Combating bigotry | Windows and Mirrors

Author and journalist Jonathan Weisman visited the Stroum Jewish Community Center to as part of the center’s “Words to the Wise” series.

In May 2016, Jonathan Weisman posted on his Twitter page a portion of a Washington Post column by Robert Kagan.

The piece was titled, “This is how fascism comes to America.” Posting news articles and columns was nothing new for Weisman, a journalist himself who works as a deputy Washington editor for the New York Times (the other Washington). But this time, he received a response in which his name was inside three parentheses: “(((Jonathan Weisman))).”

While he didn’t initially know what those parentheses meant, he quickly learned. Three parentheses are a method used by members of the alt-right to figure out which individuals have been marked for targeting. In other words, they work similarly to hashtags in that the punctuation marks sort online searches. But this sorting typically ends in harassment, online abuse and other sorts of cyberbullying — as Weisman experienced following that one tweet.

He received thousands of replies spewing anti-Semitic sentiments in response to that single post. Weisman grew up in a modestly Jewish household and said that while he identifies as Jewish, he’s not particularly observant. The online hate he received made him very aware of his background.

“It made me feel much more Jewish,” Weisman told a sold-out crowd on Jan. 17 at the Stroum Jewish Community Center (SJCC) on Mercer Island.

He was in town to discuss his book, “(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the age of Trump.”

Pamela Lavitt, director of Arts + Ideas and Festivals for SJCC, said Weisman’s appearance at SJCC was part of their “Words to the Wise” series — author talks that focus on engaging and intriguing speakers, chefs and hot topics.

“We wanted to present this conversation because it is clearly in the zeitgeist but it is not an easy one to tackle when your mission is to inspire connections and celebrate Jewish life and culture,” Lavitt said. “We wanted an expert in this area to present a thoughtful, civil, thought-provoking conversation and KUOW quickly became a great partner to help us get there.”

At SJCC, Weisman was interviewed on stage by KUOW’s “All Things Considered” host Kim Malcolm and the two discussed what life has been like for Jewish people.

Despite the title, Weisman said his book is more about the rise of bigotry and intolerance in this country.

“Anti-Semitism is just one manifestation of it,” he said.

And it has manifested here in the Pacific Northwest. Lavitt said they are no strangers to subtle and overt anti-Semitism. Last year, there was a false bomb threat at SJCC that led to the entire building being evacuated.

Weisman said everyone has a target on their backs.

“No one is really safe,” he said.

When Weisman’s book was published in early 2018, he received push back from conservative Jews who he said emphasized bigotry and anti-Semitism coming from the left, not the alt-right.

Then on Oct. 27, 2018, the Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh was targeted in a mass shooting where 11 people were killed and seven were injured. Weisman said prior to the shooting, his book may have been controversial but there was no sense of urgency.

“Pittsburgh changed that conversation,” he said.

Following the Tree of Life shooting, any second guessing people had about the alt-right was gone and people began to recognize the problem. And as a result, Weisman said people began asking what they could do.

He said when it comes to fighting against hate, we have to come together. This is a time for coalition building to combat bigotry.

“This is not a Democrat issue or a Republican issue,” Weisman said, adding that all parties should be against it.

That’s the dream, right?

One of the first steps to do this is to better understand each other. Weisman said when people experience anti-semitism, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia or any other “ism” or phobia, they either dismiss what other marginalized groups are going through or argue that their own problems are bigger.

Given my background, I am very familiar with what Asians and Asian Americans have experienced and know a little bit about other people of color. However, I am not too familiar with the Jewish experience outside of what I learned in school about World War II — which is to say, the basics of the Holocaust.

So when I attended last week’s event and learned a little more about the ways they have been targeted, it was, well, I wouldn’t say it was good to learn about other people’s hardships — but I knew it was important.

It’s important for all of us to know that for marginalized groups and communities the struggle is real.

Laura Bammer, a Maple Valley resident who attended the event at SJCC, also appreciated what Weisman had to say about sticking together to combat bigotry.

“You have to take it all seriously,” she said.

Bammer said she was interested in attending last week’s talk because the topic was focused on identity groups who have been targeted more frequently since the election of President Donald Trump. As a white woman, she said she only has one identity that falls under that umbrella. But Bammer, who is not Jewish but noted her children are, said she wants to understand more perspectives.

SJCC’s programs are focused on building understanding.

Lavitt said they invite people from the Jewish and Mercer Island communities as well as outside of those communities to get together to build awareness and to do it in the spirit of erudite and open dialogue in which everyone is welcome and can connect.

A video of Weisman’s interview with Malcolm will be available on the SJCC website, sjcc.org, in about a month.

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