By Josefin Dolsten
NEW YORK (JTA) — It’s the rare newspaper op-ed that breaks through into popular culture. Rarer still is a “Saturday Night Live” skit based on such an essay.
But a recent piece by Bari Weiss enjoyed that perhaps dubious distinction. Her essay, criticizing a viral article in which an unnamed woman claimed that she was sexually assaulted by comedian Aziz Ansari stirred passions over the #MeToo debate. In the “SNL” skit, three couples at a restaurant are so worried about saying something insensitive about sexual assault that they struggle to say anything at all.
Since starting at The Times in May as staff editor and writer on the opinion pages, Weiss, 33, has been at the center of the often difficult discussions of men, women and sexual assault. Her willingness to defy the feminist consensus, both in her own writing and the articles she commissions, has earned her both praise and vilification.
For some, hers is a refreshing voice in The Times’ predominately liberal opinion section. For others, she is a Wall Street Journal transplant who is importing an unearned intolerance of the left.
“I am being consistent on the issues,” Weiss said over lunch in the cafeteria of The Times’ Midtown Manhattan headquarters earlier this month. “What’s astonishing is how people react when those views are expressed in The New York Times, that’s the difference, and I think part of that has to do with the misperception on the part of some that op-ed pages are supposed to be their ideological safe space.”
It’s a heady perch for a former pro-Israel activist at Columbia University, who after college worked as a freelance reporter and wrote for the Israeli daily Haaretz on a Dorot fellowship, a Jewish leadership program. Weiss’ prior positions include associate book review editor at The Wall Street Journal and senior news and politics editor at Tablet, the online Jewish journal.
“I’m sort of intellectually promiscuous,” she joked. “I am not an expert in anything. I’m interested in a lot of different things, and it turns out that this is the perfect job if that’s true of you.”
At The Times, Weiss has written pieces on a variety of subjects, including anti-Semitism on the left, cultural appropriation and a humorous take on Tiffany & Co.’s collection of high-end everyday items.
She has also recruited a cadre of high-profile writers for The Times. On her first day there, she shepherded an op-ed written by Monica Lewinsky slamming the late Fox News executive Roger Ailes for creating a toxic and abusive culture at the network. Weiss reached Lewinsky with the help of a rabbi at whose synagogue the former White House intern had spoken.
Weiss also commissioned articles by Julius Krein, a Trump supporter who on the cover of The Times’ Sunday Magazine said he regretted his vote; Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to accuse Olympics team doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse; and Dorsa Derakhshani, a young chess champion who Iran banned from representing the country because she would not wear a headscarf.
But it is her writing and editing of articles on the #MeToo movement that have received the most attention. In November, as the list of prominent men accused of sexual harassment grew and grew, she questioned the idea that women accusers should automatically be believed.
“In a climate in which sexual mores are transforming so rapidly,” she wrote, “many men are asking: If I were wrongly accused, who would believe me?”
Earlier she had commissioned an op-ed by Mayim Bialik in which the actress appeared to suggest that women in Hollywood could avoid harassment if they dressed and acted more demurely. Following an angry backlash on Twitter, Bialik apologized, saying, “What you wear and how you behave does not provide any protection from assault.”
Weiss had a taste of that kind of backlash following her Anzari essay, in which she counseled the woman who complained about the comedian’s aggressive behavior to “stand up on your two legs and walk out his door.”
“I’m apparently the victim of sexual assault. And if you’re a sexually active woman in the 21st century, chances are you are, too,” Weiss wrote. Not every less-than-stellar sexual experience is sexual assault, she argues, and in those cases, it is up to women to leave the encounter.
The Times published letters in reaction to her article accusing her of blaming the victim, and others praising her for bravely identifying the pitfalls of the “hookup culture.”
Those were apparently the kinds of diverse reactions that The Times was hoping for when it hired Weiss and her fellow Wall Street Journal alum, Bret Stephens. Announcing Stephens’ hire last April, James Bennet, The Times’ editorial page editor, said readers could “expect other additions to our regular roster in coming months as we continue to diversify our lineup and enrich our debate.”
Stephens, who met Weiss when she was a student at Columbia and encouraged her to apply for a fellowship at the Journal, called her columns “both intellectually provocative and morally passionate.”
“I think that Bari provides a kind of common sense sensibility that people find themselves agreeing with even when they don’t have the courage to say so out loud,” Stephens, who earlier in his career edited The Jerusalem Post, told JTA.
Her writing, which includes criticism of the right and the left, doesn’t lend itself easily to labels.
“The thing I admire in other writers and try to stick to myself is really examining things issue by issue,” she said. “That’s largely meant for me that I’m very progressive on a lot of social issues, I’m hawkish on foreign policy. If that makes me a neocon to certain people, if that makes me a progressive to others, OK.”
Weiss said her last year at the Journal was filled with frustration.
“I was no longer able to write for the op-ed page because I kept getting stonewalled because I was told that my pieces were too critical of Trump and Trump supporters,” she said.
An Esquire article published last month claimed the Rupert Murdoch-owned Journal embraced a pro-Trump perspective and even spiked an editorial about Trump’s alleged Mafia connections.
At Columbia, Weiss made a name for herself as an advocate for Israel. She was one of four Jewish students who founded the group Columbians for Academic Freedom, in protest of what they saw as an anti-Israel bias among professors and the targeting of students who expressed other opinions. Her loud Israel advocacy earned her plenty of criticism, including from the Jewish left.
“People were writing in the school paper that I was a McCarthyite, that I was a neocon, that I was a warmonger,” she said.
Ariel Beery, one of the co-founders of Columbians for Academic Freedom, called Weiss “a natural born leader and organizer.”
“Bari herself was deeply influential in understanding the intellectual and politically philosophical ramifications of the challenges to students’ ability to share from their experiences,” he recalled of Weiss’ role in the group.
Weiss hadn’t originally envisioned that she would be so involved in activism in college.
“I came to school really planning to be a theater kid and doing artsy stuff, which I also loved,” she said, “but I was really drawn into the political realm and then eventually column writing and then eventually starting this magazine [The Current, a Jewish journal at Columbia] because of the controversy around the Middle East studies department, and that was really formative for me.”
The issue of how Jews are received in progressive spaces is still an important one to her. In June, she wrote a widely shared piece about Jewish protesters who were told they could not march in a Chicago protest organized by lesbian activists if they carried banners with a Star of David because the event was “anti-Zionist” and “pro-Palestinian.”
“What concerns me, and this is sort of what’s behind my piece on the Women’s March or the [Chicago] Dyke March, is a progressivism that forces Jews to check their Jewish or pro-Israel or Zionist identity at the door in order to be good progressives,” she said.
Weiss says her first name — pronounced Barry — has helped her career. Her parents wanted to name her after her great-grandmother, but “didn’t want to burden me with a name like Bertha.” They settled on Bari upon meeting a local actress with the name.
“I didn’t always love my name,” she said, “but I’ve loved it in my professional career because it’s super androgynous and I’ve had the experience countless times, especially in the early days of my career, where I’d be editing a major general or a CEO and they’d pick up the phone to call me and assume that I was the secretary of Bari Weiss, and I’d be like ‘No, no, I’m Bari Weiss.’”
In Pittsburgh, Weiss grew up surrounded by a diverse set of political views and ways to think about Judaism. Her father identifies as a political conservative and her mother as a liberal, and the family belonged to three synagogues — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox.
“We had a big Shabbat dinner every Friday night, we’d have tons of different people talking, and we’d always talk about major political and moral and social issues,” she recalled.
In her hometown, she found the Jewish community to be less fragmented by religious affiliation than in New York. Here she attends Romemu, a nondenominational Upper West Side synagogue known for its lively singing and dancing.
Despite the charms of her hometown, she’s happy to be living here.
“The second I land in filthy LaGuardia,” she said of returning home after a recent trip to Dallas, “I breathe a sigh of relief that I’m back here. I love it, I love the energy here, so, so much.”