Last week was an interesting time to be a Jewish-American. Between the backbiting, name calling and posturing known as international and domestic politics, somehow we became the Hill on which everyone chose to die. We, the descendants of the tribe of Abraham, were called disloyal by the most powerful man in the world, while freshmen congresswomen posted a cartoon by Iran’s favorite cartoonists that implied we were manipulative, conniving and in control of the US government. Basically, we were the tether ball in a not so nice game of who can be the biggest playground bully. Neither side of the aisle, not just the side with whom you would want to align yourself, wore a “white hat” in this game of throw the Jews off the cliff. In truth, the American populace witnessed what happens when the venal nature of mankind lacks the desire to reign in the baser side of their humanity.
Listen, having grown up around the United States, at times being the only Jewish child in my school, I am quite well aware of antisemitism. Having grown up with a father who had to work behind bullet proof glass with an uzi laden guard at the door, I was quite aware that terrorism could strike anywhere at anytime. I sensed that US Jews were not as safe as they told themselves. I am sorry that I was so right. In truth, we Jews of the United States of America are dealing with a level of antisemitism not seen in generations.
So in the middle of this new political game with Jewish-Americans playing the part of the ping-pong ball, I happened to pick up the new book on antisemitism by New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, How to Fight Anti-Semitism. I am not really sure what I expected, having read both Deborah Lipstadt’s Antisemitism Here and Now, and David Hirsch’s Contemporary Left Antisemitism. I was certain that there was not much more that needed to be added to this present story.
Well I can pleasantly say is that I was wrong. Bari Weiss’ book is terrific. Not because she really offers any absolute answers, I doubt there really are any. Although she does try to explain to those who are interested on how to stand your ground (using wonderful examples of today’s progressive young Jewish- Americans), what to do to fight the good fight and never back down. Moreover, what she does in this book is to take us all on a journey through history, culture, and philosophy.
The book begins most poignantly. She starts with the Tree of Life Synagogue terrorist attack. This after all is her synagogue. Not only is this the sanctuary where she became a bat mitzvah, but it is the place of worship where her parents still go practically every shabbat. You can feel the palpable tension as she writes how she waited to hear from her parents that they were alright.
Perhaps I project. But I think human beings understand what those moments of terror mean. I personally know what it feels like waiting for that kind of call. My husband was supposed to be in the World Trade Center the morning of September 11. He had never told me that his meeting got canceled. So as Bari writes about the trauma and those terror filled moments of waiting, I feel every single letter that jumps off the page.
What Bari does next is regale everyone with a discussion of the history of antisemitism. She explains it from the time of the Egyptians through the Church, Islam and to modern day. The history lesson is told not merely through her eyes. She makes certain to bring into play the thoughts and ideas of some of the best known historians, philosophers and politicians.
She also attempts to explain how the idea of who the Jewish People are does not fit very well into the modern body politic of the United States. We Jews are an ancient people, an ethnicity, a religion and culture. We have an indigenous land from whence we sprang. and our story is almost 4 millenia old.
Bari also goes into depth about the BDS movement, intersectionality, campus politics, and the nature of modern progressive antisemitism. She explains that there are those that seek genocide against Jews and there are those that require Jews to deny their heritage, their ethnicity, their historical past in order to participate. One seeks slaughter by physical ethnic cleansing, the other seeks eradication by cultural ethnic cleansing. Either way the Jews as a People, are meant to disappear from the face of the Earth.
The problem in truth, is that the antisemite is not interested in understanding the Jewish People. They prefer their conspiratorial ideas and fantasies. But, for whatever reason antisemites antisemite, it should never stand in our way. That is why Bari wears a Star of David necklace ever since the Tree oof Life murders. It is why I have worn mine for over 40 years.
Of course, there can be no discussion of antisemitism in the US without understanding its dynamic in the USA, and how it has manifested itself in today’s political polarization. She does talk about Trump, and the rising left. She explains Islamist and Soviet antisemitism. She discusses the emerging threat in the US as this virulent virus escapes its incubator in Europe and tries to make its way across the Pond.
Now one of the more interesting aspects of her book, is the discussion of what actually makes America, America. What is the unique characteristics that make the United States different from other diaspora nations for Jewish-Americans. Why is it that we had lived so free from fear. While unfortunately, those carefree days are gone, the dreams that keep people coming to America’s shores are not gone, and that is what gives hope to the future for all of us.
Bari’s book also lays out the truth that it is the nature of the system imbedded within the United States, our traditions, our constitution, our liberal order of thought, which made the unprecedented success of the US Jewish community possible. And it is this order, these beliefs, this bedrock, that is under assault from both the political right and the political left. It is the weakening of these structures, the failure to understand their necessity for the everyday, that is what threatens the future for us all. For a healthy society does not manifest antisemitism, and unhealthy societies do not survive.
Remember, the Jewish People are the canary in the coal mine. For what begins with the Jews, never ends with the Jews.
Reading this book is a terrific beginning. The question is, what are you going to do after you have finished it.
This book is available September 10, 2019