Spoiler alert: in the end of Bari Weiss's book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism (Crown, Sept.), she writes that Jews can combat the rise in hatred and violence against them by being even prouder, out-in-the-open, practicing Jews. Sometimes, that means they'll feel alone in hostile spaces, other times it will give them courage to be among their own people in the face of hatred.
"My dad was talking to this really incredible man who lives in Pittsburgh," Weiss tells PW. "He was a Holocaust survivor and was asking about my book. He said to my dad, 'There's a very simple answer to how to fight it. It's called be a better Jew.' "I think that there's a lot of wisdom in that."
In fact, it was concern for her father that prompted Weiss, an opinion writer for the New York Times, to write this latest book in what is turning into an unfortunate subgenre—authors trying to explain the reasons behind the worldwide rise in anti-Semitism and what to do about it.
Weiss had originally been commissioned by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House, to write an entirely different book. However, on October 27, 2018, a white supremacist killed eleven people and injured seven at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, and everything changed for Weiss. It was the same synagogue from which she became a Bat Mitzvah in 1997, and her father still often goes there.
"My immediate thought was, 'Please, God, I hope my dad is not there.'" Thankfully, he wasn't. But this instance of violent anti-Semitism made it clear to her that there was nowhere else she could be at that moment, and there was no other topic she could write about at this time in history. "So I came home to Pittsburgh and I spent the week bearing witness to my community," Weiss said. “I don't know if I've had a more transformative week in my life... This needed to be the book that I wrote."
Gillian Blake, editor-in-chief at Crown, says she was very receptive to Weiss’s request that she write a different book than the one originally planned.
“Last fall I signed Bari up to write a book about identity politics,” Blake tells PW. "When she called me a few months later to say she needed to write a book on anti-Semitism first, I wasn’t at all surprised—and quickly acquired it. Bari’s argument is urgent, fresh, passionate and convincing, and I believe she has the ability to bring all kinds of readers to a new understanding about anti-Semitism.”
The book was practically being written in real time as news was happening. When President Trump attacked freshman U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, telling them to go back where they came from, Weiss knew she needed to include that in the book. “That to me was just such an obvious re-appropriation of the idea of provisional belonging and dual loyalty that has been weaponized so often against Jews," Weiss says.
Addressing the marginalization of these two congresswomen is problematic for the Jewish community, though. Reps. Omar and Tlaib have also questioned Jews' loyalty to the U.S., and their criticism of Israel has sometimes strayed into repeating anti-Semitic tropes. And when an on-again, off-again planned trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories was planned by the congresswomen, it presented a case study in Jews being caught in the middle of extremist rhetoric on all sides, especially for progressive Jews.
“Someone can be both a target of bigots and racists and lunatics, as Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are, and they can also believe deeply disturbing things themselves, this is something I think is very important that I point out in the book.”
Progressive Jews are sometimes forced into very uncomfortable positions when criticizing Omar and Tlaib, since they are considered progressive heroes in other ways. When anti-Semitism comes from the far right, Weiss says, it's usually very blunt. They hate Jews and will say so, sometimes violently as in the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre. "But some Jews find themselves tongue-tied or scared to speak out when the threat comes from the far left."
Here's where the "how-to" part of Weiss's book comes into play. The important thing is to "call out" anti-Semitism no matter where it comes from, whether from the left or the right. If it comes from your own political point of view, it may be hard, but necessary.
And, Weiss says, now that Jews are closing ranks as a result of resurgent anti-Semitism, and even those who are not religious are feeling more Jewish because of the threat of anti-Semitism, all can revisit what their Jewish identity means to them. One of Weiss's goals is to learn to speak better Hebrew. "I think that we’re in a precarious moment, but a moment with tremendous potential and opportunity," she says.