There is a civil war among American Jews over the question of antisemitism. We witnessed in January yet another flash point as a prestigious high school fired a Jewish history teacher for their anti-Israel comments on social media. Jewish responses, from a rabbinical letter that denounced her firing and one that supported it, put this fight on rare public display, as both claimed to defend Jews against antisemitism.
In case one might think the rise of antisemitic violence in the streets, temples, and homes of Jewish Americans might unify Jews, it has actually widened the rift — often to the point of absurdity. The man who stands a good chance of becoming the first Jewish president, Bernie Sanders, has been both caricatured as too Jewish on the pages of the Washington Post, and simultaneously someone who hates the Jews in the pages of the Forward. Some on the Right cannot figure out if they hate Sanders because he’s a Jewish communist, or because he is an ally to critics of Israel and thus not the right kind of Jew. Jewishness, now as ever, has become a political identity as much as a cultural or religious one.
The publication of Bari Weiss’s 2019 book How To Fight Anti-Semitism is only the most recent and prominent book-length salvo from one side of this debate, adding to Emory Jewish Studies professor Deborah Lipstadt’s recent book on antisemitism, and a New York Times op-ed by a Jewish student at George Washington University who argues universities are overrun with antisemites.
This writing arises out of the aftermath of the antisemitic, white supremacist Charlottesville Unite the Right march and Trump’s victory. It celebrates, as one might expect from self-described progressive Jewish authors, multiethnic democracy, the particularly Jewish-American tradition of “welcoming the stranger,” and its authors say they are on the side of equality and liberalism.
Yet these same books and articles red-bait and demonize the Left, equate socialism with fascism, are openly Islamophobic, and suggest anyone supporting Palestinian self-determination is an antisemite, aligned with fascists who would eliminate the Jews.
Many of the things Lipstadt and Weiss say about Muslims and the Left would feel right at home on Fox News.
Very Bad People on Both Sides
Both Lipstadt and Weiss write that Muslims are anti-gay and obsessed with “heretics” such as Salman Rushdie. They single out “radical Islam” as the ideology “exceptional in its animosity toward the Jewish people.” Weiss conflates respected anti-Zionist ethnic studies faculty, such as Rabab Abdulhadi, with terrorists who ram cars into pedestrians and militias such as Islamic Jihad. Weiss repeats the frankly bizarre claim that Western liberals’ “fear of being labeled Islamophobic” means they have turned a “blind eye” to Islamic depravity.
From downplaying so-called “Islamic homophobia,” to the claim that “fear of being accused of bigotry” prevented British authorities from shutting down a child sex trafficking ring run by Pakistanis, to giving Muslims a pass on their antisemitic views, it is Western political correctness that is the problem for Weiss, not bigotry against Muslims.
The Left fares little better in their works. Lipstadt spends half of her book equating socialist Jeremy Corbyn with the antisemitic reactionary Donald Trump, as if one could compare a US president who defends neo-Nazis as “very fine people” with someone who has fought racism his entire political career.
Weiss takes it a step further, claiming “the left wants to eliminate the Jews,” and the “political left” wants to “conscript Jews as agents of their own destruction.” Apparently supporting a boycott of Israel for its human rights abuses is now equivalent in scope and violence to the Spanish Inquisition: “whereas Jews once had to convert to Christianity,” she writes of socialists, “they now have to convert to anti-Zionism.”
Weiss goes so far as to say the Left engages in its own mirrored version of “replacement theory,” the far-right narrative that the “Jews will replace” Christian, European-descended peoples with their own pliable puppets, communists or people of color — a narrative that animated the chant at Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally, “Jews will not replace us.” In Weiss’s reading, the Left’s insistence that European-descended Jews are white people, or are not indigenous to Palestine, “replaces” Jews with the narratives of people of color.
Yes, you have that right: Weiss believes that the Left wants to replace Jews with people of color. She is a New York Times columnist, but reading her book, at times I felt I could’ve been reading a Breitbart contributor. Make no mistake: these are books by racist reactionaries.
Zionism Is a Twentieth-Century Americanism
It would be convenient to dismiss Weiss and Lipstadt as simply stenographers of the Israeli state. Yet their books would not have gained such a wide readership if they were simply hasbara, rotely recited propaganda in defense of Israel. Americans are evenly divided on the question of Palestinian sovereignty — and, perhaps more important, the US consensus about Israel is rapidly eroding, at least on the Left.
As focused on the defense of Israel as Weiss and Lipstadt’s books are, they have nonetheless been widely reviewed and praised in liberal circles, and reviewed favorably in the New York Times, NPR, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. There were over a dozen copies of Weiss’s book in the local independent bookstore in one of Chicago’s most liberal, multiethnic neighborhoods, the South Side’s Hyde Park. I received an email from my progressive, Obama-supporting aunt about how much Weiss’s book reminded her that antisemitism was still a force in the world.
Which makes me wonder: What is it about Weiss’s book in particular that has captured the imagination of the chattering classes, and the mainstream media in particular? How could someone who would objectively seem to be a reactionary become the toast of the liberal town?
The answer lays as much in this class’s love affair with a Jewish settler state as it does in the way Weiss in particular ties arguments about Israel to arguments about America’s idea of itself.
One of the less reported-on aspects of Weiss’s book is how much it is an explicit ode to American exceptionalism: the idea that the United States is a providential nation, one that has, through its unique democratic institutions, escaped the class conflicts, autocracy, and extreme nationalisms of the “Old World,” and thus endowed the country with a historic mission to bring order and liberal democracy to the world. It’s a vision laden in the Puritan imaginary of a “shining city on the hill,” a beacon of God’s example to the world.
Weiss evokes such imagery in her introduction, citing how much the “founding vision” took the book of Exodus as its template: “they too were a small band of iconoclasts fleeing tyranny; they too had crossed a sea; they too, were determined to worship God freely in a promising land.”
In celebrating the Puritans’ conquest of the Pequot and Narragansett Nations — in a book ostensibly about antisemitism — Weiss does more than simply show an “American pride,” as she says. She writes toward the conclusion of her book that she “believes in the world-changing propositions and promise of this country … the good money is on the bet that it is still an exceptional nation.”
One should take Weiss seriously in these claims: as she said in a speech at the recent “No Hate, No Fear March” against antisemitism in New York City, “I am a Jew because our Founders saw themselves as new Israelites.” Not only does she link Jewish identity with the founding of the United States as a state — such a statement clearly ties Weiss to the settler-colonial founding myth of America: that we are an exceptional nation founded on the principles of Manifest Destiny, the ethnic cleansing of the land, and the global ambitions of its national project.
Weiss did not invent this analogy. The evocation of the Book of Exodus has long been a staple of the American project, with the Massachusetts colonial governor John Winthrop evoking the Bay Colony as a New Jerusalem that would serve as a beacon of hope for the entire world. This fusing of two Biblical narratives — that America is the promised land and a light unto the world — has been a cornerstone of American empire, especially in postwar liberal thought.
By the 1960s, Israel was incorporated into this story. After a brief flirtation with the Soviet Union, Israel ultimately emerged as more than an ally, a kind of surrogate United States in the Middle East.
As Amy Kaplan describes, perhaps no cultural document helped to produce this imaginary more than Leon Uris’s bestselling 1958 novel-turned-blockbuster-film, Exodus, which chronicles the transformation of Holocaust survivors into frontier settlers. Think Jewish John Wayne, complete with a blonde, Christian love interest. This war of cowboys and Indians took literal form a decade later, when Israel launched a preemptive strike against its combined Arab neighbors, quickly and robustly defeating them.
Israel not only redeemed the long-suffering Jewish people with its muscular militarism, but also redeemed the United States. As the United States was bogged down in a quagmire of its own making in Southeast Asia against dark-skinned, godless communists, Israel defeated the equally secular, socialist-leaning forces of Arab nationalism in one swift blow. Israel was not only a military power; it was a nation among nations — no longer an uncertain utopian scheme.
While, as Melani McAlister documents, the Israel lobby in the United States played some role in shaping the narrative, they could not invent US cultural or political interests whole cloth. After the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Israel not only became an ally, but a successful — perhaps more successful — replica of America.
When Weiss argues that the “assertion of American values — the hatred of tyrants, the love of liberty, freedom of thought and of worship, the notion that all people are created equal — are Jewish values,” of course one has to ask if those values extend to Palestinians who, under occupation, lack all of those rights, any more than they extended to the Pequots and Narragansetts who were massacred by Winthrop and later colonial governors. One also has to ask if it extends to Muslims in the United States, or leftists who support the boycott, divestment, and sanction of Israel.
But if one takes Weiss’s commitment to American exceptionalism seriously, then such contradiction makes perfect sense. I don’t believe Weiss is lying when she says the “biblical patrimony” that founded the United States is one that she feels guarantees her liberty. It has also stolen the liberty of America’s supposed enemies, at home and abroad.
It’s no wonder that Weiss spends pages railing against Muslims and communists — she’s picking her enemies from State Department cables. Indeed, she opens her book by evoking the “how things felt after we watched the planes slam into the towers on September 11th, 2001,” suggesting that the rise of antisemitism is synonymous with attacks against the United States. She even has the same roster of enemies: Muslim terrorists abroad, and anti-war leftists at home.
American, All Too American
In conflating Jewish identity with American exceptionalism, Weiss lines up behind a postwar tradition of ostensibly liberal Jewish intellectuals dedicated to promoting full Jewish identification with the American imperial project, often at the expense of workers, people of color, and the Left at home and abroad.
Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer, one of the most prominent and influential of the conservative postwar Jewish public intellectuals, celebrated Jewish success in his 1963 book Beyond the Melting Pot. Glazer contrasts the educational attainment, hard work, and family cohesiveness of Jewish Americans with what he saw as the family dysfunction and laziness of African Americans.
His “cultures of poverty” argument validated what he saw as an America of ever-expanding rights — clearly, if an ethnic group did not thrive in such an environment, the answer must lay in some cultural or historical deficiency within such a group. Referring to the New Left’s anti-racist sympathies as “sycophancy toward the blacks,” Glazer extended such analysis to explain how groups such as Students for a Democratic Society and the Socialist Workers Party aligned with Third World revolutionaries rather than the state of Israel.
While one could see Glazer’s conservatism as merely a cynical defense of Zionism, it also aligns with his larger argument about Jews and American exceptionalism and Jewish whiteness: for Glazer, the New Left opposed Israel for the same reason they oppose America, an infantile regression against progress, enlightenment, and the John Winthrop vision of the “city on a hill.” Never mind that half of SDS was Jewish, as was half of the Communist Party during its anti-Zionist heyday in the 1930s.
Weiss’s alignment with American exceptionalism also helps to explain one of the stranger if under-theorized aspects of her and Lipstadt’s recent books: their characterization of antisemitism as a “disease” or “infection” in a society lacking a “healthy immune system.” As critics (including Judith Butler) have pointed out, this biopolitical description assumes that antisemitism is just there, lying dormant in a society until the host is sufficiently weakened. Yet as Priscilla Wald notes in her foundational work on the cultural politics of disease, the idea of an “outbreak” or a “contagion” imagines not only the disease, but the well-regulated society the disease invades, replete with natural, seamlessly guarded borders. The virus is often conceived as something wholly external to society that only takes over if the society lacks cohesion, is riven or weakened in some way.
Thus the Nazis who compared Jews to a parasite imagined Germany as an organic unity, a kind of bodily whole: one constituted by both a cultural and racial harmony. Equally, the US Red Scare imagined Communism as a kind of contagion, from films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers to maps of infection invading its American host.
Weiss’s metaphors are revealing: the United States, since its exceptional founding, is a place of harmony and cohesion. Like Glazer, she imagines the United States and Israel as countries founded in liberty, with ever-expanding circles of democracy. For Glazer, as for Weiss, revolutionaries are external threats who want to rock an otherwise stable and vibrant civic state. Jews who support Palestinians are not working out of principles of international solidarity, or even a radical tradition of Jewish identification with the oppressed, but are, as Weiss writes, “agents of their own destruction,” Typhoid Marys of the foreign, antisemitic disease.
It seems silly to have to say, but antisemitism is no foreign presence in an America founded by Christian settlers; it is constitutive to its project of nation building. From Civil War–era pogroms to the 1924 anti-immigration act to two twentieth-century American red scares, antisemitism has been a way for the US political elites to shore up popular support for the American state in times of crisis.
But rather than understand Weiss’s racism and demonization of the Left as peculiar defects, an ideological remnant soldered cheaply onto an increasingly fragile and violent Israeli nationalism, her thinking is actually typical. Islamophobia, nationalism, and anti-communism are long staples of American elite opinion and policy; it appears only odd when smuggled under the cloak of an ostensibly anti-racist book.
Weiss’s problem is not, as she might argue, that she is too Jewish. It is rather that she is too American, identifying Jewish self-interest with the interests of the American state. She identifies the far right as a threat, but she also aligns Islam and the socialist left with the far right, tying the project of Jewish thriving to the postwar consensus of free markets, American imperial hegemony, and the interests of the Israeli elite.
Weiss’s Judeo-American project, then, belongs to the long history, from postcolonial compradors to Latinos for Trump, of minorities adopting the values of their persecutors.
Weiss seems to earnestly believe that Jewish liberation is tied up with American empire — an identification that brings to mind Hannah Arendt, who wrote at the founding of the Israeli state, “nationalism is bad enough when it trusts in nothing but the rude force of the nation. A nationalism that necessarily and admittedly depends on the force of a foreign nation is certainly worse.”
As Weiss herself writes, the “center cannot hold.” The American Century, in which a rhetoric of equal rights undergirded some of the most barbaric acts of violence in the twentieth century, is on the way out. Weiss is correct to be panicked as the world that witnessed Israel enter into the system of Westphalian states and Jews into the American mainstream, may be coming to an end. From Bolsonaro’s Brazil to Orbán’s Hungary, the end of such capitalist liberalism is more often than not accompanied by a rise in antisemitism.
Yet the answer is not to shore up its ruins, any more than the answer to the crisis of American liberalism is to elect more of its clueless standard-bearers like Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden. The socialism that Weiss sees as so threatening is the only answer not just for the failing capitalist status quo, but for the world’s Jews as well. Bernie Sanders’s recent statement on antisemitism, short and to the point, moves us in the right direction: it is by coming together to make a better world that we can fight antisemitism — not by siding with those in power.