I had some doubts about whether writing this review was really necessary. After reading How to Fight Anti-Semitism, it was apparent to me that Bari Weiss has nothing original to say. Therefore, how could I say anything useful in response? Does 2020 really need another earnest leftist screed on the theme of ‘anti-Zionism is not antisemitism’?
However, reading the mainstream reviews of this book, I was struck by how many of them criticized How to Fight Anti-Semitism from the right. I was struck, too, by the profiles of Weiss that tried to prove what a nice and bright girl she was. Vanity Fair describes her as looking like “a kindergarten teacher—she’s petite, with hair parted down the middle and pulled back in a low ponytail, big glasses framing a cherubic face.” Meanwhile, criticisms from the left seemed hesitant. So there did seem to be a sort of ‘gap in the literature’: a review that gave this book the thorough trashing it deserves. Bari Weiss’s self-imposed flounce from The New York Times in July 2020 also made me want to examine her writing in detail, and see whether she really was a radical free-thinker being oppressed by the Twitter mobs. Lastly, Corbyn’s recent (as of this writing) suspension from the Labour Party re-raises the questions of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and “the Left.”
More fundamentally, however, I think there is always value in observing how conventional wisdom congeals at a specific point in time into a pundit’s book. How to Fight Anti-Semitism perfectly reflects the thinking of the American intelligentsia (such as it uh, is) in our time. Moreover, it shows the sunniest, most cheerful face of the Islamophobic right.
Weiss, of course, sets herself up as between left and right, criticizing both and bringing both into the light. She takes on that shopworn persona of the liberal intellectual reluctantly telling uncomfortable truths to her fellow cosmopolitans. In the aforementioned Vanity Fair article, Weiss claims that she doesn’t want “to be a warm bath and an ideological safe space for people who we think are our readers.” This persona is, of course, a scam. Bari Weiss is telling herself, and her audience, extremely comfortable things, such as: America is great. Israel is great. Muslims are bad. You don’t need to learn anything at college that makes you uncomfortable. Everything you learned as a little kid is true. Those little thoughts and attitudes you’ve been told are “racist” are not only justified, but are actually brave, bold stances.
The other issue is that Weiss is clearly just, fundamentally, not a very intelligent woman. Her arguments are derivative; they are cobbled together from 20 years of post-9/11 effusions. She appears to have read nothing new about the Middle East since that 2003-2006 boom in right-wing popular Orientalism. I mean, Fouad Ajami? Ayaan fucking Hirsi Ali? She even repeats the old canard about anti-Zionism being a ‘Soviet plot’ and the PLO being a tool of the Russians, which takes us all the way back to the 1970s and completely delegitimizes the idea that the Third World countries who co-sponsored the “Zionism is racism” UN resolution she hates so much might have come to be hostile to Israel through their own intelligence and experiences with Israeli violence. The only real innovation is the pinkwashing stuff in the book, and even that appears in quite crude a form.
The basic message of the book is, of course, that ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’ anti-Semitism are both equally bad, and, in fact, ‘left-wing’ anti-Semitism is worse, because at least the right-wingers like Israel and hate Muslim migrants. This equivalency starts in the very first few pages, where Weiss notes that, after the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, “Soon I started getting WhatsApp messages from close friends in Israel, where Shabbat was ending—a strange reversal from the years of the Second Intifada where I would write them: Are you safe?” Now, the Tree of Life massacre was the murder of Jewish people by a right-winger who hated Jews in general and who specifically hated the synagogue for supporting refugees. The Second Intifada was an uprising which, contrary to the general understanding (even on the left), was not simply individual random acts of terror, but was a complex event that was intertwined with popular organizing among Palestinians—a people under military occupation, a people subject to repression, ethnic cleansing, and war for decades. After the Second Intifada, the situation of Palestinians has only continued to deteriorate, with intensified repression in Gaza, the West Bank, and within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. It is, frankly, obscene to compare Palestinian resistance to neo-Nazi violence—not to mention grossly emotionally manipulative.
Insofar as Weiss has a clearly stated political and intellectual framework, it is one of idealism, culturalism, and essentialism. Insofar as she has a political project, it is Americanism. In fact, because much of the debate surrounding the book is about Israel, which is about is unfortunately obscuring Weiss’s dominant political commitment: the United States. Israel is good because it’s like America and America is good because it’s like Israel. The partial assimilation of American Jews in the mid-twentieth century is the high point of Jewish history (“There has not been a period in history since the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans that has been better for the Jewish people than the past seventy years.”). America was founded on religious tolerance, cleansing it of all the nasty antisemitic hangovers in Europe. All of the good stuff about The West ™ , none of the bad. She extolls “the special nature of America. The United States, with its promise of free speech and religion, with its insistence that all people are created equal, with its tolerance for difference, with its emphasis on shared ideas rather than shared bloodlines, has been, even with all of its ugly flaws, a New Jerusalem for the Jewish people.” This raises a lot of questions: 1) how “ugly” do the flaws have to be for America to stop being acceptable 2) if America is a ‘new Jerusalem’, why does she think we also need the Israeli one and 3) where does all of this cozy patriotism leave the victims of America, from African-Americans to Palestinians to Chileans to the Vietnamese to….you can finish out the list yourself.
At the same time as she repeats hackneyed anti-Muslim myths, she relies on an extremely outdated framework for discussing Jewish history, insisting anti-Semitism is a transhistorical, immutable, almost mystical force. She describes anti-Semitism, in an attempt at poetry, as “that command—the one that had been uttered in a different tongue by Amalek, the villain who stalked the weakest of the ancient Israelites in the desert on their way to the Promised Land; the one that had been echoed by Amalek’s ilk down through the generations; and the one that was now being shouted in mine.” But this overwrought rhetoric provides us with no way of actually understanding anti-Semitism; how it functions; why it gains in strength in certain situations; and how it has been successfully defeated in others.
Furthermore, she equates Nazism with communism, saying that ““By the time the Nazis and the Communists came around, anti-Semitism did not require any religion at all. These secular anti-Semitic movements murdered more Jews than any religious anti-Semites ever had.” The idea of communism as a form of anti-Semitism equivalent to Nazism (!) makes it impossible to understand why the socialist and communist movements were so attractive to European Jewish people in the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries. And, while there are certainly examples of anti-Semitism in the Eastern bloc, there is flatly no comparison to the genocidal eliminationist racism of the Nazis. Why did Jews flee from the Nazis into territories controlled by the USSR and the Red Army during World War II? Presumably because Bari Weiss wasn’t around to warn them that there was no difference between the Nazis and the Soviets because the USSR would co-sponsor a ‘problematic’ UN resolution thirty years later.
She continues that “today, when the greatest sins are racism and colonialism, Israel, the Jew among nations, is being demonized as the last bastion of white, racist colonialism—a unique source of evil not just in the region but in the world.” This makes it impossible to actually engage in any kind of political analysis. Actual, verifiable facts about Israel’s racist violence become ‘demonization,’ while anti-racism and anti-colonialism, rather than taking seriously as actual principles people sincerely support, are implied to be trendy fads.
In a book purportedly about modern forms of anti-Semitism, she engages in blatant apologism for the ever-more-emboldened anti-Semitic regimes in Eastern Europe. She claims, astonishingly, “Jews in countries like Hungary and Poland, which are governed by fascist-adjacent leaders who promote ethnic nationalism, report feeling far safer (by a twenty-point margin) than Jews in countries like France and Germany, countries that have done much more to welcome refugees and migrants.” Let’s remind ourselves of a few facts, shall we? In Poland, where the ruling Law and Justice Party is currently facing massive protests by women against their new anti-abortion law, the current president won in an election in part by campaigning against his opponent’s alleged support of Holocaust reparations to Polish Jews. (The Law and Justice Party also happens, shockingly, to be deeply anti-trans and anti-gay.) The Orbán-led Fidész government in Hungary is vocally and consistently anti-Semitic, blaming Jews for everything from “communism” to immigration. Meanwhile, thousands of Israeli Jews have moved and continue to move to Berlin in recent years, for a variety of reasons, apparently unaware that they should be afraid of the Muslim hordes.
But for Weiss, the real horror story is France: “the failure of France to protect its people; about the inability to assimilate Muslims; about the lawlessness of the suburbs; about the balkanization of French society; and, most of all, about the lethal power of anti-Jewish hate.” She explains we shouldn’t be surprised at Marie Le Pen’s success, because only she is addressing these Very Real Issues. While she acknowledges Europe has been the historical center of anti-Semitism (it would be hard not to), she both explicitly and implicitly insists throughout the book that the really important anti-Semitism these days derives from Muslim migrants, peoples, and countries. She darkly informs us that “Muslims make up roughly 5 percent of the population of Europe (some 26 million people)”. This is bad, because Muslims are a sinister, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, homophobic force. Also, “this deeply uncomfortable problem is severely underreported,” as if the mainstream press has ever shut the fuck up at any point about what a “problem” Muslim immigrants are. She finger-wags at “progressive politicians” for “ignor[ing] real social tensions associated with mass immigration,” who “ignore the need for a return to a common culture.” Because there are no “serious liberal answers to these significant questions, the bluntness of authoritarian populists becomes that much more seductive to the average voter.” In short: she wants to give aid and comfort to the far right, who are rising in power across Europe, the United States, India, and Latin America, while disavowing the full force of their racist rhetoric. You can’t really blame those poor innocent (white) voters, you see, for falling for “populists,” because “the liberals” refuse to ask “the hard questions” about immigration. Framing these as hard questions, of course, removes from Weiss the responsibility to give her answers. Does she want to restrict Muslim immigration to Europe? Does that include the actually existing border violence that leaves refugees to drown in the Mediterranean? How does she feel about the Danish policy of targeted state harassment of what are bluntly called the Muslim “ghettoes”? What about France itself and its police harassment of its Muslim minority, carried out by its allegedly feckless “progressive politicians”? European countries are passing legislation about Muslim migrants all the time. However, because discussing these would force her to confront the reality that these are racist policies in intent and in effect, that yield nothing but further violence toward the Muslim migrants from Europe’s former colonies, she pretends they don’t exist. Endorsing them would require to drop her “nice liberal” façade and face up to what it is she really wants.
Tellingly, one of the articles I linked above notes that Orbán responded to criticism from a local Jewish leader about his Soros-conspiracizing by replying “that Hungarian Jews [should] do more to oppose Muslim immigration to Europe,” and his secretary of state replied to international criticism by saying their party was “funding an institute to research anti-Semitism and combat anti-Israel sentiments among radical leftists and Islamic circles.” “Fighting anti-Semitism” to these people is not about actually opposing prejudice and violence against Jews, as one might naively assume. It is a tool to be used, with varying degrees of cynicism, for suppressing the left and for further harassing Muslim migrants. This topic has been written about ad nauseam in all sorts of lefty outlets (one example; https://www.rs21.org.uk/2020/01/20/reject-the-ten-pledges), so I will restrain myself from ranting about it further.
Despite how much anti-Zionism troubles Weiss, she doesn’t seem to know much about it, or to be interested in learning more. Encountering Joseph Massad at Columbia University blew her mind and she still hasn’t recovered. (She complains that the only book he assigned in his course was Maxine Rodinson’s Israel—A Settler-Colonial State?, making her the only student to ever complain about only having one assigned book in a semester.) I am not sure she has any idea of what anti-Zionism might mean outside of a US university campus. (Maybe I should amend that to an Ivy; I am not sure I even want to give her credit that she’s thought about US state universities; the book certainly gives no sign of it.)
Furthermore, as Chomsky once noted, it is easier to express reactionary ideas concisely, because they have been drilled into people so effectively that they can communicated through catchphrases and references, whereas new, radical ideas have to actually be explained at length. For instance, Weiss refers parenthetically to “the Jewish college student served an eviction notice in her dorm by anti-Zionist activists.” I assume (she doesn’t have citations) that she is referring to this case at Rutgers University, or maybe this case at Harvard. Posting mock eviction notices at dormitories is a common tactic for chapters of Students in Justice in Palestine to raise awareness of the home demolitions of Palestinians. In this case, students filed “bias” reports claiming that the eviction notices were targeted at Jewish students. No evidence has ever been produced that this is the case. In Weiss’s description she invites us to imagine a single Jewish woman targeted by this eviction notices, creating the impression in the unwitting reader’s mind that this was a specific incident that actually happened. The actual evictions of actual people in Palestine are of no concern here. Rather, the imaginary eviction notice is her concern, which she only knows about because some ‘Israel advocacy’ network alerted her to it.
In short, Weiss has nothing new to say about Zionism. Therefore I will stop trying to say anything new in response, but simply quote at length from Edward Said’s classic essay “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims”:
All the transformative projects for Palestine, including Zionism naturally, have rationalized the eradication of present reality in Palestine with some argument about a ‘higher’ (or better, more worthy, more modern, more fitting: the comparatives are almost infinite) interest, cause, or mission. These ‘higher’ things entitle their proponents not only to claim that the natives of Palestine such as they are, are not worth considering and therefore non-existent but also to claim that the natives of Palestine, and Palestine itself, have been superseded definitively, transformed completely and beyond recall, and this even while those same natives have been demonstrating exactly the opposite.
For Israel and Zionists everywhere the results of Zionist apartheid have been equally disastrous. The Arabs were seen as synonymous with everything degraded, fearsome, irrational, and brutal. Institutions whose humanistic and social (even socialist) inspiration were manifest for Jews—e.g., the Kibbutz, Law of Return, various facilities for the acculturation of immigrants—were precisely, determinedly inhuman for the Arabs. In his body and being, and in the putative emotions and psychology assigned to him, the Arab expressed whatever stood outside, beyond Zionism.
Really, at the end of the day, the most unbearable aspect of the book is not Bari Weiss’s claims, or her sloppiness in asserting them, but the ethos she seeks to project. Unlike many Islamophobes who delight in the violence of their rhetoric, Weiss wants to impress us with how tolerant, empathetic, and generally nice she is. As the many profiles of her can attest, she plays up her identity as a nice white bi girl both as an alibi (she’s not a scary cishet white man, how can she be a racist?) and as a novelty (you’d think she’d be an SJW, but she’s not!) (This omits the right-wing responses, such as these genuinely deranged reviews in the NYT and the Spectator about how she is insufficiently fashy.) She’s the kind of person to argue against Muslim immigrants while informing us that “she is lucky enough” to follow a religious tradition that “welcomes the stranger.” She tells us how much she loves walking down the streets of Tel Aviv while pausing to mourn that “[w]atching young Palestinians waiting at checkpoints make me despair.” (Well, Bari, how do you think it makes them feel?)
Weiss claims that the left “is asking [Jews] to make a choice. Are you one of the good guys or one of the bad guys? Do you side with the racists or their victims? Are you part of the coalition of the oppressed or the coalition of the oppressor?” Now, when you think about it, these are perfectly reasonable questions, that everyone, gentile or Jew, woman or man, servant or free, etc., etc. will benefit from asking of themselves. If we truly want to reject “identity politics,” as Weiss purports to be doing, we should base our alliances on who is fighting oppression, to be “always with the oppressed,” as Akiva Orr exhorted, not because they belong to a special identity or because they are morally virtuous, but simply because they are oppressed, and oppression is bad.
Weiss’s writing obscures this very basic question, because of her own identitarian logic. Good: America, Jews, Israel, the West. Bad: Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims. The West can be as “flawed,” as it wants, even towards Jewish people, and she will always side with it against its victims, because, basically, it’s ‘on her team.’ And, no matter how many people @ her on twitter, she’ll always find someone will pay her to ask the “uncomfortable questions” that the powers that be find so very, very comfortable.
 Said, Edward W. “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims.” Social Text No. 1 (Winter 1979): 7-58.