Common Sense with Bari Weiss, Sept. 20, 2021
“But these days, the idea that “everybody hates the Jews” feels like less of a punchline and more like an accurate report of public sentiment.”
Everybody hates the Jews. That’s the refrain from the brilliant satirist Tom Lehrer in “National Brotherhood Week,” a song that I had memorized by the time I was ten, given that I was raised by the kind of dad who made sure songs like “The Vatican Rag” and “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” were the soundtrack to our lives.
My sisters and I would laugh as we sang along to lyrics we only half-understood:
Oh the Protestants hate the Catholics
And the Catholics hate the Protestants
And the Hindus hate the Muslims
And everybody hates the Jews
The very fact of the song’s existence, of course, is evidence of abundant American tolerance and pluralism.
But these days, the idea that “everybody hates the Jews” feels like less of a punchline and more like an accurate report of public sentiment. It seems every other day a new study or survey confirms what so many American Jews are feeling, as the old joke had it, that they are hating us more than is necessary.
Today, came the latest study from the Brandeis Center, which released a poll of “openly Jewish” college students. Seventy percent of the students surveyed reported that they experienced antisemitism. Half of the students said they have felt the need to hide their Jewish identity at school, explaining that they felt doing so would protect them from harassment, bullying or social exclusion. This is the kind of thing we would expect to hear about the Jews of Europe. But not here.
“What is so alarming about these results is that the survey focused on more than a thousand AEPi brothers and AEPhi sisters. These are kids who generally enter college with strong Jewish identities and an eagerness to be active in Jewish organizations. Instead, they are learning to hide their Judaism. And the longer they are in college, we found, the more they closet themselves,” Kenneth L. Marcus, the head of the Brandeis Center, told me. “Anyone who has been paying attention can see that what happens on campus doesn’t stay on campus. This should be an alarm for the entire American Jewish community.”
This new survey (which you can read more about here) reflects the recently released FBI’s Hate Crimes Statistics for 2020. The bureau says that 57.5 percent of religious-based hate crimes last year had Jews as their targets, even though Jews represent 2 percent of the population.
What is it about the Jewish people that inspires such passionate animosity? Why is such a tiny group the object of this amount of attention? And why has this hate dogged Jews in every time and place in which they have ever lived?
I wrote my book, “How to Fight Antisemitism” — now out in paperback — in part to answer such questions for myself. But in the two years since I published the book, so much has changed; and I wish I could say for the better.
Venture back with me to the Before Times — to an America before the Covid-19 pandemic, before social distancing, before life lived behind masks, before mass loneliness and unemployment and distrust and vaccine hesitancy and the Delta variant and an election that felt like it would break the country apart.
I felt extremely lucky. I had a front row seat to the madness of 2020 and I had a megaphone at The New York Times that I could use to articulate values that were under siege and uplift voices that often went overlooked. The year before, Vanity Fair had called me the paper’s “star opinion writer” and put me in stilettos for a photoshoot. I didn’t actually own the clothes or the apartment to feel like I’d come close to anything like making it, but it seemed like, if I played my cards right, everything could only go up up up from here.
None of that was to be. In July 2020, as everyone reading this newsletter well knows, I resigned my position.
The changes in my own life over the past year reflected a country transforming at a velocity so fast that it’s difficult to capture. Those changes have affected America’s Jews in ways most of us couldn’t have imagined — and that too many remain desperate to deny.
If the American Jewish holiday from history ended on the morning of October 27, 2018, when a gunman opened fire on those gathered for prayers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, we are now living firmly inside of it. Every day we are yanked closer toward its mean.
In a few years, we have gone from antisemitism of horse-and-buggy velocity to something more like a bullet train. My own inbox is a microcosm of this acceleration: I used to receive a note every other week of a story that deserved to be told. Now I sometimes get word of several in a single day.
Some of those stories have made headlines. The machete attack at a rabbi’s home in upstate New York during Hanukkah. The attack outside a sushi restaurant in West Hollywood during the recent war between Hamas and Israel. P. Diddy hosting Louis Farrakhan on Revolt TV for an independence day address last July.
But you probably missed the story of Rose Ritch, a young Jewish woman who was harassed out of her role as a student vice president at the University of Southern California. “Impeach her Zionist ass,” her fellow students proclaimed, echoing Communist Party apparatchiks of another time. Or the book, published by Hachette, called “In Defense of Looting” in which the author argues that Jews and Koreans are “the face of capital.” Or when the Texas Republican Party adopted the slogan “We Are the Storm,” an apparent wink to QAnon, which claims that Democrats are sex traffickers who drink the blood of children (a nod to the medieval anti-Semitic libel). Or when the Democratic Socialists of America, the emerging power center of the Democratic Party, sent a questionnaire to New York City Council candidates that included a pledge not to travel to Israel. Or the swastikas drawn on schools in Georgia in the days just before this Yom Kippur.
It has been a torrent. And the clean divisions I put forward in in my book to help make sense of this problem — of the varieties of anti-Semitism from the left, the right, and of radical Islam — have blurred. When #jewishprivilege trends on Twitter, does it matter if the hashtag had its origins in a far-left or in a far-right raising suspicions about outsize Jewish success? When vandals mar American synagogues with “Free Palestine” graffiti is that the obvious work of the left or the right? When a sign hangs over the 405 freeway in Los Angeles declaring “Jews Want a Race War,” it is as easy to imagine that it is the declaration of a neo-Nazi as it is a follower of Louis Farrakhan.
These stories, and hundreds more like them, are part of a pattern of symptoms that indicate a widespread societal virus. It will be up to historians to give it a proper name, but I think of it as a great unraveling — the unraveling of the post-war, liberal order and the rotting out of the very institutions charged with upholding it.
That order, held up by Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, insisted that all people were created in the image of God and therefore were entitled to equality under the law; it prized the sacredness of the individual over the group; it insisted on judging a person based on their deed and not based on their lineage; it upheld due process and the presumption of innocence; it rejected mob justice; it held that true fairness demanded equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. It said that the truth was the truth and a lie was a lie.
It is not by chance that these ideas and the institutions that nourished them, even in their many hypocrisies and flaws, nurtured me and millions of other American Jews. As the scholar Dara Horn has noted: “Since ancient times, in every place they have ever lived, Jews have represented the frightening prospect of freedom. As long as Jews existed in any society, there was evidence that it in fact wasn’t necessary to believe what everyone else believed, that those who disagreed with their neighbors could survive and even flourish against all odds.”
Where liberty thrives, Jews thrive. Where difference is celebrated, Jews are celebrated. Where freedom of thought and faith and speech are protected, Jews tend to be, too. And when such virtues are regarded as threats, Jews will be regarded as the same.
The current demand for conformity — that sense that our difference is dangerous — comes at us from both political extremes. It is a familiar squeeze, even though the particular terms are American.
The far right says Jews aren’t white enough — that they appear to be white, but are, in fact, loyal to the people who are sullying the “real” America. This was certainly the motivation of the white supremacist who walked into Tree of Life and massacred 11 Jews. Meanwhile, the left says the opposite. It says we Jews are too white to be oppressed. It says, indeed, that we are the exemplars of white privilege, capable, as we are, of changing our Lifshitzes into Laurens and passing. And to make matters worse, Jews support Israel, which, they insist, is not Jews’ indigenous homeland but the last bastion of white colonialism in the Middle East.
In this way, Jews are being successfully transformed into neo-Nazis in the public imagination at the very moment that we are being targeted by actual neo-Nazis.
But unlike the alt-right, whose hatred is unabashed and familiar to a people who survived Hitler, those who promote this big lie — the lie of the Jew as the white man and the uber-imperialist — are our leading intellectuals, magazine editors, book authors and influencers.
Most of them didn’t sign up for Jew-hating. They just wanted to be on the right side of history. But this doesn’t make the ideology to which they have dedicated themselves — a stew of postmodernism, postcolonialism, identity politics, neo-Marxism, critical race theory, intersectionality, and the therapeutic mentality — any less dangerous. It is proving disastrous for Jews just as it has been disastrous for liberalism itself.
In this ideology, science is at the mercy of politics, identity trumps ideas, and obvious truths are dangerous to say out loud. Silence is violence, they say, but violence, when directed at the right people, is justified. Racism is the gravest of sins, but racism, when directed at the right targets, is the price of justice. Bullying in theory is wrong, the bullying of the right people is not just okay, it is a virtue. In the name of anti-racism it imposes racist policies. In the name of culture, it erases art. In the name of progress, it rewrites — even deletes — our history.
Perhaps most significantly, in the name of equality and justice this ideology insists that it is better to have everyone worse off than to be unequal in any way. If some people lose the race, the race must be dismantled.
For Jews, an ideology that contends that difference is anathema is not simply ridiculous — we have an obviously distinct history, tradition and religion that has been the source of both enormous tragedy as well as boundless gifts — but is also, as history has shown, lethal.
By simply existing as ourselves, by insisting on the freedom to be distinct, Jews undermine the vision of a world without difference. And so the things about us that make us different must be demonized, so that they can be erased or destroyed: Zionism is is nothing but settler-colonialism; government officials justify the murder of innocent Jews in Jersey City; Jewish businesses can be looted because Jews “are the face of capital.” Jews are flattened into “white people,” our history obliterated, so that someone can suggest with a straight face, that the Holocaust was merely “white on white crime” or that Anne Frank was a colonizer.
Over the past few decades and at a faster pace over the last several years, this ideology has captured nearly all of the institutions that produce American cultural and intellectual life, including The New York Times. At The Times, if you do not profess allegiance to this new ideology, or at least pretend to, you are suspect, your character and your work scrutinized, put to a damaging double standard. Homogeneity and exclusion in the name of diversity and inclusion.
That is why no one spoke up when colleagues put ax emojis next to my name in Slack rooms with thousands of employees, while an Op-Ed by a Republican senator that some colleagues felt “put their lives in danger” resulted in the firing of my boss and the public scapegoating of my young Jewish colleague who had a hand in editing it. It is why when my colleague Bret Stephens wrote a column about Jewish excellence editors deleted whole parts of the column at the demands of an outrage mob on Twitter; while bald-faced lies, such as a column declaring that “the only Americans” who are victims of cancel culture are the “ones who denounce Israeli settler colonialism and speak out for the Palestinian people.” Or the Op-Ed that passed “sensitivity” readers stating that anti-Jewish resentments are somehow “justifiable.” Really? How so?
In other words: In an era in which the past is mined by offense-archaeologists for the most minor of microaggressions, the very real macroaggressions taking place right now against Jews go ignored. Assaults on Hasidic Jews on the streets of Brooklyn, which have become a regular feature of life there, are overlooked or, sometimes, justified by the very activists who go to the mat over the “cultural appropriation” of a taco. It is why corporations issue passionate press releases and pledge tens of millions of dollars to other minorities when they are under siege, but almost never do the same for Jews.
I had a choice to make — a choice that I suspect many others, Jews and non-Jews, will have to make in the coming years. Stay and become a half version of myself and hang on to the considerable prestige. Or leave so I could do what I came to do in the first place.
In the end, my ability to walk through the door was directly connected to my book. I told my readers to tell the truth. I insisted that we call out lies. I said we needed to be willing to stand alone in standing up for what’s right; to be uncool; to sacrifice personal prestige or professional gain for virtues that endure. I urged everyone to know and cultivate those virtues in our lives and in our communities so they would be more precious to us than external validation.
In writing those words, I had put myself on the hook. Who would I be if I didn’t live up to my own advice?
In our age of Netflix and DoorDash and the ability to call up the whole of human knowledge on a glass rectangle inside of our pocket, perhaps the things I lost when I left The Times seem like sacrifices. Yet when I think about what my ancestors and my heroes have suffered for the sake of truth — gulags; punishing cells; character assassination; and so, so much worse — well, I consider myself blessed that I got to make this choice at all.
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