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Both Sides Do It is Not an Intellectual Program

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Judith Butler’s review of Bari Weiss’s new book is great in part because it’s not a hatchet job. It engages with the ideas as if it was a work of serious scholarship, and is all the more devastating for it:

Weiss’s book turned out to be both passionate and disappointing. She repeats her urgent pleas for the reader to wake up and avert a recurrence of a nightmarish history. At the same time, she does not take up the issues that make the matter so vexed for those who oppose both antisemitism and the unjust policies of the Israeli state. To do that, she would have had to provide a history of antisemitism, and account for the relatively recent emergence of the view that to criticize Israel is itself antisemitic. To fight antisemitism we have to know what it is, how best to identify its forms, and how to devise strategies for rooting it out. The book falters precisely because it refuses to do so. Instead, it elides a number of ethical and historical questions, suggesting that we are meant to feel enraged opposition to antisemitism at the expense of understanding it. 

Weiss’s title makes the book sound like a manual for fighting antisemitism, but this is somewhat misleading. Instead, it moves from an introductory chapter on the shock of the Squirrel Hill massacre, to an all-too-brief history of antisemitic thought, to a series of chapters on present-day “mutations” of antisemitism. “The Right” and “The Left” each receive one chapter, as we are meant to see an equally bad enemy on both sides; a chapter on “Radical Islam” trots out a familiar catalogue of right-wing Muslim leaders (muftis with Nazi inclinations, the Ayatollah Khamenei) in order to reach the likewise familiar Islamophobic conclusion that “there is reason to worry” about Muslim immigration to Europe. By the time she tries to answer the question of how to fight back, we are left with a few pages that mainly focus on what can be done in interpersonal exchanges. Apparently, an opposition to identity politics (which presumably excludes Jewish identity politics), and a primary identification as “American” are crucial elements of the fight—but we do not hear about alliances, and certainly not transnational modes of resistance to antisemitism and all forms of racism.    

It is not only the lack of a broader political approach, but also a lack of historical analysis that afflicts this impassioned book. Weiss often uses epidemiological language to understand antisemitism: it is a “thought virus,” an “intellectual disease,” an “ancient malady,” “a cancer.” As such, antisemitism seems to exist outside history, recurring in all possible spaces and times. The metaphor extends to a diagnostic approach to contemporary politics: “When our society’s immune system is healthy and functioning normally, the virus of anti-Semitism is kept in check.” In other words, antisemitism is a latent feature not only of our (presumably US) society but of all societies. Elsewhere, she describes it as part of “our cultural DNA,” a metaphor that suggests it is transmitted through the generations as part of the deep structure of collective life, and perhaps implies more broadly that cultural attitudes are like genetic material—a confusing and potentially deterministic point of view. Such metaphors proliferate throughout the text precisely at moments when one expects a fine-grained answer to fundamental questions about the history and definitions of antisemitism.

The whole thing is very much worth reading.

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