Bari Weiss Sounds the Alarm, but Her Ringtone is Off-key

Bari Weiss (Twitter Avatar)

It’s not unusual for me to receive emails from members of our community asking me to comment on an article or an op-ed. But in mid-October, in the span of just a couple of days, I received more than a dozen requests to comment on Bari Weiss’ article published in the online Tablet magazine.

The Supers, Temple Emunah Members on the Brooklyn Bridge, Jan. 5, 2020 (photo by Rabbi David Lerner)

Ms. Weiss has made a name for herself as an accomplished writer and commentator. I have greatly appreciated her commentaries in the NY Times and was inspired by her speech at the United Synagogue Convention here in Boston last December. A busload of Emunah-ites heard her in January when we traveled down to New York for an important rally against anti-Semitism before the pandemic hit.

Entitled, Stop Being Shocked, her article delineates the challenge of this moment when American Jews face a left-wing creeping toward anti-Israel sentiment, even a growing anti-Semitism.

Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association Vigil for Tree of Life Synagogue victims hosted by Temple Emunah, Nov. 1, 2018 (seated left to right: Rabbi Howard Jaffe, Temple Isaiah, Congresswoman Katherine Clark, and Rabbi David Lerner)

Her piece is an important one. Just as she stood up after the terrible shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018, as well as at many other events, she is standing up now for Jews. By any measure, that anti-Semitism is on the rise is a real cause for concern. Much of it comes from the politics of fear and divisiveness that the current administration has sown. A significant share of it comes from far-left anti-Israel politics. Let us also remember that some comes from the far-right as we saw in the Charlottesville rallying cry: “Jews will not replace us.”

Because she points to the left as the source of much of the problem, I will analyze her claims, while downgrading some of her challenges. 

While I appreciate her sounding the alarm, her arguments do not fully resonate with me, nor do they contain the nuance that this moment calls for.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Facebook Avatar)

Her main argument is about Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) who cancelled a speech in memory of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, z”l, may his memory be blessed, chaired by Mandy Patinkin for Americans for Peace Now. While even AOC admitted she was not an “expert in geopolitics in this issue,” Weiss claims that AOC knew perfectly well what she was doing and that even great peace-makers like Rabin are now treif if they are associated with Israel. 

But AOC is a product of her times and the milieu that has been created not just by the left. What should have happened when AOC was first elected in 2018? AOC should have been taken on a trip to Israel as used to be de rigueur for most new members of Congress.

Who should have brought her? There is an incredible pro-Israel organization that takes newly-elected Congressmen and women to Israel – pretty awesome, right? This amazing group is AIPAC.

As a supporter of AIPAC for years, I say proudly that AIPAC has had a most impressive track record: they have organized trips for new members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to teach the history of the State of Israel in all its complexity. These trips were also rare opportunities where Republicans and Democrats could come together.

But, sadly, AIPAC allowed itself to become a bit too partisan, especially during these last four years. Though the organization tried to avoid the left/right fights, it got sucked in. In 2016, the Policy Conference was whipped into a Trumpian frenzy, one that turned off many young attendees. Thus, AOC did not go to Israel with AIPAC and in fact, has not been at all. 

The second fact is that AOC simply made a mistake. It’s not part of some far-left movement, but rather, like many other politicians, she made an error. She went too far and the proof that this is not a left-wing agenda is that left-wing organizations criticized her for her actions. For example, see the head of J-Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami’s piece on September 29, 2020.

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‘Free Palestine’ spray-painted at Kenosha synagogue amid protests by Eli Nahum (8/27/20) (Image from Monitoring Antisemitism Worldwide)

Ms. Weiss’ second topic is anti-Semitism in general in the United States. Here, I think she is correct and the data bear this out. There is a rise in anti-Semitism. It is most disturbing to see left-wing protestors spray-paint “Free Palestine” on a synagogue in Kenosha, Wisconsin. However, some of her other examples do not rise to this level. Let us all be clear: anti-Semitism is on the rise on both the far-left and the far-right. It has been fueled by Q-Anon, far-right conspiracy theories, and white supremacists that have sometimes found a home in the embrace of the outgoing president.

Public Advocate (now Mayor) Bill de Blasio Press Conference on steps of City Hall re: Announcement of Voting Information Plan (Jan. 5, 2010) (Image from Flickr via Wikimedia Commons by William Alatriste, CC BY-SA 2.0)

I do take issue with Weiss’ critique of Mayor de Blasio’s criticism of the ultra-Orthodox community in New York for their risky behavior around Covid. I think that de Blasio’s statements were accurate. I have heard first-hand accounts from several members of our congregation who have attended ultra-Orthodox funerals in the Tri-State area: people were not wearing masks, they were not physically distancing themselves from one another, and they were gathering in large groups. This has contributed to the spread of Covid – it is against both NY law and Jewish law and has caused the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands of people. It is deserving of critique in strong terms. Weiss’ criticism is significantly off the mark.

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The final part of Bari Weiss’ article is a long excursus about the general dangers of the drift from American liberalism, as she feels that it is drifting too far to the left.

Her argument that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. felt that our founding fathers created “magnificent” founding documents is on the mark. They have been supple enough to allow us to evolve for almost 250 years. Not a small feat. As she writes so eloquently, “America would never be perfect, but we could always strive toward building a more perfect union.”

(Logo from Channel3000.com)

After that, however, Weiss goes too far. Despite her claims, American liberalism is not being replaced with some far-left extremism any more than its news is being replaced by non-factual, incoherent, news-like products manufactured by outlets like the Sinclair Media Group. If anything, the greater danger is not from the far-left, but from the far-right, from Q-Anon and white supremacist groups as our own government has stated. 

But I am an equal opportunity “danger-ist,” and so there are clearly threats to us from both sides. It’s time to stop sounding an alarm on one side of the boat when we can see attacks coming from both starboard and port. We Jews are not even on a ship, it’s a small craft!

Her critique of “social justice” Judaism also feels too harsh. For many Jews, this is a door into Judaism, one that has been central to Judaism since the Tanakh; I would spend less time slamming it shut and instead, try to find some wood to prop it open.

Having the opportunity to speak with many college students, I would emphasize that we should recognize where our youth are and where they are going. We can attract them by highlighting a Judaism that is inclusive and open to others. That’s what we learn from the opening chapters of Genesis: we are all created in the image of God, b’tzelem Elohim. That is the foundation of social justice. Once we are engaging with them, we will have an opportunity to deepen their Jewish experience. Without meeting them first, we will have no chance.

Free speech is another of Weiss’ concerns. She feels that the left is stifling it. Again, there are clearly some troubling aspects to this far-left thinking, but really how mainstream is stifling free speech?

Her comments about how the left wants to rid us of the SAT take us into a vastly different topic into which Weiss apparently feels no qualms wandering. My editor might have sent that back: “looks like material for another essay”. That said, having teens of SAT age, it is clear to me that the test is not that helpful since those who have the money to pay for tutoring and other means of gaming it, pretty much can. It favors the wealthy and the children of highly educated parents.

(Image from Amazon.com)

Since there is no level playing field to begin with, the notion of a meritocracy is fairly complicated. Weiss would do well to appreciate some of the arguments put forth in Michael Sandel’s recent book, The Tyranny of Merit which points us to the dangers of meritocracy and the resentment it breeds: see the 2016 presidential election or the people who voted for the outgoing president in 2020 as examples.

Sandel encourages us to think more about an ethic of solidarity and humility, more about the dignity of work than the importance of the meritocracy. This is a strong critique of our current state of affairs and another missing piece in Weiss’ puzzle.

Professor Ibram X. Kendi at the 2019 Texas Book Festival in Austin, Texas (Image by Larry D. Moore (© 2019) via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ibram X. Kendi is the focus of her lengthy closing critique. Here, she has missed the forest for the trees. As I discussed in my sermon on Kol Nidrei, I do think we have internalized racist attitudes that have seeped deeply into our culture and our society; they are part and parcel of this country and its history.

While we should be sounding the alarm about Jews who have suffered discrimination on campuses, Kendi’s books are not the cause of that. His approach does not endanger Jews, it is built to correct generational injustices including slavery, racism, and redlining against blacks. That’s it.

As Jews, we have a choice about how to approach this moment: we can run from it, falsely claiming the left is totally dangerous, we can fully embrace it, drinking the Kool-Aid™ without checking its ingredients or kosher certification, or there is a third option. We can carefully approach this moment as the thoughtful people we are, wisely choosing to partner with those on the left or the right when we can and when their values align with ours. We can build bridges with other faiths and racial groups and communities, strengthening our hand at a time when our numbers are diminishing.

Or we can just run screaming: “Fire.” I’m not a big fan of that one.

* * *

Bari Weiss has shone a spotlight on critical problems: there should be some concern about left-wing anti-Semitism and the loss of traditional alliances. I would argue that there should be equal, perhaps greater, concern about far right-wing anti-Semitism. 

That said, her arguments are far too broad, lacking the nuance these topics deserve.

As a Jewish community, we need to build coalitions, find friends and help people and leaders like AOC understand the complexities of this moment.

Bari Weiss is sounding the alarm, but her ringtone is off-key.

About the Author
Spiritual leader of Temple Emunah, Lexington, Mass. since 2004, David Lerner also serves as the immediate past president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston and ClergyAgainstBullets.org. After his ordination at Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner served at NSS Beth El in Highland Park, IL.
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