November 18, 2019

Author Bari Weiss on Fighting Anti-Semitism

Matthew Weiner (left) with Bari Weiss; Courtesy of the Skirball Cultural Center

Author Bari Weiss has a pro-Jewish message for those concerned about anti-Semitism: “This is a time to dig deep into the particulars of who we are,” the New York Times opinion writer and editor said during a Sept. 22 conversation with television producer Matthew Weiner (“Mad Men”) at the Skirball Cultural Center, co-sponsored by Writers Bloc.

Weiss, a Pittsburgh native who now lives in New York, told the audience of 450 that she began writing her first book, “How to Fight Anti-Semitism,” which was released Sept. 10, after last year’s shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in her hometown. 

Contemporary anti-Semitism, she said, comes from “the three-headed dragon” of the far right, the far left and radical Islam. So while she has condemned the white supremacist anti-Semitism that led to the Pittsburgh and Chabad of Poway shootings, Weiss also criticized the Jewish community’s willingness to denounce anti-Semitism on the right while ignoring it on the left.

“It is much easier in our community, in which 75% of Jewish Americans still vote Democrat, to condemn people like [Rep.] Steve King (R-Iowa) than to condemn people like [Rep.] Ilhan Omar,” (D-Minn.), Weiss said. “It is just socially much more difficult and much more complicated for us.”

Weiss went on to say if anti-Semitism from the left often manifests as anti-Zionism, inclusion in liberal, progressive circles is contingent on one’s willingness to “disavow Jewish power, and the most potent symbol of Jewish power is, of course, the State of Israel. So, in a sense, you have to convert to anti-Zionism.”

During the commotion, Skirball Founding President Uri Herscher took a microphone on the side of the stage and said, “I think the conversation is great … but [Weiss’ book] title is ‘How to Fight Anti-Semitism,’ and I think a lot of people came to hear you speak about the book.”

On the issue of intersectionality, Weiss said, “It’s this very smart theory that in practice is terrible,” adding that it creates a caste system that puts Ashkenazi Jews near the bottom, “just above the white, cisgendered, able-bodied tall man.”

“I’ve experienced a lot of anti-Semitism in my life,” Weiner said, describing an incident in which he ran into former classmates from his Los Angeles private high school and was left speechless when the classmate said, “Matt wasn’t a loser in high school. Matt had the misfortune of being born Jewish.”

Weiner said his more pressing challenge today is speaking about Israel to his own children, who see it as a colonialist power. 

At that moment, someone from the audience yelled, “Let [Weiss] talk!” Then a cellphone rang and during the commotion, Skirball Founding President Uri Herscher took a microphone on the side of the stage and said, “I think the conversation is great … but [Weiss’ book] title is ‘How to Fight Anti-Semitism,’ and I think a lot of people came to hear you speak about the book.”

READ MORE: BARI WEISS TALKS ISRAEL LOVE, HANDLING HATERS AND MORE

“Speak for yourself,” someone else called out from the audience.

“I am speaking for myself,” Herscher said.

“I think we are having an extremely Jewish experience,” Weiner quipped. “I would like to ask for pledges now.”

After the event, Weiner told the Journal he was surprised by Herscher’s interruption but nonetheless said, “I am a person very open to all ideas.” 

After order was restored, Weiss, who describes herself as center-left politically and holds pro-Israel views that include criticisms of the Jewish state, went on to speak about her own family’s wrestling with the politics of the day, with her sisters and her mother not allowing their “Trump-curious” father to vote for Donald Trump for president in 2016. 

“We prevented him from voting for Trump, and he wrote [on his ballot] Steph Curry [the NBA star]. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next election, especially if it’s Bernie [Sanders] or Elizabeth Warren [as the Democratic candidate],” Weiss said. “I think a lot of Jews could be writing in Steph Curry.”

Weiss said while she supports Trump’s relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, his scuttling of the Iran nuclear deal and his recognition of Israeli control over the Golan Heights, Trump’s disregard for civil discourse has had a poisonous effect on the country. But she also empathizes with those that don’t see themselves reflected in the current Democratic Party. 

“Trump’s terrible and then people look at what they fear can be happening to the Democratic Party and they feel, ‘This place I thought was my natural political home is no longer hospitable to me,’ ” she said. “‘How can it be hospitable to me when anti-Semitism is now politically survivable?’”

The conversation spotlighted the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which has largely failed to gain traction among elected officials. Despite a recent adoption of an anti-BDS bill in Congress, Weiss said the movement has succeeded because it has misled people about its real aim: the elimination of the State of Israel. 

Turning to the news of the Israeli elections, Weiss predicted that a potential leadership transition would reveal that anti-Zionism is not, as anti-Zionists claim, about disagreeing with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but rather about seeking the destruction of Israel. 

“It’s going to lead to the end of the romance between Trump and the Israeli prime minister,” she said. “It’s going to lead to the end of disgusting race-baiting against the Arab population, which constitutes 22% of the population. Hopefully, it will lead to a loosening of the stranglehold that the rabbinate holds on religious life, but it’s also going to be clarifying. I think … we are going to see the people who claim their problem was Bibi Netanyahu, it wasn’t actually their problem at all. Their problem is with the existence of the State of Israel.”

Asked by an audience member about Jewish students on college campuses who are attracted to progressive groups that delegitimize or demonize Israel, Weiss said, “We need to be offering them something better.” 

Speaking with the Journal after the event, Weiss said, “The most gratifying are the young people I am hearing from, whom I am hearing from every day now, and it’s just amazing. [My book] is reaching the kind of people I want it to reach.”