NY Times’ Bari Weiss: Liberal-ish Conservative Jew

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 in labeling them as antisemitic, but she supports dialogue with Rep. Omar and her 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.