There’s More to Being Jewish Than Fighting Anti-Semitism

A new book looks at the fight against resurgent hatred in Trump’s America, but its prescriptions can’t address the other crisis facing American Judaism.

People wear yarmulkes, or Jewish head coverings, as they protest an anti-Semitic attack in Germany in April. (Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters)

A Jewish journalist lives in the big city. He is largely secular and proudly defies religious traditions; he runs easily with his generation’s cohort of elite writers and thinkers. When evidence of virulent anti-Semitism begins to emerge around him, he is shocked. Jews must wake up and recognize their dire situation, he thinks. If only they could band together, he imagines, Jews could not just survive, but thrive: a light unto the nations, modeling humanitarianism and tolerance.

This was the story of Theodor Herzl, who is credited as the founder of political Zionism and the father of the State of Israel. But it is also the story of Jonathan Weisman, a New York Times reporter who has written a book, (((Semitism))), about the peculiar challenges of being an American Jew in 2018. Both men became aware, rather suddenly, of the potency of anti-Semitism; both have called for a strengthening of Jewish identity in a time of relative Jewish empowerment. Herzl looked east, aspiring to create a Jewish state in Palestine. More than a century later, the success of Herzl’s solution has become Weisman’s major grievance: The writer complains that American Jewish organizations have all become “enthralled with [the] same mission … all spoke of, lobbied on, and raised money for Israel, Israel, Israel.” Meanwhile, he says, neo-Nazis grab headlines, shouting slogans like “Hail victory!” and “You will not replace us!” at rallies on the National Mall. When this happened last summer, Weisman says, “The Jews slept.”

Weisman’s book never overcomes this foundational flaw: It is based on the wildly inaccurate claim that American Jews are not talking about, thinking about, and calling out anti-Semitism. Weisman, alarmed by swirling hatred and lack of Jewish communal cohesion, seems to have cast about for someone to blame and settled on Jews themselves; his facts are wobbly and his prescriptions are thin. Yet the urgency of his project—finding a unified Jewish identity in a time of fracture, assimilation, and recurring bigotry—marks a development that has been unimaginable to Jews for two or three generations: Once again, hate toward Jews is rising. Once again, Jews are distressingly divided. Once again, there is no easy solution to protect Jews’ moral, political, or physical future.

As its title suggests, Weisman’s book identifies virulent anti-Semitism as the major existential challenge facing American Jewry, a perpetual nightmare that reemerges, cicada-like, in every generation. The Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish organization that most actively tracks anti-Semitism in the U.S., reported a major spike in anti-Jewish hate in 2017. Weisman himself has been a target. Like other prominent journalists, he had his Twitter account flooded with hundreds upon hundreds of anti-Semitic memes and slurs. He was marked for the onslaught when a user placed triple parentheses around his name, allowing trolls to locate him easily through a clever web-browser tool. He now wields the parentheses defiantly in his Twitter profile. Appropriately, the marks also decorate the title of his book.

While the problem of anti-Semitism is not novel to the Trump era, Weisman argues, the president has not actively discouraged bigotry, blowing enough dog whistles and making enough excuses to leave far-right agitators feeling empowered. “Whether he knew it or not, Donald Trump ran the most anti-Semitic presidential campaign in modern American history,” Weisman writes. “Haplessness is not a defense.”

Two issues have further exacerbated this rise in anti-Semitism, Weisman argues. One is that Jews are divided among themselves, and have a weak sense of collective identity. Some Orthodox Jews fear that intermarriage, widespread disengagement, and remixed traditions have left liberal and secular Jews unmoored—even tainted. Similarly, many liberal Jews see the Orthodox as “ardently tribalist,” politically conservative, and dismayingly “fecund,” as Weisman puts it. Although Weisman clearly disapproves of Orthodoxy, he is also irritated by the Judaism Lite that seems to define so many Jews’ identities, who “observe or don’t, join a synagogue or attend the occasional Jewish film festival, read Philip Roth, eat bagels and babka, say ‘oy’ ironically.” He sees this as one cause of “the strange, ungrounded nature of American Jewry,” which, he claims, has struggled to articulate a response to the alt-right. “The Jews who are most interested in a liberal, internationalist future, who wish to live progressive, assimilated existences free of threat, are disappearing,” he says. At the same time, “those willing to accept the rising tribalism—to keep to themselves and fortify the Jewish state as an escape hatch or a fall-out shelter—are growing in number.”

This is another reason Jewish leaders have failed to address anti-Semitism in America, Weisman claims: They are too focused on Israel. “The American Jewish obsession with Israel has taken our eyes off not only the politics of our own country, the growing gulf between rich and poor, and the rising tide of nationalism but also our own grounding in faith,” he says. Sheldon Adelson and other Republican mega-donors have “grown so obsessed with Israel that the overt and covert signals of anti-Semitism beamed from the interior of the Trump campaign appeared to be disregarded.”

A renewed Jewish identity, he argues, should reorient away from “the Israel diversion,” which “is proving to be a trap.” Instead, American Judaism should be rooted in a principled, unified opposition to those who hate Jews and their authoritarian allies. “This is an era that calls for fearlessness,” he writes, “but also a refusal to play along.” American Jews “need to assert a voice in the public arena, to back our institutions and mold them in our image.”

Throughout the book, Weisman seems to think he is the only Jew in America who sees the need to stand up to the forces of authoritarianism. He is worried about the tendrils of the far-right movements that have poisoned American discourse and terrorized victims on- and offline. Anti-Semitism is on the rise, he argues, and yet the Jewish community is asleep.

The trouble with his argument is that it’s wrong. A quick search of the New York Times archives shows that Weisman’s paper explicitly discussed America’s troubling pattern of rising anti-Semitism dozens of times over the last year; columnists from Bret Stephens to David Leonhardt, both Jewish, have addressed it forcefully. Jewish institutions, from synagogues to activist groups to local community centers, have hosted innumerable events on this topic since President Trump was elected; it is the concern I have heard most frequently in my reporting on Jewish communities over the past three years. When The Atlantic posted video of the white supremacist rabble-rouser Richard Spencer hailing Trump with language reminiscent of the Nazi era, the media—and American Jews —reacted with outrage. If anything, conversations about the rise of anti-Semitism under Trump have crowded out discussions of racism, anti-Muslim rhetoric, and other forms of bigotry.

Weisman makes a number of claims that seem at odds with available evidence. For example: He says Jews have not made “any organized effort to rally around” the Anti-Defamation League when it has come under attack. He points to Josh Mandel, the Jewish, Republican Ohio state treasurer who criticized the ADL for releasing a report on the alt-right. This was “the essence of an assault on a century-old Jewish institution,” Weisman says. But this incident—one tweet from a marginal state official—has been covered extensively by Jewish publications like Tablet and The Forward, always critically. Last fall, the organization reported a 1000-percent increase in its donations after the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville that left a woman dead. It also received support from outside the Jewish community: $1 million from the media mogul James Murdoch and half a million from JP Morgan.

Weisman also claims that major Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federation of North America, have not called out anti-Semitism. In an op-ed for the Times that accompanied the publication of his book, Weisman asserted that the heads of these groups have been “remarkably quiet” about the “brewing storm” in America, instead focusing exclusively on Israel. Maybe he just isn’t signed up for the right press releases. Both of these organizations and their local counterparts discuss anti-Semitism in the U.S. and abroad constantly. Both direct significant institutional resources toward countering bigotry.

Ultimately, he blames American Jews for not being concerned about the problem of bigotry. He calls on Jews not to “play the game” of “creeping totalitarianism,” lamenting that they have not replaced “We Stand with Israel” signs with ones that read “We Stand against Hate.” But Jewish groups and leaders have been some of the most outspoken anti-Trumpers, marching against the travel ban and getting arrested in Congress. He claims Jewish “politics, once almost wholly liberal and Democratic, are now dispersed between the parties,” even though roughly three-fourths of American Jews lean Democratic, according to Pew. Nonetheless, he directs significant ire toward that band of Jewish Republicans, a small but influential group.

The book is equally confused about the way that fractured Jewish identity is complicating this moment in American Jewish life. Weisman twice repeats data from the Pew Research Center suggesting that many Jews consider having a good sense of humor more central to Jewish identity than following Jewish law. “Oy,” he says sardonically, both times, a sign of both clichéd humor and bad editing.

But even with this lament, it’s not clear what he wants from Jews. He yearns for a response to bigotry “grounded in a principle, a belief, a morality,” but doesn’t get any more specific about what that would mean. He seems to call notional, cultural Jews back to the roots of Judaism, but dismisses ritual and tradition as nothing more than the “mechanics of religiosity.” He makes many generalizations about what American Jews are like—often in the same weird idiom anti-Semites use, like “the Jew thrived” or “the Jew flourishes”—but he doesn’t spend much time excavating the experiences and differences among real, living people.

It’s worth chronicling these failures in part because the book fails in interesting and telling ways. Weisman does not excavate enough Zionist history to recognize the uncanny parallel between his fears and those of Jewish thinkers past, but this ripple of anxiety through the generations is one of the reasons why this moment in America politics is so powerful. Like the Jews of today, many of Europe’s early 20th-century Jews were highly secular and assimilated, and this may have made them slower to address the deadly threat of rising bigotry in their time. Anti-Semitism provides a framework for thinking about other problems of extremism and xenophobia, as well. Its patterns often echo kindred hatreds; its persistence is instructive for thinking about what’s ahead.

Like Herzl, Weisman has called on Jews to see what’s happening around them, to refuse complacency and act. In the short time since it was published, his book has already gotten much attention and rankled Jewish leaders, so perhaps it is fulfilling its purpose.

Fundamentally, though, the book rests on an empty vision: that Jews can define themselves solely through progressive activism, and by opposing those who hate them. It is a version of peoplehood without a core; it lacks the distinctiveness for which Weisman, and so many other Jews, seem to yearn. Weisman is clearly struggling to make meaning out of this new experience of feeling marginalized, this discovery that he, too, is despised for being Jewish. Yet he is unsure what being Jewish really means.

Weisman was the wrong reporter for the right assignment. But the frustration he feels—his sense that Jews have lived through this history before, and so have a special obligation to to stand up against hatred—is not his alone. Writing about anti-Semitism matters. It is an attempt to articulate the relationship between Jewish power, identity, and moral responsibility; to chronicle Jews’ perpetual vulnerability, even when they’re otherwise thriving; to answer questions that have followed Jews wherever they have gone. Like Herzl’s generation, today’s Jews are grappling with a crisis of identity and fear. But they’ll have to look elsewhere for answers.