‘How To Fight Anti-Semitism’

A Proud Jew Takes Bari Weiss’ Advice to Heart

A few weeks ago, while at a music festival in Queensland, Australia, I was enjoying a hamburger under the trees when I overheard three people behind me being drunk. The small group consisted of a couple and an additional young man, I’d say in their early 30s. The young man said, “Wait, I have a joke! How many Jews can you fit into a Volkswagen?” His companions rolled their eyes and gamely asked, “How many?” The joker replied, “Two in the front seat, three in the back, and 52 in the ashtray.”

I carefully placed my burger in its basket, wiped my hands, and walked over to the young man. I gave him my most brilliant smile and sat on the arm of his chair and spoke very slowly, “Hi there, my name is Shira Levine and I’m Jewish. I just heard your joke and you need to know: Holocaust jokes are not okay. You and I, we are not so different. We both love music and being outdoors. That’s why we are here. But a Jew would never tell a Holocaust joke. What you said is not okay.” After a short, shocked silence, the man fell all over himself drunkenly apologizing, and I walked back to my burger. But the incident left me with a disturbed feeling. How did it become okay for this guy to fill a lull in the conversation with an anti-Semitic joke about Jews?

How Did We Get Here?

The horrible truth is that public anti-Semitism is on the rise (again). The trend is not only acceptable here in Australia, where I live, but in Oakland, California, where I’m from, and in Poland, France, the United Kingdom, on college campuses, and everywhere else. In her new book How to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bari Weiss explains in great detail how we got here, and offers solutions for how to fight back.

Weiss describes how the “intellectual disease” of anti-Semitism is a three-headed dragon comprised of bigotry on the right, left, and in fundamentalist Islam. For most of the book, I nodded along, surprised at how well she weaves the past, present, and politics into myriad examples of prejudice against Jews.

The book reads like a comprehensive syllabus for a university level course on anti-Semitism. Add Jonathan Weisman’s {{{Semitism}}} and any blog post from Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamantion League, and you’ve got a terrific reading list for modern anti-Semitism against (mainly) Ashkenazi American Jewry, and a palliative reprieve for those of us feeling disturbed, helpless, hopeless, and alone as Jews in the face of danger.

Weiss packs and unpacks several fundamental Jewish questions: Are Jews a people, a tribe, or a race? Which is worse, the institutionalized high-heeled exclusionary anti-Semitism of the right, or the more complicated “you cannot be a progressive if you are a Zionist” anti-Semitism of the left?  Why does the world deal Jews the double standard of being victims and oppressors?  Should we “pass for white” in mixed-race societies? Is it okay to support Israel and criticize it? Every woke modern Jew should pay attention to Weiss’ compelling, informative, and well-documented case studies of our most vexing questions.

Weiss provides examples of anti-Semitism from all over the world to prove the point that Jews are under threat globally. She warns American Jews that we lost our instinct for danger. The book contextualizes Poway, Pittsburgh, Charlottesville, “anti-globalism” and other Trump era dog whistles and why these incidents and terms fly in the face of the promise of American religious pluralism and freedom.

She notably omits existing strategies, which align with her thesis, of taking up the fight. Examples as far-ranging as making a Jewish education free to all American Jews, fostering a sense of peoplehood, holding an active debate in every American city with a Jewish Federation, as well as individual efforts such as Leslie Wexner’s commitment to create a Jewish lay leadership class, are not on her radar. Whether she disagrees or doesn’t find relevance is an open question. Also missing: the relationship between American Jews and the evangelical right–who, broadly speaking, support the State of Israel and, by extension, global Jewry, as a key to the return of the Messiah.

But what really sticks with me is her Fight chapter, which I used as a barometer of the strength of my own voice in the struggle. Weiss matches the three-headed dragon of anti-Semitism with a three-pronged solution: “how we orient ourselves toward our enemies….how we orient ourselves toward our allies….and how we orient ourselves toward ourselves.” A few of her How-tos resonated deeply. I’ll share them here:

Call it out. Especially when it is hard.

Refuse to be silent, period. While reading the book, I proudly reflected on my conversation in Queensland when I told the drunk stranger that telling a Holocaust joke was not okay. Weiss importantly admonishes us to no longer try to cajole, convince, prove and argue our way out of anti-Semitism or worse, stay silent in the face of same-side anti-Semitism. I’m looking at you, Progressives and Progressive Jews.

At the 2017 Oakland Women’s March, when a speaker in front of the assembled 50,000 marchers turned to anti-Zionist rhetoric, I and one other stranger in the crowd booed loudly and left noisily. I then wrote an email, still unanswered, to march founders Ivonne Quiroz and Allison Mata, pointing out that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.  Sure, I’m one person. Maybe two with the other boo-er. But I stood up for my principles and walked out.

Follow the Pittsburgh principle.
How to fight anti-Semitism: Australia-style!

Weiss points out how the non-Jewish citizens of Pittsburgh—“Muslim leaders, Christian leaders, politicians, government leaders, police departments, corporations, even our sports teams—stood up and said no. We will not give this oxygen.” This reaction reminded me of how my local Melbourne community rallied behind Aliza Shuvaly, whose Aliza’s Place Cafe was vandalized with Holocaust denial graffiti twice. Not only did the local community flock to support the cafe, the #1 Australian rules football team repainted the offensive messages on the fence with her, and in every other way denounced the incident. I took my children to the cafe recently to check in with Aliza, eat her delicious schnitzel and milkshakes, and show our individual support.

Tell your story.

I talk openly about my faith. A few years ago in a yoga class in San Francisco, when the instructor ended with his speech about giving thanks for being here today, it dawned on me that he was more or less quoting from the daily Jewish prayer Modeh Ani, which thanks God for allowing us to live to see another day. The yoga instructor had me sing it to the whole class. I felt like an idiot. But I also felt a great sense of alignment: we were all saying and thinking and even praying the same. Gratitude is universal.

Lean into Judaism.

In this era of buffet Judaism (a few traditions here, a few there), I often find myself apologizing for my active practice. I am an engaged Jew who’s involved and in love with my people. It’s a choice, and my answer is not for everyone. I choose to love my own people. We are messy, we are complicated, but we also offer a meaningful answer to most of life’s questions. Weiss reminds me to quit apologizing, embrace the trappings of my commitment, and get on with it.

Will these How-to fights rid the world of anti-Semitism? Was my armchair visit to the Holocaust jokester the end of his bigotry? I doubt it. But if all politics are local, and you are an army of one, Weiss’ How-tos are a powerful reminder of the individual’s power to alter particular situations. I can even foresee gatherings in which Jews use her How-tos as a handbook or a checklist for community strategies to “lean in” to the fight. I might try it myself.

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Shira Levine

Shira Levine is a digital customer engagement and online community expert living and working in Melbourne, Australia.

3 thoughts on “‘How To Fight Anti-Semitism’

  • October 28, 2019 at 11:11 pm
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    Brilliant, powerful piece and man I’d give just about anything for a video of your conversation with the Queensland funnyboy.

    Reply
  • October 28, 2020 at 5:51 pm
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    Well said, Shira. Thank you for advocating for the book so strongly. Honestly, I had cancelled Bari Weiss based on my discomfort with some of her controversial positions. I will give it a read.

    Reply
    • October 28, 2020 at 11:34 pm
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      Discomfort is good unless it’s the kind of discomfort that requires an adult diaper or orthotics

      Reply

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