Speaking before a crowd of nearly 400 people at a JNF Central New Jersey breakfast at the Westminster Hotel in Livingston on May 10, Bari Weiss wondered if the era of Jewish security in America was a blip on history’s radar screen that will soon disappear.
Weiss, formerly an editor at Tablet and now a New York Times op-ed staff writer and editor, said Jewish history is mostly a tale of victimhood under regimes through the millennia that would periodically rise to say, as the gunman did on that October day in Pittsburgh, “All these Jews need to die.” The post-war Jewish experience, particularly in America, has been a kind of “holiday from history,” she said, a time of success and plenty, and not just freedom from the fear that our neighbors want to kill us, but a time when it feels normal for Jews to be in positions of power.
“Obviously, the idea of the Jews having power, actual real power with all the complications that come with that power, is an achievement that was a mere dream for our ancestors,” she said, as are all the benefits Jews have enjoyed in the post-war period in the United States. She called herself lucky to have been raised here in America, “the new Promised Land,” as her grandfather used to say, a country with the “radical founding vision” of tolerance and acceptance.
But since Oct. 27 in Pittsburgh, and underscored by the April 27 shooting in Poway, Calif., alarm bells have been ringing.
“After Poway, I think we are forced to confront some disorienting and nauseating questions,” she said. “Have we deluded ourselves? Have we been wrong? Were we wrong about our view that America’s values were nearly perfectly simpatico with Jewish ones?”
Although Weiss acknowledged that polling suggests Americans both support Israel (to the tune of 74 percent of Americans) and feel more warmly toward Jews than any other religious group, she still worries. “The numbers also told us Hillary Clinton was going to be president,” she said.
She sees anti-Semitism coming from both sides — the “ethno-nationalist right” and the “anti-colonialist left” — because of deep “cultural and political forces surging on the far right and the far left.” These include, for example, the erosion of faith in liberal institutions and free speech, a foreign policy shifting to isolationism, and loss of respect for expertise and reason. In this scenario, she fears that Jews would be considered an obvious scapegoat: “Here are the globalists, the elitists, the internationalists who manipulate the banking system, and secretly control the government, who are responsible for the economic inequality we see in this country,” she said, mock quoting those of the fringe-right who hold this view. “They can appear white, but [Jews are] loyal to the black people and the brown people and the immigrants.”
The perspective from the radical left would be, “Here is the white privilege of successful Jews. They claim to be a minority, but look how successful they are. Are they really? After all, they defend Israel, the last standing bastion of white colonialism in the Middle East.”
Neither the right nor the left offers a home for Jews, according to Weiss. “The far right is waging a war on our bodies; the far left is waging a war on our souls,” she said.
The good news, in her opinion, is that the “cancer” can be cured. Her prescription? Taking a stand against anti-Semitism — loudly and without apology. But don’t keep the conversation within Jewish groups; rather, she advised, take it to our neighbors, because anti-Semitism reveals the erosion of civilization. In fact, she takes hope from how greater Pittsburgh responded in the aftermath of the shooting.
“The entire community, Muslim leaders, Christian leaders, the Steelers, the Penguins, name your sports team, they stood up” against the hate, she said. “Non-Jewish Americans understood that an attack on the Jewish community was an attack on them, too.”
She urges people to resist identity politics. On the one hand, “Jews can never be white or Christian or American enough” for the right. And on the other hand, “Jews can never be oppressed enough” for the left. “If you have to check your identity at the door, don’t join,” she said. Rather she suggests following the model of Luciana Berger, the British member of parliament who resigned from the Labour Party following anti-Semitic abuse and threats of violence from within the party.
Calling out anti-Semitism comes next on Weiss’ list. “It’s time to end the conspiracy of silence on the left,” she said, even when it is “hard,” and leads to being called names.
And, she counsels, embrace Judaism. It’s “a more-than-2,000-year-old strategy that today feels radical: It’s called being and doing Jewish,” Weiss said. Her list of how to go about that ranges from the simple (wear a star of David) to the spiritual (go to synagogue) to the entertaining (binge-watch Israeli TV) to the political (build a Jewish state that represents that true values of the Jewish people).
Invoking the good deeds of Poway murder victim Lori Gilbert-Kaye, who would make Easter baskets for her neighbors and bake challah for the community, Weiss said, “The proper, and ultimately only, response to this moment is the practice of a Judaism of affirmation, not a Judaism of defensiveness.”