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In the course of a review of The Plot against America, Philip Roth’s dystopian novel that has the United States adopting a form of Nazi rule after the election of America-Firster Charles Lindbergh, the Australian writer Clive James confessed to never quite suspending his disbelief in this lurid alternative history. The United States, wrote James, “will never be free of racial prejudice for the same reason that it will never enshrine racial prejudice in anything like the Nuremberg Laws: it’s a free country.” He pithily concluded that “the insuperable problem with The Plot against America is that America is against the plot.”
Bari Weiss, a staff writer and editor for the opinion section of the New York Times, used to hold the same iron conviction that the United States would never succumb to the plague of anti-Semitism. In her slim new book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, Weiss confesses she is no longer so sanguine about the status of the “Jewish question” in the land of the free, even if the symptoms of a resurgent anti-Semitism aren’t as acute as they are in the Old World. A fair reading of the times suggests that her newfound anxiety is prudent.
Not so long ago, sounding the alarm about the Jewish place in American life would have been dismissed as hyperbolic or hysterical. By the standards of Jewish history, the asylum discovered in the United States after the Shoah was an almost unimaginable gift. Weiss recounts that growing up on American soil around the turn of the 21st century, members of her community knew they were “the lucky ones.” The faint echoes of anti-Semitism were at a safe remove in this secular republic so profoundly shaped by its confrontations with both the Nazi abattoir and the Soviet gulag. “Survival had no longer been our concern,” she writes. In America, the sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah managed to flourish “like no other diaspora in history,” even if ample evidence of the vehemence ranged against their tribe could be found in the foreign press: pictures of buses blown apart by suicide bombers in Jerusalem, the YouTube video showing Daniel Pearl’s gruesome beheading in Karachi, firebombed synagogues in Stockholm, Jewish cemeteries desecrated in Paris, or attacks on those wearing a kippah in Berlin.
Weiss suspects that the failure of anti-Semitism to take hold on this side of the Atlantic can be credited to the American regime’s early efforts to inoculate the country against this venomous mania. In 1790, George Washington gave his assurance to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, R.I., that American Jews would “possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.” In the same letter, America’s first president promised that the new republic would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” As a nation founded on the universalist claims of the Declaration of Independence, the United States has seemed, for all its flaws, particularly ill-suited to federally sanctioned prejudice. In addition, the “special nature of America,” in Weiss’s telling, includes an attachment to the Hebraic tradition as reflected in the dizzying array of biblical place names that dot its landscape. This, in turn, has nourished America’s long-standing alliance with the State of Israel. All of this has predisposed America to be “a New Jerusalem for the Jewish people.”
This is not to deny that American Jews occasionally found themselves (as the author did, growing up in Pittsburgh) on the receiving end of rancid jokes about “picking up pennies,” along with creepy “questions about horns.” More often than not, however, these insults didn’t escalate into injuries, in large part because this ill-concealed prejudice was understood by mainstream society to be anathema to American politics and philosophy. It was tempting, therefore, to write off these churlish anti-Jewish outbursts as nothing more than “vestiges of an uglier, more violent past.” Any suggestion that they were harbingers of a resurgent chauvinism threatening Jewish life and limb would have been greeted with mirth.
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