Jane Eisner is editor-in-chief of the Forward.
Jonathan Weisman grew up a secular Jew in 1970s Atlanta, generally untouched by anti-Semitism and disconnected from serious engagement with Jewish faith and tradition. That gulf widened as he became an adult and married a non-Jew, choosing to raise his two daughters with, as he put it , “nothing.” Being Jewish bore no cost for him, other than seasonal guilt when Christmas sparkled or when he felt duty-bound to drag his children to High Holiday services that they did not understand or appreciate.
In this, Weisman resembles many contemporary American Jews, who have been able to comfortably coast to social acceptance and professional accomplishment by wearing their Judaism as lightly as they want, with ethnic pride, little sacrifice, occasional embarrassment and a heavy dose of political liberalism.
Weisman’s awakening from this complacency came in the form of a tweet. As the deputy editor in the New York Times’s Washington bureau, Weisman was active on Twitter and often shared content on the social platform with his many thousands of followers. That’s what he did one morning in May 2016, grabbing a quote from a provocative column in The Washington Post by the neoconservative Robert Kagan, who warned of the rise of fascism in America.
Suddenly, Weisman was subjected to a noxious swarm of cyberbullying hatred from the emerging alt-right, white-nationalist extremists who unleashed a torrent of social media messages and harassing phone calls that trafficked in Holocaust imagery and often evoked Donald Trump, who was on his way to becoming the Republican nominee for president.
Unwittingly, Weisman joined a growing number of Jewish journalists — mostly but not exclusively conservative-leaning — who were harassed and targeted to an unprecedented degree as the presidential campaign accelerated toward Trump’s unlikely win. The assaults became so intense that the Anti-Defamation League convened a task force to research the trend, and Jewish news organizations like my own were forced to increase security against a new and unexpected threat.
What happened here? And what should American Jews do about it?
Those two questions animate Weisman’s new book, “(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump.” The title’s triple parentheses — known as an echo — are an anti-Semitic symbol used to highlight Jewish names, adopted by the alt-right to hunt down potential targets on Twitter and subsequently appropriated by many Jewish users as a defiant response. That defiance propels Weisman’s urgent, timely narration of how a few fringe leaders galvanized a Twitter army that, despite its insignificant number, broke wide open an ugly strain of anti-Semitism whose tentacles have reached even into the White House.
Disappointingly, Weisman is on far shakier ground when attempting to answer the second question: “What are we going to do about it?” He resorts to broad criticism and unsupported assertions about American Jewish life that sidestep a more complex reality. With the passion of a convert to a cause, he exhorts his readers to an activism based on religious morality as if it’s a new idea, when there are rabbis, lay leaders and communities across the country already doing exactly what he advocates.
He places this Jewish moment in a larger historical frame that is simplistic but useful. “The Jew flourishes when borders come down,” he writes, “when boundaries blur, when walls are destroyed, not erected.” The dynamic between the particular and the universal, what Weisman terms the tribalists and the internationalists, has tugged at Jews for centuries. It coursed through Weisman’s childhood. He affectingly recounts a teenage summer at a multiracial camp when he experienced his African American friends’ raw fear at the segregation that still lingered in the South. There was mild anti-Semitism then, too, but, as he acknowledges, “open hate was someone else’s problem. I’m not proud of that.”
Most American Jews probably were too complacent in the decades that followed, but I daresay that few except the serious students of hate groups would have predicted the kind of explosion that rocked Weisman’s world. In the most interesting and novel section of his book, Weisman describes how the nascent intellectual ferment of the racist right harnessed the newfound power of social media to essentially invent Twitter trolling. The first targets were a few women in the overwhelmingly male world of video games, who were viciously abused online and personally threatened to a frightening degree.
One of those women, Zoe Quinn, had a boyfriend at the time. And that boyfriend, Weisman writes, “was Jewish. Very Jewish. Yeshiva educated. Anti-Semitism was part of the attack from the very beginning.”
Once harnessed, the “proto-storm troopers of the alt-right” used their own websites and the larger Internet to produce a growing stream of misogynist, racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant hate, with its own codes and vocabulary. Weisman offers so many disgusting examples of these attacks that the mind almost numbs, but by cataloguing this movement in this fashion, he performs a great public service. It may be fringe. But it is damn real.
And then along came Trump. The dog whistles heard throughout his campaign turned into an unmistakable bullhorn of intolerance once he arrived in the White House, emboldening the likes of Richard Spencer, Andrew Anglin and David Duke. Not only was the new administration ham-handed in dealing with Jewish issues — releasing a message on Holocaust Remembrance Day that failed to mention Jews at all, for instance — it winked enough at the alt-right to make them feel legitimated and loved.
By the time of the Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, Weisman writes, “the alt-right’s aims were clear and articulate: leap from the Internet to the world of flesh, blood, and tears.” And even though this movement’s ugliness has not resulted in a wave of violence against Jews, Weisman rightly ponders when and how a minority’s hateful views can infiltrate the mainstream.
The question is how to stop that from happening, and here Weisman disappoints. He is correct that too many established Jewish organizations have been so focused on supporting the current Israeli government that they have overlooked or minimized the rising threat from the alt-right. But if the leaders of those organizations are blinded by their conservative politics, Weisman suffers from his own myopia. He airily dismisses the growing threats from the extreme left, where too often anti-Zionism is, in fact, bleeding into anti-Semitism. He harshly criticizes American Jewry for not being grounded in morality and argues that Jews must create multi-faith alliances and take the fight against hate into the public square.
As if that’s not happening already! Perhaps Weisman is unfamiliar with spiritual leaders like Rabbi Sharon Brous, co-founder of IKAR in Los Angeles, whose stirring sermons about the new anti-Semitism (they are available online) have galvanized her congregation. Or Rabbi Susan Talve in St. Louis, who led Jewish support for African American protests in nearby Ferguson. Or Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, who ensured that a progressive Jewish voice was integral to the Women’s March on Washington. Or the firebrand Stosh Cotler, who is steering Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice in just the direction Weisman advocates.
There are plenty of Jewish male leaders doing similarly courageous things, but I mention these women — and there are so many more — because unfortunately the only Jewish women quoted at length in Weisman’s book are the victims of harassment and hate, not those who are speaking out against it every day.
American Jews face an enormous challenge in overcoming our civic complacency and internal fractiousness, and Weisman’s searing study of the rise of the alt-right reminds us that our privileged role in this society can never be taken for granted. I only wish that his passionate call to arms was based on a deeper understanding of what actually is being done by Jews in the age of Trump, especially because there is still so much more left to do.
By Jonanthan Weisman
St. Martin’s. 238 pp. $25.99