Bloomberg’s money and the anti-Semitism defense

The ADL falsely accused Ted Cruz of spreading Jew-hatred by noting that the billionaire is acting as if he “owns the media,” when that is exactly what Bloomberg is doing.

Former New York City mayor and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg speaks at the Presidential Gun Sense Forum hosted by Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa on Aug. 10, 2019. Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr.
Former New York City mayor and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg speaks at the Presidential Gun Sense Forum hosted by Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa on Aug. 10, 2019. Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

At a time of a rising tide of anti-Semitism sweeping across the globe, groups tasked with monitoring and combating Jew-hatred are needed more than ever. Yet the Anti-Defamation League continues to sabotage the effort to build a consensus against hate by miring the once universally respected organization in partisan politics.

The latest instance of the ADL undermining the fight against hate took place this past week when its national director and CEO Jonathan Greenblatt accused Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) of using an anti-Semitic canard when attacking Democratic presidential contender Michael Bloomberg.

Cruz’s supposed offense was to tweet a reaction to a Bloomberg news article that declared the Democratic contest for presidential candidacy to be a two-man race for the nomination. The notion of a media outlet owned by one of the candidates commenting on the Democratic nomination in such a way as to please its boss is pretty ridiculous. Cruz responded by simply quipping, “It’s almost as if he owns the media.”

Greenblatt responded by saying: “Is it anti-Semitic to point out that Mike Bloomberg owns a news service? No. Is it anti-Semitic to accuse a Jewish person of controlling the media? Absolutely yes. This assertion goes far beyond the facts and perpetuates harmful anti-Semitic tropes.”

This is utterly disingenuous, and Greenblatt knows it. Cruz deserves an apology, and though I doubt he will get one, this episode is another object lesson in how the ADL leader has basically trashed the reputation of his organization in service to his openly partisan leanings.

You don’t have to support Cruz’s brand of conservative politics or even like the abrasive Texan to understand that he was clearly being ironic and not invoking one of the standard themes of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And that’s not just because Cruz is a dedicated supporter of Israel, and a politician with a long and honorable record as an outspoken foe of anti-Semitism.

What Michael Bloomberg is doing in this election season is more or less exactly what Cruz has described. He’s not merely using the media outlet he already owns in an effort to become president; he’s spending money in order to achieve his goal in a manner that is both unprecedented and on a scale that dwarfs anything political observers have ever seen tried.

Even before his first appearance in a presidential debate this week in Nevada, Bloomberg had purchased approximately $350 million in television commercials promoting his candidacy. And with $56 billion at his disposal, who knows what the final tally will add up to, whether or not he succeeds in being elected president.

This kind of spending from a candidate who has avoided taking part in the early voting states where retail politics is required is, at best, unseemly. So it’s hardly out of order for supporters of his competitors to cry foul about the way Bloomberg appears to be trying to buy the presidency.

What even many of those who think Bloomberg was a pretty good mayor don’t know is that part of the reason he was able to sustain himself in office was his habit of buying support or sometimes the silence of activist groups and politicians. As The New York Times reported, Bloomberg’s tactic was efficient and successful. Money may not be able to buy him love. But it does purchase acquiescence, and that’s how the billionaire was able to escape much of the trouble that plagued his less-well-heeled predecessor Rudy Giuliani when pursuing some of the same policies.

As those who watched Bloomberg’s disastrous first debate performance have noted, even all his money may not make him ready for the intense scrutiny and pressure that is singular to a presidential race.

But the one aspect of this subject that’s not fair game is his identity as a Jew.

Those who would invoke anti-Semitic canards about Jews buying influence in order to denounce Bloomberg are spreading hate. Still, the fact that he is Jewish doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to ignore the way he is attempting to use his billions to effectively own the airwaves. Like left-wing billionaire George Soros, Bloomberg is a potential target for anti-Semitic hate. But there’s nothing inappropriate or hateful about pointing out that both Soros and Bloomberg are using their wealth to achieve a political purpose. That’s what Cruz was getting at, and it’s wrong to call him an anti-Semite for doing so.

The ADL used to be the gold standard when it comes to anti-Semitism monitoring. But Greenblatt, a former Clinton and Obama administration staffer, has turned his bully pulpit into a political soapbox in the last three years as he has repeatedly deployed ADL’s reputation in efforts to wrongly besmirch President Donald Trump and other Republicans as aiding anti-Semites. Greenblatt has also involved the group in purely partisan fights like Supreme Court nominations and attacked the reputations of figures like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—who, like Cruz, is a friend of Israel and the Jewish people—in order to play wingman for Democratic attack dogs. Indeed, he’s gone so far off the path of nonpartisanship it may be that, as Liel Liebovitz noted in Tablet, he no longer even knows what anti-Semitism is.

Perhaps, like Justice Potter Stewart’s famous line about pornography, when it comes to anti-Semitism, we know it when we see it. Suffice it to say that when people who hate Jews and Israel talk about Jews buying influence—as Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) has done—it’s obviously anti-Semitism. When someone who supports Israel like Cruz simply notes that an individual is trying to act as if he owns the media, it’s not—and that has nothing to do with their party affiliations.

By confusing the issue, Greenblatt is destroying the ADL’s ability to do its job. It’s long past time for the media and the Jewish community to stop treating him as the arbiter of anti-Semitism. In doing so, we’re not merely enabling his unfair political attacks; we’re also making it more difficult to identify the hate that the ADL is supposed to be fighting.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin. 

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