Bari Weiss: What it Means to Choose Freedom, Supplemented by Franklin Foer and the Burgesses



Newsletter #217 — March 8, 2024



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by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

Guy and I (Heidi) recently watched a video of an extraordinary talk given by Bari Weiss, founder of the online media company, The Free Press. She also hosts the podcast Honestly.  Before founding The Free Press, Weiss was a writer at the Wall Street Journal (2013-2017) and then the New York Times (2017-2020). In 2020, she left the Times, saying in her public resignation letter that The Times had become a slave of the left, as it was manifested on Twitter (now X). "Twitter," she said, "has become its [the Times] ultimate editor. ... Stories are chosen and told," she wrote, "in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions."  The Free Press, she wrote in its "about page,"  

is built on the ideals that once were the bedrock of great journalism: honesty, doggedness, and fierce independence. We publish investigative stories and provocative commentary about the world as it actually is, ... focus[ing] on stories that are ignored or misconstrued [by the mainstream press] in the service of an ideological narrative. For us, curiosity isn’t a liability. It’s a necessity.

...You won’t agree with everything we run. And we think that’s exactly the point.

Guy and I particularly like that last sentence because it describes what we, too, are trying to do with the BI newsletter.  Many people disagree with what we are saying, and we disagree with some of the contributions we publish.  But we hope all these posts get our readers thinking.

Weiss gave a speech on the State of World Jewry at the 92Y  in New York.  For those who do not know (I didn't, and was confused) the 92Y is not an arm of the YMCA (the Young Men's Christian Association); it is, rather, a Jewish organization, the Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Association founded in 1874. It is now a cultural and community center located on the upper east side of Manhattan, and has opened its doors to non-Jews as well as Jews. Weiss started out noting that she was humbled to have been asked to give the speech, as it has been delivered, in past years, by Jewish luminaries such as Elie Weisel, and Abba Eban. Weiss's talk was entitled "What it Means to Chose Freedom" and it was given on Sunday February 25, 2024.

After describing Weiss's talk  we have added a few ideas from Franklin Foer's excellent article, "The Golden Age of American Jews is Ending" that was published in The Atlantic on March 4, 2024. It echoed many of the same themes, but took them further, and backed them up with more "data," as one can do in a lengthy article, but not in a talk.

Both Weiss and Foer ask us to look beyond the immediate ramifications of the ongoing war in Gaza and consider what these events have to teach us about the future of liberal democracy around the world.  They both assert that the possible demise of Israel would lead to (or be part of) the demise of liberal democracy worldwide.  Their logic is worth serious consideration.  


Bari Weiss's Talk: "What it Means to Choose Freedom"

After noting the "shoulders of giants" she was standing on, and all the wise people she'd consulted lately, Weiss said that she has been in "a state of shock" since October 7. That was because, while she thought of herself as educated and aware, and she went on to say 

[I] knew antisemitism had seduced educated people in other eras,  I did not expect a wave of antisemitism to originate with them [educated people]  in our  [era].  ...

Even I did not foresee how avidly so many of [American] institutions would actively embrace an ideology of illiberalism.

A big part of what Weiss talked about was what made America relatively immune to antisemitism in the past that is no longer true.  George Washington, Ben Franklin and Abraham Lincoln's explicitly supported the Jews, she explained.  America, she thought until recently, was "a different kind of diaspora," one in which Jews were respected and safe.  The reason for this were the fundamental American ideas. 

The rule of law and equality under it.  A God who made us [Americans] all equal.  Rights not granted to us by a king or a government, but rights that were self-evident and endowed by our creator.

What made and makes this country exceptional are our ideas and our fealty to those ideas.

If we lose sight of those principles—or worse, if we allow war to be made against them from within — then we become like everywhere else [with rampant antisemitism and illiberalism.]

Weiss then quoted Alexander Hamilton in the first Federalist Paper who wondered whether Americans were capable of establishing good government by choice, or whether they would befall the fate of other peoples who suffered governance by force.  In a previous newsletter, we have called this the distinction between power-with and power-over forms of governance. Weiss observed:

That urgent, existential question is now before us once more: Are we capable [of self-government by choice]? What will we choose?

This [92Y] talk is called the State of World Jewry Address.  But if there is a lesson of these past few years — and especially these past 142 days—it is that the state of world Jewry depends on the state of the free world. And right now its condition is in jeopardy.

This is a truth known viscerally to Jews today who hail from the unfree world. ... But this is a truth that we American Jews have lost sight of on account of our abundant blessings. As our holiday from history ends, as we learn to live inside history once more, it is a truth we urgently need to revive and renew and make real for ourselves.

So that is what I want to talk about tonight. How much we become — inside and outside — free people.  For the sake of America. For the sake of the free world. And for the sake of Jews — those who came before us, and those yet to come.

Weiss told the story of Aaron, Moses's "right hand man" in The Bible, who placated the Jews when Moses had, for so long, not returned from his trip up Mt. Sinai. Aaron helped the Jews forge a golden calf, which they could worship, instead of worshiping the God they had lost sight of when Moses left. Weiss asked what was the lesson of this story?  

Why did a people who had just experienced the miracle of their liberation from slavery turn away from the God who had given them their freedom. . . and toward an idol?

After recounting many rabbis' answers, Weiss suggested her own: they built and then worshiped the calf "because freedom is so very, very hard."  She goes on to say that 

We modern Israelites have also been worshipping false gods.

Our American idols are prestige, power, social acceptance, popularity, elite opinion, and the Ivy League — but I repeat myself. Our idols are the coveted board seat. The best tables. Relationships with the pretty people.

We put truth on the altar, as if it were a tithable commodity, to remain insiders, to have bragging rights.

We have been willing to sacrifice what is most precious to us — including our own children — for the sake of it.

Why are we doing this?

We are doing it because we are a tiny minority, and because we feel vulnerable and scared and alone. And because fitting in feels safer than standing apart.

We are doing it because we are human beings and so seek temporary pleasure and ease.

We are doing it because we feel anxious and unsure.

We are doing it because we tell ourselves that accommodation is the best route to safety.

We are doing it because we also live in a culture of idolatry, only this time the materials are pixels and diplomas, adherence to a particular ideology and an emergent social credit system based on likes and retweets.

We are doing it because maybe deep down we don’t believe we are capable of more.

We are doing it because freedom — real, true freedom — is so very hard.

So let me not leave this stage tonight before saying this again, and underscoring it: we are at a hinge moment in history.

Our world is changing. 

The world many of us were born into — the world we thought we would spend our lives inside — that world is over. There is no going back. And the things we took for granted — that America would remain exceptional (not just for us but in the world); that Americans would understand this as a place and an idea worth fighting for — those are no longer certainties.

Nor is the certainty of the free world itself, which is burning at its outer edges. 

She points out that the people of Taiwan understand this, as do the people of Ukraine. Freedom, she said, 

isn’t only under siege in Russia and Iran and Hong Kong. It is also under siege here at home. 

By leftists who glorify terrorists. . . and by rightists who glorify tyrants. By technology companies that revise history and tell us it’s justice. By demagogues who point to the grocery stores and the subway system in Putin’s Russia and insist that they are symbols of human flourishing. And by an elite culture that has so lost all sense of right and wrong, good and bad, or has so cunningly transformed those categories, that it can call a massacre “resistance.” A genocidal chant, a call for “freedom.” And a just war of self-defense “genocide.”

So, "what do we do," she asks? "The charge is as simple as it is spiritually difficult. We fulfill our duty and our responsibility to be free." What does that mean?

To be free is to tell the truth even in a world awash with lies.

The sky is blue. Robin DiAngelo might say it’s pink. Candace Owens might say it’s green. But it’s not. It is blue. That is as true as asserting that there are good governments and evil ones. There are societies organized to generate progress and well-being and those organized around terror and debasement. There are better cultures for women and minorities and there are worse ones. There are historical truths, even if they’re inconvenient for people to know about, even if the activists running places like Google are frantically working to disappear the old facts. 

Weiss talked about the Jews who supported the early (1950-1960s) U.S. civil rights movement "because it was the right thing to do."

The civil rights movement was about expanding freedom for those who have been deprived of it. It had an expansive view of equality. It argued that because our rights were God-given and because we were all created equal,  equality under the law must follow.

Many who claim the mantle as the inheritors of that movement defile it. They say progress is suspect or impossible. Instead of working to perfect the union, they argue for the abolition of it. They argue that every institution in society must treat groups of people very, very differently. The movement says: there are too many Jewish and Asian doctors—their MCAT scores should be judged against a different ledger.

If your “allies” are subdividing people by racial category, fixing inherited qualities to one group or another, counting the representation of each group to see if it exceeded the distribution in the population. . . then they, however well-intentioned, are anything but. To be free is to be willing to stand apart. ...

And it’s time to go to war for our values.

Weiss ended her talk by saying that she recently asked Natan Sharansky whether it is possible to teach courage. He replied "No. You can't teach it. You can only show people how good it feels to be free."

And that’s what I want to end on. Fighting the lies against us, fighting the lies against history, living in truth—it feels good. It’s relaxing to tell the truth. You’ll laugh more. Not that I’m here selling a new cure for depression, but I promise this is a start.

What a blessing to be free to choose. I know what my choice will be. I am determined to be free.

What we found so compelling about Weiss' observations is that they don't just apply to the Jewish diaspora.  They apply to anyone who wants to be free and not live in a society where the powerful tell them what to think, what to do, and what to believe.

Franklin Foer's Atlantic Article: "The Golden Age Of American Jews Is Ending"

Shortly after watching Weiss's talk, we read Franklin Foer's Atlantic article that echoed Weiss's key ideas almost exactly, though he was perhaps less surprised about the quick rise of antisemitism after October 7.

Anti-Semitism is a mental habit, deeply embedded in Christian and Muslim thinking, stretching back at least as far as the accusation that the Jews murdered the son of God. It’s a tendency to fixate on Jews, to place them at the center of the narrative, overstating their role in society and describing them as the root cause of any unwanted phenomena — a centrality that seems strange, given that Jews constitute about 0.2 percent of the global population. Though it shape-shifts over time, anti-Semitism returns to the same essential complaint: that Jews are cunning, bloodthirsty, and mad for power. Anti-Zionism often takes a similar form: the dehumanization, the unilateral casting of blame, and the fetishizing of Jewish villainy. ...

The anti-Zionism that has flourished on the left in recent years doesn’t stop with calls for an end to the occupation of the West Bank. It espouses a blithe desire to eliminate the world’s only Jewish-majority nation, valorizes the homicidal campaign against its existence, and seeks to hold members of the Jewish diaspora to account for the sins of a country they don’t live in and for a government they didn’t elect. In so doing, this faction of the left places itself in the terrible lineage of attempts to erase Jewry—and, in turn, stirs ancient and not-so-ancient existential fears.

Like Weiss, Foer explained how American Jews embraced liberalism, thinking that it would "inoculate America against the world's oldest hatred."

For several generations, it worked. Liberalism helped unleash a Golden Age of American Jewry, an unprecedented period of safety, prosperity, and political influence. [which he described in detail in the article] ...

But that era is drawing to a close. America’s ascendant political movements — MAGA on one side, the illiberal left on the other — would demolish the last pillars of the consensus that Jews helped establish. They regard concepts such as tolerance, fairness, meritocracy, and cosmopolitanism as pernicious shams. The Golden Age of American Jewry has given way to a golden age of conspiracy, reckless hyperbole, and political violence, all tendencies inimical to the democratic temperament. Extremist thought and mob behavior have never been good for Jews. And what’s bad for Jews, it can be argued, is bad for America.

Foer argues that the "Jewish vacation from history" ended before October 7,  2023 — on September 11, 2001, though most people didn't realize it at the time.  Though bin Laden claimed credit for the Twin Towers and Pentagon attacks, conspiracy theories quickly developed, blaming Jews for the attack. 9-11 also unleashed the U.S. "war on terror," which the left (correctly) saw as a disaster, but incorrectly attributed it  to the right's "undermining of the national interest in service of their stealth loyalty to Israel." What followed was a period of increasing antisemitism on both the left and the right. Ironically, Jews were seen by the right as outsiders, while they were seen on the left as all powerful "ultra white" oppressors.

For a brief moment, it felt as if the October 7 attacks might reverse the tide, because it should have been impossible not to recoil at the footage of Hamas’s pogrom. Israel had yet to launch its counterattack, so there was no war to condemn. Still, even in this moment of moral clarity, the campus left couldn’t muster compassion. At Harvard, more than 30 student groups signed a letter on October 7, holding “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” Days later, the incoming head of NYU’s new Center for Indigenous Studies described the attacks as “affirming.” This sympathy for Hamas, when its crimes were freshest, was a glimpse of what was about to come.

Foer recounts increasing antisemitism, both on campuses and beyond, and then, like Weiss, relates that to the health (or sickness) of liberal democracy more widely.

The surge of anti-Semitism is a symptom of the decay of democratic habits, a leading indicator of rising authoritarianism. When anti-Semitism takes hold, conspiracy theory hardens into conventional wisdom, embedding violence in thought and then in deadly action. A society that holds its Jews at arm’s length is likely to be more intent on hunting down scapegoats than addressing underlying defects. Although it is hardly an iron law of history, such societies are prone to decline. ... England entered a long dark age after expelling its Jews in 1290. Czarist Russia limped toward revolution after the pogroms of the 1880s. If America persists on its current course, it would be the end of the Golden Age not just for the Jews, but for the country that nurtured them.

Heidi and Guy Burgess: Additional Thoughts 

Weiss's shock after October 7 really resonated with us, because we, too, have been shocked by October 7 and the cascade of events that followed the that attack. In previous newsletters we have tried to understand how any group of people could have perpetrated the atrocities that took place on that date.  We have written less (if at all) about our difficulty in understanding how Americans, Europeans, and many of our colleagues have responded to these events.  We have struggled understand why so many people who we respect, even our friends and colleagues in the peacebuilding field, seem to think that this was a legitimate response to an illegitimate occupation. How is that possible, we wondered?  Are we really wrong?  How is it possible that people who have dedicated their lives to "peace" can countenance supporting the torture, rape, murder, and hostage taking that took place that day, and continues to this day, with the remaining hostages? 

While, of course, many of our colleagues did strongly condemn Hamas's acts of October 7, they also see the Israeli response, as Joe Biden recently put it, as "over the top." They do a simple count of reported Gazan deaths and Israeli deaths, and assert that the Israel response is "disproportional." But do they try (as all peacebuilders say we should) to put themselves in the shoes of Israelis?  What does it feel like to be an Israeli citizen today?  What did it feel like on October 8? This is a topic that (using Weiss's words,) has been "ignored and misconstrued" by the mainstream press and many of our peacebuilding colleagues, in the service of an ideological narrative that the Israelis are oppressors, and thus are guilty and should be stopped from further aggression, if not entirely stripped of their country. 

In an effort to understand the Israeli alternative to this oppressor/oppressed framing, we have talked with several Israelis (and read articles by several more), who are in constant fear. Their government did not protect them on October 7, as it had always done before.  Not only did it fail to prevent the attack, it was incredibly slow in responding even once the attack was underway.  According to one of the Israeli bloggers we read, Daniel Gordis, Netanyahu's government was absent without leave for days or weeks, the army pretty much running itself, as the leadership seemed to be in hiding.

Once Netanyahu appeared, he promised to destroy Hamas and bring all the hostages home.  Today, over 150 days (5 months!) later, over 130 of the hostages are still not home. How many are still alive?  How many have been tortured and raped during their captivity?  Have they been fed? We do not know. To our knowledge (and the ICRC website seems to concur), the Red Cross has still not visited any of the hostages in captivity.

Though there are reports that the IDF is "winning," it does not feel that way to many Israelis, whose lives are completely disrupted, as large proportions of the population are still absent from their families and their jobs, still fighting in Gaza.  So families are torn asunder, subjected to continuous worry that their loved ones will not come back and struggling to care for the wars many casualties. The Israeli economy is in shambles. And still, Hamas is not destroyed, significant parts of the tunnel system are apparently, still intact, and Israel has yet to figure out how it can prevent Hamas from rebuilding and repeating the October 7 attack (or much worse) in the days or years to come. Indeed, Hamas has vowed to do just that, and much of the outside world seems to be encouraging them to do so.

Israel, understandably to us, doesn't want a ceasefire under terms that would not free the hostages and prevent Hamas from ever again launching an attack comparable to October 7. How can we expect Israel to accept that threat? If we really want to understand this conflict, we need to imagine ourselves in Israel's situation. Would we really do something differently? 

We know that many of our readers will respond that we should stand in the shoes of an "average" Gazan, who, too, has been living in constant terror since October 7, and is facing much more serious challenges in fulfilling its most basic human needs (food, water, shelter, health care)  We feel for them too. The urgent challenge is to figure out how to limit the suffering on both sides.

We think that the principal obstacle to doing this is the fact that the blame for the Gazan's plight has been misplaced. Most of the blame should not go to Israel, which is defending itself in the only way possible, given that Hamas uses human shields to protect its huge tunnel system.  Instead, the preponderance of blame should go to Hamas, which has for decades intentionally used its citizens as shields and public relations weapons. The outside world should have been supporting and working with Israel to protect the Palestinian people from Hamas's violent oppression and homicidal/suicidal culture. The fact that the international community has failed to do this, but rather seems to be embracing and celebrating that culture, leaves Israel with no alternative to its current military campaign. Claiming that this self defense is "genocide" while Hamas's campaign to eliminate Israel and kill all Jews (as still called for in its Charter) is "resistance" is doublespeak right out of George Orwell's 1984. 

When goodness and badness is determined by one's identity group, Jews are often going to be labeled "bad" because they are such a small group, they are "different," yet they tend to be very successful. We would argue that their success stems from their cultural values of hard work and education, which tends to lead to success. But outsiders often assume that it is because they have somehow cheated, or "stolen" their benefits from others. When "goodness" and "badness" is defined by simplistic notions of oppressors and oppressed, it is far too easy to see whites as "oppressors" and Jews as the "ultimate whites" (even though a majority of Jews in Israel are non-white.) Our point is that illiberal ideas in one domain tend to be reflected in other domains with comparably tragic consequences.

One example is the upcoming United States Presidential election — an election that pits one candidate who makes no secret of his authoritarian tendencies, and another candidate who does not see himself as authoritarian (nor do his followers see him that way), yet he aggressively pursues a "whole of government" approach that demands allegiance to a wide range of progressive ideas and policies. That, too, is a hidden form of authoritarianism — an authoritarianism of ideas — that insists that everyone espouse woke ideology or risk being shunned, cancelled, or not hired.  While many on the left feel this is justified because their approach is "right" and others are "wrong" or "unjust" or "racist,"  how that is different from the Han Chinese insisting that the Uyghers abandon their language, beliefs, and culture, and become "true Chinese?"

As Weiss so eloquently argued, and Foer seconded, all Americans, and all citizens of liberal democracies should not be bowing to explicit or implicit authoritarianism or illiberalism.  We should shout out our freedom and fight for it.  Both the survival of the Jews and liberal democracy itself depends on it.


1 Careful readers will note that we are inconsistent in the way we spell "antisemitism" in this article. We are persuaded by an article published by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance that it should be spelled without a hyphen or a capital letter because, as they say, "the hyphenated spelling allows for the possibility of something called “Semitism,” which not only legitimizes a form of pseudo-scientific racial classification that was thoroughly discredited by association with Nazi ideology, but also divides the term, stripping it from its meaning of opposition and hatred toward Jews." However, Foer spelled it "anti-Semitism" in his article, and we kept his original spelling in the direct quotes.

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