Author Interview | Jonathan Weisman: On the Front Lines of Anti-Semitism
Photo: In the spring of 2016, members of the “alt-right” responded to one of Weisman’s tweets by placing a triple set of parentheses around his name. That’s the symbol that the “alt-right” uses to identify Jewish journalists so others will know to harass them. Like many other journalists who have been targeted, Weisman now uses the parentheses as an act of defiance.
New York Times deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weisman says he mainly “experienced being Jewish through guilt” for most of his life. That changed in the spring of 2016 when members of the emerging “alt-right” responded to a tweet of his by placing a triple set of parentheses around Weisman’s name. He quickly learned that the “alt-right” uses the ((( ))) symbol to identify Jewish journalists, so others will then know to harass them. Within hours, Weisman was bombarded with hundreds of anti-Semitic images and slurs. For the first time, he began to ponder what it meant to him to be Jewish.
As more Jewish journalists faced similar attacks and other minority groups experienced a growth in hate crimes, Weisman researched the ways in which expressions of hate were becoming more acceptable in U.S. society and contemplated the Jewish responsibility toward other targeted groups. After Donald Trump was elected and the number of anti-Semitic incidents rose, Weisman began to wonder: Has the American Jewish experience fundamentally changed? These inquiries resulted in Weisman’s powerful new book, (((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump.
Weisman’s book comes on the heels of a series of Anti-Defamation League reports documenting the escalating number of anti-Semitic incidents in America. After years of steady decline, the number of such incidents began to increase in 2014 and 2015, reaching 1,267 incidents in 2016. In 2017 the number surged 57 percent to a total of 1,986 incidents. Similarly, in the current academic year, there has already been a 250 percent increase in white supremacist activity on college campuses. Moment speaks with Weisman about the rise of bigotry and racism in the United States and what American Jews should do about it.
What do you say to Jews and non-Jews alike who don’t think there has been a rise in anti-Semitism?
People who insist that there’s not a rise in anti-Semitism are simply willfully blind. You can say that the new anti-Semitism that we saw in Charlottesville, that we’ve seen in various marches and that we see online everywhere is harmless. I think that’s a defensible position. But you cannot say that the phenomenon doesn’t exist. It may be weak for now, but you should not hide your head in the sand at the time when those who want you gone are weak, because you never know when they will become strong.
Is there something different about anti-Semitism compared to other forms of bigotry and racism?
I think that the odd distinction between run-of-the-mill bigotry and anti-Semitism is that the anti-Semites imbue Jews with enormous power. I get the feeling that most anti-Semites don’t know a lot of Jews, because if they did, they would see us for the human beings that we are. It’s very hard, if you meet me, to see me as this all-powerful being. They look around them and they see people who are different from them. They see blacks, they see Latinos, they see first-generation Muslims, brown-skinned people, and they have a belief that these people are inferior to them, to white people.
Then they wonder: How come I feel like these inferior people are beating me?
How come I feel so downtrodden? This is the great myth of “white genocide.” You hear it all the time from the alt-right. Then they wonder, who is perpetrating white genocide? How could white genocide be perpetrated by these people who are inferior to me? Somebody powerful must be pulling the strings. The Jews are the people who are orchestrating it all, because they can’t believe that the black man or the Latino next to them is somehow beating them. They feel as if they’re losing their position in society, and they have to attribute that to some more powerful force. That’s where the Jews come in. We are the allegedly more powerful force.
Is it possible that so many anti-Semitic acts are being reported because the American Jewish community devotes more resources to tracking and reporting anti-Semitism? If we were not seeing a rise in other forms of bigotry, you might be able to argue that this is Jewish hypersensitivity and attributable to the ability of Jews to report anti-Semitic behavior. But there is a concurrent rise in other hate crimes, including a rise in anti-Muslim bigotry, anti-immigrant bigotry, anti-black imagery, and there was even a recent study that showed a rise in anti-white hate crimes. [Bigotry against Jews is] part and parcel of the bigger picture. In my book, I conclude that the Jewish response cannot just be about self-defense. It has to be about a general coming together of those who are suffering from hatred and prejudice.
The fact is that we Jews have remarkable resources at our disposal. We could be extremely helpful to Latinos, to blacks, to Muslims, to anybody who is suffering or would suffer under the rise of the alt-right. We cannot focus just on ourselves, because that’s a self-defeating proposition. You can’t fight one form of bigotry and hope another form of bigotry will not spill into it. That was one of the great lessons of the civil rights era. I think it was Ralph McGill, the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, who said it would be foolhardy to believe that the hatred against blacks will not spill into other avenues. A collective response is the necessary response.
If the United States becomes a country hostile to Jews, the alliance between the United States and Israel will not last.
In the past, were American Jews more active in defending other minority groups?
Jews have the view that the emergence of the black-Jewish coalition in the civil rights era was the historic norm and that Jews have usually stood by oppressed groups in the United States and been the good guys. But in some ways, the civil rights era was the aberration, and overall Jews have not been particularly active in this way. The other day, I read a piece by a Jewish writer lamenting that there are all of these progressive Christian organizations, even evangelical organizations, throwing themselves in front of police to try to bring the plight of Dreamers—of those young undocumented immigrants—to greater public attention. The Jewish presence, however, is comparatively minimal.
The era of Jewish activism is in the rear-view mirror right now. Jews are in a defensive crouch. Jews recoil against much of the activism we see around us—movements like BDS, anti-Israeli sentiments and pro-Palestinian sentiments. That’s the activism that Jews now equate with the left and so there’s a reflexive sense that the left is actually our enemy, but that’s also in part because Jews are not now taking a leadership role in activism in the United States. The rise of bigotry presents an opportunity for Jews of all political persuasions to unite around a cause that’s not Israel.
Did you intend the book to sound critical of Jews?
This book is very hard on Jews, and I did that intentionally. There are too many Jews who have taken themselves out of the public sphere. They are so comfortable in their upper-middle-class to affluent positions that they have chosen to rationalize away the hatred or the bigotry surrounding them because they don’t want to make waves. I dedicated an entire chapter to what I call “the Israel diversion.” Jews love to argue, but most of our arguments are now about Israel. There are liberal Jews and conservative Jews, there is J Street and there is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—they all sit around and argue about Israel. Meanwhile, many Jews don’t even see what has happened in the society that we live in. We’ve lost touch with our obligations to it.
Should American Jews focus less on Israel? Israel is still the lowest common-denominator cause that all Jews can adopt. But beyond Israel, it seems to me that all Jews could take the position that bigotry is wrong and pluralism is good. We can unite around this one cause because bigotry is a threat to us, and it is also a threat to the country that we live in. Israel is only going to be as strong as the United States. That is simply the fact. If the United States becomes a country hostile to Jews, the alliance between the United States and Israel will not last. I always used to tell that to my mother. She would always say we need to focus on Israel and keep Israel strong because if Nazism rose in the United States, we would need a place to run. I would say, “Do you really think that if Nazism rises in the United States, Israel will be a safe haven for Jews?” It will not.
If pluralism ceases to exist, the United States will cease to exist as a peaceful democratic country. We have to stand up for pluralism. That is part of being an American. I think as Jews, we are primarily Americans. Whether we want to obsess about Israel or not, we have to think about the culture that we live in, and we have to pay attention.
Personally, beyond having written this book, how do you plan to respond?
That’s a question that I wrestle with all the time. Because I am an editor at The New York Times, I cannot be a political activist. In the book, I make it very clear that this is not about conservatism or liberalism. I had an email exchange with Ari Fleischer, the former Bush press secretary, about this. He thinks that I’m letting my ideology show. I told him that standing up for American institutions is not liberalism, it is patriotism. I do not believe that this is a liberal book or a conservative book. I think it’s an American book. I think that I’m standing up for American values when I say we cannot be a country that is so tolerant of hate.