Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump
By Jonathan Weisman
238 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $25.99.
Come November’s midterm elections, the Republican candidate for the Third Congressional District of Illinois will be a Nazi. There is nothing neo about Arthur Jones. Not just a white supremacist, not merely a foot soldier of the alt-right, Jones is the sort of full-on, unreconstructed, Holocaust-denying (“the blackest lie in history”), Hitler-worshiping, blood-and-soil warrior for whom the Jews are the root of all evil. Don’t panic. He will lose the election in an overwhelmingly Democratic district, but it is precisely that assumed outcome which seemed to have persuaded local Republicans not to bother opposing him in the March 20 primary. Waking up to the result of their indifference they belatedly repudiated Jones. But it might have occurred to them that the mere fact of his appearance on the ballot as the Republican candidate is itself a shocking affront not just to Jews but to all the norms of American political decency. Then again, those norms right now are shifting sand.
The sick joke of Jones’s candidacy doesn’t feature in Jonathan Weisman’s “(((Semitism))),” but every other kind of monstrously reawakened zombie-Nazi madness does, especially those swarming and multiplying in the digital dung heap. His book is largely a report from consternation nation, and its longest chapter chronicles the rise of white supremacist aggression, on and off the web. He has been on the sharp end of trolling storms and knows what it feels like (as do I) to have yourself photoshopped with concentration camp stripes or with your head in an oven. But in the end Weisman is unsure how much of an actual and immediate danger this online abuse represents. For all of the website bile and the tiki-torch marches, “the threat of violence against Jews,” he writes, “has not materialized into actual violence,” especially in comparison with hate crimes committed against African-Americans and Muslims. He quotes the Anti-Defamation League’s Jonathan Greenblatt saying that “the number of Americans that hold anti-Semitic beliefs has decreased dramatically.”
But of course it is the advent of Trumpian politics — its nonstop carnival of paranoia; its scapegoating of Hispanics and African-Americans; its anti-immigrant phobia — that has rung Weisman’s alarm bells, which accounts for his subtitle: “Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump.” More sinister for him than the foaming lunacies of the neo-Nazis is the alt-right’s embrace of conspiracy theorists; the routine mutation of fantasy into fact; the appetite for seeing secret hands (George Soros for instance) at work in plots to undermine America — all of which have a whiff of late Weimar about them, not to mention the long history of populist anti-Semitism in the United States. Better, Weisman believes, to be fretfully vigilant than torpidly complacent. In one of the 1940s movie-poster homilies he favors (“the world is watching,” “the nation gasped”), he warns that while “unheard thunder” was rumbling, “the Jews slept.”
But this reduction of “being Jewish” to a state of hair-tearing anxiety about the surge of anti-Semitism means Weisman never quite delivers on his subtitle’s promise. A richly researched and nuanced account of Jewish life in stressed-out, polarized America would be timely, but this isn’t it. Instead, Weisman takes a chapter to complain about what he considers the major distraction preventing American Jews from being fully alert to the perils of the time — but this, a little surprisingly, turns out to be “Israel, Israel, Israel.” It is not clear whether he thinks the AIPAC herd mentality, so elated at gestures like the embassy move to Jerusalem, blinkers Jews to the threat that Trump and Trumpism represent to the liberal culture he champions. Or whether he believes that increasingly abrasive debates dividing the Jewish community about the occupation of the West Bank and the expansion of settlements are the greater problem. Weisman reports with understandable pain his demonization by hard-liners as a self-hating Jewish traitor for daring to point out, in a Times infographic, which opponents of the Iranian nuclear deal were Jewish. But such bitter arguments have gone on for a while and it seems odd to suppose that engagement with the trials and tribulations of Israel somehow precludes engaging with diaspora anti-Semitism, as if Jews of all people have a finite capacity for attentiveness. Anti-Semitism and the existence of Israel are hardly historically disconnected.
The second malaise Weisman identifies as blunting Jewish alertness to the peril of the times is the hollowing out of a Jewish identity that is neither uncritically Zionist nor devoutly religious. “The Jews who are most interested in a liberal, internationalist future, who wish to live progressive, assimilated existences free of threat,” he warns, “are disappearing.” But his sense of the tradition he believes is being lost is romantically wishful. In a hasty drive through Jewish history he nominates Moses Maimonides and Moses Mendelssohn as embodying this outward-looking nontribal Judaism. But the two Moseses were intensely devout and at times darkly pessimistic about the prospects of a Jewish life in a non-Jewish world.
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