(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump

(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump

by Jonathan Weisman


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In the wake of Donald Trump's election and the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, (((Semitism))) is a powerful book that examines how we can fight anti-Semitism in America

A San Francisco Chronicle Reader Recommendation

The Washington Post:
"Timely...[A] passionate call to arms."

Jewish Book Council: "Could not be more important or timely."

Bernard-Henri Lévy: "It would be wonderful if anti-Semitism was a European specialty and stopped at the border with the United States. Alas, this is not the case. Jonathan Weisman’s new book (((Semitism))) shows why..."

Michael Eric Dyson:
"With eloquence and poignancy Weisman shows how hatred can slowly and quietly chew away at the moral fabric of society. We now live in an age where more than ever bigotry and oppression no longer need to hide in fear of reproach. The floodgates have opened. This is much more than a personal response to the bigotry he experienced because of his Jewishness; Weisman has written a manifesto that outlines the dangers of marginalizing and demonizing all minority groups. This powerful book is for all of us."

Anti-Semitism has always been present in American culture, but with the rise of the Alt Right and an uptick of threats to Jewish communities since Trump took office, including the the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, New York Times editor Jonathan Weisman has produced a book that could not be more important or timely. When Weisman was attacked on Twitter by a wave of neo-Nazis and anti-Semites, witnessing tropes such as the Jew as a leftist anarchist; as a rapacious, Wall Street profiteer; and as a money-bags financier orchestrating war for Israel, he stopped to wonder: How has the Jewish experience changed, especially under a leader like Donald Trump?

In (((Semitism))), 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.

He concludes with what we should do next, realizing that vicious as it is, anti-Semitism must be seen through the lens of more pressing threats. He proposes a unification of American Judaism around the defense of self and of others even more vulnerable: the undocumented immigrants, refugees, Muslim Americans, and black activists who have been directly targeted, not just by the tolerated Alt Right, but by the Trump White House itself.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250169938
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/20/2018
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,194,902
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

JONATHAN WEISMAN is Deputy Washington Editor of The New York Times and author of the novel, No. 4 Imperial Lane, which was a Chautauqua Prize finalist, Amazon Best Book of the Month, and Great Group Reads Pick at the Women’s National Book Association. He has reported for The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and others. He is the father of two teenage daughters, and lives with fellow writer Jennifer Steinhauer in Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt



The Jew flourishes when borders come down, when boundaries blur, when walls are destroyed, not erected. Rabbi Moses ben Maimon — better known as Maimonides — was, to Western culture, perhaps the first Jewish citizen of the world, or at least of the Muslim world. There were others. Hasdai ibn Shaprut served functionally as the foreign minister of Abd al Rachman, the Moorish ruler of the Iberian Peninsula in the Middle Ages. Shmuel HaNagid was a powerful military leader under Muslim rule around the same time. But Maimonides lives on beyond the academy, a legend to this day. Born in Moorish Cordoba, Spain, on Passover eve, sometime around 1135, he was a rabbi, physician, scientist, and scholar, taking advantage of the relative tolerance of the Islamic empire to travel, learn, and teach. National borders and identity were in one of those cyclical ebbs as Maimonides journeyed fromSpain to Morocco, from Morocco to Egypt, from Egypt to the Holy Land of his people, then back to Egypt. His interpretations of Torah, his observations of asthma, diabetes, hepatitis, and pneumonia, his dismissals of astrology, his Thirteen Principles of Faith and observations of law spread from the Iberian Peninsula to the Jewish communities of Yemen and Iraq, through the written word and the caravansaries of the ummah, where national identity had dissolved under the influence of religion and boundaries were set by the soldiers of the faithful.

This is not to say that those pre-medieval years marked a halcyon moment of religious freedom and Jewish expression. There were forced conversions and spasms of violence. But long before the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, the notion of the man of no nation had existed — to the benefit of the Jews of the Mediterranean diaspora.

It was not until the Enlightenment that the concept of the European really emerged, and that First European was Jewish. Well into the 1700s, many European cities denied residency to Jews or crowded them into ghettos. In 1752, the British Parliament approved a law allowing Jews to become naturalized citizens of the empire, but the public uproar was so great that the law was hurriedly repealed. But Jews clamored for freedom, a freedom disconnected from national boundaries and united by enlightened ideas of universal rights.

In southern France, an educated, affluent Jewish community emerged, its members accepted as part of the bourgeoisie. In the German states, Moses Mendelssohn almost single-handedly reshaped the image of the Jew as a worldly, educated sophisticate who could capture the imagination of society, all the while clinging to his faith. Educated, affluent Jews were the intellectual shock troops of the Enlightenment.

The French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man included Jews of French heritage under the umbrella of their protection. In 1806, Napoleon convened the Grand Sanhedrin of European Jewry — a reconstituted high court of Jewish wise men — to answer his twelve questions:

1. Is it lawful for Jews to have more than one wife?

2. Is divorce allowed by the Jewish religion? Is divorce valid, although pronounced not by courts of justice but by virtue of laws in contradiction to the French code?

3. May a Jewess marry a Christian, or may a Jew marry a Christian woman? Or does Jewish law order that the Jews should only intermarry among themselves?

4. In the eyes of Jews are Frenchmen not of the Jewish religion considered as brethren or as strangers?

5. What conduct does Jewish law prescribe toward Frenchmen not of the Jewish religion?

6. Do the Jews born in France, and treated by the law as French citizens, acknowledge France as their country? Are they bound to defend it? Are they bound to obey the laws and follow the directions of the civil code?

7. Who elects the rabbis?

8. What kind of police jurisdiction do the rabbis exercise over the Jews? What judicial power do they exercise over them?

9. Are the police jurisdiction of the rabbis and the forms of the election regulated by Jewish law, or are they only sanctioned by custom?

10. Are there professions from which the Jews are excluded by their law?

11. Does Jewish law forbid the Jews to take usury from their brethren?

12. Does it forbid, or does it allow, usury in dealings with strangers?

Condescending? Sure. But Napoleon was putting the Jewish Question to the Jews rather than relegating them to the ghetto. Napoleon was satisfied with the Sanhedrin's answers, which included compromises to what Jewish law would allow in a new Europe. The Jews, Napoleon was convinced, would not be so otherly after all. And as French forces swept eastward under the banner of Liberté,égalité, fraternité, he freed them from their ghettos and allowed them to own property, to worship freely, and to apply themselves to professions from which old laws had barred them. Historians still argue over Napoleon's intentions, over whether he truly sympathized with the Jews of the east or merely sought to undermine the order of the nation-states he was conquering. And of course, those conquered states have no love lost for the little Frenchman. But again, the Jews were the beneficiaries of the falling borders — and the victims of their reinstatement. After he drove back Napoleon, Czar Alexander I denounced the liberation of Jews and demanded the return of Jewish control laws. In Austria, as the French tide receded, Metternich fretted that the Jews would forever take Napoleon to be their messiah. The Lutherans of Prussia moved quickly to reverse Jewish liberation. And the triumphant Brits, the heroes of Waterloo, rejected the peace of the Sanhedrin.

But freedom is not easily rebottled. In 1867, as the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire expanded and the very notion of "nation" in Central Europe blurred, Emperor Franz Josef I formally conferred full and equal rights to the empire's Jews. A year later, Benjamin Disraeli — the man French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy calls "that supremely insolent Jew" — arose to become the prime minister of Pax Britannia, yet another global enterprise. Yes, technically he was a convert; but he was bold enough to declare that "little Jews" like him would carry "the spark of genius" to the British Isles — and to chastise fellow members of Parliament by saying that his ancestors "were in Jerusalem, priests in King Solomon's temple," while their kin, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, "were living in the forests of an unknown island."

Long before that, in 1654, the first boatload of Jews arrived in the New World, twenty-three Portuguese Jews from the Netherlands disembarking in what was then New Amsterdam. Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch colonial governor, was none too pleased. Writing to the directors of the Dutch West Indies Company, he delicately advised, "We have, for the benefit of this weak and newly developing place and the land in general, deemed it useful to require them in a friendly way to depart, praying also most seriously in this connection, for ourselves as also for the general community of your worships, that the deceitful race — such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ — be not allowed to further infect and trouble this new colony."

That didn't sit well with the few but powerful Jewish directors, who rejected his recommendation and ordered the refugees to stay. The Jews of America had a purchase.

Technically, the Jews of what became New York were not allowed to practice their religion freely, but by 1695 a map of the city publicly identified the synagogue on Beaver Street and noted the name of the rabbi, Saul Brown. In 1727, the General Assembly of New York declared that any British subject professing the Jewish faith need not utter the words "upon the true faith of a Christian" when taking a legal oath. That was twenty-five years before the Parliament in London tried and failed to allow Jews to become naturalized citizens of the empire. Jewish settlements were flourishing in Newport, Rhode Island; in Lancaster and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; in Charleston, South Carolina; and in Savannah, Georgia. John Locke's charter for the Carolina Colonies granted "Jews, heathens, and dissenters" full liberty of conscience. Where national identity blurred, the Jew flourished. That was true even before the American officially existed in the Americas.

What became the United States would prove to be the stage for true Jewish liberation, after fits and starts, better times and worse.

Jonah Pesner, a rabbi and, since January 2015, president of Reform Judaism's Religious Action Center, a storied outpost in Washington that helped nurture the civil rights movement, tells the story of his grandmother, whom he remembers speaking in heavily accented English long after her arrival in America from Russia. Pesner is nearing fifty but looks much younger. His stories tell his age.

"I'd say, 'Are you Russian, grandma?' 'No,' she'd say, 'I'm Jewish.' 'But what do you mean? Why not Russian?' I'd press her on it. Finally, she'd say, 'Jonah, my father dug a hole underneath the floorboards so I could be hidden from the Cossacks coming to rape me. I saw the rabbi in my village tied by his beard to a cart and dragged from town. I am not Russian.'" But we Jews in the United States are American; we value that identity — and most of us would like to keep it.

* * *

Contrary to the imaginings of the Twitter trolls, I'm a son of the South, not a Hasid from Crown Heights. (Perhaps the trolls didn't literally picture me this way; they were merely fond of Photoshopping a black felt hat and payot on the pictures of me that they could find through the magic of Google.) My father grew up in Queens, New York. His mother was from Montreal, where her father owned a shoe store. My father's father was a doctor. His mother kept a kosher home, was a terrible cook, and was fond of exclaiming, "I love being Jewish." They lived in a modest house in Kew Gardens and made do. My father battled bullies at school, at times enlisting his younger but bigger brother Alan to do his fighting. My grandfather, my Zayde, joined the Army during World War II, was shipped off to Britain and a military hospital, and was in no rush to come home after V-E Day. For a good chunk of his childhood, my dad, Evan Weisman, and his two brothers, Alan and Hank, were raised by their mother, my Bubbe, alone.

My mother, Nancy Cowan Weisman, grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, seemingly a million miles from Queens. Her mother, a mostly assimilated Jew named Shirley Cowan, ran a daycare center in Spanish Harlem and was not so fond of saying she loved being Jewish. She would proclaim that some of her best friends were Jewish. My mother had a Christmas tree; trick-or-treated in the long hallways of the Ansonia Hotel, where she grew up on the twelfth floor; and went to Midnight Mass at St. Paul's because her parents liked the music. She was the identified New Yorker.

My father was not. He went to medical school at Emory University, in one of Atlanta's lovelier neighborhoods, where wisteria vines grew wild and blossomed in great showy displays amid the thick Georgia tree cover. While he was in college, his parents decamped for Orlando, a nothing little town in Central Florida where a Seventh-day Adventist Hospital lured my Zayde after the war. It was then still mostly swamp, with no dreams of princess castles and human-size talking mice. My father had nothing left holding him to New York. He moved his family south in 1967 — not to the quasi-South of Central Florida, but to Atlanta. I was two.

My parents joined a synagogue, not out of any sense of connection to Judaism but because my mother wanted to show her solidarity with Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, an outspoken leader of the civil rights movement whose activism had prompted the Ku Klux Klan to bomb the Temple. My Upper West Side mother wanted a piece of that action.

Being Jewish in Atlanta was not that unusual. Atlanta collected the oppressed of the Southeast — blacks, gays, Jews — a welcoming island in often hostile seas. Anti-Semitism existed in the casual "Jew me down" patois of the neighborhood kids. Once, on a school bus, I mentioned Camp Blue Star, a Jewish summer camp that some kids from my synagogue went to. "Jewish camp, is that like Auschwitz?" Will Buchanan asked. I laughed along with everyone else. I also remember my next-door neighbor, John Sisk, sheepishly telling me his mother had said something I wouldn't like. "What was it?" I asked suspiciously.

"She said you were a Jew."

"Yes, John, that's what we are called."

We both laughed.

The issue in 1970s Atlanta was racism, which was everywhere. The boys in my neighborhood — myself included — ran around after school in feral packs. We played a game in my best friend Frankie's yard that we told ourselves was some variant of rugby — basically, the kid with the football ran around and everyone else tried to tackle him. It was called "Kill the Nigger with the Ball," or sometimes "Smear the Queer." We also played sandlot football, and if someone shanked a punt, someone else invariably shouted, "Kick it like a white man!" Everyone — and I mean everyone — knew that the public transit system, MARTA, which brought the maids from the south side of town to the north, stood for Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta. There was nothing subtle about race in the "City Too Busy To Hate," as our business leaders called it.

Outside Atlanta, things were far worse. As a young teenager in the late seventies, I went to a wilderness camp in the mountains of North Georgia run by the YMCA. It attracted black kids from downtown, the type of worldly, tough, inner-city teens who didn't mix with the suburban kids of Riverwood and North Springs high schools. When we were on-site at Camp Pioneer, in our bunks or in the mess hall, those kids introduced me to an urban life I didn't know existed: boasts of sex, lots of sex, at fourteen; casual chatter about weed and clubbing; and smack talk, even to the director of the camp. At the end of one session, each cabin of around ten teens made a commemorative plaque out of a slab of wood to recount all the adventures and good times that we would all miss. My cabin, Comanche — six poor black kids on scholarship and four fairly affluent white kids, two of them Jewish, one of them gay — had spent weeks having run-ins with the camp authorities and coping with various punishments, such as KP duty and cleaning toilets. Once we had built a tower of dishes on our table that reached the ceiling. When it crashed to the ground there was hell to pay, even after Hawk, our ringleader, protested, "But we built a monument!" Hawk claimed he had taken the virginity of a white girl on the other side of camp, eliciting howls of delight from the other black guys in our cabin during a lengthy, extremely explicit kiss-and-tell session that had me convinced. The white kids were in awe. At the last campfire we presented our plaque, which read "Life's a Bitch and We Got the Switch." We etched it lovingly into a slab of wood, carved an electric switch, and signed our names. We were proud of it. The director threw it in the campfire. Off-site, on our way to a four-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, a five-day canoe trip on the Chattahoochee River, or an overnight rock-climbing excursion, it was another story. The same kids who had wowed me with their daring and audacity were petrified. They'd hide in the van when we stopped for gas and the locals peered in. "Yo, Jonathan, go in there and get us some MoonPies."

"Come in with me."

"You fuckin' kiddin' me? Imma mind my business right here. You see those crackers out there?"

It was a lesson in raw fear that I did not absorb until much, much later. After Charlottesville and the hot summer of 2017, the Senate's only black Republican, Tim Scott of South Carolina, received an audience with President Trump at the White House to explain why he had said the president had lost his moral compass. Yes, the senator had explained, some of the counterdemonstrators who had confronted white supremacists in Charlottesville had been rowdy, even violent. They had squirted pepper spray and thrown punches. But the racists and anti-Semites carried with them a history of lynching, beating, rape, and murder that had left African Americans, especially in the South, terrorized, fearing for their lives and their children's lives. The specter of Klansmen in the open, of swastikas and Confederate flags in the public arena, had a power and resonance that no black-clad Antifa radical could carry. Real fear needed history. Tim Scott reminded me of my own childhood experiences. He seemed to have reminded Trump of nothing.

"He is who he has been, and I didn't go in there to change who he was," Senator Scott said after the meeting, a nonaudible sigh in his words. "I wanted to inform and educate a different perspective. I think we accomplished that and to assume that immediately thereafter he's going to have an epiphany is just unrealistic."


Excerpted from "Semitism"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Jonathan Weisman.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 Complacency 33

2 The Israel Deception 69

3 The Unheard Thunder 97

4 Stand Up or Ignore 164

5 Toward a Collective Response 191

Acknowledgments 225

Notes 227

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