Jonathan Weisman, deputy Washington editor for the New York Times, has the dubious distinction of being the fifth-most targeted individual by the “alt-right” on social media. His new book offers a response of sorts.
“(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump” co-opts the “echo” symbol created by neo-Nazi trolls to identify Jews to other hate-peddlers on Twitter, a symbol that has been used to target Weisman numerous times. His book offers a call to action, which he says would mean shifting away from Israel as a primary focus of American Jews.
“We lost sight of what was happening in our own country,” he said. “Why are we so concerned with the Jewish state when there’s so much to worry about right here?” Weisman will discuss his book on April 17 at Palo Alto’s JCC, in conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anne Elise Kornblut, Facebook director of strategic communications.
Statistics support Weisman’s claim. Data released in February by the Anti-Defamation League shows a dramatic rise in anti-Semitism over the previous year: 1,986 reported incidents in 2017, compared with 1,267 in 2016 — a 57 percent increase, the largest in a single year since 1979.
Those numbers do not include the tens of thousands of anti-Semitic Twitter messages received over the past few years by 800 journalists with Jewish-sounding surnames, who were specifically targeted by the network of individuals known as the alt-right who are affiliated with neo-Nazi and white-supremacist groups.
Partly a memoir about his Jewish identity and experiences with prejudice, as well as a review of 20th- and 21st-century American anti-Semitism, Weisman’s call to action is “not just for Jews,” he said in an interview.
He advocates a collective response to messages of hate, combining the force of such organizations as the ADL and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which have combated hate effectively, along with other groups that know a thing or two about 21st-century communications.
“Jewish organizational strength and Jewish resources, legal know-how, and media savvy could … erect a powerful infrastructure for online awareness and response,” he writes.
Weisman said that he, too, has experienced a shift in thinking as a result of the personal attacks. Initially, he was “flabbergasted, blown away” by the level of anti-Semitic venom he received on his Twitter account (which he stopped using after deleting his account in 2016). “I thought that anti-Semitism was a thing of the past. It did not occur to me much.”
However, he soon realized that “an underbelly of American society … was taking real sustenance in Donald Trump’s campaign.”
Weisman clarified that he does not see the president as a neo-Nazi or white supremacist. “I don’t think that Trump is a fellow traveler to the alt-right,” he said. “He is not self-reflective enough to realize that his behavior is fomenting” acts of intolerance, he said.
No matter how far you move away from your Jewish roots … your enemies will remind you.
The anti-Semitism that touched Weisman forced him to take stock of his own complicity in tolerating prejudice, he said.
Weisman grew up in a fairly secular home in Atlanta, where one of the most horrific public displays of anti-Semitism in this country took place — the lynching of Jewish factory owner Leo Frank in 1915 — which he recounts in the book.
During his childhood in the 1970s, he played a rugby-type game with a group of neighborhood boys that was alternately called “Kill the N– with the Ball” or “Smear the Queer.”
Of these episodes, as well as others in which he did not stand up to hatred, he writes, “I lived comfortably and forgetfully in suburbia, protected by subtlety, where open hate was someone else’s problem. I’m not proud of that.”
Weisman said that he also engaged in a fair amount of soul-searching about his Jewish identity. Until recently, he was a twice-a-year Jew who would “drag” his two daughters, products of an interfaith marriage, to free High Holy Day services at the local university. Experiencing an online assault by anti-Semites, “was a wake-up call,” he said. “No matter how far you move away from your Jewish roots … your enemies will remind you [of who you are].” Because he can’t “run away from” his Jewishness, “I might as well embrace it.”
Part of that acceptance now includes seeking answers from Jewish texts. “It never occurred to me to look to a holy book,” Weisman said. “I now believe that there is a spiritual aspect.”