Bari Weiss is a daughter of Pittsburgh, of Squirrel Hill, the heavily Jewish neighborhood that is home to the Tree of Life synagogue.
The pain she felt after the Oct. 27, 2018, massacre of 11 worshippers at the three congregations that shared the Tree of Life building was evident in the columns she wrote afterward.
Weiss, a staff writer and opinion section editor at The New York Times, has blended history, current events and personal perspective in “How to Fight Anti-Semitism.” The book, which released in mid-September, has garnered considerable attention, particularly in publications with Jewish audiences.
Readers may want to bypass the numerous reviews and judge for themselves whether Weiss has correctly assigned responsibility for the proliferation of anti-Semitism in the United States and offered viable responses to what is known as the oldest hatred.
The U.S. Justice Department has said it will seek the death penalty for the alleged Tree of Life gunman, Robert Bowers, who has been charged with dozens of counts, including criminal homicide, aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation.
Before the killings, Bowers had posted on social media: “HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
Inside the synagogue, the gunman declared his desire to “kill Jews.”
“Those words would wake me up to the fact that I had spent much of my life on a holiday from history,” Weiss writes.
America, she says, “has been, even with all of its ugly flaws, a New Jerusalem for the Jewish people.” Nonetheless, “… the Jews of America, thinking ourselves a diaspora apart, have lost their – our – instinct for danger.”
Weiss sees danger coming from multiple ends of the political spectrum. “We are living in an era in which the center is not only not holding, it is bending toward and being distorted by the extremes on both the ethnonationalist right and the anticolonialist left,” while “the lunatic fringe has gone mainstream, a process aided and abetted by our politicians and spread like a virus by regular Americans on social media,” she writes.
In this environment, Jews “are forced to make grave compromises to fit into political tribes or remain politically homeless. We are pitted against one another by people who deem only some of us ‘good Jews,’ worthy of trust and acceptance.”
Israel frequently is at the root of discussions of anti-Semitism. “I am not saying that criticizing Israeli policy is anti-Semitic. Not in the least. Just as I believe that a crucial part of being an American patriot is not just defending America but insisting that it live up to its promise, part of being a Zionist means calling Israel to account when it falls short,” Weiss writes.
A page later she adds, “You can suggest that the current policies of the Jewish state betray Jewish values. You can claim that contemporary Zionist is not what our ancestors would have embraced. But you cannot erase the clear line of Jewish history that leads the Jewish people back to that land.”
No amount of protesting, complaining or explaining will make anti-Semitism go away, Weiss decides. Rather, “we fight by waging an affirmative battle for who we are. By entering the fray for our values, for our ideas, for our ancestors, for our families, for our communities, for the generations that will come after us.”
When she spoke in Atlanta in November 2018 at the Jewish National Fund’s annual Jack Hirsch Memorial Breakfast, Weiss served up a list of “seven dirty words in the Jewish world, … words that signify values that are not being inculcated in young people, topics that we assiduously avoid, and debates that we are too cowardly to have.”
In “How to Fight Anti-Semitism,” Weiss has waded deep into those debates.
The book will be featured at 8 p.m. Nov 16. in a conversation with local radio talk show host Dana Barrett.