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NY Times’ Bari Weiss: Liberal-ish Conservative Jew

By Ralph Seliger

NY Times opinion editor and writer, Bari Weiss, has a heart of gold who hits the right notes for most liberal defenders of Israel and Jews — but not necessarily with the right emphasis.  Speaking from the stage of the ornate sanctuary of New York’s Temple Emanu-El, in an event organized by the Streicker Center, its adult educational program, the petite 34-year old journalist drew an enthusiastic response from an enormous crowd listening to her passionate speech and to a  Q & A afterwards with her former boss, Alana Newhouse, Tablet’s editor in chief.  Their subject, “How to Fight Anti-Semitism.”   

Ms. Weiss’s prescription: Don’t shy away from being Jewish, don’t shy away from being Zionist or pro-Israel, and be more involved with the Jewish community and Judaism.  This fits with her upbringing as an active Conservative Jew (in the religious denominational sense), having been bat-mitzvahed in the now tragically-famous Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh where she grew up, and having spent a gap year between high school and college in Israel, in a Conservative movement program. 

She mentioned unhappiness with the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories and Israel’s rightward drift under Netanyahu, even referring to Netanyahu’s recent move on behalf of Kahanist racists.  Yet this was said simply in passing by way of explaining that she’s still a liberal, without the need to give up on her Jewishness or Zionism, as she sees “the left” increasingly demanding of Jews.  I’m with her in this, but I don’t see her adequately confronting the fact that the ongoing injustices inflicted upon Palestinians and the deepening occupation are what’s driving support for the BDS movement and explicit anti-Zionism that sometimes spills into antisemitism from the left. 

When asked by Ms. Newhouse which brand of antisemitism, whether coming from the right or the left is the more dangerous, she identified the kind emanating from the left.  My impression is that most American Jews would agree, but I do not.   Leftwing anti-Zionism, which sometimes shades into antisemitism, is something that she as a public intellectual probably experiences more often than the rightwing variety.  It is most present in forums of culture, the arts and academia.  But rightwing antisemitism may be more threatening in its proximity to power (think of the nether corners of Trump world) and it is more violent in its manifestations — think Charlottesville and the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. 

Weiss goes along with the popular notion that anti-Zionism is fundamentally antisemitic and that supporters of BDS necessarily support Israel’s destruction.  I agree that anti-Zionism in our day is morally shortsighted; at bottom it opposes the existence of an actual nation, but I don’t see it as antisemitic in its intent. 

We give the international BDS movement an easy way out if we dismiss it as antisemitic — as Weiss does; the Palestinian leadership of the movement denies this and doesn’t even explicitly call for Israel’s demise (see its website), although this may be inferred from its demand for an unrestricted “right of return” by millions of Palestinians currently categorized as refugees.  Many if not most BDS supporters around the world (a few even consider themselves Zionist) see it as a strategy to end Israel’s infliction of injustices on Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip — and not as a means of destroying the country. 

Similarly, although I wouldn’t trust them as far as I could throw them, I’m uncomfortable labeling Jeremy Corbyn and his followers in the British Labour party, or Reps. Ilan Omar and Rashida Tlaib in the US, as antisemitic.  (I know that Corbyn and Omar condemn antisemitism, even as they fall into antisemitic tropes at times; I assume that Tlaib is similar.)  Weiss is not so troubled, but she supports dialogue with Rep. Omar and their ilk when they seek dialogue. 

My prescription for battling anti-Zionist or anti-Israel expressions on the left is to emphasize how Zionism was the grassroots movement of an oppressed and endangered people to obtain security and dignity, that it saved up to half a million lives by securing Palestine as a safe haven for Jews who would otherwise have perished, and that there is an entire spectrum from left to right of ideologies and groups that professes Zionism.  And crucially, I would not deny the suffering and wrongs inflicted upon Palestinian Arabs by Israel over the course of its history; at the same time, I’d explain these occurred within the historical context of fighting wars and resisting terrorist attacks aimed at Israel and random Jews.  In other words, wrongdoing has been a two-way street.         

One Response to “NY Times’ Bari Weiss: Liberal-ish Conservative Jew”

  1. SDK
    April 4, 2019 at 12:59 am #

    My issue is that the progressives usually define oppression broadly but they want to define anti-Semitism narrowly. When Jews complain that Israel is being singled out unfairly or that Jewish nationalism is decried while other forms of nationalism are celebrated, we are often told that the people in question have no bias against Jews or against our “religion”.

    Conservatives have no bias against immigrants or black people and they will tell you so openly — they just want everyone to follow the same rules and to speak the same language.
    They just want to protect our police, they just want crime to be taken seriously. To understand why conservatives call something “fair” while progressives call it “racist” you have to look at what it means to ask everyone to follow the same rules when the rules are unfairly written or unfairly applied. In other words, you need context.

    The charge of racism means different things to progressives and conservatives. For conservatives, it means animus. For progressives, it means upholding the status quo given the history that came before it. Progressives understand this about race, they understand this about colonialism, but they fail to understand it about Jews. When they defend themselves against charges of anti-Semitism, they proclaim that they have no animus. But when Jews talk about anti-Semitism — we define it broadly, just like everyone else. We apply that label to things we find threatening, things that lack context, things that we find unfair.

    In theory, you can be against affirmative action, against immigration, against black lives matter, in favor of confederate statues, in favor of stand your ground, nostalgic for the “good things” about the Old South, and tough on crime and not be racist. In theory. In practice, your commitments fail to impress anyone who is looking at racism in context.

    Likewise, if you oppose ethno-religious states but you support the existence of Pakistan … you oppose white settler colonialism but you can’t explain which colonial state the Jews of Iraq are advancing … you support voting rights and first freedoms but have no problem with states like China, Egypt, Iran, Libya Cuba, and Saudi … I’m confused. What is the Left position on Liberia? South Sudan? What about returning all the refugees who took over Taiwan to mainland China, where they belong? Does anyone care about Tibet anymore? Or is that for hippies, while hard Leftists have better things to do with their time? Do a million Muslims in China matter? What about the Muslims in Burma? Where is the left on these issues? Where are the signs at demonstrations? Where are the boycotts? Don’t these conflicts get to the heart of what it means to be a state? Of what it means to say that a state has a religion? That it represents the aspirations of some people but not all?

    In theory, you can hold a consistent position about how states should come into being and then behave. In practice, I don’t see any of this consistency on the left. Instead, what I see is that the left is happy to support people who are targeted and victimized, including Jews. They are also happy to justify all of the many problems that come with holding power, as long as the people holding power were historically oppressed. If two historically oppressed people (India/Pakistan, Africa) are in a conflict, the left shuts up and talks about something else. Except Israel.

    What *is* that, if not animus? Like any other oppressed group, we do not care about intent. I”m sure anti-Zionists are very nice people, they recycle, they save puppies, they want a more just and verdant world. But if they are lying about me and they refuse to see my context, I don’t care about their intent. Tell them to get an analysis that makes some kind of sense. Then let’s talk.

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