Canaries in the Coal Mine: Dara Horn and Bari Weiss

Jews can do their fellow citizens a favor by identifying the sources of cultural poison before the toxicity turns fatal. Hardly anybody is doing it better than these two.

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Ruth R. Wisse
COLUMN
Dec. 9 2021
About Ruth

Ruth R. Wisse is a Mosaic columnist, professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her memoir Free as a Jew: a Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, chapters of which appeared in Mosaic in somewhat different form, is out from Wicked Son Press.

About that cliché of Jews being the canary in the coal mine—what exactly does it mean for us today?

Canaries, because they are more sensitive than humans to carbon monoxide, began at some point to be used as danger-indicators, alerting miners that their working conditions were becoming ominously toxic. Metaphorically, when applied to Jews, the phrase “canary in the coal mine” can thus be taken to signify that threats to Jewish life represent simultaneously a warning signal to society at large: “Caution, Toxic Danger Ahead.”

How do we tell when the point of no return has been reached—the point, that is, after the canaries have died? In this respect, I have always loved the ending of the 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg where the American chief judge, played by Spencer Tracy, visits one of the movie’s four convicted Nazi defendants in his prison cell. Ernst Janning, a German jurist (played by Burt Lancaster) who is the most impressive of the four, has confessed to condemning a Jew to death for a mere misdemeanor. Attempting to justify himself, he tells his American interlocutor: “Those millions of people . . . I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it.” Tracy replies: “Herr Janning, it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death whom you knew to be innocent.”

This rang so true when I first saw the film that I overlooked what should have been the rest of the sentence: “and declared innocent the many you knew to be guilty.” In brief, it came to that because authorities gave malefactors free rein to attack Jews. As a general rule, when political factions direct their diverse social grievances against Jews, blaming them for the sufferings of others, the misdirected blame turns the underlying societal problems ever more severe until frustrated anger erupts in anti-Semitic violence.

Therefore, Jews in democratic countries today can do their fellow citizens a great favor by identifying the sources of the anti-Semitic poison, and its carriers, before the toxicity turns fatal. Two American Jews who have been bravely sounding the alarm are Dara Horn and Bari Weiss.

 

Dara Horn’s People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present is as engaging a warning as has ever been issued. A serious Jew, a scholar of Jewish literature, and an acclaimed novelist, Horn writes here in a mode of discovery, as if surprised by her every new finding and insight.

Some of those discoveries may strike readers as familiar, others as decidedly less so. Thus, Horn is meticulously thorough in writing about such well-known Holocaust memorials as the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and the Auschwitz death camp, and about the historic landmarks of Jewish life in medieval Spain, Soviet Russia, and Renaissance England. But have you, for instance, ever been to the annual Ice Festival in the city of Harbin in northeastern China?

Of the 20,000 Jews who once built, worked, and maintained their way of life in that city, the last died in 1985, a century after the first had arrived. Giving us a highly informative account of Harbin’s history and nature, and situating its Jewish sites—notably, the cemetery and the synagogue-turned-museum—within the much broader story of Russia and China, Horn tells us how Jews got there in the first place, why they sojourned, why they left, and how their story is being preserved.

Throughout the book, Horn conveys her storehouses of information so engagingly that one feels she has devised a cunning new method for teaching Jewish history. But then comes the context. In Harbin, just as the Ice Festival annually exploits the city’s extreme weather to attract visitors from far and wide, to the advantage of its reputation and its coffers, it does the same with its absent Jews; they, too, have become a tourist attraction—one of many:

There is a tourist-industry concept, popular in places largely devoid of Jews, called “Jewish Heritage Sites.” The term is a truly ingenious piece of marketing. “Jewish Heritage” is a phrase that sounds utterly benign or, to Jews, perhaps ever so slightly dutiful, suggesting a place that you surely ought to visit—after all, you came all this way, so how could you not? It is a much better name than “Property Seized from Dead or Expelled Jews.” By calling these places “Jewish Heritage Sites,” all those pesky moral concerns—about, say, why these “sites” exist to begin with—evaporate in a mist of goodwill.

Acerbic passages like this one pepper the book’s every chapter, leaving no doubt that Horn’s overriding concern is less with the fate of Jews past than with the health of Jews going forward. Expulsion, expropriation, mass murder—these are horrible enough; posthumous official attempts to launder that history, joined in many cases with ill-concealed animosity toward living Jews and Judaism, must not be tolerated. The book exposes the many means of interring Jewishness by paying pious tribute to representations of the Jews who are already dead. It is no less deservedly severe on living Jews who lend themselves to this process when they fail to stand up for Jews as they are.

I have known Dara Horn and had the pleasure of reading her work since she was an undergraduate and graduate student at Harvard. She was already then concerned not only with the aesthetic powers of literature but with its moral imperatives as well. She returns to those schooldays here in a chapter on Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, a work so masterful in its portrayal of a cruel Jew that the question of authorial anti-Semitism cannot simply be set aside, not even by Jews who aspire to a worldly dispassion. Here the element of discovery arrives through Horn’s ten-year-old son, who will not be distracted by Shakespeare’s genius from seeing the play’s hatred of Jews for what it is. “He knows evil when he hears it,” writes his mother, who has come to understand the play as he does.

What, then, of America? Here, too, as is to be expected, Horn’s recitation contains its share of occasions for alarm, up to and including the shooting of Jews in American synagogues: something quite new and more immediately threatening than Shylock. (We’ll return to the American scene in our discussion of Bari Weiss’s project.) Altogether, a point arrives in this narrative when one can almost hear the author crying out with the psalmist, ba’u mayim ad nafesh, “Save me, O God, for the waters are come unto my soul.” By then, her readers, too, might be ready to share her exhausted patience, the anger wrestling down despair.

Yet this book ends on a note of ultimate affirmation. Turning away from the enemies of Jews, Horn writes of her newfound immersion in daf yomi: the program of daily study of a passage of Talmud that has attracted a worldwide community of learning on the web:

Something magical happened when I switched over from looking online at news reports about anti-Semitic attacks to joining online daf yomi discussion groups and looking up daf yomi resources. The algorithms all caught on instantly, and suddenly I saw almost nothing online that wasn’t related to discussions of the Talmud’s opening pages—which contain a rambling, digressive, and almost bottomless conversation about when, where, and how to recite the sh’ma, Judaism’s central statement of faith in the singularity of God.

After spending a half-hour each day immersed in these discussions, Horn has also resumed regular evening family recitations of the sh’ma prayer itself, something not done for years. “There was a comfort here, a refuge as we recited the words. We were on a watch, awake in the dark. But someone was also watching us.” The comfort Dara Horn takes in forging this new link in the golden chain of Jewish transmission is also the encouragement she in the end offers to her readers.

Can this book help to lessen the new anti-Semitism in America, and if so, how? The Catholic writer James Carroll observes: “Because anti-Semitism is a Christian problem more than a Jewish one, Christian readers need this book. It is urgently important.”

He is right about the urgent importance, of course, but Carroll, who is well known for rebuking his Church, may be seeing here just another argument for that institution’s internal reform; his endorsement hints at how a book like this may induce guilt in some who already cultivate guilt while ignoring those waging the attacks. If that is the lesson Carroll mistakenly draws from People Love Dead Jews, it will hardly inspire him to help defend Israel from her adversaries, stop Iran from acquiring the means to destroy the Jews, or retard the “intersectional” coalition at home that holds the Jews responsible for Palestinian grievances. He and empathetic readers like him would do better to protect the good by eliminating the evil—which right now is decidedly not located in the Catholic Church, let alone among those many devout Christians who today constitute some of the most helpful and crucial fighters for the Jews and the Jewish state.

 

For her part, Bari Weiss, founding editor of the newsletter Common Sense, takes up the fight head-on, and has been at it from her undergraduate days at Columbia University. The influential longtime presence at that university of Edward Said, the guru of anti-Zionism, was one key factor in Columbia’s growing reputation as perhaps the most openly anti-Jewish campus in the country. In that hostile cultural atmosphere, the young Bari Weiss became an effective journalist and campus leader; since then, in her evolution as an editor, writer, and media star, she has grown ever bolder.

Confident championship of Jews and Zionism was Bari’s inheritance. She was raised in Pittsburgh’s strong Jewish community (her father has been one of its most active Zionist leaders) and found it as natural to defend her people as most Americans once found it natural to defend their country. Her 2019 book How to Fight Anti-Semitism introduces, in the person of the author, an example as valuable in itself as is her analysis of anti-Semitism and the means of fighting it. She has made that fight work for her rather than against her: a happy warrior who appears to prosper in her battles.

Given her talent, it is not surprising that, fairly early on, Weiss landed a position at the Wall Street Journal, the newspaper most closely aligned with her values, including pride in America and Israel. Over time, she might have risen in the Journal’s ranks to join such regular columnists as Kimberley Strassel, Daniel Henninger, and her immediate supervisor Bret Stephens—but in 2016 Donald Trump entered the presidential race and thoroughly scrambled American politics.

This merits a pause for explication. Among conservatives I know, Trump’s run for the presidency created fissures between those, on the one hand, so genuinely appalled by his choice as the Republican nominee that they separated themselves altogether from the party and those, on the other hand, who were prepared, the GOP being so much better than its alternative, to go along with or even actively support its choice of leader. In my own circles, nobody supported Trump in the primaries, and many worked hard for other candidates. But since our democracy (unlike others) shakes out its smaller differences within only two major parties, the “lesser-evil” voters had no trouble pulling the lever for the Republican.

By 2017, Weiss joined Bret Stephens in accepting an offer from the New York Times to leave the Journal and join the Times editorial pages instead. If the Times, which had badly misread the country that elected Trump as its president, was signaling a new commitment to political reality by hiring two conservative-tending opinion writers, the two writers took this opportunity to reach a much larger and trendier audience. At the Times—a key institutional tribune of the anti-Israel, anti-Jewish left—these two Zionists did indeed gain a media influence they might otherwise not have enjoyed and brilliantly used their prominence to develop and disseminate their ideas without ever betraying their beliefs.

After three years, however, experience compelled Weiss to the conclusion that she could no longer keep her Faustian bargain. In quitting the paper, she publicly charged that a dramatic change had occurred since her hiring:

What rules [of discourse] that remain at the Times are applied with extreme selectivity. If a person’s ideology is in keeping with the new orthodoxy, they and their work remain unscrutinized. Everyone else lives in fear of the digital thunderdome. Online venom is excused so long as it is directed at the proper targets.

Her resignation letter struck a blow against the totalitarian drift of the news media in general and the Times in particular, whose ideological fervor seemed to harden with every affirmative-action racial and gender hire. Harnessing the celebrity she had won at the Times to her now-independent powers, Weiss launched the online newsletter Common Sense, perhaps the most effective opinion forum now on the market and a refuge of free expression for dissident reporters and thinkers.

She calls her project centrist, avoiding the radioactive label “conservative” or any taint of formal affiliation. Yet those featured in it are all fighting to conserve the American republic and the range of traditional values, political and otherwise, including liberal values, for which it has long stood. And it is a simple fact that, call it what one will, the only way to reclaim anything resembling a political, cultural, and intellectual “center” in America today is to pull with all one’s might against the adversarial coalition that threatens from the left.

That is also where the “canaries”—the Jews—come in. The press in a democracy is never entirely neutral, and it always covers public affairs through the lens of its political assumptions. Honest publications tend to make those assumptions clear, and dishonest ones tend to keep those assumptions implicit or even veiled. The Trump years accelerated the partisan bias of supposedly neutral publications and broadcast channels. In that context, America’s prestige media cynically exploited the Jews, and their supporters, by assimilating President Trump, whom they regarded as a unique threat to American democracy, and old anti-Semitic anxieties. They simply tried to paint him as an anti-Semite. Put aside the obvious unlikelihood of Trump’s many personal flaws and poor judgments adding up to the kind and degree of anti-Semitic malice of which he stands accused. In his single term in office, and in the Middle East alone, his administration arguably did more than that of any previous president to secure the Jewish state and to further regional peace—the most basic Jewish and civilizational task of our time. A New Yorker in the real-estate business with Jewish grandchildren, he is as far from anti-Semitism as from chastity. By contrast, the left’s willful distortions of political reality actively conduce to the benefit of those trying to bring the Jews and Israel down.

Many American Jews saw the October 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh as a call to resuscitate the anti-fascist politics of the 1920s; but the enemy in the 2020s is dramatically different. That Bari Weiss celebrated her bat mitzvah in that synagogue justifies her own personal stake in what has been touted as “the worst anti-Semitic attack in America”; the event anchors her book and much of her writing on this subject. The attack was indeed appalling. The perpetrator deserves to be tried by the American justice system and, if found guilty, punished to the full extent of the law.

But here I must say something difficult: to focus public attention on a single anti-Semitic assault, however repugnant it may be, has the effect of shifting focus away from anti-Semitism’s more pervasive—even if less immediately deadly—manifestation. Anti-Semitism has been taken up by representatives of the war against Israel and its coalition on the intersectional left. Their grievance movement has penetrated very deep into American media, the academy, the elites, and also the government, where it champions Palestinians as an excuse for attacking Jews.

In my view, the worst anti-Semitic attacks in America are the apartheid weeks on campus, subsidized by university administrations on the grounds that they are a form of self-expression. Such events may kill fewer Jews—now. But blaming Israel consolidates and promotes the malicious inversion that holds Jews responsible for aggression against them. And attacking the Jews is—as ever—merely the vehicle for an assault on the robust democratic culture they represent. If, in today’s fight, it is the business of Jews to give early warning signs, they must in full sanity know a hawk from a handsaw. Those issuing the warnings must be especially careful not to point the posse in the wrong direction.

There will be more to say on this subject in months to come. For now, we must register our debt to Dara Horn and Bari Weiss, the latter of whom is right to call writing like theirs courageous.

This piece is made possible by the generosity of Ilene and David Siscovick.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Dara Horn, Politics & Current Affairs