Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Q&A with Jonathan Weisman

Jonathan Weisman is the author of the new book (((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump. He also has written the novel No. 4 Imperial Lane. He is deputy Washington editor of The New York Times, and he lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: How do you think things have changed in this country for Jewish Americans since the candidacy and election of Donald Trump?

A: As I explore in my book, the guardrails can come off polite society remarkably quickly.

In May of 2017, the National Bureau of Economic Research published a peer-reviewed study of how norms have already changed, in this case how anti-immigrant sentiments once kept under wraps or not spoken at all are becoming acceptable to speak out loud.

As I wrote, "a social genie can escape its bottle fast, societies can change for the worst, we are not destined for inexorable progress – and that genie can’t be shoved back in."

I would not say day-to-day life for Jewish Americans has changed much, but warning signs that ominous change could be coming are all around us.

Q: You write about your own experiences being attacked on social media by anti-Semites and neo-Nazis. How did that affect you personally, and how did it affect your relationship to Judaism?

A: I am always reluctant to make too much of the anti-Semitic swarming attacks that befell me on social media. They veered into more personal territory with a few messages left on voicemail or emailed to me. But generally, I didn't feel endangered.

I did feel awakened. I am not a particularly observant Jew, and before the attacks, I'd say I was only moderately Jewish-identified. From that came the power of the attack: If they could pick me out for attention, they could pick out anyone.

That did heighten my awareness of my Jewish roots, and it sent me looking for responses from within Judaism itself.

The turning point came when Rabbi Daniel Zemel said the Jewish response to white nationalism should come from the Torah, not from some debate over tactics and strategy. Where the Jew sees injustice, the Jew is to stand against it.

My surprise at this answer said a lot about my own disconnection from the spiritual side of my religion. And it made me embrace Judaism not only as an identity and a people, but a rich, warm spiritual wellspring.

Q: How was the book’s title selected, and what does it signify for you?

A: Many Jewish journalists came under attack by bigoted Trump supporters during the 2016 campaign. My claim to fame was the surfacing of the "echoes," those three parentheses around a name that signified Jew.

The first attacker said that he had "belled the cat" with those parentheses, and enterprising reporters discovered that a piece of software, blandly named the Coincidence Indicator, could be downloaded from Google, then used to search out Jewish targets who had been belled.

To be honest, the title of the book was the idea of my agent, Rayhane Sanders, (((Semitism))), not anti-Semitism, since it was to be an affirmation of Jewishness, with the "echoes" signifying that something was askew. It just worked.

Q: You write, “This is an era that calls for fearlessness, not heedlessness, but also for a refusal to play along.” What do you think the response should be to this wave of bigotry, and what do you see looking ahead?

A: Jews need to be proud but not arrogant, to acknowledge the rise of anti-Semitism, but within the larger context of white nationalism and its pantheon of bigotry, and to use our organizational skills, muscle and resources to help combat hatred and on-line attacks, to team with Muslim Americans, immigrants, Latinos, African Americans and other groups that are being marginalized in this nationalist moment.

I have gotten some strong pushback from Jewish activists who have said I have given short shrift to their actions, and I want to acknowledge that great work is being done, especially at the synagogue level. Smaller and more upstart Jewish organizations are certainly making the combating of bigotry a focal point for their actions.

But I would still argue that the most powerful, mainline Jewish organizations are not doing enough. If they were, we would know.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am turning back to a second novel that is about two-thirds complete and has been languishing. Donald Trump has had a big impact on my life, mainly occupying too much of my time, thoughts and energy. I need to look elsewhere.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I always expected this book would elicit some sharp responses. I did not expect Jewish liberal activists would be the ones to react the most negatively. Yes, the book ends with my views on what should be done, and perhaps I should have been more effusive in my praises for those on the front lines.

But really, this book is so much more than that. It traces the history of the Alt Right and the new white nationalism threatening democratic pluralism, not only in the United States but across Europe. And at its heart it is about my awakening.

I'm not sure why activists who agree with the need to stand up to bigotry feel the need to attack the messenger.

On another front, I did expect pushback from mainline Jewish organizations and Jewish conservatives who would say that I did not spend enough time discussing the anti-Semitism of the left.

The book does in fact address the BDS movement and European anti-Semitism that has welled up out of anti-Zionist sentiments. It does not discuss Louis Farrakhan, frankly because Farrakhan made news with an anti-Semitic speech that was delivered long after the book was done.

I condemn anti-Semitism in all forms, especially the gutter hatred spewed by Farrakhan. But I would also urge people to keep some perspective. 

Thousands of neo-Nazis marched in the streets of Charlottesville chanting, Jews Will Not Replace Us. Hundreds of thousands of proto-fascists marched in the streets of Budapest in support of an authoritarian leader, Viktor Orban, who has unsubtly made George Soros his great enemy.

White nationalists are about to control the Italian parliament. Marine LePen was almost elected president of France. It is now illegal to suggest that Poles had any role in the Holocaust.

You can moan all you want about a bigoted mullah preaching on the South Side of Chicago or venomous anti-Zionists on college campuses. I would argue that we should focus on the rising threat.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jonathan Weisman.

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