In (((Semi­tism))): Being Jew­ish in Amer­i­ca in the Age of Trump, Jonathan Weis­man explores the dis­con­nect between his own sense of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and the expec­ta­tions of his detrac­tors and sup­port­ers. He delves into the rise of the alt-right, their roots in old­er anti-Semit­ic orga­ni­za­tions, the odd ancient­ness of their grievances―cloaked as they are in con­tem­po­rary, techy hipsterism―and their aims―to spread hate in a palat­able way through a polit­i­cal struc­ture that has so sud­den­ly become tol­er­ant of their views. 

Michael Dobkows­ki: In many ways your book is about Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and expe­ri­ence in the Trump era. How has the Amer­i­can Jew­ish expe­ri­ence changedgen­er­al­ly, and for you, personally?

Jonathan Weis­man: I grew up in a very Reform house­hold. Although I was raised to iden­ti­fy as Jew­ish, I — like many Jews of my gen­er­a­tion — drift­ed away, in part because Jews had become entire­ly com­fort­able in a plu­ral­is­tic, lib­er­al democ­ra­cy that seemed to be pro­gress­ing inex­orably toward tol­er­ance and accep­tance. I thought of anti-Semi­tism as an issue of the past. Then came the Trump cam­paign and the emer­gence of swarms of white nation­al­ists who pressed for Mr. Trump’s elec­tion. I became a tar­get of the alt-right’s attack, forc­ing me to recon­sid­er my iden­ti­ty in light of how the big­ots were iden­ti­fy­ing me.I could embrace Judaism as a sys­tem of beliefs, a cul­ture, and a reli­gion or I could shun it. But I could no longer ignore it. And so I embraced my Judaism. I fear that too many Jews have ratio­nal­ized away the threat of white nation­al­ist hate to jus­ti­fy polit­i­cal and social views that were formed before the emer­gence of this changed reality.

MD: Do you think these changes are tem­po­rary and reversible or have we reached a tip­ping point?

JW: It is dif­fi­cult to know whether we are liv­ing in a tem­po­rary era of intol­er­ance that will be seen as a brief inter­rup­tion in the post-World War II pro­gres­sion toward plu­ral­ism and democ­ra­cy — or whether that post-war pro­gres­sion was, in fact, the his­tor­i­cal aber­ra­tion. It is not just the rise of hate and intol­er­ance. Democ­ra­cies and fledg­ling democ­ra­cies like Hun­gary and Rus­sia have slipped back into crony author­i­tar­i­an­ism. Intol­er­ant nation­al­ism is ris­ing around the world. I still have faith that Amer­i­cans love our insti­tu­tions and tra­di­tions, and that we can save what makes us Amer­i­cans. But I am less sure by the day.

MD: Much has been writ­ten about the so-called new anti-Semi­tism.” Do you think the threats posed by the alt-right and their allies are fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent from ear­li­er expres­sions and man­i­fes­ta­tions of Amer­i­can anti-Semitism?

JW: The alt-right’s anti-Semit­ic beliefs and tropes are odd­ly anachro­nis­tic. They are pre­cise­ly the asper­sions that I learned about as a child in Sun­day school: Jews are both rapa­cious, greedy cap­i­tal­ists and dan­ger­ous, left wing anar­chists; they are at once all-pow­er­ful pup­pet mas­ters and snivel­ing weak­lings; they con­trol the media and through it, they have cor­rupt­ed pop­u­lar cul­ture with their deca­dence — yet they are for­ev­er for­eign­ers, nev­er tru­ly Amer­i­cans, nev­er tru­ly part of Amer­i­can cul­ture. It makes no sense, but those con­tra­dic­tions have shown remark­able stay­ing pow­er, and in that sense, the new anti-Semi­tism” is cen­turies old. What dis­tin­guish­es the alt-right from its pre­de­ces­sors is its method of orga­ni­za­tion, its tech­no­log­i­cal savvy, its sar­casm and irony, and its abil­i­ty to at least seem ubiq­ui­tous. By spread­ing its ide­ol­o­gy on Twit­ter, Red­dit, YouTube com­ment sec­tions, 4Chan and 8Chan, the alt-right has become unavoid­able for my children’s gen­er­a­tion. It is not an invis­i­ble sub­cul­ture, talk­ing to itself on its own web­sites, seg­re­gat­ed from the wider World Wide Web. The alt-right is dis­sem­i­nat­ing its ide­ol­o­gy. Most young peo­ple reject it, but there will always be dis­af­fect­ed searchers who will be drawn to the sophistry of hate.

MD: Are racism and anti-Semi­tism becom­ing nor­mal­ized in cer­tain seg­ments of Amer­i­can soci­ety — and if so, what does it mean to nor­mal­ize these social pathologies?

JW: Racism and anti-Semi­tism have always been nor­mal in cer­tain seg­ments of Amer­i­can soci­ety. But when the pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States says very fine peo­ple” marched in Char­lottesville on both sides, has so much dif­fi­cul­ty con­demn­ing the big­ots who love him, and press­es poli­cies that are seen by racists and anti-Semi­tes as dog whis­tles that rat­i­fy their beliefs, we are all at risk. Expres­sions of intol­er­ance are no doubt more tol­er­at­ed now than they were two years ago. We are learn­ing that plu­ral­ism and diver­si­ty are not as val­ued as we once thought.

MD: You are not afraid in this book to talk about things that hap­pened to you, your fam­i­ly, and oth­er Jew­ish jour­nal­ists. Why do you feel it is so impor­tant to tell this story?

JW: I want­ed this book to be per­son­al, to not be abstract or the­o­ret­i­cal. And I believe that my back­ground — a not-par­tic­u­lar­ly obser­vant Jew who strug­gled through a mixed mar­riage and tried, not very well, to impart a Jew­ish iden­ti­ty to my chil­dren — would be rec­og­niz­able to a lot of Jews of my gen­er­a­tion and younger, and to non-Jews who wres­tle with their own iden­ti­ties in an atom­ized soci­ety. For some­one so assim­i­lat­ed as myself to be sin­gled out and attacked by anti-Semi­tes should have res­o­nance beyond obser­vant com­mu­ni­ties, but that res­o­nance would emerge only if I was will­ing to delve into the personal.

MD: Who are some of the writ­ers and schol­ars who helped you under­stand the state of Amer­i­can soci­ety today? The state of Amer­i­can Jew­ish society?

JW: I read Bernard-Hen­ri Lévy, Han­nah Arendt, Tim­o­thy Sny­der, and Melis­sa Fay Greene, but this book was shaped more by the rab­bis, activists, and vic­tims I spoke to: Rab­bi Francine Ros­ton and Tanya Gersh in White­fish, Mon­tana, who suf­fered through anti-Semit­ic attacks far, far worse than any­thing I saw; Rab­bi Daniel Zemel of Tem­ple Mic­ah in Wash­ing­ton, who taught me to apply Jew­ish law to shape a response to big­otry; Rab­bis Jon­ah Pes­ner and David Saper­stein of the Reli­gious Action Cen­ter of Reform Judaism, who helped me put the cur­rent moment into mod­ern his­to­ry; Ken Stern of the Jus­tus and Karin Rosen­berg Foun­da­tion who was frank and hon­est about his time at the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Com­mit­tee; and Zoe Quinn, who showed me the tech­no­log­i­cal roots of the alt-right and the nuts and bolts of a tech­no­log­i­cal response.

MD: Since you fin­ished writ­ing the book, are there any devel­op­ments that would lead you to mod­i­fy your argu­ment, or even strength­en it?

JW: I had just about fin­ished this book when Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia erupt­ed in chants of Jews will not replace us” and big­ot­ed vio­lence, and the Inter­net hordes of the alt-right jumped into vis­cer­al real­i­ty. I was able to lace the book with ref­er­ences to Char­lottesville, but the pro­gres­sion of big­otry has not stopped. Since Char­lottesville, some have said the alt-right has retreat­ed. And it is true that after the book was fin­ished, the sym­bols of nation­al­ist intol­er­ance with­in the White House lost their pur­chase. Steve Ban­non quit, and then with the pub­li­ca­tion of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury he was excom­mu­ni­cat­ed from the president’s inner cir­cle. Sebas­t­ian Gor­ka final­ly left the admin­is­tra­tion, though he remains a pub­lic cheer­leader. The lead­ers of the Unite the Right ral­ly in Char­lottesville vowed that they would return, again and again. They haven’t. But the pres­i­dent called African nations shit­hole coun­tries,” end­ed pro­tect­ed sta­tus for Hait­ian and Sal­vado­ran refugees, and pro­voked a show­down over young, undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants brought to the coun­try as chil­dren. Paul Nehlen, a Wis­con­sin busi­ness­man from the Tea Par­ty right who has chal­lenged House Speak­er Paul Ryan, has open­ly embraced anti-Semi­tism as an orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple for his cam­paign. The ques­tion of what kind of a coun­try we want is still front and center.

MD: You write with such ease, pas­sion, and ener­gy. Was this a par­tic­u­lar­ly chal­leng­ing book to write or a project you felt almost a mis­sion to complete?

JW: It was remark­ably easy. My first book was a nov­el, No. 4 Impe­r­i­al Lane. It took about three years to write. I have anoth­er nov­el that is three-quar­ters fin­ished and doesn’t seem to be pro­gress­ing at all. This one just spilled out. I con­ceived of five chap­ters, wrote the most rudi­men­ta­ry of out­lines, and then filled it in. I guess I just had to get it off my chest. I also want­ed it pub­lished as soon as possible.

MD: Who do you con­sid­er the ide­al audi­ence for your book? What are the most impor­tant ideas you would like read­ers to come away with?

JW: This book is pret­ty tough on Amer­i­can Jews, too many of whom have sub­vert­ed the inter­ests of our com­mu­ni­ty and the broad­er nation for the com­fort of their present. I make note that the obses­sion of Amer­i­can Jews with Israel — espe­cial­ly major Amer­i­can Jew­ish insti­tu­tions — has atro­phied atten­tion on cur­rent events in the U.S. There are pro­gres­sive Jew­ish insti­tu­tions, con­ser­v­a­tive Jew­ish insti­tu­tions, and mod­er­ate Jew­ish insti­tu­tions, and they all argue over Israel. This obses­sion blind­ed Amer­i­can Jew­ry to the rise of the alt-right. So I would say the ide­al audi­ence is the com­pla­cent Jew who has not reflect­ed on the Jew­ish community’s place in Amer­i­ca and the impor­tance of demo­c­ra­t­ic plu­ral­ism to the secu­ri­ty of Judaism itself. But I do not want the audi­ence to be — nor do I think they will be — sole­ly Jew­ish. All Amer­i­cans should be vig­i­lant about the ero­sion of demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions and the rise of intol­er­ance. That is what I hope read­ers will take away from the book.

MD: If you could require the pres­i­dent to read one book in addi­tion to your own, what would it be?

JW: The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism by Han­nah Arendt, but if that is too chal­leng­ing, Tim­o­thy Snyder’s brief, elo­quent On Tyran­ny: Twen­ty Lessons from the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry will do.

MD: Toward the end of the book you say that insti­tu­tions mat­ter, they need to be defend­ed, and they do not sur­vive on their own. Do you, like Tim­o­thy Sny­der and oth­er schol­ars, fear that we may be slid­ing toward an Amer­i­can authoritarianism?

JW: That is my biggest fear, yes. I would nev­er wish eco­nom­ic hard times on this coun­try, but the strong econ­o­my, low unem­ploy­ment, surg­ing stock mar­ket and new tax cuts have made me far more wor­ried that vot­ers will over­look the affronts to our Con­sti­tu­tion and demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples and decide against a change of course. Short-term eco­nom­ic gain is a pow­er­ful anesthetic.

MD: Are you san­guine or wor­ried about whether we have the ade­quate insti­tu­tion­al and con­sti­tu­tion­al pro­tec­tions to pre­vent this?

JW: As I wrote in the book, Amer­i­cans do not seem to be march­ing as sheep into some author­i­tar­i­an future. The pub­lic sphere crack­les with dis­sent. There is joy in rebel­lion. We do believe in our insti­tu­tions, and thus far, the courts appear to be main­tain­ing their inde­pen­dence and the free press is rev­el­ing in its free­dom. That said, Con­gress — the first branch of Con­sti­tu­tion­al democ­ra­cy — has been remark­ably docile. Over­sight is almost nonex­is­tent. Even Democ­rats have been unable to artic­u­late a prin­ci­pled stand for plu­ral­is­tic democ­ra­cy, wor­ried that any ele­va­tion in rhetoric could drown out the search for lunch-pail issues that could win back white work­ing class vot­ers who drift­ed to Trump. It real­ly is up to the Amer­i­can peo­ple to stand firm. Their rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Wash­ing­ton won’t.

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.