In recent years, there are some topics that have proven themselves to be unworthy of the potential scorn that may be heaped upon those who dare to speak of them. That is why I was reluctant to touch such a controversial topic as anti-Semitism, but I eventually sucumbed to the allure of such a mysterious phenomenon. I know some people may find the claim that anti-Semitism is anything but straightforward a strange one. Isn’t it just the hatred of Jews? I’ve learned in recent days that is anything but the case. According to Bari Weiss and her relatively new book “How to Fight Anti-Semitism”, anti-Semitism is complicated.
In fact, I will go out on a limb and say anyone who reads this book may actually feel more confused about anti-Semitism after reading it. Let me explain.
The book begins straightforward enough with an anti-Semitic incident known as “The Tree of Life Shooting” as told through the authors texts alerting her of the shooting in real time. As it turns out Miss Weiss was a member of the synagogue, and feared gravely her family may have been there that day. The bulk of this first chapter is a hyper-personal account of that day for Miss Weiss in which the time and nature of her emotional response are detailed.
Grave, this dark, brooding little word, seems to be the perfect one to describe the tone of the first chapter entitled “Waking Up”. In this chapter not only is the aforementioned shooting described in detail, but a dire message is sent: Jews and gentiles alike must wake up to what is happening to Jews in America and abroad, lest the West writ large fall victim to the mind virus of anti-Semitism. Miss Weiss undoubtedly knows her way around a pen, it is just that I personally am not a fan of violence depicted unless in war literature or true crime (i.e. Books and stories where the violence and the nature of said violence is relevant). Violent images being elicited in a political book seems to me a cheap tactic removed from the facts. Knowing people were murdered is enough. I personally feel it rather cheap to depict chunks of skull with hair still attached being used to identify a dead disabled man.
Shortly after the violent images subside, Miss Weiss embarks on setting the theme and the tone for this, her first foray into novelization. The tone, much as the theme of anti-Semitism would suggest, is aimed at our emotions. Again this would be okay if it were a romance novel, or a fictitious thriller, but this book is neither of those. The book is written to be a serious political tract. More and more these days I am seeing even those who contend to be serious political thinkers writing books dripping with pathos, and even more so dripping with the illusion of or the allusion to logos. The tone is pleading. Miss Weiss spends the entirety of the book nearly begging the reader to take up her cause not merely for the sake of the Jews, but for the sake of Western civilization.
Unlike many other books I have reviewed thus far, at least Miss Weiss can set a mood and tone. She didn’t become The New York Times opinion editor for lack of genuine writing talent. While being able to put a sentence together, a paragraph together is one thing, being able to choose, and subsequently tell, stories worth telling is a gift in and of itself. This ends up being the major problem for me.
In fact, there is not so much a story at all insofar as a recollection and recounting of anti-Semitic attacks across the range of the political spectrum could be considered a story. The second chapter “A Brief History” doesn’t include a story, either. In this, perhaps the most befuddling portion of this small manifesto, Miss Weiss embarks on what turns out to be an arduous journey for the reader; she wants to define anti-Semitism. She states:
“Christianity is a faith. Latino is an ethnicity. And so forth. But Judaism (and the force that opposes it, which today we call anti-Semitism) greatly predates and thus does not fit any of these far more recently constructed categories, despite how aggressively some try to shoehorn it into them.”
The portion I want to focus here is the word “force”. This type of language surrounding anti-Semitism is rather perplexing. It is a force? A force? Forces are natural, no? The Force of Nature might come to mind. Forces are also most certainly invisible. The full force of the U.S. government, one’s sheer force of will. Her language insinuates there is some great psychic force that is anti-Semitism. How would one even begin observing such a force? Let alone describing it. For anyone reading with a critical eye, this verbiage may or may not raise questions. Fair enough. However paired with the near dozens of definitions and explanations of anti-Semitism in chapter 2 alone, the reader would have to be an ideologically possessed potato not to be confused.
Much to my bemusement, a single page later Miss Weiss sets out yet again to classify anti-Semitism. This time in rather hilarious fashion. She again wishes to label anti-Semitism and proposes a question for her reader:
“The trouble is that if anti-Semitism is a form of racism against a minority group and if Jews in the United States are largely thought of as white, then the contemporary question about American Jews is: Where do they rank in the hierarchy of racial oppression?”
Now, we know that anti-Semitism, too, is a form of racism. Force of nature? Check. Strain of racism? Check. It seems as if like a mutating virus, anti-Semitism morphs and shifts according to it’s new hosts immune system. Thank God for Miss Weiss and her ability to observe psychic forces beyond this physical plane of reality.
All jokes aside, I cannot write comedy well at all. I certainly cannot write it as well as Miss Weiss wrote in the very next line that the contemporary question we must ask about Jews is where they rank in some hierarchy of racial oppression. This, the most modern and exhausting of American ideologies, is the capitalization of victimhood. My initial response was a hardy laugh. My second response was, “what the **** is she talking about ‘hierarchy of racial oppression’?” It was then I knew I had again delved into a propagandistic manifesto.
Perhaps what has quickly become my number one principle as a book reviewer was born thanks to Miss Weiss and her story-less manifesto. And that is, “If you’re going to try and sucker me into wasting my time and money with you, at least tell me a good story.”
In the subsequent three chapters, what is written is just a string of violent incidents connected by the singular thread of anti-Semitism. That truly is the bulk of the book’s content. Sprinkled throughout the book are small asides which recount childhood memories, or anecdotal tales related to anti-Semitism or Judaism as a whole, but these do not mesh well rhetorically. It all just comes off as an explanation as to why the author feels a certain way, and why the reader should feel that way, too.This rampant explanation of the personal is exemplified perfectly in the third chapter.
In this chapter, Miss Weiss brings up her appearance on “The Joe Rogan Experience”, the most popular podcast in the world. She goes on to explain a supposed gaff she made in criticizing Representative Tulsi Gabbard and apologize for it:
“I criticized presidential hopeful Tulsi Gabbard, a woman suspiciously uncritical of Russia who, more suspiciously, hid from her party leadership that she had traveled to Syria as a Democratic congresswoman, where she met with Bashar al-Assad. I called Gabbard an Assad toady without bringing enough information to back up my claim. (Weeks later, she insisted that “Assad is not the enemy of the United States” on Morning Joe, leaving the chatty MSNBC panel temporarily speechless. But fair enough. It wasn’t my strongest moment.)”
This moment in no way was related to anti-Semitism, until Miss Weiss explains that someone in a Youtube comment section called her “a rootless cosmopolitan”. In this explanation, Miss Weiss goes on to partake in apologetics related to this gaff she made. Why? Why do this? Why devote even an ounce of your books page space to something so unrelated to the main topic? Because Miss Weiss’ writing of this book was very obviously commanded by the personal. This is entirely fine for a memoir, an auto-biography, or one of various other genres. But this book is entitled “How to Fight anti-Semitism”. Wouldn’t one then assume that the book will be about how to fight anti-Semitism?
In reality, that is not really what the book is about at all. It is not until the very last chapter that we begin to learn how to fight. And what a monumental let down readers are in for.
Sadly, the final chapter, which is named “How to Fight”, seems to be a rip off both in spirit and style of a 2017 work by Timothy Snyder titled “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century”. Consider it holy writ: the final chapter holds nothing but more platitudes and childhood memories from the author.
Hilariously, in the final chapter the author shares with her reader that the name of her book was the name of someone else’s college paper written in the nineties. This fact is not shared in admission, embarrassment, or even gratitude to the author; it’s merely stated.
“How to Fight Anti-Semitism” was written by a Columbia alumnus named Ze’ev Maghen, who had been a student in the early 1990s. Maghen was responding to what has now become a regular feature of campus life: a known anti-Semite invited to give a speech on an elite campus.”
In the end, Miss Weiss’ inability to name her own book is indicative of her book’s ultimate flaw: lack of originality. Do we write books for people that agree with us? Did Tolstoy write “A Confession” hoping that other Easter Orthodox church members would read it and say, “Yeah, Tolstoy! You tell ‘em!” The two ends of this book hold between them the hallmarks of political propaganda:
-Platitudes and slogans.
-Ideas deemed so obvious by the author and her audience that they don’t need defending.
-Shifting definitions of key phrases.
-Lip service to critical thinking.
Unfortunately, this is the state of literature in these, the early days of the 21st century. But if people say these things out loud, maybe the masses can shame terrible, hackish writing back into the dark recesses of these authors’ ego driven day dreams.