EVENT TRANSCRIPT: “How to Fight Anti-Semitism” with Bari Weiss
DATE: 1pm – 2pm, 4 March 2020
VENUE: Millbank Tower, London
SPEAKER: Bari Weiss
EVENT CHAIR: Dr Alan Mendoza
Dr Alan Mendoza: Hello everyone, and welcome to out event on the book ‘How To Fight Anti-Semitism’ with Bari Weiss, not Bari Weiss as we tend to call her in there parts of the world, and of course Bari is an Opinion editor and a contributor to the New York Times. She has previously worked at the Wall Street Journal and before that, Tablet magazine. We like her because, firstly she’s very exciting and feisty, but secondly because she wrote a very interesting article on the Intellectual Dark Web last year, where our former colleague Douglas Murray was featured and our good friend Maajid Nawaz.
Bari Weiss: I was at Cambridge with him the other night.
Dr Alan Mendoza: I know, I know I saw..
Bari Weiss: I was.. blown away
Dr Alan Mendoza: By Maajid or by Cambridge?
Bari Weiss: Cambridge, I want to live there. Maajid is great, but I expected that. I was, sort of, preparing myself for the experience of being on an American college campus, and instead I’m surrounded by students who were, I asked them what their favourite novel was, someone who was studying literature, and she was like em, Charles Dickens, and I was like I love it here, this is just, such a departure.
Dr Alan Mendoza: Good. Well we’re going to have a little chat up here and then we’re going to open up to questions for you to talk about as well. Bari, now why have you written this book, and why now, because let’s be frank, there are many books on anti-Semitism
Bari Weiss: But this one’s the best
Dr Alan Mendoza: Of course it is, and beautifully presented, with a lovely cover, and crucially, with some very, the last chapter is full of tips on what you can do about it. But seriously, why now?
Bari Weiss: I can’t answer that without going back to the morning of October 27th 2018. That was the morning that a White Supremacist walked into the synagogue in Pittsburgh where I’d become a Bar Mitzvah in 1997. He shouted “all these Jews need to die” and then he killed 11 of my neighbours, 6 of whom my Dad knew. That morning I was in Arizona, of all things I was meant to give a speech, I gave a different speech, but I was speaking to a very large audience of a thousand people about the state of American Jewry and Zionism, when I looked at my phone and in my WhatsApp family chat my sister had said there’s a shooter at Tree of Life, and my thought immediately went to my Dad who is sort of promiscuously Jewish you might say, he belongs to like 4 or 5 Synagogues, he likes one for the sermon, the other for the Kiddush. There’s 3 that meet at Tree of Life, and he can be found there, often on a Sabbath, on a Saturday morning. Thank god he wasn’t there by my Mom immediately wrote back and said we’ll know people, and then my brother-in-law who is a firefighter in Pittsburgh was listening to the Police scanner, and before it was reported on CNN or anywhere else, he said “guys just so you know, he was shouting about killing Jews”. I write in the book that, that that day and then the weeks and months that followed were a waking up for me. I realised now in retrospect that I had been blessed, lucky, privileged, to spend my life sort of on a holiday from history, and what I mean by that is not that I was unaware of Jew hatred in other times, and in other places. In my family I’m the oldest of four daughters, I’m the product of a mixed marriage, my Dad is a Trump curious conservative my Mom is a liberal, she withheld sex in the last election to make sure that he didn’t vote for Trump, I don’t think she’s going to be successful this time around. In any case we were always talking politics in my family, this is a very Jewishly involved family, Shabbat dinner was a really sacred time, we would have like 20-25 people, and so we were always thinking about what was going on, sort of to the Jewish people all over the world, and I felt extremely connected really to the Jewish people, that was really the forefront of our Judaism more than anything else. So I watched the rise of Jew hatred, frankly in countries like this one, with intense concern and empathy, but also now looking back if I’m honest with you, a bit of condescension. I really believed that America was singular, that all of the founding myths that my family had raised me on, the idea that the American founders for all of their flaws were the new Israelites, they were enacting a modern exodus, they were establishing a new Jerusalem, my Dad during the Passover would always trot out the line that Benjamin Franklin wanted the seal of this great country to be Mosses crossing the Red Sea. Abraham Lincoln talked about Americans as the “almost chosen people”, which is a line that I love, and so because of all of that, because I was born into sort of the years of plenty, these post war years, in which I got to be a Jewish Zionist feminist by sexual and I never checked any of those identities in any room I entered, and all of a sudden, beginning that morning, really I would say Trump’s election, but it was shattering that morning, and then frankly in the month that followed, 6 months later to the day another White Supremacist, another automatic weapon, another synagogue, this one at the Chabad in Poway, California. Then you have the attack on the New Jersey Kosher supermarket, I was there the next morning, and then the attack almost out of 1800’s Russia, in which a man yielding a machete the size of a baseball bat, walks into a Rabbi’s home and tries to hack people up. It’s not that I have revised my view that we are living, we are still, the best time to be a diaspora Jew in all of history, I think America is still the best of the best, and yet I also think that we are sort of returning to the mean of Jewish history a little bit more. I felt like sort of, that I had escaped the tragedy of Jewish history, and now all of a sudden I was summoned to be part of it again.
Dr Alan Mendoza: I think that’s a very fair way to look at it, and I think that holiday from history bit in particular, I think most people in this room who wouldn’t have thought that anti-Semitism was an issue in the U.K really 10 years ago, 15 years ago, have a very different view today, it’s interesting those trends and sadly those trends are being mirrored. But of course if we’re going to talk about anti-Semitism, we somewhat have to define it. I think it’s interesting for people to hear what your definition of anti-Semitism is and what it isn’t, in particular you make a distinction between anti-Jewish prejudice, and then also whilst it’s not the same as say, xenophobia and racism, take us into that.
Bari Weiss: Sure, I’m not saying anything new, I’m borrowing the work of Paul Johnson and David Nirenberg, Bernard Lewis and all the rest when I tell you that anti-Semitism is a culturally inherited disease, and it is sort of a, I think the most apt metaphor is to think about it as ever mutating virus, that’s carried forward really in civilisation and going back way before even the Jesus story. The hope in that analogy is that the stronger an immune system of a society is, the more that virus is kept at bay, but right now for all kinds of reasons which I’m sure we will get into, that virus has kind of come to the fore. When you understand anti-Semitism as a conspiracy theory, you understand how under soviet communism, the Jews are the arch capitalists, how under Nazism, we are the race contaminators, how today on the far-right, the white supremacist right, and this was certainty the ideology of the killer in Pittsburgh, we are sort of, the greatest trick that the devil has ever played. Why? Because at least in the West the majority of us are of Eastern European or of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, so we appear to be white, but in fact we are disloyal to the white race, by supporting immigrants and refugees, and black people and brown people, and immigrants therefore sullying the true white nature of western civilisation, which of course is itself a myth, but at the same time the far left, we are portrayed as the handmaidens of white supremacy, both because we pass as white, or we are portrayed as supporters of the last standing bastion of colonialism and racism in the middle east by supporting the state of Israel. So that’s all happening at the same time, I know that during the campaign against Corbyn’s Labour party, and correct me if I’m wrong, by the way that was like the best night of my year, I popped a bottle of champagne for a bunch of friends. The way you guys framed anti-Semitism here, and correct me if I’m wrong, was this anti-Jewish racism, and I understand the messaging of that, I think it’s useful because that’s understandable to people because everyone at least every upstanding person knows that racism is bad, and that’s an understandable way to explain it. What it elides is the key difference between how racism functions and the logic of the racist, and the logic of the anti-Semite. The racist sees the person that has more melanin in their skin, as being sub-human. And so they see themselves as punching down against the person that is lesser. The anti-Semite sees the Jew as sort of, the wily puppeteer, pulling the strings of Banks and borders and power, they see themselves as punching up, and I’m not comparing them, it’s not a zero-sum game, I’m simply saying that they function differently, and if you only understand hatred against Jews as sort of racism against Jews, you’re going to lose a lot in that, because it just doesn’t code in the same way.
Dr Alan Mendoza: Now I think that’s an interesting way to look at it, I suppose why we were focused on racism as part of the definition here, is because Jeremy Corbyn would say to you if he was sitting here: “I’m a campaigner against racism”, just on that I’m going to jump in and change tracks just slightly, do you think it’s possible for someone to be an anti-Semite and not realise it?
Bari Weiss: Of course. I’ll give you the most potent example which is that I believe that anti-Zionism is the most potent modern form of anti-Semitism, and yet, most, let’s just give an example, there’s a lot of college students that I meet, who are totally unaware about what that means, they go to campus, show up to an elite university, and they go to the activities fair, and they sign up for all of these things that are progressive causes, they sign up for legalising marijuana and now other drugs, they sign up for raising the minimum wage, better rights for cafeteria workers, oh and by the way anti-Zionism, under the guise of BDS or whatever it’s called, and they’re thinking, oh I believe in human rights, I’m supporting Palestinian right to self-determination, they don’ understand what Zionism is and what anti-Zionism means, so yes I think there’s a whole host of people that support what is fundamentally an anti-Semitic movement because it seeks the erasure of the largest Jewish community on planet earth, which by the way, in the parlance of that group, is the largest Jewish community of colour on planet earth, the majority of people in Israel are North African and Middle Eastern descent, which also confuses them. So yes I do think it’s very possible, and I think it’s possible in other ways to, but that to me is the most salient one, because it’s just become so pervasive in the circles that I travel in.
Dr Alan Mendoza: You said before that anti-Semitism was a virus, you discussed a little bit about the far left and the far right and why this is there viewpoint. We’ve so far left out the sort of third component part, Muslim anti-Semitism and how that plays into it. We’ll come back to that in a second. But just look at far left and far right, how does that virus spread in contemporary society?
Bari Weiss: My colleague Bret Stephens I think had the best line about this, he was talking about Trump, but I think it’s more pervasive now. He was saying, there was lots of discussion over is Trump an anti-Semite? What’s in his heart? What does he really feel? it’s sort of irrelevant, what Bret said is that what Trump is guilty of is dismantling the moral guardrails that keep bigotry down. Things that were once marginal, things that were contained like trolls in the basement, 4chan or Reddit channels have now moved very definitively into the mainstream, and that’s true both of course on the populist right, but it’s also true on the populist left, I mean look at the people that are surrogates for the Bernie, we can leave Labour aside, I’m happy to get into it, but look at the, take the example that is more urgent to me right now, look at the people that Bernie Sanders has chosen to surround himself with, I mean this is like the Motley crew of people that have no affection for Jews or Israel, and I think if you want to look at, of course there’s social media and all of these contemporary reasons, but in the end what it is, is the people that are meant to be keeping those moral guardrails up, upholding norms of civility and decency, seem to have no patience for those virtues anymore, and that’s sort of where it starts, and I’ll say I’ve been reading much more about your different MP’s and the way they responded to the Corbyn threat, you have much more political, many more politicians here with political courage, than we do in the states. I was reading this profile of, I’m embarrassed that I’ve never read it before, but Ian Austin, I’m like, that is political courage. We have like one, like Justin Amash. You guy have dozens, so anyway, props to you.
FULL NAME OF SEVENTEENTH SPEAKER: Dr Alan Mendoza
it’s an interesting point, the MP’s who walked out essentially over it, they all lost their seat, or ended their careers by doing it, but they did stand up for what they believed in and I think that that is important. Muslim anti-Semitism, obviously that is not universal in the Muslim community but there is a troubling strain in it, what’s going on there?
One of the things I read about in my book is, and I’m going to give you this example and it’s meant to be hopeful, the firs blood libel in the Muslim world was in 1840 Damascus, what is the reason for that? And for those who are curious about this I really recommend the Lewis book, Semites and anti-Semites, for that it was sort of Christian medieval anti-Semitic ideas of the blood libel that had been imported from the West to the East, all of which is to say that nothing fundamental about religion or culture, these things are plastic, they are malleable, and it wasn’t so long ago that for most of history the Jewish experience under Christendom was way worse than it was under Muslim rule. Now obviously it was terrible then to, we had the Jew attacks and [inaudible], we could go down the line. But that sort of gives me hope, insofar of that it reminds me that civilisations and cultures can change. But right now what you have is the problem which we don’t have in the States if we want to be clear-eyed about it, of lots of people coming to this continent, from places where not just Jew hatred is in the water and is the norm, but misogyny, and homophobia, and what do you do about that? What do you do as Jew, and you know I’ll speak for myself, I think about the refugee crisis, I think about Alan Curdy, I think about that boy who we all knew his name at one time. He was that little Syrian boy who washed up on the beach in Turkey wearing the red t-shirt and everyone stopped for a few days and then of course, we moved on. I was raised on the line, of don’t impress a stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt, tree of life was selected by the killer because the previous weekend it had participated in refugee Shabbot, and that was why he chose it. So those are things I pride myself on, and yet I also have to be honest about the implications for Jewish communities in this part of the world, and I think those implications are clear and tragic.
Dr Alan Mendoza: This is remarkable, and you may have heard the story. When the Chief British Rabbi and a group of other Rabbis went to Lesbos
Bari Weiss: Are we talking about Mirvis or Saachs?
Dr Alan Mendoza: Mirvis. When he went to Lesbos to see what was going on with the refugees and if he could help, they were told you cannot wear your yamakah or your kippot because they’ll attack you. Now that’s extraordinary. It’s a strange dichotomy, there you are in one sense, don’t oppress a stranger. (inaudible) On the other hand, the stranger wants to oppress you. How do you square the circle?
Bari Weiss: I didn’t know that, but I’m not surprised. There’s no way to square that circle. We just have to do everything in our power to incorporate democratic values and insist on it. That’s it.
Dr Alan Mendoza: Okay, let’s move to the prescriptions part, because there’s a lot to get too there. To start with, what’s interesting is that you say the fightback is based on the Jews and how they view their Jewishness. To ask a proven question, isn’t American Jewry disappearing demographically?
Bari Weiss: This is the question Jews have been asking themselves for 2,000 years. The idea that we are the ever-dying people and somehow we never die. Is it true? Yes, the numbers are clear. 72% of American Non-Orthodox Jews marry outside of the tribe. By the way, I think there’s an argument for radically rethinking our attitudes towards conversion. But that’s a topic for another day. I actually think it’s very hard to join the Jewish people. It would be wise of us to return to the original roof test, which was that your people will be my people and your god will be my god. There’s a lot of people who are throwing in their lot with us by marrying into our families. I think we need to think of a way to accommodate those people in a more thoughtful way than we’ve had until. Does it mean that there’s going to be the same saving remnant that’s always carried the Jewish people forward? Maybe. I’m not obsessed with that. I honestly find the obsession with intermarriage rates a bit short-sighted. What I’m focused on, is how to think about what I want, as someone who is Jewish above and beyond anything else. What do I want the future of Jewish civilisation to look like? I’m just so aware that Jewish history is written in the present. It’s written by those MPs that we were talking about before. That’s what I’m really focused on, and I’m thinking about how to nurture those people who are committed to Jewish lives. And how to make it as successful and joyful as possible. One thing that I’m concerned about at this moment (and I write about this in the book) is that a lot of people are waking up to their Jewishness, and we saw that here, it’s a very human thing. If a neighbourhood bully punches you in the schoolyard, you want to punch back. You want to defend yourself or your sibling or whatever the case is. But if it stops there, and your identity as a Jew becomes the identity of an anti-anti-Semite, then to me that is a tragedy. And that’s not worth it. Frankly, the only reason I can withstand the smears that people say about online and in real life, and fight the fight, and do it with joy, is because I have such a clear idea of what it is I am fighting for. That is what I’m focused on. How to cultivate that sense, especially in younger people.
Dr Alan Mendoza: Great, and you think in this age of (inaudible) and fake news, that this is possible to do?
Bari Weiss: Are you kidding? All young people want is meaning. People are desperate for meaning, and we’re living in a culture where everything is cheap, fleeting, and superficial. To me, I don’t think there’s anything more meaningful than fighting for Jewish civilisation and Jewish values, and fighting for Liberalism, and I see those things as being really, really connected.
Dr Alan Mendoza: Well, then I have to ask the question. If they’re looking for meaning, why are they finding meaning with Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders?
Bari Weiss: Oh, because that also offers meaning, obviously. Of course it offers meaning. By the way, one of the things I lot about is the great symbol of diaspora Jewish life in 2020 (and it’s hilarious, because we’re doing one right now) is the panel discussion. Love talking to you, thrilled to meet you all, but it’s a little unsexy. It’s a little bureaucratic and buttoned up. How are we going to compete? When I meet young people, of course they’re going to be inspired by a climate protest or a women’s march that says we’re going to bring a revolution. And I watch AOC very closely, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, because whilst I disagree with her on just about everything, there’s no question that she is unbelievably charismatic and powerful, and really tapping in to something quite real. And so, I think we shouldn’t take the politics of that movement, but we should try and understand what about it is appealing to people. I think it makes total sense that it’s appealing to people.
Dr Alan Mendoza: Okay. One of the stories you tell in the (inaudible) chapter is the story of Mohammad Dajani and his journey from Palestinian anti-Semitism to being a champion of tolerance, and of course the effect that this has had on him. How do we go about empowering more such people? You know, people who were are former extremists of whatever stripe, who then become champions of tolerance.
Bari Weiss: Two of the people who I admire the most are former extremists. Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaaz are recovered anti-Semites. It’s incredible to me. That’s what leads me to perpetual optimism. Just looking at Maajid, we were at the Cambridge Union together the other night. He makes the case for liberal democracy frankly for the Jews better than me. And he started his life as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He’s 42. Look at what’s capable in the span of not even an entire life. The man who you pointed out, Mohammad Dajani, I think he was a member of Fatah. He’s a Professor now, and he was transformed by the visits to the concentration camps of Eastern Europe. He’s basically being run out of his University. All of the books that he donated to the library were either thrown away or burned, but he refuses to bend the knee. I think we could be doing a much better job in the Jewish community of elevating those people as heroes. There’s a lot of money in the Jewish community. Why hasn’t someone created a righteous gentile award? Say this year, give it to Maajid Nawaaz. A million dollars or whatever, he can give it to anything he wants. I think we need to be thinking about not waiting until these people die to plant a tree for them. Let’s honour them now. I just think about the power of a single individual to inspire people can be underestimated.
Dr Alan Mendoza:
It can have a whole message. That relates to my next point. If you’re being attacked by a thousand people, the one person who you admire, standing up for you, can have a great impact as well.
Bari Weiss: You know; I’m attacked a lot. I remember in the midst of one Twitter shitstorm, I got an e-mail from (inaudible) father who’s a professor at UCLA who I admire a lot. That’s all it took. You have to listen for the voice (to steal a phrase), and to me it can mean a tremendous amount. Earlier this year, I had the honour in March (I was supposed to fly to Israel after the Pittsburgh attack), I went to do this big talk about the archaeological dig about (inaudible), which is really about the future of Jerusalem. And during that trip, I met with one of my heroes, Natan Sharanski. I really only had one question for him. As the bravest person who I have ever had the pleasure to meet, ‘How do you teach bravery?’ And he didn’t miss a beat. He said, you can’t teach bravery. You can just teach them how good freedom feels. That, in some small way, is what I try and do in my own life. And the way that we do that is by showing off our whole selves, and I think there’s something very powerful in doing that.
Dr Alan Mendoza: You mentioned that if you’re in an environment where it’s becoming very hostile to Jews, by all means try and reform it, but then you should leave. Then you come to political parties, and you say that if you’re in a political party (and you cite Luciana Berger as a case), you leave it. To take that to its next step, let’s just look at it. You’re not a fan of President Trump, or Bernie Sanders.
Bari Weiss: No, I’m not. I left my job over President Trump, at the Wall Street Journal.
Dr Alan Mendoza: Oh wow.
Bari Weiss: I’m shocked that we’ve gone this long and we haven’t talked about my reason for a good mood, which was last night.
Dr Alan Mendoza: We’ll come to it. You don’t like these two guys. If they’re facing off against each other (and it may not happen given last night), and you’re an American Jew, how do you vote?
Bari Weiss: Most American Jews will vote for Sanders, I imagine.
Dr Alan Mendoza: Sure, but should they vote for Sanders?
Bari Weiss: What is that famous line? Maybe it’s Sakhorov? Maybe it’s (inaudible)? I’m trying to use as many Russian dissidents as I can whilst I’m here. ‘Let the lie come but let it not come from me.’ I think I’d be in a situation where if it is Bernie versus Trump, I wouldn’t vote. That’s just where I am.
Dr Alan Mendoza: It’s extraordinary really, when you think about where you are.
Bari Weiss: And lots of people are made at me, saying how can you not vote for Trump. But that’s where I am. And frankly, that sense of homelessness is shared with a lot of Jews. Everywhere I go for the past few months (and I sometimes speak to several communities across the country in a week), I ask people what they would do if it was Bernie versus Trump? The majority of hands often go up for would you note vote at all. Or would you write in Bloomberg or whatever. But if it’s Biden V Trump I’m voting Biden. The same with Bloomberg V Trump, I’m voting Bloomberg. But he only won Aspen and Napa, and American Samoa. He spent 100 million dollars per delegate. Last night shocked me.
I think it shocked all of us, given where Biden was a week ago. It was quite amazing. But let’s see, it’s a marathon not a sprint, so we’ve got some time yet. Are we allowed to be happy for a morning?!
Dr Alan Mendoza: We can be; we can be happy. So let’s look at the final question then, Israel. You of course mentioned it’s central. You’ve mentioned today anti-Zionism, which you think is part of the problem here. But you also say it’s OK to criticise Israel. And many anti-Semites will say, I’m not criticising Jews, I’m criticising Israel. Where’s the balance, where’s the line between you and that line and where do other people fit in? Now, I know for example, that you say it’s great for Israel. You want Israel to live up to its ideals. Is there a difference in that between you saying that as a Jew criticising Israel and a non-Jew saying that and criticising Israel?
Bari Weiss: No, I don’t think so. I think non-Jews should be able to criticise Israel just as Jews criticise Israel.
Dr Alan Mendoza: So where’s the line, where does it cross?
Bari Weiss: I mean; the line was exemplified by Jeremy Corbyn when he emphasised the BBC is biased towards Israel’s right to exist. I mean, what does that mean? I honestly think it’s a bit of a straw man that’s often erected by the left, when they say we’re just trying to criticise Israel and then we get accused of anti-Semitism. Come on. If that were true, I would be an anti-Semite many times over in the pages of the New York Times. It’s just not true. What it’s about is the unbelievable double standard and the logic of disliking Israeli policies or the policies of the Netanyahu government, and then taking the logical (I’m obviously being farcical) next step in to saying this country doesn’t have a right to exist. I mean, that’s crazy. Even for countries have occupations like Morocco and Western Sahara, like China and Tibet, or whatever. By the way those countries aren’t even comparable to Israel. The thing that’s alarming to me is and worrying to me, is when I think about twenty-first century (inaudible), which is increasingly among communities when I go to meet younger Jews. They confess to me that they would not publicly identify as Zionists. Even some people who I meet here say yes, I support Israel, but I wouldn’t call myself a Zionist. No! Call yourself a Zionist. I was so moved when I watched that Simon (inaudible) documentary and he looked at the camera and said, ‘I am a Zionist!’ But of course he is. Because to be a Zionist is to believe in a modern incarnation of an ancient yearning, to believe that the Jewish people like all people have a right to self-determination. What is controversial about that? I don’t get that. For me, it’s very important to insist that I am a Zionist and reclaim that world. Because frankly, since the Soviet Union (see, I’m really good at this!), when students walk round college campuses and say things like, ‘Zionism is Racism’, they have no idea that they are repeating a piece of Soviet propaganda. And frankly, that’s one of the reasons I wrote this book, so I can explain this to people.
Dr Alan Mendoza: It’s a very interesting point. They have no idea of the history of this phrase or where it came from. Right, your turn. What I will do then, is take a couple at a time, and we’ll start at the back. If you give your name and any affiliation.
Julian Pollard, Audience member: Julian Pollard, no affiliation. We discussed anti-Semitism in this country on the right and the left, and my first experience of anti-Semitism was when my synagogue suffered an arson attack in the 1960s. My synagogue was virtually destroyed.
Bari Weiss: Who was responsible?
Julian Pollard, Audience member: Colin Jordan.
Dr Alan Mendoza: From the far-right.
Julian Pollard, Audience member: What interested me in the last election was anti-Semitism on the left, and how that became a political issue in parts of the country where there are no Jews. CNN, or ITN, or Sky etc interviewed a man in a pub in Bolton or Rotherham, where there are very few Jews. People were asked, ‘What is the most important issue for you?’ and people were replying anti-Semitism. Why is a non-Jew putting that as the top issue of their concerns?
Lenny Bruce, Audience Member: (inaudible) – I’m retired with no affiliation. Lenny Bruce – he was the first comedian to openly say that he thought that he was out there to shock people. He’s probably the main reason we’ve lost our (inaudible), because after him all the walls began to tumble down, and this has been exasperated by social media. You referred to the moral guardrails that keep racism down, but everything today is so superficial, and it’s the first thing that comes in to your mind. You just say it, no matter what you heard. And this is something that is very prevalent throughout societies, not just Britain or the USA. How do we deal with that? Universities? Politicians?
Bari Weiss: First, to Lenny Bruce. I like the idea! A new anti-Semitic conspiracy theory perhaps will blossom from this conversation, that Lenny Bruce is to blame for the downfall of liberal democracy and norms. I love Lenny Bruce; I think he’s hilarious. I love Sacha Baron Cohen. I think when he got people singing, ‘Throw the Jews Down the Well!’, it was illuminating. You can’t be a Jew without loving humour. Humour has sustained us, and I think there is a fundamental difference between blue comedy, (Although, by the way, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry Davies played super straight and they’re hilarious too!), so I think it’s possible to do it without getting George (inaudible) about it. I don’t see it. And I think that this kind of (inaudible) is dangerous, because it’s dangerous to free-thinking, free speech and humour. But obviously there’s a line it can cross into out and out bigotry. But I don’t see Lenny Bruce being the culprit for that. I would more think of someone like Milo Yiannopoulos, who’s clownish, but masking real bigotry. As for the question in the back, I think it’s amazing that random people in pubs understood the threat of this. And I think it’s often hard for people to grasp it. But this is what I always say to mixed groups or non-Jewish groups. The sign that a society is dead or dying is the spread of anti-Semitism, because if anti-Semitism is the conspiracy theory, it means that you’re living in a culture where truth and facts have been replaced by conspiracy theories and lies. So the reason to fight anti-Semitism isn’t for people like me and my family (although great, I’m thrilled if you do), it’s for you and your family and your community. I saw that Tom Stoppard play Leopoldstat here the other day, and that just brought it home so powerfully for me. It’s like the proximate victim of anti-Semitism is the Jew, but the other victim is the whole rest of the society, which inevitably falls when we do. So, to me, that is the most important thing I could say this afternoon.
Audience Member: My name is (inaudible) and I work for an organisation called the Campaign for Truth. We’re quite anti towards the liberal academics that we see going around. We’re trying to stop the Palestinians going in to junior schools now.
Bari Weiss: Do you mean Palestinians or things like the Muslim Brotherhood?
Dr Alan Mendoza: Do you mean the Palestinian Authorities or people here?
Audience Member: No, here. We’ve seen already what’s happening in universities. It’s all this indoctrination of apartheid Israel, colonising Israel etc. We’ve also seen organisations like the Board of Deputies campaigning against anti-Semitism. (inaudible) I’m asking you (I know they haven’t been near to anti-Semitism than Europe has), how can we (here) get our authorities to support Israel?
Audience Member, Stuart Agnew: Thank you. My name is Stuart Agnew, and I was a UKIP MEP for ten years. I am partly Jewish. There is a large cohort of people in this country, who are animal rights activists. Immediately, they see the way Jews kill animals and think, we don’t like that. We don’t like Jews. Now I Understand the (inaudible) as you call it, 2000 years ago that was the ultimate way of animal warfare, but of course technology has moved on, and now we stun the animals first. Could you revisit this, now that there are better methods for animal welfare? Because by wanting to have special treatment in our law, you rather alienate yourselves from a large number of people who can’t like the way that you kill animals?
Bari Weiss: But then what’s next? Are we going to say we can no longer have circumcision? I don’t know what the laws are here about ritual slaughter.
Dr Alan Mendoza: Kosher and Halal are fine.
Bari Weiss: There are people who don’t like Jews with power, therefore we need to make people like us more so let’s get rid of Israel. There are people who don’t like Jews because they view us an insular. The end of that logic is nowhere. That’s sort of my thought on that. Your question had ten parts! Maybe one thing that’s relevant so you understand my sensitivity towards schools being used to indoctrinate. When I arrived as a student at Columbia University in 2003, I had spent the previous year in Israel on a gap year, I was very much on the progressive left. I had spent much of my time in medical clinics for unrecognised Bedouin in the (inaudible) desert. I came to University thinking that there was never any distinction between being a progressive and being a Zionist. Then I was in these classes where my Professors were saying that Zionism is Racism, the only textbooks we would read on Israel were by the Marxist anti-Semite Maxine Robinson. It’s a little pamphlet titled, ‘Israel: A Zionist Colonial Settler State?’ He didn’t need the question mark. I became really aware of this. I was going to be a Middle Eastern Studies Major, but I decided to go in to history. The advice I give in the States is that there are many Jewish donors to these Universities, which employ a large number of people who traffic in anti-Semitism. Although by the way, when I was 18, I never would have had the courage to call it that. Why are people giving millions of dollars to schools that are actively indoctrinating kids against those ideas?
Audience Member: But these organisations are state-funded here, so that’s the trouble.
Bari Weiss: So OK. Then, I would think about a few things. What are you doing in your communities to help make a better balance in Universities by encouraging pro-Israel, young people to go in to academia. Or can they not even get tenure?
Dr Alan Mendoza: If you have a pro-Israeli view, it is difficult to get tenure now. People have to moderate their views.
Bari Weiss: Then I’ll just say this, which is good enough advice. I’m sorry, I don’t know enough about how it works here. There’s a tendency in the Jewish community for us to ask things of ourselves which we would never ask of any other minority. To accommodate ourselves to things that are not normal and should not be accepted as normal. I would say that the first line of fighting on this is to be the skunk at the garden party and make a lot of noise about it and get a lot of other people to do it with you.
Audience Member: My name is (inaudible), it’s nice to see a woman at the front. I’m going to be a bit controversial, and say this idea of anti-Semitism is in a vacuum. Having worked a lot with the Jewish Community (that was my catchment area in North London), I found that it wasn’t just about being Jewish. Whenever we talk about anti-Semitism, we should think about the other nationalities that are Jewish. I think it also relates to people’s health needs as well. I think that for some people that have psychological problems, they might feel very differently (even though they are Jewish) about these meaning of anti-Semitism? I think looking at it from the outside, and from an individual level.
Audience Member: My name is Richard (inaudible). You work with the New York Times. Most of the anti-Semitism I have come across in the last decade or so has actually been related to Israel. Don’t you find the way that Israel is reported it’s always negative. When the Palestinians are reported, it’s always positive. When people think of Israel from the newspapers or the media, it’s always a negative viewpoint. One comment, I was at SOAS, and if I voiced pro-Israel, I was shunned. A lot of academics and the academic staff would say to me, “we agree with you, but we cannot afford to..”
Bari Weiss: Welcome to my life.
Dr Alan Mendoza: I’m going to include one other thing, because you mentioned the New York Times. You work for a paper that recently published a cartoon that many people see as anti-Semitic. What do you do about that?
Bari Weiss: The question about the fact that we often have (?) conversations about the Jewish community, I agree. It’s a really big problem, and I’ll just look back on my own education. I went to a Jewish state school. I learned the Ashkenazi view of Jewish history. Lost in my education were the Jews of Mosul, were the Jews of Baghdad, the Jews of Alexandria, and Yemen, and half the stories of the Jewish people. One thing that I’m doing a lot in my own life right now is trying to learn those stories, and publish people who write those stories. One story that I edited about a week ago, and you should really look it up if you haven’t read it. It’s by the Israeli writer Marti Freedman. I think he’s the best Israeli writer of my generation, and his entire intellectual project is to explain that even though Herzl imagined Israel as the Paris of the Middle East, in a way it’s much more indigenous to the region. The people who are increasingly dominated Israeli culture are Jews of the Arab World. One of the things I try and do in my work is show people the other side, the things that don’t get covered. This was a profile of the biggest popstar in Israel, the Rihanna of Israel. Her name is Nasrin Khadri. She has this incredible story. She was born in Haifa to Muslim-Israeli-Arab parents. She’s poor, her dad is a taxi driver. Now, she sells out the biggest stadiums in Tel Aviv. She sings in Arabic and Hebrew. Her fans are from all over Israeli society and she’s embraced Judaism. That’s Israel. That’s the story that gets overlooked. We need to be doing a much better job in the way that we educated Jewish children, so that they learn those stories. Because if you don’t know those stories and I plop you down in Israel, it’s going to be very confusing for you. You’re not going to find a bagel in a supermarket. You’re going to find couscous and eggplant, and you might want to understand why that is. As for the media bias and the cartoon. Look, the cartoon was terrible. The paper apologised for it. To be honest, the cartoon to me is less threatening than things that are more subtle. The cartoon was something everyone could see and say, ‘that’s anti-Semitism,’ in the same way that the guy who was a neo-Nazi in Pittsburgh was an anti-Semite. We don’t need to have a debate about it. What’s much more insidious is the ideas that get smuggled in from the guys being objective. You know, the idea that Israel is an apartheid state. The idea that the ongoing conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours is somehow akin to the conflict between Whites and Blacks. That to me is in fact much more dangerous, because people that don’t really know better are reading that and expressing that as truth.
Audience Member: You said that if the choice in the next Presidential election was between Sanders and Trump, you wouldn’t vote. I have a number of American friends who don’t like Trump as a human being, but they would vote for him because he is very pro-Israel. Compared to Sanders, do you think that would be a reason to vote for him?
Audience Member: My question is, what do you think is the role of Twitter in all of this? I’m doing my PhD at Princetown at the moment, and some of the stuff I’m working on is around anti-Semitism. Just on the comment about anti-Semitism in academia, I just wouldn’t touch it. If you try to get tenure writing in a pro-Israel position, you will just get shunned. There’s people in my department who won’t talk to me because they know I’ve been to Israel. The social sciences and humanities are worst. I can take it, but people are terrified. Jews are not going to openly talk about this kind of stuff.
Audience Member: Hi, you talked about former extremists. I’m a former extremist, I’m ashamed to say I was anti-Semitic. I would consider myself to be a Zionist now.
Bari Weiss: I’m so happy you’re here! Have you worked with Quilliam at all?
Audience Member: I worked with them for a little while. My closest friends are Jewish now. I lost my family and friends and everything for coming out as Jewish. All my friends now are Jewish. What do you think the Jewish community can do to adopt more voices like mine? I live in a majority Muslim area in Tower Hamlets, and it’s quite unsafe for me because of some of the public stuff that I’ve done. What more can the Jewish community do?
Audience Member: There was a fascinating section in your book where you had this brilliant idea about Jews who want to cleave to the left and undergo almost an anti-Zionist conversion. When we talk now about kids in our universities, people who want to reclaim the bravery to say I am a Zionist, I just wonder what your thoughts were about how they should understand and define Zionism in their conversations and in their understanding of it.
Bari Weiss: Wow, these are so great. OK, starting here. Trump versus Sanders? A lot of people I know are going to make that choice. I understand it, I’m just not there, in part because I vote on other things in addition to foreign policy and Israel. Let me maybe put it in this way. There’s one bit in my book, where I talk about the first time I encountered anti-Semitism. I was waiting for the school bus with my second sister, I was maybe in the fourth grade. We were waiting for the bus to take us to our Jewish day school, and this bus from the Catholic school drove past and they called us kikes and dirty Jews. At the time, and I had to ask my parents what kike meant, that totally rolled off my back. And the reason, was because I saw those people as so marginal, as vestiges of an uglier, older world. I have to tell you that if it happened to me today, I wouldn’t see it that way. I wouldn’t see it as representative of a marginal view that has become mainstream. To me, the fact that our President has done things that I support with regards to Israel (you know, I’m thrilled he moved the embassy to Jerusalem, and I’m thrilled the Golan Heights will never go back to Assad), yet at the same time policies can be undone. Once you destroy institutions, those cultures are much harder to rebuild. And that’s where I fall. So sorry if that’s a disappointing answer. As for Twitter, and Princetown, congratulations! It’s a beautiful place. The role of Twitter in all of this cannot be overestimated. The speed at which people can be demonised is profound, and I know this from my own experience. There’s a reason that controversial often comes before my name. You know, I’m not controversial, my views are really boring. It’s because there’s been a sustained campaign to try and make me radioactive. I’m in touch with college students every single day, in my country, here, in Canada, all over the world. Your experience is totally emblematic of what they’ve been saying, and this is the thing. I guess I would say (and maybe this is radical) that an institution where that is normalised is perhaps not an institution is worth its name anymore. I think we need to think hard. I’ll just speak about the American Jewish community for a second. We have a situation where the smartest Jewish kids are working their arses off to try and get in to schools that are actively hostile to them, to the state of Israel, to America, even the idea of truth. Maybe we shouldn’t be doing that. Maybe we should be thinking about a – supporting those schools that have celebrated those virtues that are keeping us safe, like the University of Chicago. My experience I had at the Cambridge Union earlier this week gave me energy for the next five months. They totally get it. I don’t know more about that school, I just had an amazing interaction with some of their students. Maybe we also need to think about what it would be like to take something like the Jewish Theological Seminary and turn it into a school, like a Cambridge or an Oxford, that celebrates Western civilisation and Jewish civilisation. I just think that the Strategy we have now isn’t radical enough, and we need to be rethinking it. Why are we sending our young, brilliant people in to environments where they feel like they have to hide who they are? No, to that.
I’m so happy you came, and I can only imagine (given other people I meet who have done the same as you) what that meant to you personally. This goes back to what I was saying about the righteous gentile award! Perhaps you should be next in line for it! I hope you have been welcomed by the Jewish community because frankly, your voice is much more powerful than mine. I would love to get your information after to find out what I could do to support you more. Converting into anti-Zionism? Yeah. The thing that I see, and the shunning question sort of speaks to this. If you want to be progressive in good standing, and you are a Jew who supports the state of Israel, you need to publically disavow Israel. You need to convert into anti-Zionism. And this is sort of the way that anti-Zionism functions. It doesn’t specifically say kill Jews. It says that you can be a Jew in a Jewish body, that’s no problem. All you need to do is to disavow the things that we decide are unacceptable. This is how under Soviet Communism the Jews had to disavow God. In the Spanish inquisition, obviously they had to convert to Catholicism. But back to the Hanukah story. The Hanukah story is actually a civil war among Jews about how to respond to that bargain. It’s a war between the Hellenists, between (inaudible) and those who tried to literally undo their circumcisions, who said safety and security can only come from us if we accommodate that bargain. And then you had the Maccabees, the Zealots, they had a lot of laws. They were scary. And yet their fundamental insight, which is that the only way we can truly find real safety and security is by insisting on being our full selves and demanding respect for that. I think that is clearly (if you look at Jewish history) the winning side of the argument.
Dr Alan Mendoza: You heard it today. How to fight Anti-Semitism. You can learn more, and be part of the fight, by purchasing this book which is available afterwards. I want to thank you for an exciting, passionate, invigorating talk. Just what you said about the Cambridge Union, we’re all going to leave here with seven months of vigour because of this.