Journalist Bari Weiss speaks to Duke college students about combatting anti-Semitism

Former New York Times op-ed editor Bari Weiss discussed her book, the trend of anti-Semitism becoming more mainstream and efforts to combat its rise at a Thursday evening event at the JB Duke Hotel.

The talk, hosted by the Center for Jewish Studies, also featured Bruce Jentleson, William Preston Few distinguished professor of public policy. It was originally scheduled for March 2020 but was postponed due to the pandemic.

Weiss started by speaking about the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, which took place near her childhood home. Growing up, she was aware of Jewish history and recognized that anti-Semitism happened in other places in the world, but she never thought it would happen close to home. 

“I grew up with the myth, and I mean that in a beautiful way, that America was somehow uniquely inoculated from a virus that is encoded in the DNA of western civilization,” she said. “In other words, things happened to me but they rolled off my back because I saw those instances as out of step, fundamentally, with what America was.” 

Weiss described the Pittsburgh shooting, where she knew six of the 11 victims, as the “beginning of [her] waking up.” According to Weiss, anti-Semitism has only increased since then. 

She said that to understand anti-Semitism, one has to see it as a “conspiracy theory in which Jews play the starring role in whatever a given civilization, culture, society or institution defines as its most detestable qualities.”  

Weiss used this definition to then make distinctions between anti-Semitism on the far-right and the far-left. The former sees Jews as “the greatest trick the Devil has ever played,” she said, but the latter “whitewashes Jewish history” and considers Jews as “adjacent to white supremacy” and “loyal to the last standing bastion of white colonialism in the Middle East.” 

In response, Jentleson asked, “But it’s the right that’s killing Jews and it’s the right that’s fire-bombing synagogues. While understanding that there’s a problem with the left, isn’t it really the right that, in many respects, is more dangerous?” 

Weiss agreed that anti-Semitism from the right is more lethal. She explained that some admonish her for putting an unreasonable amount of pressure on anti-Semitism from the left, but she does so because she’s always identified as liberal and it’s important to examine her “side of the street.” 

“The kind of anti-Semitism that most people in this room are going to encounter in their life, siting across from the bar or at the dinner table, is going to be the more subtle, insidious kind that I talk about,” she said. 

She described these comments as harder to discern as they are “cloaked in the language of justice and the language that is a siren song to liberal ears.”  

Jentleson also raised concerns from the right, particularly evangelical groups, that the United States is a “Christian nation” and Jews threaten this. But Weiss quickly answered that she’s not threatened by this thought. The United States, she said, has been seen as a Christian nation since its founding. 

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“I’m much more concerned by a place like Duke, where an Israel club can’t be started,” she said, referring to the student group Students Supporting Israel, which lost recognition within days of its charter. Audience members nodded and muttered in agreement. 

She claimed this normalization of anti-Semitism is happening at almost every elite institution in the country. College students who say, “Zionism is racism,” are repeating a line of Soviet propaganda, she said. 

“If the Jews are people, do they, like other peoples, frankly, like the Palestinians, do they have a right to live safely in some part of their indigineous homeland?” she asked. “That’s what makes me pro-Palestinians too, because I believe they deserve that as well.” 

A law student brought up the social media response to the May outbreak of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where many of his peers called Israel a genocide state. He asked how Weiss considered the American Jewish community’s response to it. 

Weiss answered that she doesn’t think the American Jewish community is responsible for educating the world about the conflict, but they failed when it came to educating the Jewish community about their history and ties to the Gaza Strip. Jews didn’t have the language and the knowledge of how to respond to people, she said. 

Another student asked about the growing population of Jews who believe that Zionism is white supremacy and racism, and if they would be considered antisemitic Jews. Weiss answered it’s important to approach those conversations “with an open heart” and the understanding that this is not a new phenomenon but something Jews have been reconciling with for a long time. 

First-year Alexandra Ahdoot, co-president of Students Supporting Israel, mentioned the social media incident that led to Duke Student Government rescinding their recognition, where SSI publicly called out another student’s tweet on their Instagram account. The student’s tweet read, “My school promotes settler colonialism,” in response to DSG’s initial recognition of the group. 

Ahdoot asked how Weiss thought they could “strike the balance between defending stuff that’s clearly necessary to defend,” in reference to the social media incident, and “trying to educate about the great and positive parts of Israel and Judaism.” 

Weiss forgot the question when it came time for her to answer, but instead promised to speak privately about it and said, “Kudos to you for trying to start this group.” 

Milla Surjadi
| University News Editor

Milla Surjadi is a Trinity sophomore and a university news editor of The Chronicle’s 117th volume.

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