Neither of the authors of two new books on trying to understand and combat present-day anti-Semitism had planned to write them.
Bari Weiss, a relatively new lightning rod at The New York Times’ Opinion Page, was excited to dig into a completely different topic for her first book. And Keith Kahn-Harris, a sociologist in London whose expertise is British Jewry, prefers to write about Jews living Jewish lives rather than anti-Semites, who he notes are usually not Jews.
But then Weiss, 35, author of “How to Fight Anti-Semitism,” opened a text message from her youngest sister on October 27, 2018: A live shooter was in the synagogue where their father prayed. Her father was not there that morning, but 11 other Jewish worshippers were gunned down by a white supremacist during Shabbat prayers in the tight-knit neighborhood where she grew up in Pittsburgh.
For Kahn-Harris, 47, author of “Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity,” his sixth book, the impetus were the accusations of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party after the election of far-left Jeremy Corbyn as its head in 2015.
For both writers, these events represent historical turning points in how anti-Semitism plays out in their home countries and abroad. Both also look at how anti-Semitism has evolved on the fringes of the political right and left. Where Weiss arguably has a more polemical approach — calling out both far-left and far-right anti-Semitism as dangerous, albeit in different ways — Kahn-Harris focuses more on examining what he calls “the bafflingly complex societies” we live in today — the ones in which our old ideas of what anti-Semitism means no longer hold.
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“When you study anti-Semitism, you are not studying Jews. At least not historically speaking,” Kahn-Harris tells Haaretz. “But in the last few years, that has changed radically in Britain, whereby Jewish divisions and Jewish factionalism [particularly post-Corbyn’s election] is part and parcel of any attempt to understand anti-Semitism today.” The new book felt like a direct follow-up, he says, to his 2016 book “Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community.”
According to Kahn-Harris, some people on the right — for example, supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump — are enamored of right-wing, pro-Israel Jews but hostile toward progressive Jews, and vice versa: “We have yet to come to terms with the fact that loving one kind of Jew does not make it impossible to hate another kind. We are used to hating all Jews being the ‘consensus’ anti-Semitism.”
Weiss, meanwhile, warns that the sense of security most American Jews had taken for granted is slipping away. “I feel like I’m seeing [anti-Semitism] everywhere, in places I never expected,” she says. “News flash: We will never get rid of it. But to me it is so clear that societies that are able to promote liberal values — not liberal in a partisan way, but in a classically and broadly defined way — that is the best-case scenario for Jews and for all minorities. But we are moving rapidly away from that.”
Deborah E. Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, is very familiar with the landscape of contemporary anti-Semitism both in the United States and the United Kingdom. Both are addressed in her new book “Antisemitism: Here and Now.” It’s not that left-wing anti-Semitism is worse than right-wing anti-Semitism, or vice versa, she tells Haaretz. “Let’s not get into a food fight. They are both bad: On the left it is more institutionalized, and on right there is violence. And if you ignore either one, you are doing yourself a disservice.”
No apologist for the right
Weiss runs readers through pivotal moments in the history of anti-Semitism (blaming the Jews for the spread of the bubonic plague; the Spanish Inquisition; the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia) before settling in to chapters devoted to anti-Semitism within the political left and right and radical Islam.
She connects overlapping sentiments of casting Jews as the “Other” on the fringes of both left and right political circles. She writes: “On the far right, Jews are condemned as internationalists, disparaged for being insufficiently white and for refusing to renounce universalist values. This anti-Semitism is an anti-globalism that regurgitates many of the oldest anti-Semitic tropes even as it pretends to be fervently pro-Israel.”
Weiss then describes the far left, which, she argues in the book, “denies Jewish peoplehood and our right to self-determination by treating Israel as a uniquely diabolical state. Anti-Zionist anti-Semitism cloaks itself in the language of progressive values — standing up for the downtrodden, protecting the underdog — even as anti-Zionists make common cause with some of the most regressive ideologies and regimes on Earth. Both types position the Jews as a people apart, a people arrayed against the interests of ‘the people.’”
Weiss also addresses what she describes as the “double bind in which American Jews are caught” within the extremes on the political spectrum: “They are at once white and nonwhite; the handmaidens of white supremacy and the handmaidens of immigrants and people of color; in league with the oppressed and in league with the oppressor.”
Since her days as an activist at New York’s Columbia University, Weiss has faced wrath from progressives for calling out what she sees as hypocritical treatment of Israel. But she says she has been surprised by the pushback to some of the arguments in her book about the threat posed by far-left anti-Semitism and accusations that she has in turn downplayed the threat of the far right.
As for the allegations of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party under Corbyn’s leadership, she says: “I would say you have to have a profound lack of imagination not to imagine where left anti-Semitism going unchecked can go. All you have to do is look at England, and are those people going to suggest to me that is acceptable? That is not a threat to democracy and culture? I’m at a loss with some of the people who say it is unimportant simply because it functions differently [than far-right anti-Semitism], because it is physically less violent.”
Weiss’ book makes clear she is no apologist for the right, and she has plenty to say about the dog-whistling of Trump and the toxicity it has spread. “Donald Trump’s campaign and his election empowered the far right to come out of the shadows,” she says.
She also blames America’s gun culture. “If you combine lack of shame and the anonymity of the internet with the easy access of automatic weapons and what was unacceptable now moving into the mainstream, you will get a reality like the one we are increasingly living in,” she says.
To her left-wing critics, she also has this to say: “I have no question about the evil of white supremacy and the violence it inspires. I have to say I am baffled by those who say I’m somehow blind to it or soft on it. I don’t know how I can say it any more clearly. But I am not going to pretend that the people assaulting ultra-Orthodox Jews right now on the streets of Brooklyn are white supremacists. And I am not going to pretend there are not young Muslim men attacking Jews on the streets of Paris. Would that we were only dealing with one of these threats.”
Weiss notes that when perpetrators of anti-Semitism have also been subjected to bigotry themselves, it is much, much more difficult to call them out for it, “because who would want to contribute in any way to stoking further bigotry against such individuals or groups? I think this is largely why there has been a conspiracy of silence about slow-rolling, pogrom-like violence that is taking place in Brooklyn — it has not become a national story in any way.”
She recounts the anti-Semitic incidents that took place in New York in recent weeks: one Jew was beaten with a paving stone, another was attacked with a belt, a synagogue’s windows were smashed and a young Jewish woman had her head covering pulled off.
“Where’s the outcry?” asks Weiss. “Somehow it’s acceptable to attack these Jews. Why? Because they are ultra-Orthodox? Let’s be honest. If this were happening to Reform Jews on the Upper West Side, there would be a different response.”
The view from Britain
Kahn-Harris’ book was originally supposed to be called “How to Hate a Jew Without Being Anti-Semitic,” he writes in it, only slightly tongue-in-cheek. The concept taps into the book’s thesis: There is choosing — or “selective anti-racism” — going on within elements of the British left, and increasingly on the right as well. Within anti-Semitism, this means the embrace of anti-Zionist Jews on the far left, and right-wing pro-Israel Jews on the far right. (He also gives a lecture called “Choose Your Jew” on the subject.)
He argues that within the British right, this selectivity is an import from the American evangelical right, which supports a far-right version of Israel, one they see as a check on Islamic fundamentalism. “Anti-Semitism is seen as zero-sum game — you point to a certain type of Jew who is loved by a particular person, therefore that person cannot be anti-Semitic and that’s the new kind of racism,” he tells Haaretz.
In turn, Kahn-Harris writes in his book that leaders of Jewish organizations have to rethink their roles. “Often, this kind of selective love is what put us in a precarious position,” he tells Haaretz, “because first of all that selective love for a certain set of Jews is part of a disdain for another type of Jew and can go together with racism for a different minority.
“At times it is politically confusing,” Kahn-Harris continues. “I think what it means to insist on our inconvenience — to be wary, and to think very carefully before giving awards at Jewish community charities to those who friendships might not be real love.”
He cites as an example an event earlier this year when then-British Prime Minister Theresa May was feted at a gathering of the Board of Deputies (the main organization representing British Jewry). She told the audience she would always have the back of the Jewish community. “But this is a woman personally responsible for the ‘hostile environment policy’ for which people are being deported after decades living in Britain, making life intolerable for immigrants,” Kahn-Harris contends. “She should not be given a night off from her racist policies.”
Jewish supporters of Corbyn, he claims, are guilty of this as well. “Because Corbyn has a strong affection for Jewish, secular, radical, non-Zionist political tradition, that is not a problem. But the Jews he loves should say: ‘You love us. But what about the Zionist Jews? What about them?’”
He acknowledges the difficulty of pursuing this kind of politics, which tirelessly calls out injustice — whether it’s against other minority groups or fellow Jews. But he says it is essential, because if no one takes action, things will get worse: “It will be impossible to oppose anti-Semitism at all and it will make anti-racism coalitions and anti-Semitic coalitions impossible.”
He believes anti-Semitism in left-wing circles in the United States has not descended to the level of Britain yet, but sees the allegation of anti-Semitism that emerged during the lead-up to the most recent Women’s March as emblematic of things getting worse.
“I think this is bigger than Jews and Israel or the Palestinians — it’s about the wider issue of difficulties of collaboration and getting on with each other today,” says Kahn-Harris. “We have to look at the tech and online revolution and its impact: We cannot have illusions about who people are anymore.”
In the pre-internet days, we simply knew less about each other’s views. They were not out on full display on social media, “And that certain kind of ignorance oils the wheels of society. And now we are struggling to cooperate because we know so much more than we did before,” he says, adding: “It’s impossible not to notice the depth of Jewish connection to Israel,” or the ties of black activists to figures like Louis Farrakhan, who compared Jews to insects.
“You see in this anti-Semitism controversy in the U.K. [surrounding Corbyn] a desperate search to say: ‘This person is anti-Semitic, or this person is not,’” says Kahn-Harris. “Which is how human beings work — in this case, based on the assumption that anti-Semitism is hateful of all Jews and entirely consistent, which is true some of the time, but not also.”
Kahn-Harris also sees the experiences of British and American Jews converge as they try to make sense of what anti-Semitism means today: “Even if the situation in both Britain and America is vastly better now than it has to been historically, both in Britain and America we got very used to a very benign environment, which may prove to be an exception rather than rule.”