Bari Weiss’s Unasked Questions

In How to Fight Anti-Semitism, a facile approach to history justifies an impoverished ethical stance.

Judith Butler
September 23, 2019
Photo: Samantha Bloom

Discussed in this essay: How to Fight Anti-Semitism, by Bari Weiss. Crown, 2019. 224 pages.

ONE YEAR AGO THIS OCTOBER, a white nationalist opened fire at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s tight-knit Jewish neighborhood, Squirrel Hill. He killed 11 people and wounded six more in the deadliest recorded antisemitic attack in United States history. In the aftermath of the tragedy, the New York Times opinion editor and writer Bari Weiss, who grew up in Squirrel Hill, insightfully linked the killing of Jews with violence against migrants. The shooter, she explained, carried out his attack the weekend of the synagogue’s “Refugee Shabbat” because—invoking a popular white nationalist conspiracy theory—he blamed Jews for the entry of immigrants into the US. Weiss was right to find a “heartbreaking coincidence” in the fact that Jews were that very week reading from the Torah about the importance of “welcoming the stranger” and offering an “open door” to outsiders. Her mournful and resolute op-ed ended on a note of ethical imperative: Jewish communities must keep their tents open, as “this is the true source of our longevity and resilience.” 

The essay struck a chord with me, as it surely did with many progressive Jewish readers. It came to mind when I agreed to review How to Fight Anti-Semitism, Weiss’s first book, which was prompted by the events in Pittsburgh. I share both Weiss’s concern about rising antisemitism and her understanding that Judaism’s core ethics are tied to the “open tent” and “the welcoming of the stranger.” At the same time, I knew I would not agree with all of what the author had to say. Weiss has characterized positions critical of Israel as biased and fraudulent; as a student at Columbia University, she helped lead an effort to bring complaints against Middle Eastern studies professors who held critical views of Israel for allegedly creating a hostile environment for Jews on campus. (After review, the university found the complaints to be almost entirely unfounded.) I wondered, then, how she would account for antisemitism, and whether she would be able to distinguish between its very real and threatening forms and legitimate critiques of the State of Israel—critiques that should properly be part of any democratic public sphere and which have spuriously been labeled antisemitic in an effort to suppress them.

Weiss’s book turned out to be both passionate and disappointing. She repeats her urgent pleas for the reader to wake up and avert a recurrence of a nightmarish history. At the same time, she does not take up the issues that make the matter so vexed for those who oppose both antisemitism and the unjust policies of the Israeli state. To do that, she would have had to provide a history of antisemitism, and account for the relatively recent emergence of the view that to criticize Israel is itself antisemitic. To fight antisemitism we have to know what it is, how best to identify its forms, and how to devise strategies for rooting it out. The book falters precisely because it refuses to do so. Instead, it elides a number of ethical and historical questions, suggesting that we are meant to feel enraged opposition to antisemitism at the expense of understanding it. 

Weiss’s title makes the book sound like a manual for fighting antisemitism, but this is somewhat misleading. Instead, it moves from an introductory chapter on the shock of the Squirrel Hill massacre, to an all-too-brief history of antisemitic thought, to a series of chapters on present-day “mutations” of antisemitism. “The Right” and “The Left” each receive one chapter, as we are meant to see an equally bad enemy on both sides; a chapter on “Radical Islam” trots out a familiar catalogue of right-wing Muslim leaders (muftis with Nazi inclinations, the Ayatollah Khamenei) in order to reach the likewise familiar Islamophobic conclusion that “there is reason to worry” about Muslim immigration to Europe. By the time she tries to answer the question of how to fight back, we are left with a few pages that mainly focus on what can be done in interpersonal exchanges. Apparently, an opposition to identity politics (which presumably excludes Jewish identity politics), and a primary identification as “American” are crucial elements of the fight—but we do not hear about alliances, and certainly not transnational modes of resistance to antisemitism and all forms of racism.

It is not only the lack of a broader political approach, but also a lack of historical analysis that afflicts this impassioned book. Weiss often uses epidemiological language to understand antisemitism: it is a “thought virus,” an “intellectual disease,” an “ancient malady,” “a cancer.” As such, antisemitism seems to exist outside history, recurring in all possible spaces and times. The metaphor extends to a diagnostic approach to contemporary politics: “When our society’s immune system is healthy and functioning normally, the virus of anti-Semitism is kept in check.” In other words, antisemitism is a latent feature not only of our (presumably US) society but of all societies. Elsewhere, she describes it as part of “our cultural DNA,” a metaphor that suggests it is transmitted through the generations as part of the deep structure of collective life, and perhaps implies more broadly that cultural attitudes are like genetic material—a confusing and potentially deterministic point of view. Such metaphors proliferate throughout the text precisely at moments when one expects a fine-grained answer to fundamental questions about the history and definitions of antisemitism.

One reason this book would profit from a more thorough engagement with history is that Weiss’s argument draws heavily on a definition of antisemitism that appeared as recently as the 1970s. In 1974, Arnold Forster and Benjamin R. Epstein, national leaders of the Anti-Defamation League, published The New Anti-Semitism, a book that claimed a novel form of Jew-hatred—made manifest in viewpoints critical of the State of Israel—was emerging on the left. Many scholars have taken up this argument in the ensuing decades, and some of us have countered that an actual rise in antisemitism is obscured when views critical of Israel are mistakenly taken to be the paradigmatic form of antisemitism. Weiss sometimes seems to borrow from this debate without actually engaging it. Instead, she broaches the problem through a series of elisions. She writes, “here I am—a Jew, an American, a Zionist, a proud daughter of Pittsburgh.” This affirmation of Jewishness is also an affirmation of Zionism—but why? Weiss makes clear that there can be criticisms of Israel that are legitimate, but only if they take the form of demanding that Israel live up to its higher ideals. Under such conditions, we are barely permitted to ask the more fundamental question: what political form would lead to the flourishing of all the people who now lay claim to that land?

Weiss’s ahistorical notion of antisemitism as a thought virus also provides a way for her to evade a thesis she explicitly opposes: the idea that antisemitism is a form of racism. This latter idea does not suggest—as Weiss claims it does—that antisemitism is indistinguishable from other kinds of racism, nor does it place antisemitism in a hierarchy of racisms. Rather, it suggests that, just as antisemitism must be opposed, so must all other forms of racism. Weiss brings a similar misunderstanding to bear on a critique of intersectional theory. She takes “intersectionality” to be a framework that reverses conventional hierarchies, endowing the most oppressed groups with special access to truth, authority, and judgment, and silencing those identified with dominant forms of power. And yet she does not deeply engage the positions of thinkers like Patricia Hill Collins and Kimberlé Crenshaw who launched the development of intersectional theory—and whose work explicitly opposes the notion of a hierarchy of oppressions. 

Intersectionality theory does have much to say about the possibility of being oppressed in one respect and responsible for oppression in another respect—a part of that theory that Weiss does not address. The mechanics of the concept do not seem to elude her; in fact, we might describe her as arguing in an intersectional spirit when she claims, for instance, that Congresswoman Ilhan Omar is subject to racist attacks at the same time that, in Weiss’s view, she is guilty of antisemitism. “Two things can be true at once,” Weiss reminds us. Indeed they can. This situation is well-known by many Jews who vigilantly oppose antisemitism and yet also bear responsibility for a continuing and unjust occupation of Palestine.

But that tension remains oblique in this ahistorical text. Weiss regards Israel’s founding as a state based on Jewish political sovereignty as the end of a “clear line” that ran from biblical times through the aftermath of the Holocaust, spanning “two thousand years of history [which] have shown definitively that the Jewish people require a safe haven and an army.” The Holocaust, in other words, necessitated “the fulfillment of a biblical promise” to establish a homeland for the Jews in Palestine. And yet another line of history runs through and past the Naqba, a history that intersects with the story Weiss tells: state Zionism provided sanctuary for Jewish refugees even as it dispossessed more than 700,000 Palestinians from their homes, producing more refugees for whom there is no clear sanctuary. 1948 was a year in which multiple histories intersected. There is no one line of history. If we accept wholesale Weiss’s proposition that Israel exists and is therefore legitimate, then we are excused from asking too many historical questions about why it was established in the way that it was—on what legal terms, and at what price, and through the vanquishing of what alternative possibilities. 

But if two things can both be true at once, shouldn’t we be able to think through the paradox of a dispossessed population gaining sanctuary only through the dispossession of another population? Shall we not name this as a founding contradiction, one that remains unsolved, and whose resolution could lead to less violence and more common life—cohabitation on equal grounds?  Unfortunately, that order of complexity does not enter into this book and seems rather rigorously excluded. Instead, Weiss rails against identity politics as part of left extremism even as Jewish identity forms the central tenet of her own political approach, one that gives priority to a communitarian sense of “we Jews” over modes of alliance that cross divisions of religion, race, and nation in a deliberate opposition to all forms of detention and persecution, including antisemitism. 

Still, at other moments Weiss seems to call—and then perhaps stops herself from calling—for something more than communitarian self-defense. At the end of her book, when she is supposed to tell us what is to be done, she makes a claim with which I agree: “an attack on a minority is an attack on you.” Yes. Frantz Fanon said the same when he claimed that any act of antisemitism was also an attack on him. That is a moment of ethical beauty, and describes a crucial form of solidarity. In Weiss’s book the “you” is ultimately presumed to be a Jewish reader (one might wonder why she seeks to restrict her audience in that way), and yet this brief opening to another viewpoint surfaces as a kind of murmur: Am I to understand that antisemitism is as bad as any form of xenophobia, racism, or persecution? If I can transpose and expand the ethical principle that I want applied to Jews to all possible minorities, then I am elaborating a principle of equality that binds me to the Mexican detained at the border and the dispossessed Palestinian. The forms of solidarity forged in this way invariably move each of us beyond the confines of identity. In other words, the relations among us are not mere analogies, but living connections, perhaps in the sense that Martin Buber insisted upon when he found spiritual life neither in identity nor in territory, but in a vital relationality based on reciprocity. 

It may well be, as Weiss tells us, that the recurrent question she is asked on her lecture circuit is whether a new genocide against the Jews is possible. I am from the Jewish suburbs of Cleveland and considerably older, and yes, many Jews from that shtetl do ask this question, and with great fear. But in those same shtetls, another question looms, one that tends to break apart almost any dinner table conversation, including on Shabbat: Is it ok to criticize the crimes of the Israeli government without ceding one’s Jewish identity? Must I give up my fight against antisemitism if I believe that the occupation is wrong or if I question the legitimacy of the Israeli state in its current form? 

What Weiss refuses to tackle is this particular anguish at the heart of Jewish families, communities, and congregations throughout the diaspora and even within Israel, one that often tears at the heart of individual Jews overcome by a strong sense of the need for justice—frequently derived from Jewish ethics—that compels them to distinguish their Judaism from prevailing forms of Zionism. It may well be, as Weiss avers, that Zionists feel censored and marginalized within certain progressive circles, but so too do those who wish to raise questions about Zionism within broader circles, questions that would have been part of public debate in the 1910s and ’20s in Europe and arguably within the mainstream Jewish community until about 1967. These questions are surely as recurrent as questions about a Jewish genocide in America, and they are the ones more likely to imperil or wreck familial relations, to lead to disownment, disinheritance, excommunication, or denunciation. Since it is possible to think two things at once, shall we then think about how—in the spirit of the Jewish social justice tradition, the open tent Weiss briefly referenced in her op-ed—a fierce opposition to antisemitism is compatible with a relentless critique of the injustices perpetrated by the Israeli state? 

Weiss encourages Jews to “practice a Judaism of affirmation, not a Judaism of defensiveness.” A fine idea! But if Judaism and Zionism are conflated, then what precisely is to be affirmed? And how are we to judge? Shall we not be permitted to ask all of our questions, so that we may become more wise as we pursue the answers? More courage, Bari Weiss! 

Judith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor Emeritus in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley and Visiting Distinguished Professor in the Department of Philosophy at The New School. Their most recent book is The Force of Nonviolence (Verso, 2020).