According to the Anti-Defamation League, the rise of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States is, so far, 86 percent higher in 2017. In his new book “(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump,” New York Times journalist Jonathan Weisman presents an overview of anti-Semitism in America and how it has blatantly reemerged since the 2016 presidential election.
In May 2016, Weisman was the target of neo-Nazi trolls on Twitter after he linked to an article about the rise of fascism in America. His book includes his online encounters with some of the most strident white nationalists in America, the significant rise of the alt-right during the Trump campaign and the anti-Semitic hatred to which Weisman was subjected.
Weisman recently spoke to JewishBoston about his book, how his relationship to his Jewish identity has changed over the last couple of years and the latest spike in domestic anti-Semitism.
How did the anti-Semitic attacks against you in 2016 start?
At the time I wasn’t aware that Jewish journalists had reached the alt-right radar screen. I saw an article in The Washington Post by Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who had written a column called, “This is how fascism comes to America.” It resonated with me and I took a snippet of it; I put the link in and sent it out on Twitter.
What do the triple parentheses bracketing your book title, as well as your name on Twitter, signify?
After I tweeted the Kagan article, I got back this weird notification on Twitter that said: “Hello (((Weisman))),” and Weisman was in these three parentheses. I had never seen that notation. I intuited this had something to do with my last name. I had also seen some rise of anti-Semitism around the Trump campaign and I asked, “Do you care to explain?” He came back and said, “It’s a dog whistle, fool. I was belling the cat for my fellow goyim.” Once these three parentheses were slapped on my name there was an onslaught of anti-Semitism—brutal images coming over Twitter started migrating to my email and a few voicemails. What is frightening was how organized the effort was. This was an organized campaign by mostly followers of Andrew Anglin of The Daily Stormer to harass Jewish journalists.
Why did you engage with these trolls?
I have tens of thousands of followers on Twitter and I wanted people to see what I was seeing. I wanted them to see how much hatred the Trump campaign had stirred up in this country. I started re-tweeting and said I was shocked at the anti-Semitic hatred attendant from the Trump campaign. My idea was to create an archive of anti-Semitism on my Twitter feed. In so doing, I accomplished a good thing and a bad thing. I wanted Twitter to know what its platform was being used as. And these guys wanted the publicity. I had a lot more followers than they did, and they wanted me to keep doing what I was doing. At one point Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, reached out to me and said, “I see what you’re doing, I appreciate it and it’s time to stop.” And I stopped.
Had you experienced such virulent anti-Semitism?
Never. I was raised in a very Reform synagogue and a moderately Jewish household in Atlanta. Jewish was far down the list of how I identified myself. I would say I’m a typical American Jew, which is to say not particularly Jewish. But if I could be a target, any Jew in this country could be a target.
How has this experience impacted your Jewish identity?
It certainly has made me more Jewish-identified. When all of this was swirling around, it was my efforts that exposed the three parentheses, or as they are called, the “echo.” I would get calls from news outlets and I would joke that I had become the spokesman for the Jews.
You take the organized American Jewish community to task for prioritizing Israel over domestic issues.
I think mainline Jewish organizations have become too obsessed and too focused on Israel. The alt-right got its name from conservative nationalists who were disaffected with the Bush administration and the Iraq war. They became obsessed by the collapse of the financial system and were looking for some alternative philosophy. They saw Jews behind the Iraq War and the financial system and began building this infrastructure around an alt-right. We didn’t even notice this for eight or nine years, and I think the reason is that mainline Jewish organizations are so focused on Israel. A lot of them have been pushing back on this and saying we can do both. Some of them see the domestic sphere as too political. It says a lot about politics in the Trump era that speaking out against bigotry is considered a partisan maneuver.
Is there anything else you want to point out in this conversation?
In the book, I’m tough on conservative Jews, like the Republican Jewish Coalition, for not speaking out. There was a moment in this [anti-Semitic] onslaught—this 2016 campaign—that I reached out to the Republican Jewish Coalition. I asked them if they were going to do anything about the anti-Semitism in the campaign. Were they going to speak out? After many efforts to get a comment from the coalition, I got a statement that said the Republican Jewish Coalition condemns extremism within the Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump camps.
As I said, speaking out against bigotry and tolerance is not a partisan matter. Republicans and Democrats in our country must advocate for a pluralistic society that accepts diversity and does not accept bigotry. Anyone who is politicizing bigotry is wrong.
This interview has been edited and condensed.