Bari Weiss: America was on a holiday from history, but Jewish hate is now ensconced

The New York Times columnist and author speaks to the JC about the rise of antisemitism in her home country


Feminist. Bisexual. Outspoken. Bari Weiss is a polarising figure.

Not a week goes by when she isn’t quoted admiringly at the pulpit by a reform rabbi in Cincinnati or Boston, threatened by far-right Trump-supporting trolls, or mocked by the “woke” culture warriors of the Twittersphere.

From the pages of her columns in the New York Times, she has become something of a Jewish celebrity chronicling the rise of antisemitism in the United States and the end of the American exception on Jewish hate.

“We were on a holiday from history,” she tells me in a taxi shuttling her from one London event to the next. “I think that this is true of the post-war American Jewish experience.”

Weiss, 35, has been a lightning rod in the American Jewish community since she moved to America’s paper of record from the dynamic world of New York’s Jewish press.

Having grown up in a small tight-knit Orthodox community in Pittsburgh, with a father she describes as “Trump-curious”, Weiss is better placed than most to gauge how Jews will fare in a changing America.

“These were issues that I was really thinking deeply about,” she says, “I could tell you every detail about how Ilan Halimi was murdered in Paris. I could tell you who was killed at the bombings at Café Moment and Sbarros [in Jerusalem]. I was deeply attuned to this subject.”

But as Donald Trump swept the American heartland, white nationalists marched to the chant of “Jews will not replace us” and parts of the left “demonstrated a willingness to swallow a certain amount of bigotry towards Jews”. It made Weiss cast her eye at closer to home.

“We are not immune from Jewish history,” she theorises. “America is returning to the norm when it comes to Jewish history, but that norm is frankly not somewhere I want America to be.”

When the bullets stared flying in her hometown synagogue, the venue of her bat mitzvah, Weiss was tragically vindicated. In 2018, a suspected neo-Nazi forced his way into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and opened fire.

11 people were killed, including family friends. Weiss returned to her town to report on what was then America’s bloodiest antisemitic massacre.

But Pittsburgh was a only sign of what was to come. In the following two years, there were four bloody attacks on Jewish centres across the US.

“Things that were once, even a few years ago, unsayable are now sayable,” Weiss says, when trying to explain why antisemitism suddenly burst onto the American scene. “One of the strongest signs of it is the thriving of conspiracy theories.”

“A society where conspiracy theories thrive is always one where antisemitism thrives, because it is a society that has replaced facts and truth with lies.”

Weiss has been attacked for drawing equivalence between left and right-wing antisemitism, and of humouring figures that have retreated into right-wing counter-cultural niches of the internet, such as Jordan Peterson and Bret Weinstein.

“It’s funny to me that I am accused of being soft on the right,” she shoots back, “when it was my synagogue where people murdered, and it is antisemites from the right who threatened my own life. I take it deadly seriously.

“I’ve become an avatar for a lot of things that make Jews on the left uncomfortable. I’m a liberal at a time when there is a turn against liberalism. I’m a Zionist while the word Zionist has been turned into a smear. I’m a Jew.” She laughs and throws her hands up. “I don’t know where to start”.

I ask if she ever looks at the criticism that she has received — Weiss has been horrifically trolled by the keyboard warriors of the American culture wars. Some have labelled her, in the exaggerated language of the internet, as an “alt-righter” and “apologist for racism”, particularly for her poorly-phrased joke about a Japanese-American figure skater in 2018 and her description of the furore over cultural appropriation as “un-American”.

“There is some criticism that isn’t really criticism — it is just bullying. That I try as much as possible to ignore, although I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that I saw some of it and that it is disturbing to me.”

“The reason I am able to do what I am able to do is because there is no greater honour in my life than being a Jew,” she says. “As it is, it just rolls off my back because I know what I’m about and I know what I’m doing battle for.”

We hop out of the taxi in a street behind the National Portrait Gallery. It was a journey when Weiss flitted rapidly between thoughts on Jews, America and this being her first time in London.

“Tell me where I am so I can appreciate it,” she asks me eagerly, before adding: “I really need to eat, I have low blood sugar and I do tend to pass out.”

It is no wonder. Weiss is a natural columnist, persuasive and confident. In 15 minutes she is due on a radio show to do it all again.

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