After originating in Egypt, Judeophobia has been maintained as a fashion by such discrepant forces as medieval Christianity and modern Islam. In the 20th century, virulent forms of the virus broke out in the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church (the former being in sympathy with fascism and the latter blessing the execrable Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion that is the source of many conspiracy theories relating to the Jews, which were later reproduced in Hamas’s charter). In its various permutations, anti-Semitism has conscripted the Jew as a nefarious partisan and practitioner of capitalism and, alternately, of Bolshevism. (As Marx proved, not even being born a Jew according to the strict matrilineal principles of Jewish law is a guarantee against indulging this primitive stupidity.) Jews have been portrayed as vicious race contaminators as well as an all-powerful tribe standing apart from society. Anti-Semitism is not, in other words, a run-of-the-mill prejudice akin to racism against, say, “black” Africans. Rather, in the words of the historian Peter Hayes, it is “a kind of superstition” that conceives of a universal conspiracy in which the Jews are the sinister vanguard.
How to Fight Anti-Semitism focuses more on present than past manifestations of this “disease of the mind,” as Weiss dubs it, in echo of the historian Paul Johnson. The primary targets of her sharp pen are not the Gospel of John or even Marxist revolutionaries (it’s not for nothing that the German socialist August Bebel described anti-Semitism as the socialism of fools). Anti-Semitism has spread and mutated, appearing in the guise of a modern theocratic fascism while also poisoning diverse political movements in the West.
As Weiss is fully aware, her book is most apt to court controversy by providing a political guide to these fresh outbreaks of anti-Semitism. She begins rather dauntingly by noting that Jews in the West, especially in Europe, are confronted by a “three-headed dragon.” First, there is an antagonistic environment for Jews, thanks in large measure to the rapid growth of Islamism on the Old Continent. Second, there is ideological vilification by the political Left, which increasingly regards Israel as an illegitimate state serving no other purpose than as a bastion of Western (read: white) colonialism. Third, there is a recrudescence of reactionary populism on the political right that, while often professing sympathy for Israel, evinces a fervent commitment to blood-and-soil politics that seldom ends well for Jews.
Not everybody will agree with Weiss’s portrait of the hydra-headed enemy, which itself points to part of the problem. The tribal impulse in our political life has grown so pronounced that it has overwhelmed a common civic culture, rendering many classical liberals politically homeless. There is a well-oiled habit among the political class and in the press of excusing obvious, often deplorable, transgressions by one’s “own” side. The acid test for fighting anti-Semitism, as with so many other derangements, is to face it down with equal enthusiasm and commitment when it flares up on one’s team — or, better yet, to be more discriminating about which team one belongs to in the first place.
The true anti-Semite is easy enough to spot on the lunatic fringe, but it’s another matter if you’re not aware of the existence of plural lunatic fringes. Most children of the Enlightenment have been trained to discern this toxic ideology when religious fanatics inveigh against the Jews’ supposed responsibility for the murder of Christ or when voices of the “alt-right” curse the Jews for deriving from the racial gutter. But symptoms of the toxin are no less definitive when one hears of an occult world government whose “lobby” distorts U.S. foreign policy and global financial markets, or is treated to the filthy argument that, in its methods of warfare against Hamas — a terrorist organization as well as a regime based in large measure on the desire to stamp international Jewry out of existence — the Israel Defense Forces have taken a leaf from Hitler’s book.
As the Democratic party’s center of gravity has moved sharply to the left in recent years, the anti-imperialist mindset has gained traction, attributing the ills of the Middle East to British and French (and, latterly, Israeli and American) power. This political evolution has been exemplified by the now-famous freshman congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who have brought critical (if maladroit) scrutiny to bear against the U.S.-Israel alliance. Another member of “the Squad,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has openly consorted with Jeremy Corbyn of Britain’s Labour party, a fellow traveler with Islamist movements whose tenure as Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition has been marred by one anti-Semitic scandal after another.
At its worst, this mindset is prone to detecting arcane Jewish manipulations behind all earthly power. More commonly, the insurgent progressive perspective masquerades as merely anti-Zionist, conceiving of Jews as part of the coalition of the oppressor while Israel, “the Jew among the nations,” is treated with frenzied derision. In addition to being indicted as the sole party responsible for the conflict with the Palestinians, and therefore almost entirely to blame for their miserable plight, Israel is portrayed as a uniquely malevolent force in the world. The dramatic rise of the BDS movement (deemed by the German Bundestag, not unjustifiably, as anti-Semitic) across the West today capably demonstrates that these vicious and extreme detractors of the Zionist entity are on the march.
This palpable and supercharged hostility has taken by surprise many liberal Zionists — as appears to have been the case for Weiss — who are given to assuming that the Left instinctively takes the side of the underdog, the immigrant, and the outsider. Although the Left has largely come by this reputation honestly, it does little good for Jews, who, despite being the principal target of hate crimes in the United States and most of Europe, scarcely qualify as an oppressed minority in the eyes of today’s Left. Weiss is keen to announce and decry progressives’ evolving hierarchy of privilege, whereby Zionists (i.e., the vast majority of worldwide Jewry) generally occupy the top rung as defenders of a colonial state embodying the “white man’s burden.” (This narrative seldom accounts for the Mizrahi Jews, more than half of Israel’s population, whose roots lie in the Middle East.)
The progressive temper does not merely direct suspicion and ire toward Israel and all its works but shows every sign of failing to recognize an enemy even when it meets one. The mainstream Left is proving increasingly blind to the clear and present danger posed by Islamist ideology and, worse, often lends aid and comfort to its cause. This vile tendency crops up regularly, but two prominent examples include the Southern Poverty Law Center (which designated the liberal Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz an “anti-Muslim extremist” and was later compelled to pay damages) and the Women’s March (whose unscrupulous leaders Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour embraced the anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan).
Weiss does not make the common mistake of conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. This has always been a self-refuting standard, since, as Weiss reminds us, the earliest anti-Zionists to scorn Theodor Herzl’s dream of der judenstaat were themselves Jewish (not only the left-wing critics of Palestinian-Arab dispossession but the Orthodox sects that regarded Jewish political sovereignty prior to the arrival of the messiah as blasphemous). Incidentally, some Zionists have also been quite nasty anti-Semites, including British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour whose famous 1917 declaration “viewed with favor” a Jewish home in the mandate of Palestine in order to empty Britain of its Jewish population.
Nor does Weiss argue that stinging dissent from the Israeli government, let alone a harmlessly critical HBO mini-series, constitutes anti-Semitism, or even anti-Zionism. Nonetheless, it has become difficult in practice to disentangle anti-Semitism from anti-Zionism, given that manifestations of both often share the purpose of demonization and delegitimization of the only Jewish state. (By contrast, try to imagine, if you can, a movement of similar breadth and depth aimed against another “faith-based” state, Pakistan, that was similarly cobbled together out of rival ethno-religious nationalisms amid the collapsing British imperial order in 1947.)
Weiss shrewdly analogizes modern anti-Zionism to the situation of a young couple weighing whether to have a child. All of the credible and practical concerns fall away once they have the baby, or else the parents are behaving immorally. Such is the case today, when the State of Israel is an established fact. To have questioned or opposed the project of building a Jewish state in the Jews’ ancestral homeland before the U.N. Partition Plan of 1947 is one thing. It is quite another to endorse tearing down that living, breathing state today, in full knowledge of the enormity that would ensue. The offense here is compounded when those agitating to make Israel a pariah state demonstrate little knowledge or concern about formulating and executing a strategy to confront bellicose regimes and militant Islamist groups that imperil the Jewish state and the civilized world.
In addition to being more diffuse than many imagine, the lunatic fringe is also thicker than is generally understood. Weiss is justly concerned by the spike in violence against Jews and other minorities from the identitarian right and about the grisly ideology behind it. After some years of dormancy, in August 2017 it flared into the open in Charlottesville when a “Unite the Right” rally of white supremacists gathered at the University of Virginia to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Carrying tiki torches, these doughy goons shouted the slogans: “Blood and soil,” “White Lives Matter,” and, in a nod to the ancient anti-Semitic notion of the Jew as the evil puppeteer, “Jews will not replace us.” Lest we forget, President Trump’s reflexive response to this wicked nonsense was to put in a good word for such “very fine people.”
Weiss’s handling of the ugly movement known as the “alt-right” is fairly comprehensive, and the reader emerges on guard against this ethno-religious movement in our midst. She is also alert to the threat posed by unsavory authoritarian populists across the West who, though generally willing to dispel any impression of being motivated by racism, aim to turn their societies away from the liberal tradition. In either of these guises, the chauvinist Right tends to regard Muslims as the “other” and casts Israel (in Weiss’s wry description) as a “kind of anti-Muslim Sparta” rather than a pluralist democracy preserving its Jewish character even under existential threat.
The longer Israel and America remain in the saddle of populist nationalism, the more this crude description of Israel risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. (As Weiss must know, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank will eventually become all but irrevocable, at which point the Zionist project will cease to be recognizable as a democratic Jewish state.) Stuck in a defensive crouch, Israel’s conservative partisans in both countries tend to dismiss liberal scruples about the Israeli government’s innumerable follies and injustices. They cheer Prime Minister Netanyahu’s no-holds-barred posture against the Left, and the actions taken in self-defense against a militant Sunni gang in Gaza and a swelling “Shiite crescent” across Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. These conservatives also cite the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, among other items, as reason to embrace Trump for being in the running for “the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House.”
Among Zionists, Weiss helpfully distinguishes between “the David people and the Goliath people.” The former think that Zion is always under siege, that any Israeli weakness will be exploited by its enemies, and that most other considerations are secondary. The latter think that Israel has accumulated such a preponderance of power that its vulnerability has been greatly diminished, and that illiberal aspects of Israel’s character (consider last year’s Jewish nation-state law that privileges Israel’s sectarian features over its secular pluralist claims) are sapping precious legitimacy at home and abroad. Weiss’s conclusion that each of these tendencies contains partial truths is fair enough as far as it goes, which is not far enough. In reality, the difference cannot be so evenly split.
As long as the political Right believes Israel’s society and government require an unqualified defense, the David people cannot be acquitted on the charge of loving the Jewish state “not wisely, but too well.” By refusing to hold Israel to its own standards as an exemplar of liberal democracy, such ostensible friends are rendering a grave disservice to the Zionist cause. Weiss can hardly be counted among them. She posits that “supporting Israel . . . means demanding that Israel live up to its ideals,” but never gets around to spelling out just what those ideals dictate in relation to the pressing need to reach a decent accommodation with the Palestinians. To be fair, Weiss does mention in passing the settlement enterprise as a valid point of criticism of Israel, and not a species of the phenomenon that is her subject. What’s more, she registers a genuine sense of “despair” when observing Palestinians waiting at checkpoints, and says that Palestinian suffering in the course of occupation constitutes a “stain” on her Jewish soul.
Nonetheless, the dogma of a “chosen people” has enabled a strident intolerance among many of Weiss’s coreligionists that demands a more thoroughgoing critique than it receives in How to Fight Anti-Semitism. This is not because anti-Semitism is a response to the behavior of Jews (it absolutely is not). Rather, Israel’s “accidental empire” of systematic land seizure in biblical Judea and Samaria is premised on a “civilization state” model of nationalism profoundly at odds with the liberal ideal that will render the case for Israel increasingly toxic.
Many years ago, Yehoshua Leibowitz, the editor of the Encyclopaedia Hebraica, warned of a “Judeo-Nazi” tendency among the messianic settlers who moved onto the occupied West Bank after 1967. One need not go that far to recognize that Israel’s defensive occupation of the post-1967 territories has unloosed a xenophobic current that not only serves to deprive Palestinians of their rights and sovereignty, but also cements sectarian and racist feelings within Israel proper. (To instance one example, courtesy of the Israel Democracy Institute, 70 percent of Jewish Israelis now oppose appointing Arab Israelis to cabinet posts.)
Weiss appears more panicked by the related matter of Israel’s new nationalist allies (e.g., Victor Orbán’s government in Hungary) who are self-proclaimed illiberal democrats and give off more than a whiff of anti-Semitism. Weiss also passionately criticizes the rabbinate’s suffocating influence among Israeli Jews, and scorches Netanyahu’s unfathomably crude move to pull the racist party Otzma Yehudit into his governing coalition. This is all to the good, but the failure to offer a straightforward denunciation of Israel’s occupation of land claimed and inhabited by Palestinians is a baffling omission in a book about fighting anti-Semitism — again, not because Jewish settlement beyond the Green Line is in any way related to anti-Semitism, but because it weakens Israel’s moral defenses when it needs them most.
If the populist-nationalist view of Israel continues to dominate the right side of the ballot in both Israel and America, and if that view continues to command electoral majorities, it will help vindicate the Left’s suspicion that Israel is in essence an ethnocracy, or will soon evolve into one. As progressive politics lurches to the left, the Israeli Right will find new support in subverting democratic institutions and entrenching the occupation. In place of a smaller, plucky Israel punching above its weight against fearsome enemies while upholding a laudable multiethnic democracy, the cycle of dueling left and right populisms risks helping to foster a Greater Israel that loses sight of the liberal Zionism that birthed it. If this comes to pass, it will be a moral and political catastrophe, no matter where America’s embassy in Israel is situated.
As I turned the final page of How to Fight Anti-Semitism, my mind returned to a vignette that Weiss had earlier extracted from Joachim Fest’s memoir of growing up in interwar Berlin, Not I. Fest recalls his father, a pious Catholic and adamant anti-Nazi, begging his Jewish friends to leave Hitler’s Germany before it was too late. Fest’s father heaped praise on those in this dark time who resolutely persisted in classifying themselves “German citizens of Jewish faith”: “In their self-discipline, their quiet civility and unsentimental brilliance, they had really been the last Prussians.” They had “only one failing,” he said, “which became their undoing: being overwhelmingly governed by their heads, they had, in tolerant Prussia, lost their instinct for danger, which had preserved them through the ages.”