WASHINGTON — It all started with a Tweet. It was May 2016, the middle of a US presidential campaign dirtier than most. And Donald Trump, then the Republican nominee, had thrust the United States into a political tailspin.
One day, Jonathan Weisman, deputy Washington editor of The New York Times, did what he does on most days: He shared an article on Twitter.
But his sharing this article — the neocon Robert Kagan’s Washington Post column warning that Trump’s rise was “how fascism comes to America” — unleashed something he could hardly have predicted.
Within a day, his Twitter account was flooded with anti-Semitic vitriol, from anonymous trolls calling him a “kike” to others sending him pictures that superimposed his face on an Auschwitz prisoner.
The abuse was so intense that Weisman left Twitter for awhile, and the Anti-Defamation League convened a task force to study the growing trend of Jewish journalists being targeted with anti-Semitic abuse.
Recently, anti-Semitism has re-entered the national consciousness: According to the ADL, anti-Semitic incidents in the US jumped 57 percent from 2016 to 2017.
Whether through the public emergence of the alt-right, a spate of bomb threats called into Jewish institutions throughout the country, a white-supremacist rally that turned violent, or, according to Weisman, the ascendance of a man who “ran the most anti-Semitic presidential campaign in American history,” the world’s oldest form of hatred has crept out of the shadows again.
That is the subject of Weisman’s new book “(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump,” which tries to unpack the currents behind a rise of anti-Jewish hatred in the United States.
Part memoir and part scholarship, “(((Semitism)))” draws its title from one of Weisman’s early revelations. The triple parentheses — referred to as an echo — are an anti-Semitic emblem that alt-right bigots used during the campaign to identify Jewish names they would target.
After the website Mic published a piece explaining this tactic, Weisman said he “realized that this is actually a fairly sophisticated and organized effort.”
One of the book’s main points — the part that’s drawn rebuke from US Jewish leaders — is that America’s organized Jewish community hasn’t put up its own sophisticated and organized effort to combat anti-Semitism. He specifically singles out the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federations of North America.
But while he says, generically, that these groups need to be doing more, some have argued that what his book lacks are prescriptions for what they should actually be doing.
In a recent interview with The Times of Israel, Weisman discussed this and some of his other concerns, including his contention, to which he devotes an entire chapter, that American Jewish leaders are too obsessed with Israel. Below is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.
A lot of ink has been spilled on anti-Semitism in the last couple years. What made you decide to write a book about this now?
Because I thought there was some urgency in reminding people what was happening, what had happened during the election, and that just because some of the online attacks had died down, there was a lot of ferment going on in the white-nationalist movement, both in the United States and around the world. And there didn’t seem to be an organized response to it.
Jewish leaders have pushed back on that part. What’s your response to their response?
I would draw a distinction between what the big mainline Jewish organizations in the massive glass edifices in New York are doing and what some of the smaller upstart organizations are doing.
The smaller groups are most definitely in the trenches, working not just to condemn anti-Semitism, but teaming with Muslim, Latino and African-American groups, as well as churches and mosques, to try to create a unified front against white nationalism.
I would still say that, protests aside, the large mainline Jewish organizations are focused predominantly on Israel. Beyond arguing at me, they haven’t really made much of an effort in this area.
Let’s come back to Israel, but what could they be doing — or what should they be doing — to make more of an effort in this area?
There are actually efforts by individuals and small groups to try to combat online hate, to reach out to law enforcement officials, local police stations, and coach people on how to protect themselves when they’re under attack. Those people or groups are really stretched, some of them are shutting down because they just don’t have the resources, and I don’t see a lot of outreach to these kinds of efforts.
I think that people should be more outspoken. You know, I had a friend who I hadn’t heard from in a while, and when the book came out, he called me. He’s on the American Jewish Committee board. He said, “I know that the AJC is going to push back on you” — and they have — “but I’ve always been struck by the dissonance of their response, because this has been so caught up in tribal politics and they don’t want to look like they are somehow opposing their conservative members or their conservative donors.”
But, as I’ve said a thousand times, this isn’t about liberal or conservative, this isn’t about Republican or Democrat, this is about standing up for American institutions.
One of your big criticisms of American Jewish institutions is that they’re too preoccupied with Israel, at the expense of neglecting rising anti-Semitism here at home.
I feel that Israel is the common denominator for Jewish organizations. It’s where you can raise more money, where you can avoid offending people on domestic policy issues. Politics can be very heated in the United States, but the one issue that unites Democrats and Republicans is our support for Israel, so that is the simplest way to focus your organization.
So mainline Jewish organizations’ outreach efforts on domestic policy in the United States — on education and social welfare and inter-religious, inter-ethnic outreach — have diminished as their focus has moved toward Israel.
I’m not suggesting that we can’t think about American Jewish attitudes toward Israel, but I do think that for so many Jewish organizations, Israel has become the dominant theme.
I think the American Jewish argument, the incessant argument over Israeli politics, is one reason why the alt-right snuck up on us and why suddenly there’s this wave of white nationalism that we think came out of nowhere.
You detail in your book how the alt-right emerged as a force during the campaign, although they had been around for awhile. How do you think they are doing now? You say that they are seizing the free speech debate in a pernicious way.
The alt-right has been a brewing force since the late years of the Bush administration. It really grew out of the Iraq war and the collapse of the financial system. That was 2008. The fact that it took eight years for people to really notice is a remarkable testament to how little we were watching.
But the rising alt-right — the white-nationalist movement — has actually made free speech their issue. They’ve created whole language around “special snowflakes” and “triggering” and such that they’ve decided that any kind of defense of self is an attack on their right to speak out. It is their view that all speech is protected no matter how vitriolic or contemptible, and they provoke it.
When these alt-right figures like a Richard Spencer go to Berkeley or Michigan State or college campuses all over the country, they’re trying to get a response. They’re trying to get massive protests or rioting just so they can get to say, “See I’m having my free speech impinged on.” And actually it’s one of the great challenges we face right now because there are times to fight back and there are times to ignore. When Richard Spencer is going to a university campus, I wish that everybody would just turn their backs and ignore him, because that is where he really is just trying to provoke a response.
You mention flatly in the book that Donald Trump ran “the most anti-Semitic campaign in American history.” He’s obviously had other complications, shall we say, since he’s been president: the Holocaust day statement with no mention of Jews, his saying “fine people” were marching with neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. What do you make of the relationship the organized Jewish community has had with him?
There has been a a remarkable dissonance, which stems in part from his policy to Israel. There has been a tolerance of intolerance in Washington, because, “Hey! Donald Trump just moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem! Donald Trump made Israel one of the first foreign stops of his presidency!”
Israel has become a salve for all of the other things that otherwise might have grabbed our attention. It really took Charlottesville for organized Jewry to begin speaking out.
Go back to the summer of 2016. When was the moment, after you shared the Kagan piece, when you realized you were being targeted to a level you never imagined possible?
Within a day. Mic are the ones who discovered the existence of the coincidence indication, this Google plug-in piece of software that could search out the three parentheses. When Mic wrote its article about that, I realized that this is actually a fairly sophisticated and organized effort to target Jews in general and Jewish journalists specifically.
But it was really only when the Anti-Defamation League released its report [on the targeting of Jewish journalists] that I realized how organized it was, and that it was being orchestrated largely by two men at The Daily Stormer [a neo-Nazi website], Andrew Anglin and Andrew Auernheimer. They were the ones who were targeting Jews and organizing their followers to attack.
But obviously, it didn’t take long. It took 24 hours to realize, “Wow, I can’t believe what is out there right now.”
What was it like for your family and children?
My kids were scared. I spent a lot of time saying, “Oh, come on. Nobody’s going to jump off the internet and come after us.” When Bethany Mandel wrote her [2016 Forward] piece about buying a gun, that kind of gave me pause. I talked to my wife about should we go get a gun? We didn’t.
But ultimately, there was an initial misgiving about whether or not I was really in danger. Then it diminished. And now, I’m just more scared for my country than myself.
What did going through this do to your Jewishness? Spinoza said it was anti-Semitism that actually sustained Jewish continuity and cohesion.
That’s a very interesting point, because, in some ways, I feel like since the founding of Israel, Israel is what has kept the Jews together.
Actually, during the writing of this book, I talked to a lot of people about how Jews should respond. I talked to one rabbi who said we should just ignore it, that it will go away. I talked to Rabbi [Francine] Roston in Whitefish, Montana, who gave me a more nuanced answer.
Then I talked to who is now my rabbi, Rabbi [Daniel] Zemel of Temple Micah in Washington, and he’s the one who said look to the Torah. The Torah says that, “Where there is injustice, you must stand up to injustice.”
This isn’t a tactical question, it is a religious question. When he said that, it struck me so dramatically. I felt like, “Oh my gosh, all this time I’ve been trying to find answers and I never considered that my own religion could hold answers, that spirituality has a response to the questions in my life.” That got me thinking a lot about how I have Jewish-identified as a culture, but I don’t think enough about religion. It has made me a lot more religious.
It has. Not that I’ve gone from Reform to Conservative to Orthodox. I’m just more spiritual, I think, because of this.
But I talk in the book about this survey of what Jews say gives them their sense of Judaism. A huge percentage said identity and defense of Israel. But I fear that the generation of Jews right now in college and coming into adulthood, they’ve been raised in an era where Israel is much more identified with Likud politics than as the underdog battling for its life, and they don’t identify with Israel.
Some of them are anti-Israel, some of them are anti-Zionist, but I think what is more prevalent in young teens or young adult Jews in America is that they just don’t identify with Israel as an important piece of their life or Jewish identity. If that is the case, Jews have to find something else to keep cohesion. What I would say is that I hope Jews actually go back to their religion and make Jewish spirituality and Jewish teaching the thing that unites Jews.
I have a stepdaughter at Barnard now who is anti-Israel, and I’ve talked to academics about this, of their life at the university level, and it’s not like anti-Israeli sentiment or the BDS movement are the dominant forces on campus life now. They just go down and they tick the list. If I’m a lefty college student, I’m pro-transgender rights, pro-civil rights, social justice in all forms, and one piece of that is pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel. It’s like a piece of the menu. If you are a social justice warrior, that’s just a part to tick.
In the book, you say that when you first got to Israel, you were mostly interested in the Palestinian cause. Can you tell me about that?
That was a long time ago. I was at the University of Sussex at the time. My rabbi … had a very close friendship with a Palestinian priest. He was a priest in a village in between Haifa and Karmiel, and I had an uncle in Karmiel. I was living in Europe and thought, “I’m going to go to Israel and see it myself.” I went for about eight weeks.
I stayed for two weeks in this village called Ibilim and just worked for this priest. This priest was a big adherent of the “Canton Solution.” His thought was Israel should include the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and it should have two separate governments, kind of like Switzerland. There would be an Israeli government and a Palestinian government with an umbrella national government that ran defense and foreign policy.
When I think about it now, I think of all the ways that this would be very difficult to make work, but when I came back from Israel, I was determined that this was going to be my cause. That was a fairly brief period of my life, because after college, I joined the Peace Corps and then I wasn’t very involved in these things at all. But certainly there was a moment in my college days when Palestinian rights and looking for a solution to the problems of Israeli-Palestinian relations was a cause of mine.
How have you evolved on that?
It’s funny that you’re asking me this, but I actually don’t particularly want to talk about Israel right now, because I devote an entire chapter of this book saying we spend too much time talking about Israel. I am a believer in the Jewish state. I’m certainly not an anti-Zionist. But this is not my focus right now, and I don’t wish it to be my focus.
It is the most over-reported issue in the world.
I used to tell my mother, “Yes, I am concerned about Israel. I’m also concerned about Darfur and South Sudan, and I’m concerned about the Rohingya in Myanmar. You know, there’s a lot of things to be concerned about in the world, so I’m not going to obsess about the Jewish state at this moment in my life.”
Are you concerned for American Jews?
I am worried this country is going to become this terribly divided place where in the big urban centers all over the country — but mainly on the coasts — pluralism and minorities will be welcome. And then in the great heartland of this country, there is going to be more suspicion and hatred toward minority groups. And Jews themselves are going to be facing this rising tide of suspicion.
I live in Washington. It’s where people from all over the country come to be politically active, not just members of Congress, but their staff and such, and I already see this suspicion rising.
My fear is that the current prohibition on outspoken anti-Semitism on the right and the left is already waning. When you have a man running for Congress, this guy Paul Niehlen, who is running against Paul Ryan, who sees a political advantage in being an outspoken anti-Semite, that scares me, because that tells me that he feels there is an audience for this.
I don’t believe that Paul Niehlen is going to win a seat in Congress, but Steve King is a member of Congress. He isn’t an anti-Semite, but he has said blatantly bigoted things about Latinos and Mexicans, Blacks and Muslims — and that has only cemented his position.
That does worry me. I’m worried about the Jewish community and I’m worried about minorities in general in the United States. I’m worried about pluralism in the United States.