Jonathan Weisman doesn’t understand much about the nature of modern anti-Semitism. But Weisman, an editor at The New York Times and author of a remarkably obtuse book about anti-Semitism published in March, 2018, does grasp the core idea that is dividing Jews: the decline in a sense of Jewish peoplehood. Unfortunately, he thinks that is a good thing rather than a problem to be addressed.
That’s the conceit of a Weisman op-ed published in the Sunday Times in which he preaches that a “great schism” is about to unravel the ties between American Jewry and Israel. Weisman is right about the potential for a schism, but as is the case with his book (((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump, the problem is that he defines Jewish identity solely in terms of universal ideals and liberal politics with short shrift given to faith, history or being part of the Jewish people.
That in of itself is unsurprising in an era when we already know that a growing number of American Jews define themselves, in the words of the 2013 Pew Survey of Jewish Americans, as Jews of “no religion,” and are increasingly alienated from every aspect of Jewish peoplehood, including the State of Israel.
But what is interesting is that his op-ed appears to be an attempt to revive interest in the 1885 “Pittsburgh Platform of Reform Judaism,” a seminal document that called for a redefinition of Jewish identity that rejected any notion of there being a Jewish nation with ties to the land of Israel, as well as to ancient rituals and laws that its authors deemed outdated.
While the “Pittsburgh Platform” helped define Reform Judaism for generations, the Reform movement’s 1937 “Columbus Platform” rejected it when it tentatively endorsed Zionism.
Indeed, the two most influential leaders of American Zionism in that era were Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen Wise, both Reform rabbis. The process was completed in 1976, when the movement’s Centenary Perspective specifically embraced the idea of Jewish peoplehood.
But Weisman seems to want to turn back the clock to 1885. The Pittsburgh Platform was a relic of an era in which some Jews were interested in not just discarding tradition, but in cutting ties with the rest of the Jewish world in an attempt to advance their assimilation into America.
Yet Weisman thinks the PIttsburgh Platform should resonate in an era in which growing numbers of liberal Jews are alienated by the realities of Israeli politics and security problems. He believes that most American Jews belong to a separate tribe that has little in common with Israelis or observant Jews, and which embraces an exclusively universalist faith linked solely to progressive politics.
Weisman’s awakening to Jewish concerns was strictly a reaction to the 2016 presidential election. He came from a completely secular background with no connection to Judaism or the Jewish people except as a vestigial aspect of his ancestry, and with no experience or knowledge of anti-Semitism.
But as the deputy editor of the Times’ Washington bureau, anti-Semites got his attention during the course of the campaign as right-wing extremist trolls targeted some prominent Jewish journalists.
That led to a book intended to be a warning of the rise of new fascism spearheaded by Trump that posed a threat to democracy, as well as the Jews.
The problem with the book was not merely that it inflated Trump’s admitted faults beyond recognition as it demonized the portion of the country that elected him. He was right to assert that far-right anti-Semitism was a threat — something that has become even more obvious since the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in October.
But he ignores left-wing anti-Semitism or the animus against Jews from groups such as the Nation of Islam led by Louis Farrakhan. In contrast to the small numbers on the far-right, Farrakhan has a mass following, and has been legitimized via support from mainstream politicians and leaders like those associated with the Women’s March.
Even former President Bill Clinton showed a willingness to share a stage with him at an August tribute in Detroit to the late singer, songwriter and civil-rights’ activist Aretha Franklin.
Weissman also refuses to acknowledge the way the BDS movement acts as a spearhead not merely for efforts to eliminate the one Jewish state, but also to delegitimize American in a way that is indistinguishable from classic anti-Semitism.
Further, Weissman does notunderstand the realities of the conflict with the Palestinians that created a broad consensus in Israel that regards a two-state solution as a good idea, but incompatible with Israel’s safety for the foreseeable future.
Beyond all this, Weissman sees Jewish peoplehood solely through the funhouse mirror that renders it a caricature.
While American Jews and Israelis disagree about a lot — not least about Trump, whom most Israelis back because of his unprecedented support for their nation up to this point — it is simply false to assert that Zionism or traditional Jewish faith is incompatible with progressive values.
The negative verdict of history on the Pittsburgh Platform cannot be reversed. Zionism remains essential to Jewish survival. To attempt to revise interest in the discredited and dangerous notion that American Jews can or should separate themselves from Jews elsewhere, especially the spiritual center of Judaism in Israel, is based on a view of Jewish identity that s neither sustainable nor conducive to collective Jewish security.
Weisman, whose lack of credibility on Jewish topics is painfully obvious, may think he is standing up for Jewish values. But he is advocating for a schism that is inextricably tied to the destruction of any coherent sense of Jewish community, and which would render it defenseless to a broad array of foes that are certainly not limited to the far right.