'CNN' gets it partially right about antisemitism
September 2, 2022
(JNS) — Can a documentary on a low-rated network broadcast at a time when few were watching make much of a difference? Maybe not. That’s especially true when you consider that the program aired directly opposite one of the most ballyhooed shows of the year—the premiere of the new “Game of Thrones” prequel “House of the Dragon”—on an evening of the week when all cable-news programs get terrible ratings.
CNN correspondent Dana Bash deserves credit for pushing her network to allow her to do an edition of its “Special Report” series “Rising Hate,” devoted to the threat of antisemitism . Bash, who is herself Jewish, clearly is passionate about the subject, something that was also demonstrated by the column she wrote about the topic in which she discussed her 10-year-old son’s wish to wear a Jewish star to publicly proclaim his identity and her fears about his safety in a time when hatred for Jews is on the rise.
Still, the program demonstrated that even when a network gets a lot of the story about antisemitism right, the omissions, as well as distortions of the truth that they allow in, can undo a lot of the good they might have otherwise done.
That a liberal network would devote this much airtime to discussing antisemitism is not something that should be taken for granted. As Bari Weiss famously noted in her 2020 resignation letter from The New York Times, the atmosphere inside the corporate legacy media these days is increasingly woke and that means resistance to reporting about this topic, which is seen as, at best, a distraction from more important issues like racism.
Also praiseworthy is that CNN made clear that—contrary to what many in the chattering classes claim—antisemitism is something that is rooted in both the left and the right.
That Bash would focus part of the program on campus antisemitism is something of a breakthrough. She highlighted the plight of Cassandra Blotner, a Jewish student at the State University of New York at New Paltz who was kicked out of a support group she founded for survivors of sexual assault because she was a Zionist. The threats she received and the failure of the school to protect her and other Jewish students has led to a complaint from the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under the Law to the U.S. Department of Education. The Brandeis Center’s Alyza Lewin was given this platform to explain to a national audience that denying Jewish ties to Israel is a form of antisemitism.
Much of what was said throughout the broadcast was to the point about the nature of hate and the interviews with survivors of the hostage-taking at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, earlier this year as well as some of the comments from a Holocaust survivor and historian Deborah Lipstadt, the State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism were similarly to the point.
But while one should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, it’s still necessary to point out the flaws that undermined a lot of the value of this effort.
In discussing left-wing antisemitism, Bash’s report hinted at but did not fully explain why “progressives” on campus or elsewhere would target supporters of Israel, as well as engage in anti-Semitic invective and delegitimization.
Some of the hateful messages that were directed at Cassandra Blotner made clear that in the view of fashionable opinion on the progressive left, the world is divided between victims and victimizers, and that all those who fit into these categories—no matter the issue or the nature of the conflict involved—are related. So, it made sense for New Paltz progressives to think that anyone who expressed support for Israel’s existence, even while also avowing concern for the rights of Palestinians, is simply an oppressor because they falsely label the Jewish state in that way. In this way, they were able to convince themselves that it is reasonable to accuse a victim of sexual abuse of being a victimizer.
What Bash did not do was explain that this idea is called intersectionality—a belief that is also a direct corollary of critical race theory (CRT). Rather than being somehow a misunderstanding or a well-intentioned mistake, as the program seemed to be saying, intersectionality and CRT always act as a permission slip for antisemitism. These toxic myths consider Jews and Israel to be possessors of “white privilege,” even though this nonsensical formulation ignores the fact that the majority of Israeli Jews are persons of color because they trace their origins to the Middle East.
Also left out was a plain statement that when you say that one Jewish state on the planet is one too many, you engage in discrimination against Jews, which is to say, antisemitism. In doing so, CNN let the lie that you can be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic go uncontradicted.
Another missing fact was any mention that the hostage-taker in Colleyville was inspired by Islamism and the advocacy of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an extremist group that masquerades as a defender of civil liberties, often with the help of outlets like CNN. The same can be said of the failure of the program to acknowledge the growth of antisemitism in the African-American community; the popularity of hatemonger Louis Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam; and the way this has led to an epidemic of attacks on Orthodox Jews, especially in the Greater New York region.
Just as egregious was the decision to grant a prominent place in the program for the false accusation that former President Donald Trump is somehow responsible for the uptick in antisemitism. Given CNN’s over-the-top, 24/7 hatred/obsession with Trump, it isn’t surprising. Still, what was most remarkable was that in the middle of arguing unpersuasively for this claim, it actually conclusively debunked the myth that is the foundation of the smear the cable-news outlet has done so much over the years to spread.
By that, I refer to the claim that Trump called the neo-Nazis at the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., “very fine people.” Bash highlighted the claim in an interview with the Anti-Defamation League’s CEO and national director Jonathan Greenblatt, who has himself done so much to propagate this smear as part of his agenda to transform the group from a non-partisan monitor of hatred to a partisan advocacy group.
Yet while enabling Greenblatt’s narrative about Trump’s conduct and alleged refusal to condemn hate as constituting a “green light” to far-right killers who have attacked synagogues, Bash rightly noted that the Charlottesville narrative is, as the former president would say, “fake news.”
She told the ADL head that another Greenblatt—former Middle East peace envoy Jason Greenblatt, a longtime Trump employee as well as a member of his administration—had told her that the “very fine people” line had referred to something else and that it had been cherry-picked out of a longer statement in which Trump had explicitly condemned the neo-Nazis. The program then aired that condemnation, which conclusively proved that the entire narrative about Trump and Charlottesville is false.
The ADL leader said it didn’t matter because Trump wasn’t consistent; however, the proof for this (to which the program devoted considerable time) was solely composed of interviews in which CNN personalities like Wolf Blitzer and Jake Tapper had demanded that Trump condemn various extremists to whom he had no ties, even though he had condemned extremists many times. The notion that Trump, whom the program acknowledged had been the most pro-Israel president in history and who had closer ties to the Jewish community through his daughter and grandchildren than any of his predecessors, was somehow also an enabler of antisemitism was presented as something of an unfortunate paradox. But when you consider how much effort and time both CNN and the ADL have devoted to blaming antisemitism on Trump, that this program also supplied proof for debunking this lie is an even greater paradox. That’s especially true when you consider that he was the one president who took unprecedented action against campus antisemitism in contrast with the inaction of presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden on the issue.
It may be a sign of progress that the suits at CNN were willing to greenlight a program that had a lot of truth about antisemitism on both the right and the left.
ADL’s Greenblatt compared right-wing antisemitism to a tornado because of synagogue shootings and left-wing antisemitism to slow but non-violent global warming. Yet he ignored the fact that Islamists and those influenced by intersectionality and CRT are also responsible for anti-Semitic violence. Moreover, somehow missing from the program was any acknowledgment that Jew-haters have far more influence on the political left—in the form of progressives and supporters of the anti-Semitic BDS movement in Congress and throughout academia—while right-wing anti-Semites are for the most part marginalized and have no such power.
Seen in that light, for all the good that the show did, such omissions and distortions did real harm to the effort to raise awareness of the problem.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.