The Republican National Convention had to pull a scheduled speaker from its Tuesday night lineup when it was discovered that anti-immigrant advocate Mary Ann Mendoza had peddled antisemitic conspiracy theories on Twitter that very same day, including a link to the hoary Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This is par for the right-wing course; antisemitic incidents in the United States hit their highest peak in the last four decades in 2019, according to the Associated Press (5/12/20), and a great deal of it has been tied to the racial extremism coming from the Trump administration and its defenders. But a few media outlets want to pin this as much or more on “the left,” based on a lot of distortion and dishonest engagement.
A recent iteration comes from one of Jewish media’s main voices, the Forward (7/30/20), where Yale law student Emily Shire complains that progressives pull their punches when antisemitism comes from the left.
Her op-ed spends most of its time worrying about antisemitism from athletes and celebrities, like rapper Ice Cube, and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. But while Ice Cube’s contributions to hip-hop are legendary, his influence on the US political left is almost nonexistent. That’s noteworthy because Public Enemy, whose lyrics are much more associated with the left, actually did have a member who said antisemitic things, and was promptly removed from the group (New York Times, 8/11/89).
The association of Farrakhan with the left is a giveaway: Just because he is Black and talks about poverty doesn’t make him a leftist. As the late contrarian journalist Christopher Hitchens, then a columnist at the Nation, said on C-SPAN (3/1/93) upon the release of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X biopic, the NoI’s obsession with small businesses, sobriety and sexual traditionalism makes it, if anything, a poster child for the Reaganite right. As political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. wrote in Class Notes, the NoI’s
racial militancy often rests atop basically conventional, if not conservative, aspirations: for example, the desire to penetrate—or create Black-controlled alternatives to—the “glass ceiling” barring access to the upper reaches of corporate wealth and power. Radical rhetoric is attractive when it speaks to their frustrations as members of a minority, as long as it does not conflict with their hopes for corporate success.
Take any essay about the current Black-led uprisings around the country from left publications; a lot of groups and names come up, but the Nation of Islam and Farrakhan are pretty much absent.
This kind of bad-faith rhetoric (jumping from a rapper and a well-known demagogue to the entire political left) is part of a trend in US media that tries to divorce the rise of antisemitism from the rise of far-right leaders like Donald Trump (or Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, or France’s Marine Le Pen). The narrative these pieces insinuate goes: Yes, much of the violent antisemitism we see in the world today comes from the far-right, but anti-Israel sentiment on the left is another head of the same beast—and one that seems more interesting to talk about, for whatever reasons.
George Washington University undergraduate Blake Flayton wrote in the New York Times (11/14/19) about the hostility Zionists face on campus, conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism, as is old hat, and even Times columnist Michelle Goldberg (10/7/18) has debunked this equation. But Flayton offers something more when he complains that a group on his campus had described Zionism “as a ‘transnational project,’ an antisemitic trope that characterizes the desire for a Jewish state as a bid for global domination by the Jewish people.”
This is just gaslighting. Zionism is by definition the idea of relocating Diasporic Jews to Israel, and thus inherently “transnational.” This idea has sustained numerous international groups dedicated to strengthening ties between Jews in the Diaspora with Israel, not just so that they might support the Jewish state, but in hopes that some might move there.
In the Washington Post (8/13/19), columnist Marc Thiessen also sounded the alarm about rising “left antisemitism”―again, mostly going over old territory about how Israel gets unfairly singled out for criticism by the left, supposedly an indication of latent antisemitism — although this argument has been called out as “whataboutism” in places like Middle East Monitor (8/30/16) . But he goes beyond suggesting that advocacy of Palestinian rights is motivated by Jew hatred, lumping the left in with actual fascism—quoting Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum director Piotr Cywiński saying, “Do not forget that the Nazi Party in Germany was a party of workers.” “We are many times thinking about the Nazis as far right,” Cywiński adds, but the party spoke “to the left, using some leftist language.”
In superficial internet debates, pointing out that the National Socialist Workers Party had the words “socialist” and “workers” in it is a common trope, but we should expect more serious analysis on an important opinion page. The main tendency Cywiński is alluding to is a Nazi faction called the Strasserists, named for two brothers who promoted a supposedly pro-worker version of fascism, calling for empowering Aryan workers against what they saw as Jewish-dominated capitalism. But this flank was purged out of the party by 1934, when Gregor Strasser was murdered in the Night of the Long Knives, allowing Adolf Hitler to monopolize Nazism almost completely.
And much as Trump caters to white working-class voters with false promises of bringing back manufacturing jobs—while ripping up union rights and attacking socialists—so too did the Nazis trumpet the supremacy of its nation’s pure and Aryan workers while crushing trade unions, and waging literal war against Communists and socialists, tying the Jewish threat to Bolshevism.
Interestingly, the Washington Post (2/4/20) later published a piece denouncing the very kind of rhetorical trick Thiessen used, with historian Ronald Granieri calling the attempt to tie left-leaning parties to Nazism “nothing less than historical and political sophistry that attempts to turn effect into cause and victim into victimizer.”
There are more examples of strained efforts to link the left to antisemitism. Jill Filipovic at CNN (7/29/20) balanced overt antisemitism from the Republicans with, again, reference to Ice Cube and Farrakhan. David Hirsh, an academic who campaigns against academic boycotts of Israel, wrote a book about how anti-Zionism in progressive spaces masks antisemitism, although his critics like the Electronic Intifada (3/5/13) have described his perspectives as “misrepresentation.”
The bitter irony here is that this weaponization of Jewishness and exaggeration of antisemitism on the left is, as FAIR (1/28/20, 12/21/19) has pointed out, a frequent tool the press has used against Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, the latter of whom is a Jewish socialist who has had to endure antisemitic attacks from the right and center. And many left outlets, like The Nation, Progressive and In These Times, do, in fact, frequently confront antisemitism.
Media attempts to label the left as antisemitic have caused headaches for the Democrats as well. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, calling himself a “vehement opponent of antisemitism,” attempted to distance himself from Muslim activist Linda Sarsour for her outspoken criticism of Israel (New York Post, 8/19/20). But Biden needs Arab and Muslim votes in order to win states like Michigan, so his participation in this narrative forced him into damage-control mode, apologizing to Muslim Democrats for speaking out against Sarsour (New York Post, 8/24/20). There’s a familiar theme in this thread, because much of the accusation of antisemitism against Sarsour, a key organizer of the Women’s March, rests on her unwillingness to denounce Farrakhan (Atlantic, 3/8/18).
There is nothing wrong with diving deep into antisemitism’s ability to creep across the political spectrum, or even into anti-Israel circles–for example, when a KKK leader like David Duke complains about “Zionists,” we can safely assume he’s using it as a code word for “Jews.” The New Yorker (1/3/20) took a relatively more nuanced approach to identifying antisemitism as hard to pin as left or right. And when there are legitimate cases of antisemitic activism on the left, there are usually voices on the left that raise the issue (Guardian, 8/26/15). Writer April Rosenblum published a pamphlet on the topic.
But as FAIR (11/6/18) has covered in the past, journalists have often, in the face of antisemitic violence from the right (like the Tree of Life massacre), looked to exaggerate instances of liberals or leftists saying unsavory things as a way to provide a kind of partisan balance. This is as unfair as it is insensitive to the victims of right-wing terror: A closed-borders zealot shooting up a synagogue is just not in the same category as college students being too loud about suffering in Gaza.
Pieces like these are ideologically driven, which is fine, but they feel the need to distort facts to get the conclusion they want. They use red herrings like Farrakhan to somehow represent the ascendant left, engage in dubious history and demand that certain aspects of a prominent political movement simply can’t be uttered. This is as offensive to Jews as it is to journalism.
Featured image: The Forward‘s collage (7/30/20) of “left” antisemites: Former Philadelphia NAACP head Rodney Muhammad, rapper Ice Cube, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and pop singer Madonna.