Why is everyone so mean to Bari Weiss?

By Robert Wright, Jul 19 2020

Bari Weiss, who until this week was an opinion editor at the New York Times, has signed two famous letters lately: (1) the “Harper’s letter,” which argued against cancel culture and was also signed by 152 other luminaries; and (2) the “Bari Weiss resignation letter,” in which Weiss, in addition to announcing her exit from the Times, tried to get someone canceled. 

The “someone” was the novelist Alice Walker. Weiss called Walker, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of The Color Purple, a “proud anti-Semite who believes in lizard Illuminati.” 

I refuse to do whatever amount of googling it would take for me to develop a firm view on whether Alice Walker is indeed anti-Semitic, let alone get to the bottom of the famously slippery lizard Illuminati question. But for present purposes we don’t need that data anyway. I just want to note something others have noted about Weiss: she punctuates fierce defenses of free and untrammeled speech with attempts to expel people from the community of discourse because of things they’ve said. Obviously, if you can get enough elites to share your view that a person is anti-Semitic, that person won’t be welcome on mainstream platforms. To call someone an anti-Semite is to argue for their cancellation.

Which in some cases would be OK with me. But Weiss’s definition of anti-Semitism is pretty broad. For example: she says that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. So by her lights it must be time to cancel Peter Beinart, the former editor of the New Republic and current contributor to The Atlantic and Jewish Currents. Beinart (an Orthodox Jew) this month wrote a New York Times op-ed arguing that a two-state solution will never happen, so it’s time to give up on maintaining a Jewish state and to work instead on creating a single political entity encompassing Israel and Palestine and granting equal rights to all. Beinart contends that this needn’t mean the end of Zionism, since there would still be a “Jewish home” in the Middle East, but Weiss’s version of Zionism entails a Jewish state, so…it’s been nice knowing you, Peter.

In her resignation letter, Weiss complained about being “the subject of constant bullying” by colleagues at the New York Times who “disagree with my views.” She has also attracted a fair amount of wrath in the wider world. Last week Katie Herzog, a fellow signer of the Harper’s letter and a friend of Weiss’s, expressed puzzlement over this. “It's strange that she has become the sort of villain on Twitter,” Herzog said to Aryeh Cohen-Wade, host of the bloggingheads.tv show Culturally Determined. “I'm curious about if somebody could point out, like, all of Bari's sins… I'm guessing that they're going to seem a little bit smaller than the hype around her would suggest.”

I’ll accept that challenge! I mean, I can’t speak for all of Twitter, but I’m happy to note some things about Weiss’s writing that trigger me, some of which I’ve seen trigger others. 

I’ve already alluded to one common complaint: Weiss has long cast herself as an opponent of cancel culture, yet she repeatedly, if implicitly, encourages canceling people. But I wouldn’t want my indictment of her to rest heavily on that. Pretty much all of us champion free speech yet have people we’d like to cancel. Or, to put it more high-mindedly, we all can name views we consider so pernicious that their advocates shouldn’t be featured on respectable platforms or at respectable gatherings. Who among us would go to a soiree attended by David Duke? Or object if we heard that software at the Times op-ed page sent his submissions straight to the spam folder? 

Nor do I think we can indict Weiss for spending so much of her time on a particular cancellation criterion—for the fact that, as Herzog put it, “she has a hyper-focus on anti-Semitism.” We all have our pet issues. 

It’s when you look closely at how Weiss deploys that focus, and the consequences of the deployment, that the indictment starts gathering force. I think her approach to the anti-Semitism problem seriously damages American political discourse. And her approach is shared by lots of influential people and institutions—which makes her that much more important as a case study. So here are the bullet points from my case study—five things about Bari Weiss’s writing that trigger me:

1. Her criteria for cancellation lack moral coherence. 

It would be one thing if Weiss’s broad definition of anti-Semitism was matched by a broad definition of bigotry generally. That seems not to be the case. 

In her New York Times farewell letter, she proudly listed some people she had “helped bring to our pages,” including the Dutch-American activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. As Omar Baddar has observed, Hirsi Ali has said some less than flattering things about Islam and Muslims. She said that “every devout Muslim who aspired to practice genuine Islam…must have at least approved of” the 9/11 attacks. She also said the United States is at war with, and must defeat, Islam—not just radical Islam, but mainstream Islam; she said we must “crush,” in a military sense as well as other senses, the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims.

As Baddar noted, if you said comparable things about Jews—that, for example, all devout Jews “approved of” Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 massacre of Palestinians in Hebron—you would be widely (and rightly) condemned as anti-Semitic. I’m willing to bet, even without having done the googling, that Alice Walker hasn’t said that. Neither, I suspect, have the Columbia professors whom Weiss accused of racism back when she was a student in 2005. (She didn’t get them canceled; a faculty committee found "no evidence of any statements made by the faculty that could reasonably be construed as anti-Semitic.") 

2. Her conception of anti-Semitism lacks logical coherence.  

In her book How to Fight Anti-Semitism, Weiss writes that “the ultimate goal” of anti-Semitism is “the elimination of Judaism and the Jewish people.” Look, you can define anti-Semitism so broadly that it includes Peter Beinart, or you can define anti-Semitism so narrowly that it includes only people who want to wipe out all traces of Jewishness on the planet. You can’t do both. Of course, one advantage of doing both—so long as nobody notices the contradiction—is that it allows you to claim that vast numbers of people, and correspondingly large quantities of political discourse, are an existential threat to the Jewish people. Which leads us to:  

3. Her conception of anti-Semitism critically constrains discussion of foreign policy. 

The best candidate for the next massively violent American blunder in the Middle East is war with Iran. Pretty much every sentient observer of American foreign policy, if they’re being honest, would agree that the chances of such a war are increased by the deep antagonism between Israel and Iran, combined with the influence Israel and some of its supporters have on American policy. But not many people will actually say that, and in some cases that’s because saying it might open them to charges of anti-Semitism.

You may ask: But why would saying one nation uses its influence to get another nation to help it fight an enemy—something that happens all the time in human affairs—be taken as a sign of bigotry? The answer is that, when the nation is Israel, such statements are said to evoke one or more anti-Semitic tropes—that, for example, Jews are manipulative masterminds, conspiring to influence events from behind the scenes, or that Jews like to drag countries into wars.

For Weiss, the evocation of such tropes is generally assumed to be intentional and so taken as evidence of guilt beyond reasonable doubt. She readily convicts Rep. Ilhan Omar of anti-Semitism for (1) saying that AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobby group that uses money (among other forms of influence) to sway American politics, is a pro-Israel lobby group that uses money to sway American politics; and (2) back in 2012, during a week when Israel conducted 1,400 air strikes on Gaza and killed 174 Palestinians, and wasn’t getting as much international condemnation as Omar wanted, saying Israel had “hypnotized” the world and was doing “evil.” Omar long ago apologized for both utterances, and insisted they didn’t reflect anti-Semitism, but Weiss still, in her recent book, calls Omar both anti-Semitic and a bigot.

I understand why Weiss worries about anti-Semitic tropes. In addition to the fact that they’ve helped fuel horrific suffering over the years, there’s the fact that she has particular proximity to some of the suffering. The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh—site of the 2018 shooting that was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history—is where she had her bat mitzvah. And that attack was very much driven by an anti-Semitic trope (Jews as manipulative masterminds who are plotting to fill America with non-white immigrants).

At the same time, I’d really like Americans to think clearly about current tensions between America and Iran—how they reached this level, and whether intensifying them is in America’s interests. And doing that leads straightforwardly to the subject of Israel. If Trump hadn’t been so eager to please Bibi Netanyahu and Christian Zionist voters and far-right pro-Israel megadonor Sheldon Adelson (who once seriously proposed dropping an atomic bomb on Iran), the US probably wouldn’t have abandoned the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. In which case we’d be in a very different place today. 

But here’s the place we’re in: 

This month government facilities in Iran have been mysteriously exploding. Actually, not so mysteriously: It’s fairly clear that Israel is behind some if not all of the sabotage (in which case, needless to say, this is an act of war and a violation of international law). Some see these attacks as a joint American-Israeli venture, and others have speculated that, as one European Union intelligence official put it, Israel is trying to “provoke an Iranian response that can turn into a military escalation while Trump remains in office." 

I personally doubt that this will lead to a direct military confrontation between the US and Iran, but it could, and in any event I think it should occasion a robust and candid discussion about the relationship between Israel and the US. But if you want to start such a discussion on a major platform, you would be well advised to be extremely careful about your language. Some commentators find it easier, all told, to just stay quiet.   

I don’t want to overdramatize this. Two years ago I wrote a piece for the Intercept, a pretty major platform, showing how a pro-Israel, anti-Iran think tank, funded by people like Adelson, had informed coverage of Iran in the New York Times—and had done so, I argued, in ways that made war more likely. And I lived to tell about it; I wasn’t called an anti-Semite and I wasn’t cast out of polite society.  

On the other hand, the president of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, in an impressively energetic tweetstorm, denounced the piece as “illogical at best, biased at worst” and lacking in “any perceptible empathy.” 

At first glance Greenblatt’s reaction may seem odd, since the ADL’s stated mission is to defend Jews and other ethnic groups against defamation, and I hadn’t said anything about Jews or other ethnic groups. But insiders have long known that the ADL sees the defense of Israel’s interests (as it conceives them) as a big part of its mission—and uses its status as a lauded humanitarian organization and arbiter of bigotry to cast aspersions on people who say things it finds threatening to those interests. 

Just ask Peter Beinart. His Times piece about a one-state solution led the ADL to accuse him of aiding and abetting anti-Semitism. That’s a charge Beinart wasn’t too happy about, and it’s a charge that, if you ask me, is nuts. But it’s a charge that flows directly from Bari Weiss’s world view. Which brings us to:

4. Her conception of anti-Semitism is bad for Israel. 

Thirteen years ago, Jimmy Carter published a book called Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, arguing that, in the absence of a two-state solution, Israel’s future would look like South Africa’s past. Attributing apartheid-like properties to Israel is said to be a form of “de-legitimizing” Israel, which is considered a close cousin of anti-Zionism. The ADL (which, like Weiss, equates anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism) took out full page ads attacking the book, and the ADL’s director accused Carter of “engaging in anti-Semitism.” Other Jewish groups joined in the denunciation.

Today, the book’s warning looks more and more prescient. Who knows? Maybe if people had spent less time stigmatizing Carter, and more time taking his argument seriously, Israel and Palestine would both be in a better place.

The dwindling number of people who think a two-state solution is still possible sometimes say the US needs to apply “tough love” to get Israel to make the requisite concessions. But it’s hard to apply tough love without tough language, and it’s hard to use tough language if that risks getting you canceled. 

5. She doesn’t seem to understand that not everyone is Bari Weiss. 

In her book Weiss complains about people who “harp endlessly about a bakery that won’t make a gay wedding cake but have nothing to say about honor killings.” Hey Bari, different people have different issues. You’ve got your gay rights people and your honor killings people. And your universal basic income people, and so on. (Personally, as may be obvious by now, I’m a foreign policy person.)  

Maybe this is the thing I find most annoying about Weiss: She writes as if everything that’s self-evident to her should be self-evident to all human beings, and seems dismayed when some of them fail to get the picture. How could it be that Ilhan Omar, a black Muslim refugee from Somalia, sees the world so differently from Bari Weiss, a white Jewish woman from Pittsburgh? Puzzling. 

This works both ways. Just as we should understand that Omar’s experience has shaped her worldview and convinced her of its validity, we should understand the same about Weiss. I’m sure her animating concerns flow from her life history naturally and earnestly. And the particular concern she’s most famous for, anti-Semitism, is indeed a growing problem in America and elsewhere, and warrants the attention she gives it. 

But I wish Weiss would try harder to do what she demands of Omar: step outside of herself and get a sense for how some of the things she says might sound to people different from her. 

To take just one example: She says one reason people who talk about gay wedding cakes don’t talk about honor killings is that they’re afraid they’ll be labeled Islamophobic. In other words: She worries that labels which stigmatize people, if thrown around too casually, can have a stifling effect on speech. Yeah, I hate it when that happens. 

Illustration by Nikita Petrov.

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