Historian Victor Tcherikover famously said that there are few things in history that have a history of 2,000 years. Anti-Semitism is one of them.
Bari Weiss, an op-ed editor and writer for The New York Times, understands well this history, and it forms the core of her eminently readable “How to Fight Anti-Semitism” (Crown). In chapters named “A Brief History,” “The Right,” “The Left,” and “Radical Islam,” Weiss sets the stage for her closing argument in the sixth and final chapter “How to Fight,” her prescription for American Jews.
At barely 200 concentrated pages, Weiss telescopes a history of anti-Semitism and the contemporary condition of Jewish security, or lack thereof, given the recent spike in anti-Jewish incidents. But the book’s strength is not Weiss’ reportage or analysis (much of which is very good). It’s that she interweaves history, sociology, and psychology with the personal. Weiss hails from the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh, and was in fact a bat mitzvah at the Tree of Life synagogue, site of last October’s massacre of 11 worshippers at Shabbat services. Without being heavy-handed, Weiss extends her personal story in her recounting of the Jewish narrative.
Weiss, who will speak about her book at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, Short Hills, on Sept. 21, but she trips over a few paper clips in her retelling of history. In the very good chapter “The Left,” Weiss discusses the Yevsektsia, the Jewish section, run by Jews, of the Bolshevik Party under Lenin’s rule, whose function it was to advance an anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist agenda. But the Yevsektsia and its descendants had nothing to do with left or right; it was Soviet in its terrible early form, presaging the horrors that were to come. And citing the great screenwriter Ben Hecht, who knew little about Jewish affairs, as a resource on Jewish activism? And as a factual matter, the term “alt-right” was coined not by white nationalist Richard Spencer but by paleoconservative historian Paul Gottfried.
But where Weiss is good she is superb. Her eight pages on Donald Trump nail down the notion that it matters not whether Trump is personally an anti-Semite, but that he has created an atmosphere in which anti-Semitism (and racism generally) can flourish.
Unfortunately, after all of the throat-clearing in the first five chapters of the book, the final chapter is disappointing. Weiss does understand a fundamental principle: Anti-Semitism is not a JEWISH problem; it is a NON-Jewish problem — there is little that Jews can do about it. We monitor it, count up incidents, do endless polls and studies (some of which are truly valuable), chase after anti-Semites — but in the end there is little that we can do to truly counteract it. The “How to Fight” chapter amounts to a catalogue of mom-and-apple-pie steps in “waging an affirmative battle for who we are.” “Tell the truth.” “Call it out.” “Apply the kippah test.” “Maintain your liberalism.” Good suggestions, but the chapter lacks the analysis that Weiss offers us on some of her earlier pages.
Some of Weiss’ suggestions flag areas in which American Jews have been sorely deficient, indeed negligent. Regarding one (“maintain your liberalism”), most American Jews have forgotten that the most effective counterweight to anti-Semitism — of bigotry generally — is working to improve the social and economic conditions of the society; there is no end to the data that show, persuasively and over many decades, that there is an inverse relationship between improving societal conditions and anti-Semitism: improve economic conditions and anti-Semitism goes down.
This verity is related to another of the author’s precepts: “Allow for the possibility of change.” Few serious social scientists in fact do allow for this possibility. To repurpose a phrase Gen. Douglas MacArthur used to state (“Old soldiers never die; they just fade away”), “Anti-Semites do not fade away, they simply die.” They don’t “change.” The change is generational: your father was an anti-Semite, you are not. Something happened in the society that caused there to be fewer anti-Semites in today’s population than there were in the same age group of the previous generation. We can cite numerous anecdotes of anti-Semites and bigots who have turned — Weiss records some dramatic examples — and they are worth hearing. But a chapter on “How To Fight” ought to offer serious analysis of the dynamic of change.
Also on the counteraction front (what Weiss’ book is about, after all) is the larger question of how Jews in America moved away from a strategy of “quietude,” an approach that held sway until the last half-century. The use of law and social action to fight for Jewish rights and counteract bigotry, pioneered by the late lamented American Jewish Congress (and long opposed by other national Jewish groups as being too aggressive), has in recent decades been embraced by national Jewish organizations across the spectrum. This strategy has achieved remarkable success in protecting constitutional rights (especially church-state separation) for all groups. The principle: there is no surer guarantor of Jewish security than the ensuring of constitutional protections.
This takes nothing away from Weiss’ catalogue of “Do’s.” But a mention of the basic dynamics that ensure, not a diminution of anti-Semitism, but an enhancement of Jewish security, might have been in order in a book titled “How to Fight Anti-Semitism.”
Even so, Weiss’ book will be of value to the reader who wants to get a handle on where we came from in terms of anti-Jewish bigotry, where we are in this current fraught moment, and what to do about it. For this she deserves our thanks, from Jew and non-Jew alike.
If you go
Who: Journalist and author Bari Weiss
What: “Stand up & Stand Out: An Answer to Anti-Semitism,” a program in partnership with Cong. B’nai Jeshurun, ADL, AJC New Jersey, StandWithUs, Rutgers Hillel, Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, NFTY, and BBYO.
When: Saturday, Sept. 21, 5-7 p.m.
Where: Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, Short Hills
RSVP: Free, tickets required for entrance. Visit tbj.org/event/standup.
Jerome Chanes, senior fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies of the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of “A Dark Side of History: Antisemitism Through the Ages.”