In 1985, historian Deborah Lipstadt published Beyond Belief, a detailed account of how the American news media downplayed or ignored the genocide of millions of European Jews by the Nazi regime from 1933 until 1945. The mass shooting of Jews, the decimation of Jewish communities and culture, and the atrocities of the concentration camps were largely considered “beyond belief” even by the most respected news organizations.
Two years ago today, as the city of Pittsburgh reeled from the mass killing of 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue, the media’s response to this anti-Semitic attack was dramatically more comprehensive and compassionate. Local and national media paid serious attention. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette printed the Jewish mourner’s prayer in Hebrew letters above the fold of its daily newspaper. NBC News anchor Lester Holt closed the nightly news with a moving visual tribute to the victims and then said, “May their memories be a blessing,” invoking a classic Jewish phrase.
The murder of worshippers at Sabbath prayer awakened Americans to the dangers of anti-Semitism. Media coverage reflected that awakening; no longer was the story buried in the back of thick newspapers (themselves a distant memory), but blasted on front pages, and pushed to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. The deadliest attack against Jews in US history occurred in America’s heartland, committed by a man with a perverted, extreme vision of nationalism. This was homegrown terror.
Now, two years on, it’s clear that Pittsburgh marked an inflection point, after which journalists paid more attention to anti-Semitism and were more understanding of its place and presence in American society. But however welcome this corrective is, some journalists still do not grasp the complexity of the problem.
Coverage of the Tree of Life massacre was robust and empathetic because of the sheer brutality—11 dead, six injured—and also because it fit into a broader narrative. Robert Bowers—who faces 63 charges in the killings, including for homicide, hate crimes, and firearms offenses—is a radicalized, gun-loving, far-right white nationalist who railed against Jews for helping “hostile invaders to dwell among us.” (Bowers has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.) His support of white supremacy echoed that of other killers of worshippers in prayer, be they in a Charleston church or a New Zealand mosque. Those incidents of violence, and numerous others, have overlapped with the candidacy and then presidency of Donald Trump, who is seen as encouraging, if not tacitly endorsing, the violent expression of hatred against Jews and other minorities. Earlier this year, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) testified before Congress that most of the anti-Semitic incidents committed in 2018, the year of the Tree of Life mass killing, were perpetrated by white supremacists.
Yet in the context of the anti-racism reckoning sweeping the nation, anti-Semitism is too often covered as just another “ism.” It’s not. As Lipstadt wrote in Antisemitism: Here and Now, her latest book, Jewish hatred “is a worldview, a conspiracy theory,” in which Jews are both demeaned and perversely elevated—assumed to have more power than they do, which they wield toward sinister purposes. Such a worldview is promulgated by the far right and the far left, sometimes violently, and also by the establishment, in the hushed tone of polite company and in comments by political leaders.
So a critical metric for determining whether coverage has improved since the Pittsburgh attack includes examining those times when the common narrative of white-nationalist violence didn’t fit—for instance, in last year’s Jersey City murders, committed by a Black separatist. It also includes assessing whether journalists have improved at resisting easy categorization and more carefully analyzing an event—for instance, in some coverage of Trump’s executive order on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, and national origin in programs receiving federal funds.
The Pittsburgh attack “shook people out of their complacency,” Yair Rosenberg, a staff writer for the online Jewish magazine Tablet, says. “It was a tremendous shock, and it created a certain shift. But people were waking up to something that wasn’t new.” Rosenberg referenced the April 2014 attack in Overland Park, Kansas, where a prominent former Ku Klux Klan leader targeted a Jewish Community Center and a Jewish retirement community, killing three people on the eve of Passover. (He was convicted of capital murder, and now sits on death row.) As with George Floyd’s death, which arguably registered in the public consciousness more deeply than those of other Black people killed by police, the scope and brutality of the Pittsburgh attack seared it into the national conversation. As is also true of Floyd’s death, the Pittsburgh attack highlighted a danger that was, in fact, always there.
ANTI-SEMITISM is sometimes referred to as “the oldest hatred”; its intensity ebbs and flows throughout history. Along with other measures of racial hatred in America right now, it is surging.
The ADL’s latest report tabulated 2,107 anti-Semitic incidents throughout the United States in 2019—a 12-percent increase over the previous year, and the highest on record since the ADL began tracking these incidents in 1979.
The trendline escalated quickly. At the start of the last decade, by the ADL’s count, anti-Semitism was actually receding in America; in 2013, there were only 751 reported incidents. But beginning in 2016, the year Trump was elected, the numbers jumped, and remain at record highs, in apparent correlation with the toxic public discourse encouraged by the president, in his praise for white nationalists and his xenophobic attitude toward immigrants and other minorities.
That was my experience during this period, as editor-in-chief of The Forward, the national Jewish news organization, where my staff withstood a dramatic, and at times frightening, surge in harassment on email and social media, largely from the newly emboldened alt-right. The ADL codified this phenomenon in an October 2016 report detailing the “significant uptick” in online anti-Semitic harassment of journalists; the aggressors, the ADL found, were disproportionately Trump supporters.
In December 2016, The Atlantic published a smart piece by Emma Green whose headline read, “Are Jews White? Trump’s election has reopened questions that have long seemed settled in America — including the acceptability of open discrimination against minority groups.”
Nonetheless, as Green explained in a recent interview, it’s a mistake to allow a simplistic politicized characterization to shape one’s reporting. “I think anti-Semitism is challenging to cover because it can be hard for those who haven’t spent time learning about it to understand that it is not just one form of hate crime, but a deeply conspiratorial way of thinking about Jews and their roles and relationship with power,” she says.
On December 10, 2019, after shooting and killing a Jersey City police detective, David Anderson and Francine Graham drove a rented van to the JC Kosher Supermarket, a grocery store in a predominately African American neighborhood, where they shot and killed three people and injured one more. Both suspects died in a shootout with police; social-media posts subsequently showed that Anderson had described the Jersey City Jewish community as “wicked.”
The shooting was covered widely by print and broadcast media; many journalists noted that Anderson and Graham were linked to the Black Hebrew Israelites, a separatist group whose followers espouse anti-Semitic views. Meanwhile, Green, writing about the shooting for The Atlantic, paused her story to speak directly to the reader, and took the time to describe a more nuanced and complicated picture of modern anti-Semitism.
“Black Hebrew Israelites do not fit neatly into America’s left-right political divide,” she wrote. “The main thing they share with white nationalists such as Robert Bowers, the alleged shooter in the 2018 Pittsburgh attack, is a brand of conspiratorial thinking that blames Jews for all manner of political and social ills. This is the twisted logic of anti-Semitism: Jews are blamed for bringing immigrant ‘invaders’ to the United States while being simultaneously smeared as white supremacists.” To make matters more complicated, Green wrote, anti-Semitism “has been sustained across different times and political contexts, taking many different forms and claiming a wide variety of victims. But not even Jews agree on what anti-Semitism looks like, or who is responsible for it, or how to fight it.”
Readers can struggle to understand the roles anti-Semitism play in news events, Green tells me. “How is it that anti-Semitism is tightly linked with white supremacy and yet the alleged shooters are Black, and Black nationalists? How do I make sense of that?” she asked. “It’s important to do the work of trying to decode and demystify the dynamics, and not assume that readers will come to the story with the same understanding.”
ROSENBERG, who decodes and demystifies assumptions about Jews and anti-Semitism for Tablet as well as in opinion columns for The Washington Post, also spends a good deal of his time on social media—specifically on Twitter, where he has more than 83,000 followers. The ADL, in its 2016 report, listed him as one of the most targeted journalists in the United States.
While that level of hate is extremely troubling, Rosenberg tells me that it allows him to engage with a broad array of readers. He sees his role as a corrective, pointing out when anti-Semitism ought to be part of a story, and the danger when it is omitted.
His analysis of President Trump’s executive order regarding campus anti-Semitism is a good example. An initial report on December 10, 2019, in The New York Times said that the order would “effectively interpret Judaism as a race or nationality, not just a religion.” Suddenly, social media exploded in condemnation, channeling fears by many liberal Jews that Trump was defining them as un-American—a first step toward isolation, discrimination, and even deportation.
But that’s not what the order actually said. In a series of tweets, and in a longer explanation in his occasional newsletter, Rosenberg showed how Trump’s declaration actually built on actions taken during the Obama administration to close a loophole to protect Jews under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
Rosenberg was not the only journalist who bypassed the uproar and critically examined the executive order. Mark Joseph Stern, writing in Slate, applied a cool-headed legal analysis to the issue. Zach Beauchamp and Ian Nillhiser, writing in Vox, showed that Trump wasn’t engaging in a Nazi reclassification of Judaism—but was signaling his willingness to use federal power to potentially silence anti-Israel campus speech.
Rosenberg helped correct the record while acknowledging why the reaction was so virulent in the first place. As he wrote in his newsletter, Trump “is not serious about anti-Semitism, he is complicit in it. This is why so many Jews have so little confidence in his ability to fairly address the issue.”
Anti-Semitism, historically, has always had many different faces, triggers, languages, and propagandas—and it is our duty as journalists to point those out, regardless of whether it ‘fits’ into any certain narrative.
A GROWING SUBSET of American anti-Semitism is directed at the Orthodox, particularly those devoutly observant Jews whose distinctive dress, social habits, religious rituals, and devotion to their own community make them easy targets.
In 2019, the frequency of attacks against them seemed to increase. On April 27, 2019, a gunman opened fire at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in California, killing one person and injuring three others. There was the Jersey City attack on December 10. And then on December 28, the seventh night of Hanukkah, a masked man wielding a machete burst into a Hasidic rabbi’s home in Monsey, New York, and stabbed five people, one of whom later died.
Orthodox Jews in New York City have also been assaulted on the street, and seen their schools and synagogues vandalized, with alarming regularity. More than half of the hate crimes in the city last year were against Jews, with the visibly Orthodox especially vulnerable. This year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many Orthodox neighborhoods have been hot spots and mask-wearing is spotty; both New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio have been criticized for the ways they have targeted these communities, which have raised fears of more violence.
Accurate and incisive coverage is a particular challenge in a community suspicious of mainstream media; one identifiably Orthodox journalist was recently harassed and injured while covering a protest. “Bigots and demagogues make it easy to spot anti-Semitism,” Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor of the New York Jewish Week, wrote in January. “What’s harder is reporting and commenting on real issues involving growing Orthodox communities without a) giving ammunition to the haters, and b) suggesting that the Jews deserve what they get.”
Like any other beat, Silow-Carroll said in a follow-up interview, covering anti-Semitism directed at Orthodox Jews is best done by journalists willing to get to know the community, to go past the clichés and differences to present a more accurate picture, and to earn their trust. Sometimes, that is best done from the inside.
There are very few Orthodox Jews in the nation’s newsrooms. One notable example is Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, whom I hired at the Forward. Her empathetic, searing story about Monsey after the attack had the depth of an ethnographic essay. She wrote about the Jews’ terror, but also about their resilience; just a day after the attack, there was a fervent celebration to dedicate a new Torah, the holy scroll containing the first five books of the Bible.
“It’s a place I know well,” she told me in an interview. “I have a lot of family there now. I’ve gotten to know it from inside; it’s a unique micro-society. It is diverse in its Orthodoxy — a lot of different sects live next to each other. And yet this idyllic gan eden [Garden of Eden] turns out to be a shocking murder scene.”
In her essay, she noted that Monsey, home to one of the largest concentrations of ultra-Orthodox Jews outside of Israel, is “often called a ‘Hasidic enclave.’ It’s not. It is, in fact, a bustling universe unto itself.”
She described the lure of living in a place so friendly that doors aren’t locked at night; where children are free to play in the streets on the Sabbath because traffic is banned; where the wealthy live next door to those who depend on the community’s vast, underground network of charities—all bound by an intricate web of religious duties and beliefs at odds with contemporary American culture. This intimate portrait not only humanizes the victims, it helps explain why one day there is a horrific crime scene, and the next day a celebratory Torah dedication.
The community’s strictly defined gender roles can present obstacles for women journalists such as Chizhik-Goldschmidt. But there is also the opportunity to go beyond the male power structure and report on the revealing spheres of family life and daily commerce. She cautioned “not to infantilize the community like it has no agency. It is extremely powerful and privileged, and also extremely vulnerable.”
The complexities of fitting anti-Semitism into a single narrative extend to the coverage of the man accused of the crime. Gov. Cuomo called the attack “an act of domestic terrorism,” and ordered that the accused, Thomas Grafton, be investigated for hate crimes. He was subsequently indicted on federal charges of “obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs,” and charged by the state with second-degree murder and burglary. Investigators say that Grafton, who is Black, espoused anti-Semitic views in his private journals. But Grafton also has a history of mental illness; in April a judge remanded him to a psychiatric institution to determine whether he is mentally fit to stand trial.
“The challenge that journalists face is that we often imagine hatred to have one motive, one culture,” Chizhik-Goldschmidt tells me. “But anti-Semitism, historically, has always had many different faces, triggers, languages, and propagandas—and it is our duty as journalists to point those out, regardless of whether it ‘fits’ into any certain narrative. To do otherwise is to be recklessly negligent. I worry that we spend a lot of time examining some hatreds and ignoring others.”
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