[Marxism] How to Be a Jew in the Age of Trump?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Mar 27 10:07:30 MDT 2018

(Rightwing jerk Simon Schama assigned to trash book by NY Times editor 
that includes a broadside against the Israel lobby and those Jews who 
side with Trump. You can also hear Weisman interviewed on NPR: 

NY Times, March 27, 2018
How to Be a Jew in the Age of Trump?

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.

It is true nonetheless, as Weisman points out, that a considerable 
majority of Americans identifying as Jews do so by way of remembering 
the Holocaust or being engaged with the fate of Israel rather than 
anything much rooted in Judaism and Jewish history. Weisman confesses he 
isn’t “much into davening” and reckons that even efforts to introduce 
more Hebrew into the Reform liturgy is a matter of simply “going through 
the motions,” ultimately more impediment than inspiration. But if “being 
Jewish” means nothing more than an ethically attuned solidarity with 
kindred disadvantaged at home and abroad, then the reawakening he wants 
will just evaporate in a cloud of airy good will. Being Jewish is 
knowing Jewish history in some depth; being Jewish is engaging with the 
incomparable treasury of disputation that is the Talmud; being Jewish is 
immersion in the boundless glories of Jewish literature, poetry, 
philosophy and art.

It’s this broad-minded debate-conscious kind of Jewish life that Weisman 
worries is moribund. But it may be too soon to write its obituary. 
Annual Limmud retreats, which offer a festival of learning and 
discussion on all things truly or even notionally Jewish, are thriving 
in Britain and increasingly in America. Jewish journalism in magazines 
like Moment and Tablet alongside reinvigorated institutions like The 
Forward and The British Jewish Quarterly Review seems to be entering 
something of a golden age. In London, JW3 — since its opening in a 
spankingly smart modern building — has become a magnet of cultural 
energy, and Jewish Book Week (also in London) draws packed houses (and 
not exclusively Jewish audiences) to its offerings in early March. And 
if it is acts of solidarity Weisman wants (those have never really gone 
away) he might note that the home page of the American Jewish World 
Service for Purim featured a photograph of a Rohingya refugee.

None of this is to make light of the sinister anti-Semitic strain in the 
ascendancy of alt-right ideology. There are plenty of signs that 
Jew-hatred is pushing through the soft walls of ultraright politics and 
poisoning its bloodstream. There is nothing wrong, as Weisman counsels, 
with Jews standing shoulder to shoulder with those most damaged and 
threatened by tribalist populism, as Jews like Abraham Joshua Heschel 
did in the heyday of the civil rights movement. Ultimately, though, what 
is needed is an aggressive defense of those things that not so long ago 
could be taken for granted in America, and under which Jewish life has 
prospered to a degree unique in the world: the integrity of the 
democratic process, the protections of the Constitution and the 
preservation of the ideal of a “nation of immigrants,” a phrase just 
deleted from the Immigration Service’s mission statement. And a little 
davening now and then wouldn’t do any harm.

Simon Schama is the author, most recently, of the second volume of “The 
Story of the Jews.”

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