For an op-ed writer, Bari Weiss provokes a lot of opinions – most famously after her very public resignation from The New York Times last month.
Weiss, 36, certainly has her detractors. They have called her everything from hypocrite to fascist, racist to anti-immigrant. When she released her letter to Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger, outlining her reasons for quitting her job as an op-ed staff editor and writer at the paper, she herself complained about how her own colleagues had referred to her on social media as a bigot, liar, racist and even – that’s right – a Nazi. Worse, she charged that her superiors at the paper, though often supportive of her in private, had not defended her publicly against the smears from within the organization. As a consequence, she said, “I can no longer do the work that you brought me here to do.”
Is the case of Bari Weiss more than just another squabble in the tweetosphere, and does it have larger implications for understanding the funk in which the zeitgeist currently finds itself? And should you care?
Clearly, Weiss enjoys tweaking accepted political pieties. That doesn’t mean, however, that she’s a mere provocateur. But her willingness to adopt stands on the hot subjects of the day on an à la carte basis, rather than signing wholesale onto the platform of one camp or another, apparently irks many people, who sometimes seem to have difficulty deciding just why they should hate her.
Aside from an appearance on “Real Time with Bill Maher” shortly after her exit from The Times, Weiss has held off giving interviews over the past month. She did agree, however, to answer questions in writing from Haaretz, where she made her professional debut as a journalist more than a dozen years ago.
If you’re wondering if the drama of the past weeks has left Weiss cowering in the corner, the answer is a resounding no. Asked if she has a theory as to why she draws so much flak, she easily turned the question around, saying: “I think the fact that I’m a lightning rod says much more about the state of our public conversation than it does about me,” adding: “The fact that articulating common-sensical positions … is controversial in this moment is only evidence that many people are scared to articulate common sense out loud.”
Natural opinion writer
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Bari Weiss was born in Pittsburgh in 1984 and grew up in Squirrel Hill. This middle-class neighborhood is home to the Tree of Life synagogue, which was attacked by a white supremacist gunman during Shabbat services in October 2018, resulting in the deaths of 11 worshippers. Weiss became a bat mitzvah at Tree of Life in 1997, and shortly after the massacre, she wrote an op-ed for the Times from Pittsburgh about what she saw and felt on her return home. A year later, she published “How to Fight Anti-Semitism,” a highly readable and personal analysis of the threats she sees American Jews – but really American society in general – facing in the current era.
At Columbia University, Weiss was part of a small group of Jewish students that in 2004 petitioned the school’s administration about what they said was an atmosphere of intimidation in the Middle East studies department where she studied. Several faculty members of Arab background, the students complained, disparaged Israel in classes and shouted down students who tried to take issue with them.
The students’ campaign became national news when a Jewish advocacy organization made a short film about their allegations. What couldn’t help but be an inflammatory issue on campus became downright polarizing. The members of Columbians for Academic Freedom charged their teachers with quashing open discussion and even with antisemitism, while their opponents accused the students of trying to get faculty fired for being critical of Israel – hardly, they said, what one would expect from champions of academic freedom.
The university looked into the complaints, but nothing dramatic came out of the affair other than bad feelings all around.
At Columbia, Weiss also found time not only to edit a journal of politics and Jewish affairs, but, it was revealed by Vanity Fair in April 2018, to have a romantic relationship with fellow student Kate McKinnon (best known for portraying Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren on “Saturday Night Live”). That news bugged some McKinnon fans. So too did the fact that Weiss describes herself as bisexual, but says she has elected not to make a political issue of it.
Weiss followed college with an internship at the Wall Street Journal and a year-long Dorot Fellowship in Israel (which combines Jewish learning with volunteer work). That’s when I met her, and invited her to contribute op-ed pieces and book reviews to Haaretz English Edition. That was in 2007.
Weiss was already a natural opinion writer – witty, well-informed and provocative. She also was good at turning a phrase, which would serve her well years later when Twitter invaded our lives.
For Haaretz, she wrote one op-ed about Nadia Abu El-Haj, an anthropology professor who had just been awarded tenure at Barnard. El-Haj, a Palestinian American, was the author of the 2002 book “Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society.” The book was serious and scholarly, but underlying its academic argument was a political assumption that the Jews don’t constitute a nation and Israel is a colonialist enterprise, to which archaeology here is beholden.
The book drew some fire when it came out. But when El-Haj came up for tenure in 2007, it was turned into a cudgel by elements in Barnard’s large community of Jewish alumnae and faculty, who believed her background should disqualify her from studying Israel. Weiss’ objection, however, was more substantive. El-Haj’s work, she claimed, was an assault on the very idea of truth, in that it went way beyond reminding readers “to be skeptical of the influence nationalism can have on the interpretation of archaeological facts.” Rather, according to Weiss, “Facts on the Ground” condemned “the notion of facts themselves. It is for this reason that those who care about the future of the veracity of facts – and not just the future of Israel – should take serious notice of [El-Haj’s] promotion.”
Weiss is good at marshaling facts (her detractors call them “lies”) to buttress her opinions. At least that’s what The New York Times thought when it hired her in 2017. By then, she had already held positions at the Wall Street Journal (one stint as an opinion editor, another editing book reviews) and at the online Jewish magazine Tablet. By 2019, she was not only writing occasional op-eds for The Times, but also longer features for the Times Magazine. These included one about the excavations at the City of David archaeological park in Jerusalem, which looked at the good, the bad and the ugly about the site and the organization behind it, Elad, and the Palestinian neighborhood, Silwan, where it is found. Elad not only operates the park and funds the excavations, it also buys houses in the neighborhood and rents them to Jewish settlers.
Weiss’ piece was evenhanded but not bland, letting her interviewees speak but pointing out the flaws in their arguments. In the end, Weiss gave the reader the impression that she identified with Dan Shapiro, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, who told her how, much as he empathized with Jews wanting live in “David’s Jerusalem,” he was convinced that “any project that seeks to embed Jewish families in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem … has a clear political intent, which is to cement permanent Israeli control. And that isn’t good for anyone who still has hope for a resolution.”
‘I am offended’
Sometimes the pushback that Weiss draws is a little bizarre, as if there are those for whom the woman can do nothing right. Take, for example, the response to one of her tweets from February 2018.
After the American figure skater Mirai Nagasu executed a successful triple axel jump at the Winter Olympics, Weiss enthusiastically tweeted a video of Nagasu’s superhuman feat with the text, “Immigrants: They get the job done” (referencing a line from “Hamilton”). The problem was that Nagasu, though the daughter of Japanese immigrants, was actually born in California. When this was pointed out by other tweeters, Weiss said she knew that but had been using “poetic license.”
She thought she’d been celebrating the skater, but many readers saw an insult. One NYT colleague, writing on the paper’s internal social network (a thread that quickly became public), charged that Weiss’ “tweet denied Mirai her full citizenship just as the internment did.” The implication seemed to be that by suggesting that Nagasu was a naturalized American, she wasn’t a full citizen, inadvertently revealing the reader’s own prejudice.
Appearing a short time later on “Real Time with Bill Maher” (where she has become a valued regular guest), Weiss discussed the controversy. “Anyone who reads my work knows that I love immigrants,” she said. “And the idea that I would in any way contribute to a culture of hostility towards minorities and immigrants is horrible to me.” Asked what she thought was behind all the online hostility from “progressives,” Weiss suggested that “anyone that departs from woke orthodoxy gets a lot more heat in my opinion than people on the actual right” – what Freud referred to as “the narcissism of small differences.” She added her belief “that offense-taking is being weaponized,” and that “saying that ‘I am offended’ is a way of making someone radioactive.”
What may have finally sealed Weiss’ fate among many on the left is her open-throated defense of Israel and her assertion that much anti-Zionist sentiment is no less than antisemitism. Like all good people, she was genuinely horrified by the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue, and by the online statement by the gunman that he was fighting “a kike infestation.” But as she took on the subject of antisemitism systematically in writing her book, she became convinced that many on the left promote a variety of that hatred that “cloaks itself in the language of progressive values … even as anti-Zionists make common cause with some of the most regressive ideologies and regimes on Earth.”
In “How to Fight Anti-Semitism,” Weiss argues that Jew-hatred has a metaphysical aspect to it – positing “an ever-morphing conspiracy theory in which Jews play the starring role in spreading evil in the world,” whether as the masterminds of nefarious socialism or rapacious capitalism. Antisemitism reappears whenever there is political or economic instability, and is invariably a harbinger of a far more inclusive xenophobia. For that reason, she implores her readers to see any “attack on a minority [as] an attack on you,” and to understand that “my liberation is bound up with yours,” which may be a cliché but that’s “because it is true.”
As for anti-Zionism, Weiss thinks that criticism of Israel is legitimate, but denying that the state has a right to exist is inherently antisemitic. “Anti-Zionism,” she argues, “is not about criticizing Israeli policies or expressing concern about the direction Israel is heading. It is about the demonization and delegitimization and, ultimately, the elimination of a single state that exists in the actual world.”
Still, for someone who knows and cares as much about Israel as she does, Weiss is pretty circumspect in her criticism of the state, and doesn’t seem to have much patience for the increasing numbers of American Jews who have grown up viewing Israel as Goliath rather than David, and judge the country by the chauvinistic rhetoric (and behavior) of its leaders. In our email correspondence, I suggested that maybe her detractors would give her some slack if she were more open in expressing criticism.
“I don’t buy this,” she wrote in response. “People can look here, and here, for starters,” linking to two Times’ op-eds – one about Israel’s stupidity in disinviting Democratic Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar at the suggestion of President Donald Trump, and the other, co-authored with Bret Stephens, about Israel's attempt two years ago to deny entry an American graduate student because she had been an active member of the pro-BDS organization Students for Justice in Palestine. To me, those are criticisms of tactics, but they don’t really address the deep discomfort that many people her age and younger have about more basic aspects of Israel’s existence – if they spend time thinking about Israel at all.
Nonetheless, Weiss believes that what really bothers people is her “refusal to acquiesce to a demand from the far-left to disavow Jewish history and to disavow Zionism.” But, she proclaims, “They will be waiting forever. It will never happen.”
Still, for all that Weiss is a champion of free speech and a foe of cancel culture, there are those who say she has a light trigger finger when it comes to standards for who is undeserving of the freedom to speak freely. That too often includes Palestinians and their supporters, say Mari Cohen and Joshua Leifer, authors of a recent piece about Weiss in Jewish Currents magazine. Weiss,they charge, "rigorously police[d] the boundaries of acceptable discourse while simultaneously lamenting that the boundaries have become too narrow."
Similarly, in an article entitled called "Why Is Everyone Mean to Bari Weiss," journalist Robert Wright answered his own question by suggesting that Weiss "punctuates fierce defenses of free and untrammeled speech with attempts to expel people from the community of discourse because of things they’ve said." Wright goes on to say that, "in some cases [this] would be OK with me… if Weiss's broad definition of anti-Semitism was matched by a broad definition of bigotry generally. That seems not to be the case."
The immediate prelude to Weiss’ departure from The New York Times was the scandal surrounding the paper’s publication of an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton in early June. The Arkansas Republican had called for the dispatch of national military personnel to American cities to display “an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers,” in the rioting, as he described it, that followed the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman on May 25.
As reported extensively at the time, in addition to the public controversy, the publication of the op-ed generated significant internal protest at The Times, with a number of Black editorial employees complaining that they felt personally endangered by Cotton’s call for a heavy hand against demonstrators. The Times’ union issued a statement making just that point.
For her part, Weiss posted a thread of messages in which she raised a number of open questions about the running of the Cotton article. Without taking an explicit stand on the piece, which she hadn’t worked on, she made it clear that she believed the paper of record, if it’s going to err, should do so on the side of free speech rather than out of fear of giving offense. “One way to think about what’s at stake” for the newspaper, she wrote, was to consider the way staff relate to the paper’s motto, “All the news that’s fit to print.” According to Weiss, “One group emphasizes the word ‘all.’ The other, the word ‘fit.’” She obviously counted herself among the former.
Four days after the Cotton op-ed was published, opinion editor James Bennet resigned and Weiss quit about a month later. Her resignation letter made it clear she doesn’t expect to return.
She noted that she had been brought to The Times in the aftermath of the 2016 election for the purpose of “bringing in voices that would not otherwise appear in your pages: first-time writers, centrists, conservatives and others who would not naturally think of The Times as their home.” Despite her efforts, though, she wrote, the paper overall had only become narrower in its scope, and allowed Twitter to become, in effect, “its ultimate editor.”
For her part, wrote Weiss, “My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views. They have called me a Nazi and a racist; I have learned to brush off comments about how I’m ‘writing about the Jews again.’”
I asked Weiss to explain what had finally made her jump ship. Her response didn’t add much to her resignation letter, noting only that “it’s hard to work in a place where you are being bullied. Enduring it seemed worth it when I could still do my job: commission pieces and write columns that depart from the new orthodoxy. But that ultimately became impossible, too.”
Still, Weiss seems to have been invigorated by her departure. A few days before resigning, she joined another 150 or so public figures in signing a letter published in Harper’s Magazine calling for more tolerance and openness in public debate. On July 31, Bill Maher asked her and Thomas Chatterton Williams – one of initiators of the Harper’s letter – about the dangers of cancel culture. Weiss declared that the new censoriousness went beyond just “punishing the ‘sinner’… for being insufficiently pure.” It is also about “a secondary boycott of people who would deign to speak to that person, or appear on a platform with that person. … If conversation with people that we disagree with becomes impossible, what is the way we solve conflict?”
Writing in The New Republic, Alex Shephard charged that Weiss’ attack on “cancel culture” actually “amounts to auto-cancellation: quitting, then blaming her peers for driving her out.” He then twisted the knife by claiming, “It’s a rhetorical mode that many of her fellow travelers in the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ [a subject Weiss had written about for the Times Magazine] are familiar with.” Did I mention that Weiss pushes certain people’s buttons?
Our correspondence took place while she was on a brief break at the beach in California, where her current partner, Nellie Bowles, a tech reporter for The New York Times, lives. Weiss would say only that she plans to continue “doing journalism. Building institutions that trust Americans enough to tell them the truth, without fear or favor. That’s all I ever wanted to do.”
David B. Green’s Twitter: @davidbeegreen