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May 31, 2018 1:31 pm

Is a Virginia Democrat Running for Congress an Antisemite? The New York Times Is on It

avatar by Ira Stoll


The headquarters of The New York Times. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The New York Times devoted the labor of two reporters, Thomas Kaplan and Michael Tackett, to a news article about the Democratic nominee for the Fifth Congressional District of Virginia, Leslie Cockburn.

For some time, the article appeared online under the Times headline, “A Democratic Candidate Criticized Israel. Republicans Shout ‘Anti-Semite.’”

The headline is misleading, because the Democratic candidate wasn’t merely criticizing Israel like some American Reform rabbi complaining about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of egalitarian prayer spaces at the Western Wall or Israel’s treatment of African migrants. Cockburn wrote a book that even the Times itself described as “largely dedicated to Israel-bashing for its own sake,” with the message that “the Israeli-American connection is somewhere behind just about everything that ails us.”

The Times, at least its two male political reporters, do characterize Cockburn’s views on Israel as “strident.” But that may be less about her Israel views than a sexist way to dismiss her — at least if you believe what the Times has written about that word. As I noted when the Times hurled the term at the American ambassador at the United Nations Nikki Haley,

My authoritative Webster’s Second unabridged dictionary defines “strident” as “creaking; harsh; grating.” When it is applied to liberal women like, say, Hillary Clinton, the Times says it is a term that can signal sexism. Here, for example, is a 2008 column by Times public editor Clark Hoyt, discussing coverage of Clinton: “I asked my assistant, Michael McElroy, to run a database search for some key words that might indicate sexism in the Times — ‘shrill,’ ‘strident,’ ‘pantsuit,’ and ‘giggle’ among them.” A 2016 opinion piece in the Times by the president of Smith College, Kathleen McCartney, published after Clinton’s election loss, said, “If women stay boxed in by the norms of our gender — passive, gentle, and congenial — we may not be viewed as leadership material. If women adopt the norms of a leader — commanding, decisive, and assertive — we may be punished for being too bossy, too pushy, too strident, too ambitious, too scary.”

The Times article proceeds to clumsily attempt to provide some context about Israel and Jewish Democratic politics. It reports, “conservative news media continues to try to tar Democrats by linking them to Mr. [Louis] Farrakhan, and Mr. Trump has used his Middle East policies to try to drive a wedge between Jewish voters and the Democratic Party.” An editor at The Forward, Batya Ungar-Sargon, wrote on Twitter, “The person who wrote this paragraph knows nothing about American Jews.“

Indeed, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan has been in the news not only because of “conservative news media” but because he gave a speech that even the nonpartisan Anti-Defamation League, headed by a former Obama administration official, said “promoted the antisemitic conspiracy trope that Jews control the government and Hollywood.” Also, as The New York Times itself reported in an article that ran online only, “a previously unreleased photo” of Farrakhan and Barack Obama was published in January by such notoriously (not) conservative outlets as The New Yorker and CNN. The earlier Times article had said criticism of Democrats for failing to distance themselves from Farrakhan came “from across the ideological spectrum.”

What’s more, the claim that Mr. Trump “has used his Middle East policies to try to drive a wedge between Jewish voters and the Democratic Party” is bizarre. To hear the Times tell it most of the time, to the extent that Trump’s Middle East policies have a domestic political motivation at all, they are driven by a desire to cater to evangelical Christians. American Jewish voters, especially younger ones, are said to be disillusioned by “the occupation.” If there was a wedge driven between Jewish voters and the Democratic Party, President Obama put it there with the Iran nuclear deal that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposed. Even the idea that Jewish votes are driven primarily by Middle East policy is itself questionable.

The Times article about Leslie Cockburn proceeds to try to absolve her of antisemitism in part on the basis of a quote from “the rabbi emeritus of Charlottesville’s only synagogue,” who hosted a meeting for her. The current rabbi is not quoted.

As James Loeffler, a professor at the University of Virginia and the author of the wonderful new book Rooted Cosmopolitans, suggested in a Facebook post, the whole article focuses on the wrong question — is Cockburn an antisemite or not? The more interesting questions are less binary ones, such as: how did the author of a book so hostile to Israel wind up as the Democratic congressional nominee? And what are Cockburn’s current views on questions such as the BDS movement, American military aid to Israel, the American embassy in Jerusalem, the Iran nuclear deal, and the current and ongoing campaign to unjustly demonize Israel and single it out for criticism?

The Times may have been following the lead of Cockburn’s Republican critics. But why allow them to set the Times agenda and define the race as a referendum on Cockburn’s supposed antisemitism? The Times can’t quite decide if it wants to mock this Republican line of attack, as it seemed to do in the online headline, or to take it seriously, as it does intermittently in the rest of the article. Instead the Times flits from one point of view to the other.

The Times also omits Cockburn’s long and convoluted family history with these issues, recounted somewhat in the essay “My Life as an ‘Anti-Semite’” by her brother-in-law Alexander Cockburn.

The whole Times effort comes off as clumsy rather than distinguished.

More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.




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