(((Semitism))) Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump

  • By Jonathan Weisman
  • St. Martin’s Press
  • 256 pp.

A sincere if incomplete account of a pernicious, age-old prejudice still in play today.

(((Semitism))) Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump

By his own description, Jonathan Weisman was a “son of the South,” raised in the Atlanta suburbs, in a secular household, and intermarried to “the towheaded daughter” of a Wisconsin Pentacostalist.

His lack of Jewish self-identity changed abruptly in 2016, when, after retweeting a Washington Post column by a Jewish neoconservative about the rise of fascism, he found himself targeted online merely for his Jewish-sounding name.

On Twitter, anonymous hatemongers had begun surrounding identifiably Jewish names with three parentheses, a loud dog whistle that exposed their targets to the worst, most vile bigotry, insults, and threats. Until attacked by a troll who called himself “Cyber-Trump,” Weisman was an assimilated Jew “lulled into complacency.”

But then no more.

Immediately in the crosshairs were journalists, and Weisman had a long rap sheet as one, having worked for the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and the New York Times, where he is deputy Washington editor.

Now, in (((Semitism))) Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump, Weisman has sounded a wake-up call to other American Jews who’ve viewed anti-Semitism as something abstract and distant, while also urging them to unite with other threatened groups to combat hate.

Weisman’s cri de coeur is coupled with an indictment of Donald Trump for enabling the haters by encouraging them — sometimes with a wink and a nod, but also with outright rejection of that old-fashioned word “tolerance” — to emerge from the dismal swamp of American politics.

Haters have always been part of American political life, he notes, but they were long regarded as the lunatic fringe and had little voice or impact, preaching to the infernal choir. The Internet has changed that.

Social media (or, more accurately, anti-social media) has amplified their voices and brought them into the mainstream, with the tacit approval of the president of the United States. Suddenly, polite country-club anti-Semitism — of the kind featured in the 1947 film “Gentlemen’s Agreement” — is out, and in-your-face anti-Semitism is in.

Thus, Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, while praising Trump’s economic advisor Gary Cohn on his way out, also calls him a “globalist,” code for the nefarious “international Jew” secretly controlling world events.

A District of Columbia Council member weighs in with a similar trope, suggesting climate is being manipulated by the Rothschilds, the European Jewish banking family slandered for centuries as secretly manipulating, well, just about everything.

To top it off, the Republican Party has nominated a neo-Nazi Holocaust denier, unopposed in the primary, to represent Illinois’ Third U.S. Congressional District.

So, what have most establishment Jewish organizations done in the face of such not-so-subtle anti-Semitism? Not much, according to Weisman. Instead, he asserts, they focus almost singularly on uncritical backing of Israel, as if American Jewish support for the Jewish state, including its right-wing government and settlement policies, were all that mattered. This litmus test on Israel has diverted attention from the increasing threats here at home, he argues.

That the threats are real and growing is documented in the rise of hate crimes, including cemetery vandalism, bomb threats, physical threats against individuals, and swastikas scrawled on synagogues since the 2016 presidential campaign. Weisman cites statistics from the Anti-Defamation League, which recorded 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents last year, an increase of 57 percent over 2016.

In taking on the Alt Right, Weisman also attacks the violent “antifa” Left, which battled with white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia. He draws parallels with the Communist-Nazi clashes in Weimar Germany, but the anti-Alt Right has little to say about anti-Semitism, so it’s unclear what his point is, other than “the resistance” should be peaceful.

Not to minimize the threat of anti-Semitism — otherwise, why write this book? — but Weisman maintains that other minority and marginalized groups are facing far worse. Compared to attacks on Muslim Americans, roundups of undocumented immigrants (mostly Latinos), anti-black violence, and reversals of gay and transgender rights, “anti-Semitism is not the worst affliction…in the Trump era…No one is organizing Marches against Mitzvahs,” he writes, referring to the 613 prescribed good deeds delineated in Jewish law.

“We’re all in this together,” he concludes, with an appeal to Jews and Jewish organizations to stand with others being targeted. The “Save Darfur” signs that were ubiquitous a few years ago in front of American synagogues have been replaced with “We Stand with Israel.”

Instead, Weisman urges a more universal declaration: “We Stand Against Hate.”

The book was published March 20th. In short order, (((Semitism))) was reviewed in the Washington Post, critiqued in Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper, and adapted by the author into a New York Times essay. Weisman has also been interviewed by the Jewish Forward and by Terry Gross on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air.” Four days after publication, (((Semitism))) was number two on Amazon’s bestseller list in the political-advocacy category.

Now divorced from his Christian wife, Weisman mentions his new Jewish girlfriend and his membership in an independent Jewish congregation in Washington’s Maryland suburbs, to which, he said on “Fresh Air,” he no longer belongs.

Ethnically and religiously, though, he seems to have found his place. Clearly, he has found his voice. But has he found a sense of peace and security? Not really. Ironically, he has been busy fending off Jewish criticism.

His book has certainly stirred controversy. It has been attacked for its nearly exclusive focus on the anti-Semitism of the Alt Right, while eliding over the anti-Semitism of the Left that, in its pro-Palestinian stance, has often conflated Jews and Judaism with unqualified support for Israel.

The Israel obsession of major American Jewish organizations has fed into this virulent strain, but critics are quick to point out that many American Jews are actively supporting Black Lives Matter, lobbying for gun control, and fighting back against the forces of fascism.

Weisman could have anticipated the criticism and been more balanced had he acknowledged such efforts and recognized that American Jews are far from monolithic in their views on Israel. Nor have many American Jews pulled their punches in joining with other groups in fighting bigotry in this country. He gives short shrift to activist groups such as Jews United for Justice and others. But Weisman seems less interested in Jewish activism in other spheres than he is concerned with Jewish mainstream myopia when it comes to Israel.

There is no doubt, as he well documents, that vicious anti-Semitism from the Alt Right is on the rise and, through the unchecked channels of the Internet, has gone viral, literally infecting the political mainstream.

His response is this book, and, in an apparent act of defiance, he has embraced the trolls’ echo, identifying himself on Twitter as (((JonathanWeisman))), and, with a bit of promotional flair, making (((SEMITISM))) his header picture.

Eugene L. Meyer, a former longtime Washington Post reporter and editor, is a member of the board of the Washington Independent Review of Books, a contributing editor for Bethesda Magazine, and the editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine. His book Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army will be published this spring by Chicago Review Press and is available for pre-order.

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