The massacre at the Tree of Life building last fall left Bari Weiss shocked.
It also woke her up, the 35-year-old staff writer and editor at The New York Times says in her newly released book “How to Fight Anti-Semitism” (Crown).
Weiss, who grew up in Squirrel Hill, the daughter of community stalwarts Amy and Lou Weiss, has been writing on Jewish issues for the last decade, but she did not really believe that such a savage anti-Semitic attack could hit so close to home — in the very synagogue in which she celebrated her bat mitzvah.
In “How to Fight Anti-Semitism,” Weiss takes a deep dive into historic and modern-day anti-Semitism and its roots, and suggests ways of countering it.
She spoke with the Chronicle about her need to write this book now, and why she devotes more pages to left-wing and Islamic strains of anti-Semitism than she does to that motivated by far-right ideology.
You had announced a deal for a different book, ‘The New Seven Dirty Words,’ before the massacre happened. Did you pivot because of the massacre?
I had a deal for that other book that I signed before the shooting happened, and I’m still going to do that book. But once the massacre happened, I obviously went home that week afterward, and my passion was just completely fixated on this subject. So, I went to my editor and said, ‘Listen, I know the book that you want is probably not a very fast turnaround book on anti-Semitism, but that’s the book I want to write first.
You obviously felt this massacre at the Tree of Life building really personally. Can you tell me about that?
I am someone who has always followed — it seems strange to say “Jewish issues” because they are just personal issues — for my whole life. So, it’s not as if I was unaware of what was happening in Europe, or what was happening in Israel. I was very much aware of all these things. But I really felt that America was very much a place apart. I believed the idea that we were the Goldene Medina, that we were the luckiest Jews in Diaspora history. I do still believe that. But I think that is why I was so shaken. I really thought that anti-Semitism — you know, there are stray comments about being a kike or picking up a penny that I just kind of brushed off — that anti-Semitism, especially violent anti-Semitism was something that happened to Jews in other places. And when it came home to Pittsburgh, and in the place where I became a bat mitzvah, I felt a shattering of the story that I had been taught and the story that I had told myself. And it just forced me to reassess that narrative.
Had you ever considered writing a book about anti-Semitism prior to the shooting ?
I had always thought that I was going to write one book, maybe several books, on Jewish topics. But frankly, like many writers, it was like, “Do I want to be pigeon-holed, do I want that to be the first thing?” I think what was clarifying for me after what happened in Pittsburgh is, a) I didn’t give a crap anymore if I was going to be pigeon-holed or not, and b) a real sense that an attack on Jews was an attack on everything that this country stands for. And — I write this in the book and I really, really believe it — that the obvious victims of anti-Semitism are Jews, but the other victim, the one that is often forgotten or overlooked, is the surrounding society, because a society where anti-Semitism is thriving is a society that is dead or dying. With all of its flaws, I really love this country and what it stands for, and I believe it is worth fighting for. So in a way this book is not just about fighting anti-Semitism, it’s fighting for liberalism. It’s fighting for American democracy.
The shooter from Pittsburgh came from a far-right ideology, which you cover in your book. But I noticed that you devote even more pages in your book to examining anti-Semitism on the left and in radical Islam. Why is that?
First of all, I just want to be absolutely clear that every study shows, and as everyone knows who is paying attention in the world, that if a person is going to walk into a synagogue with an automatic weapon, it is extremely likely that person is going to be a white supremacist. And I have no illusions about the fact that white supremacism and neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism from the far right — whatever you want to call that vile collection of ideologies — is the most threatening to Jewish lives. I also feel that that is the most understood threat, because it is one on which there is incredible agreement about. There is not a lot of gray when someone walks into a synagogue and says, “All Jews must die.” They are making themselves completely clear, and their intentions well-known.
It’s very different when it comes to anti-Semitism on the far left, which is why I felt an obligation to sort of explain it to people, because frankly I think a lot of people, for various reasons, want to ignore it or not touch it. So, because there is just much more understanding of the far-right threat, I wanted to make sure that anyone who bought this book got their money’s worth and understood something that maybe they had not understood before.
Why do you think that a lot of Jews seem to underplay the anti-Semitism that’s coming out on the progressive left?
I think for a few reasons. The first reason is that 75 percent of Jews vote for Democrats. The Democratic party and progressive movements have long been the sort of natural assumed home for American Jews for lots of historical reasons. And it is much more emotional and psychologically easy — I’m not diminishing the threat at all — but I’m saying if a neo-Nazi comes and attacks us, we already knew that person hated us. It is very different when someone who you regard as being in the tent that you yourself fit in as a threat to you. I think that is just much harder emotionally and psychologically to take on. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is that unlike the “kill all the Jews” anti-Semitism on the far right, which announces itself, the anti-Semitism of the far left comes close in language that is a siren song to Jewish ears because they are the things that American Jews long prided themselves on. Pursuit of social justice, pursuit of tikkun olam, fighting racism, standing up for the underdog, standing up for the immigrant. And what happens when the very people who claim to espouse that also believe, for example, that the Jewish state is the one state in the world that doesn’t have a right to exist, there is a lot of cognitive dissonance in the way that there isn’t with the neo-Nazis.
In your book, you talk about the “Pittsburgh principle.” You cite Rabbi Danny Schiff about the response to the massacre here, and how that makes this sort of attack unique in some ways, because it wasn’t like neighbors and citizens on the street were cheering it on. Instead, they came and embraced the Jews. Do you think that response was unique to Pittsburgh, or do you think we could expect this same type of response when Jews are attacked elsewhere in America?
I think we should expect that. As I write in the book, we should expect solidarity. We should expect the reaction to be the reaction of that wonderful German tabloid that, after the spate of attacks on people wearing kippot in public in Germany, printed a cut-out of a paper kippah on the front page and said, “Cut this out and wear it in solidarity with Jews.” It is the same solidarity we saw when people in France said, “Je suis Juif,” after the Charlie Hebdo attack and the attack on the Hypercache kosher market. And that is the kind of spirit we saw in Pittsburgh.
Unfortunately, in a lot of places, that is not the natural response. And the extent to which it was in Pittsburgh was just incredibly moving to me. The fact that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette printed the Kaddish on the front page of the paper, that is just an unbelievable anomaly in Jewish history. And for all the sort of heartache we are feeling about our current moment, that to me is an incredible bright spot and one we should be talking about and elevating so other people can emulate it. pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at