a task fraught with difficulty. (If you are not familiar, procuring a copy of How to Fight Anti-Semitism would be a very good place to start.) The first problem in understanding this complex phenomenon is that Judaism itself is properly understood not merely as a religion or an ethnicity, but as a people and a civilization. It follows, as Weiss succinctly explains, that there is no single reason for anti-Semitism.
Considering this hatred, one cannot fail to be struck — as Jean-Paul Sartre was in his essay “Anti-Semite and Jew” — by its lack of any recognizable logic save “the logic of passion.” Call me unlucky, but in the past year alone, in places as diverse as Dubai, Beirut, and Istanbul, your obedient servant has encountered this fit of illogic at close range. Over dinner or drinks, elite members of these societies (anti-Semitism frequently infects the pseudo-intellectual) unburdened themselves of the opinion that the official narrative about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is a cheap ruse, and al-Qaeda’s holy warriors were not responsible for this obscenity. (No prizes for guessing which intelligence service of a certain Levantine nation was fingered instead.)
This ancient animosity would not have proved so dynamic and durable down the centuries if it weren’t essentially protean. Though it’s often thought of as a neurosis, Saul Bellow insisted that it was a psychosis. It involves no exaggeration to say that the Weltanschauung of Jew-hatred is so replete with contradiction as to be schizophrenic.
After originating in Egypt, Judeophobia has been maintained as a fashion by such discrepant forces as medieval Christianity and modern Islam. In the 20th century, virulent forms of the virus broke out in the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church (the former being in sympathy with fascism and the latter blessing the execrable Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion that is the source of many conspiracy theories relating to the Jews, which were later reproduced in Hamas’s charter). In its various permutations, anti-Semitism has conscripted the Jew as a nefarious partisan and practitioner of capitalism and, alternately, of Bolshevism. (As Marx proved, not even being born a Jew according to the strict matrilineal principles of Jewish law is a guarantee against indulging this primitive stupidity.) Jews have been portrayed as vicious race contaminators as well as an all-powerful tribe standing apart from society. Anti-Semitism is not, in other words, a run-of-the-mill prejudice akin to racism against, say, “black” Africans. Rather, in the words of the historian Peter Hayes, it is “a kind of superstition” that conceives of a universal conspiracy in which the Jews are the sinister vanguard.
How to Fight Anti-Semitism focuses more on present than past manifestations of this “disease of the mind,” as Weiss dubs it, in echo of the historian Paul Johnson. The primary targets of her sharp pen are not the Gospel of John or even Marxist revolutionaries (it’s not for nothing that the German socialist August Bebel described anti-Semitism as the socialism of fools). Anti-Semitism has spread and mutated, appearing in the guise of a modern theocratic fascism while also poisoning diverse political movements in the West.
As Weiss is fully aware, her book is most apt to court controversy by providing a political guide to these fresh outbreaks of anti-Semitism. She begins rather dauntingly by noting that Jews in the West, especially in Europe, are confronted by a “three-headed dragon.” First, there is an antagonistic environment for Jews, thanks in large measure to the rapid growth of Islamism on the Old Continent. Second, there is ideological vilification by the political Left, which increasingly regards Israel as an illegitimate state serving no other purpose than as a bastion of Western (read: white) colonialism. Third, there is a recrudescence of reactionary populism on the political right that, while often professing sympathy for Israel, evinces a fervent commitment to blood-and-soil politics that seldom ends well for Jews.
Not everybody will agree with Weiss’s portrait of the hydra-headed enemy, which itself points to part of the problem. The tribal impulse in our political life has grown so pronounced that it has overwhelmed a common civic culture, rendering many classical liberals politically homeless. There is a well-oiled habit among the political class and in the press of excusing obvious, often deplorable, transgressions by one’s “own” side. The acid test for fighting anti-Semitism, as with so many other derangements, is to face it down with equal enthusiasm and commitment when it flares up on one’s team — or, better yet, to be more discriminating about which team one belongs to in the first place.
The true anti-Semite is easy enough to spot on the lunatic fringe, but it’s another matter if you’re not aware of the existence of plural lunatic fringes. Most children of the Enlightenment have been trained to discern this toxic ideology when religious fanatics inveigh against the Jews’ supposed responsibility for the murder of Christ or when voices of the “alt-right” curse the Jews for deriving from the racial gutter. But symptoms of the toxin are no less definitive when one hears of an occult world government whose “lobby” distorts U.S. foreign policy and global financial markets, or is treated to the filthy argument that, in its methods of warfare against Hamas — a terrorist organization as well as a regime based in large measure on the desire to stamp international Jewry out of existence — the Israel Defense Forces have taken a leaf from Hitler’s book.
As the Democratic party’s center of gravity has moved sharply to the left in recent years, the anti-imperialist mindset has gained traction, attributing the ills of the Middle East to British and French (and, latterly, Israeli and American) power. This political evolution has been exemplified by the now-famous freshman congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who have brought critical (if maladroit) scrutiny to bear against the U.S.-Israel alliance. Another member of “the Squad,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has openly consorted with Jeremy Corbyn of Britain’s Labour party, a fellow traveler with Islamist movements whose tenure as Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition has been marred by one anti-Semitic scandal after another.
At its worst, this mindset is prone to detecting arcane Jewish manipulations behind all earthly power. More commonly, the insurgent progressive perspective masquerades as merely anti-Zionist, conceiving of Jews as part of the coalition of the oppressor while Israel, “the Jew among the nations,” is treated with frenzied derision. In addition to being indicted as the sole party responsible for the conflict with the Palestinians, and therefore almost entirely to blame for their miserable plight, Israel is portrayed as a uniquely malevolent force in the world. The dramatic rise of the BDS movement (deemed by the German Bundestag, not unjustifiably, as anti-Semitic) across the West today capably demonstrates that these vicious and extreme detractors of the Zionist entity are on the march.
This palpable and supercharged hostility has taken by surprise many liberal Zionists — as appears to have been the case for Weiss — who are given to assuming that the Left instinctively takes the side of the underdog, the immigrant, and the outsider. Although the Left has largely come by this reputation honestly, it does little good for Jews, who, despite being the principal target of hate crimes in the United States and most of Europe, scarcely qualify as an oppressed minority in the eyes of today’s Left. Weiss is keen to announce and decry progressives’ evolving hierarchy of privilege, whereby Zionists (i.e., the vast majority of worldwide Jewry) generally occupy the top rung as defenders of a colonial state embodying the “white man’s burden.” (This narrative seldom accounts for the Mizrahi Jews, more than half of Israel’s population, whose roots lie in the Middle East.)
The progressive temper does not merely direct suspicion and ire toward Israel and all its works but shows every sign of failing to recognize an enemy even when it meets one. The mainstream Left is proving increasingly blind to the clear and present danger posed by Islamist ideology and, worse, often lends aid and comfort to its cause. This vile tendency crops up regularly, but two prominent examples include the Southern Poverty Law Center (which designated the liberal Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz an “anti-Muslim extremist” and was later compelled to pay damages) and the Women’s March (whose unscrupulous leaders Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour embraced the anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan).
Weiss does not make the common mistake of conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. This has always been a self-refuting standard, since, as Weiss reminds us, the earliest anti-Zionists to scorn Theodor Herzl’s dream of der judenstaat were themselves Jewish (not only the left-wing critics of Palestinian-Arab dispossession but the Orthodox sects that regarded Jewish political sovereignty prior to the arrival of the messiah as blasphemous). Incidentally, some Zionists have also been quite nasty anti-Semites, including British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour whose famous 1917 declaration “viewed with favor” a Jewish home in the mandate of Palestine in order to empty Britain of its Jewish population.
Nor does Weiss argue that stinging dissent from the Israeli government, let alone a harmlessly critical HBO mini-series, constitutes anti-Semitism, or even anti-Zionism. Nonetheless, it has become difficult in practice to disentangle anti-Semitism from anti-Zionism, given that manifestations of both often share the purpose of demonization and delegitimization of the only Jewish state. (By contrast, try to imagine, if you can, a movement of similar breadth and depth aimed against another “faith-based” state, Pakistan, that was similarly cobbled together out of rival ethno-religious nationalisms amid the collapsing British imperial order in 1947.)
Weiss shrewdly analogizes modern anti-Zionism to the situation of a young couple weighing whether to have a child. All of the credible and practical concerns fall away once they have the baby, or else the parents are behaving immorally. Such is the case today, when the State of Israel is an established fact. To have questioned or opposed the project of building a Jewish state in the Jews’ ancestral homeland before the U.N. Partition Plan of 1947 is one thing. It is quite another to endorse tearing down that living, breathing state today, in full knowledge of the enormity that would ensue. The offense here is compounded when those agitating to make Israel a pariah state demonstrate little knowledge or concern about formulating and executing a strategy to confront bellicose regimes and militant Islamist groups that imperil the Jewish state and the civilized world.
In addition to being more diffuse than many imagine, the lunatic fringe is also thicker than is generally understood. Weiss is justly concerned by the spike in violence against Jews and other minorities from the identitarian right and about the grisly ideology behind it. After some years of dormancy, in August 2017 it flared into the open in Charlottesville when a “Unite the Right” rally of white supremacists gathered at the University of Virginia to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Carrying tiki torches, these doughy goons shouted the slogans: “Blood and soil,” “White Lives Matter,” and, in a nod to the ancient anti-Semitic notion of the Jew as the evil puppeteer, “Jews will not replace us.” Lest we forget, President Trump’s reflexive response to this wicked nonsense was to put in a good word for such “very fine people.”
Weiss’s handling of the ugly movement known as the “alt-right” is fairly comprehensive, and the reader emerges on guard against this ethno-religious movement in our midst. She is also alert to the threat posed by unsavory authoritarian populists across the West who, though generally willing to dispel any impression of being motivated by racism, aim to turn their societies away from the liberal tradition. In either of these guises, the chauvinist Right tends to regard Muslims as the “other” and casts Israel (in Weiss’s wry description) as a “kind of anti-Muslim Sparta” rather than a pluralist democracy preserving its Jewish character even under existential threat.
The longer Israel and America remain in the saddle of populist nationalism, the more this crude description of Israel risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. (As Weiss must know, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank will eventually become all but irrevocable, at which point the Zionist project will cease to be recognizable as a democratic Jewish state.) Stuck in a defensive crouch, Israel’s conservative partisans in both countries tend to dismiss liberal scruples about the Israeli government’s innumerable follies and injustices. They cheer Prime Minister Netanyahu’s no-holds-barred posture against the Left, and the actions taken in self-defense against a militant Sunni gang in Gaza and a swelling “Shiite crescent” across Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. These conservatives also cite the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, among other items, as reason to embrace Trump for being in the running for “the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House.”
Among Zionists, Weiss helpfully distinguishes between “the David people and the Goliath people.” The former think that Zion is always under siege, that any Israeli weakness will be exploited by its enemies, and that most other considerations are secondary. The latter think that Israel has accumulated such a preponderance of power that its vulnerability has been greatly diminished, and that illiberal aspects of Israel’s character (consider last year’s Jewish nation-state law that privileges Israel’s sectarian features over its secular pluralist claims) are sapping precious legitimacy at home and abroad. Weiss’s conclusion that each of these tendencies contains partial truths is fair enough as far as it goes, which is not far enough. In reality, the difference cannot be so evenly split.
As long as the political Right believes Israel’s society and government require an unqualified defense, the David people cannot be acquitted on the charge of loving the Jewish state “not wisely, but too well.” By refusing to hold Israel to its own standards as an exemplar of liberal democracy, such ostensible friends are rendering a grave disservice to the Zionist cause. Weiss can hardly be counted among them. She posits that “supporting Israel . . . means demanding that Israel live up to its ideals,” but never gets around to spelling out just what those ideals dictate in relation to the pressing need to reach a decent accommodation with the Palestinians. To be fair, Weiss does mention in passing the settlement enterprise as a valid point of criticism of Israel, and not a species of the phenomenon that is her subject. What’s more, she registers a genuine sense of “despair” when observing Palestinians waiting at checkpoints, and says that Palestinian suffering in the course of occupation constitutes a “stain” on her Jewish soul.
Nonetheless, the dogma of a “chosen people” has enabled a strident intolerance among many of Weiss’s coreligionists that demands a more thoroughgoing critique than it receives in How to Fight Anti-Semitism. This is not because anti-Semitism is a response to the behavior of Jews (it absolutely is not). Rather, Israel’s “accidental empire” of systematic land seizure in biblical Judea and Samaria is premised on a “civilization state” model of nationalism profoundly at odds with the liberal ideal that will render the case for Israel increasingly toxic.
Many years ago, Yehoshua Leibowitz, the editor of the Encyclopaedia Hebraica, warned of a “Judeo-Nazi” tendency among the messianic settlers who moved onto the occupied West Bank after 1967. One need not go that far to recognize that Israel’s defensive occupation of the post-1967 territories has unloosed a xenophobic current that not only serves to deprive Palestinians of their rights and sovereignty, but also cements sectarian and racist feelings within Israel proper. (To instance one example, courtesy of the Israel Democracy Institute, 70 percent of Jewish Israelis now oppose appointing Arab Israelis to cabinet posts.)
Weiss appears more panicked by the related matter of Israel’s new nationalist allies (e.g., Victor Orbán’s government in Hungary) who are self-proclaimed illiberal democrats and give off more than a whiff of anti-Semitism. Weiss also passionately criticizes the rabbinate’s suffocating influence among Israeli Jews, and scorches Netanyahu’s unfathomably crude move to pull the racist party Otzma Yehudit into his governing coalition. This is all to the good, but the failure to offer a straightforward denunciation of Israel’s occupation of land claimed and inhabited by Palestinians is a baffling omission in a book about fighting anti-Semitism — again, not because Jewish settlement beyond the Green Line is in any way related to anti-Semitism, but because it weakens Israel’s moral defenses when it needs them most.
If the populist-nationalist view of Israel continues to dominate the right side of the ballot in both Israel and America, and if that view continues to command electoral majorities, it will help vindicate the Left’s suspicion that Israel is in essence an ethnocracy, or will soon evolve into one. As progressive politics lurches to the left, the Israeli Right will find new support in subverting democratic institutions and entrenching the occupation. In place of a smaller, plucky Israel punching above its weight against fearsome enemies while upholding a laudable multiethnic democracy, the cycle of dueling left and right populisms risks helping to foster a Greater Israel that loses sight of the liberal Zionism that birthed it. If this comes to pass, it will be a moral and political catastrophe, no matter where America’s embassy in Israel is situated.
As I turned the final page of How to Fight Anti-Semitism, my mind returned to a vignette that Weiss had earlier extracted from Joachim Fest’s memoir of growing up in interwar Berlin, Not I. Fest recalls his father, a pious Catholic and adamant anti-Nazi, begging his Jewish friends to leave Hitler’s Germany before it was too late. Fest’s father heaped praise on those in this dark time who resolutely persisted in classifying themselves “German citizens of Jewish faith”: “In their self-discipline, their quiet civility and unsentimental brilliance, they had really been the last Prussians.” They had “only one failing,” he said, “which became their undoing: being overwhelmingly governed by their heads, they had, in tolerant Prussia, lost their instinct for danger, which had preserved them through the ages.”
Only a small number of Jews in the Third Reich lived up to the Jewish reputation for pessimism and understood what lay in wait for them. Victor Klemperer was one of them: The German-Jewish diarist whose writings eerily predicted the Holocaust said that the fate of the Jews was to be a “seismic people.” It would be rash for Jews anywhere, even in America, to allow this premonitory instinct to atrophy, and Weiss deserves credit for keeping it alive.
The most mournful realization generated by How to Fight Anti-Semitism involves the fantastic resilience of this disease and its protean nature, which augurs a fight that is decidedly unlikely to culminate in a decisive victory. To the contrary. Anti-Semitism is a plague whose latent tenacity ensures that Jews will not enjoy a quiet life anytime soon, but are rather condemned to live in a kind of exile — even if they happen to reside in the “safe haven” of the Jewish state.
As this malignant disease is confronted and engaged, the ability of Jews and philo-Semites to hold a tension within themselves between vigilance and realism is vital. Weiss’s book is unbeatable at showing that “never again” is a necessary but insufficient responsibility of Zionism. “Jews did not sustain their magnificent civilization because they were anti-anti-Semites,” Weiss sagely observes. There is a growing peril in allowing an imagination of disaster to disorient Jews and obscure their duties and interests in the world beyond mere survival.
It has been said that Jews must have a bag mentally packed, ready to flee. This paranoia is deeply embedded in the Jewish psyche, and for understandable reasons. Although past generations of Jews could be forgiven for harboring that mental luggage and little else, in fact their achievements proved to be more formidable and enduring; for modern Jews, even while they attend to their perennial fears — and their fanatical enemies’ designs — of a world without Jews, it is important also to bear in mind that Hitler is dead, and there is work to be done outside the realm of security. Modern Jewish power has furnished the moral space to advance and vindicate modern Jewish values.
The peculiar coincidence of great power but also abiding vulnerability demands the acknowledgement, after Jewish fashion, of a rich irony. In his essay “Why We Remain Jews,” the philosopher Leo Strauss laid great emphasis on the tenuousness of existence as well as the illusion of salvation. He argued that “the Jewish people and their fate are the living witness for the absence of redemption. This, one could say, is the meaning of the chosen people; the Jews are chosen to prove the absence of redemption.” The absence of redemption should recommend to Jews (and their well-wishers) a vigorous pursuit of self-defense and self-respect that recognizes ultimate security as a mirage.
As the political center gives way to the ethno-nationalist Right and the anti-colonialist Left, which feed off of and reinforce each other, Weiss and many Jews have begun to ask the breathless question: Could it happen here? Gentiles should by all means join them, though “it” will not be a totalitarian future replete with book burnings and goose-stepping soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division. It is safe to surmise that America remains firmly against that “plot,” even as the erosion of trust in the institutions of free government, at home and abroad, is well under way. If this cycle persists or accelerates, it will be a striking historical anomaly if the Jews do not suffer grievously, though this time their suffering may not be appreciably greater than the rest of ours.