A call to boldness by Jews in Trump era

“(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump,” by Jonathan Weisman, St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 238 pages


“(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump,” by Jonathan Weisman, St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 238 pages.

A set of parentheses usually denotes material that is, well, parenthetical – interesting but not essential.

But when the parentheses are tripled, the meaning requires far more attention. It’s internet shorthand for “Look here, this is about Jews,” and it’s not at all positive.

Author Jonathan Weisman found that out when he logged on to Twitter and made a comment about Donald Trump that one backer of the president found unacceptable.

The troll, with the handle CyberTrump, quickly responded, “Hello (((Weisman))).”

Weisman asked his new correspondent to explain, and the response was chilling:

“What, ho, the vaunted Ashkenazi intelligence, hahaha! It’s a dog whistle, fool. Belling the cat for my fellow goyim.”

“With the cat belled,” Weisman writes, “the horde followed.”

So Weisman, deputy Washington editor of The New York Times, got a quick, forceful education in the new language of anti-Semitism and, as the subtitle of this insightful book adds, what it means to be “Jewish in America in the Age of Trump.”

In the following days, he was bombarded with images and stereotypes of Jews, delivered through the troublesome magic of social media:

“… the Jew as conservative fifth columnist, the Jew as moneybags financier orchestrating war for Israel, the Jew as leftist anarchist, the Jew as rapacious, the Jew as Wall Street profiteer, the Jew as weak and sniveling, the Jew as all-powerful. … I hadn’t known that virulent anti-Semitism still existed in America; now, I couldn’t avoid it. The Jew can be all things to some people, it seems, none of them good.”

In “(((Semitism))),” Weisman acknowledges he has never been super observant, and being Jewish was never a central part of his life. He writes: 

“Until the rise of Trumpism, Judaism was easy, not just for me but for millions of American Jews. It was cafeteria-style: observe or don’t, join a synagogue or attend the occasional Jewish film festival, read Philip Roth, eat bagels and babka, say ‘oy’ ironically.”

But the election of Donald Trump brought an unwelcome spotlight to Judaism, one that cut a wide swath. And the man in the White House did little to nothing to stem the tide, despite his boast, superlative among superlatives, that he is “the least anti-Semitic person you’ve ever seen in your life.”

Weisman recounts Trump’s depressingly familiar greatest hits, such as no mention of Jews last year in a statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day, or the statement after the Charlottesville march that there were good people on both sides. In recounting news items since Trump’s  administration began, stories of local interest include references to the desecration at the Chesed Shel Emeth cemetery in University City and an alt-right disinformation campaign to fan the racial flames ignited by protests at University of Missouri-Columbia in 2015.

The book often veers away from a discussion strictly about what Weisman calls the cauldron of anti-Semitism to analyze the rise of the right in all of its forms. And while it’s true that in many ways, the movements converge, he may be making too much of the connections. Not all conservatives are anti-Semitic, certainly, and not all anti-Semites are riding the wave of the right wing renaissance.

Nowhere is that combination more difficult to parse than in support for Israel. Such backing is strong among conservatives, but Weisman says unquestioning fealty to the Jewish State and its policies has in many ways become an unwelcome litmus test.

“Jews have grown so obsessed with Israel,” he writes, “that the overt and covert signals of anti-Semitism beamed from the interior of the Trump campaign appeared to be disregarded” by many big-money backers of his successful presidential bid.

And what in the past would have been blips on the national radar screen are magnified a thousandfold by Twitter and other social media. Weisman wisely questions the better path to take: Retweet to reveal the hate on the other side, or ignore the barbs to avoid spreading the venom even further.

“When someone like me, with 58,000 Twitter followers, retweets a fascist with 400 followers,” he explains, “they have just performed a mitzvah for the publicity starved.”

In the end, Weisman calls on American Jews to take a long view of the causes and costs of anti-Semitism.

“Jews have thousands of years of history to place any given moment in perspective,” he says. “We have the resources to help, educate and organize, but even now, next to the attacks on Muslim Americans, the roundups of Latino undocumented immigrants, the reversals of gay and transgender rights, and the violence perpetrated against black communities, anti-Semitism is not the worst affliction to beset the United States in the Trump era, nor was it in many past eras.”

He calls for more positive, more proactive approaches in these and other areas:

“… while so many Americans seem sure of what they are against, they are not as confident about what they are for. American Jews need to assert a voice in the public arena, to back our institutions and mold them in our image. Jewish leadership must reflect its congregants, who are not sheep.” 

To bolster his view of what Jews must do in the face of injustice in the age of Trump, Weisman concludes with a quote from Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a scholar who died in 2006, on the burden that a chosen people must shoulder:

“Society resents anyone who challenges its fundamental beliefs, behavior, and prejudices. The ruling class does not like to be told that morality overrules power. The claim to chosenness guarantees that Jews live unquiet lives. I say it is far better to be the chosen people, the goad and the irritant to much of humanity, than to live timidly and fearfully. Jews exist to be bold.”