As far as Linda Sarsour is concerned, The New York Times has just helped explain why she and Tamika Mallory have gotten so much criticism in recent years. The reason is not due to the pair of former Women’s March leaders’ anti-Semitism, demonizing of Israel and Zionists, support of hatemonger Louis Farrakhan or the way they pushed Jewish women out of the anti-Trump protest movement’s leadership.
According to a lengthy front-page feature published in the Sunday Times this past weekend, the source of their troubles was Russia. The paper reported that Russian Intelligence created 152 different fictional Twitter accounts that then pushed out a total of 2,642 tweets containing information intended to malign Sarsour with “damning, often fabricated narratives” intended to make the Palestinian-American into a “lightening rod for Mr. Trump’s base and also for some of his opposition.”
The argument of the piece is that at the heart of the problems that ultimately broke up the Women’s March—which forced out Sarsour and its president, Mallory, at the end of 2018—were Russian dirty tricks. It’s the same accusation that was floated for years by Democrats about the 2016 election: that approximately $100,000 worth of Facebook ads taken out by Russian bots stole the presidency from Hillary Clinton, though this sum was just a drop in the bucket in an election on which the parties and candidates spent billions.
And it’s just as deceptive as it is unconvincing.
The way that the Times presented its findings, as though it had uncovered the truth about a foreign plot to undermine an American protest movement—one that had risen to prominence largely due to uncritical coverage from liberal corporate media outlets—is deplorable. But the reason why this absurd article deserves to be held up as an especially egregious example of what is wrong with the liberal media is the way it seeks to portray anti-Semites as victims, and to treat their agenda of hatred for Jews and Israel as not merely normative, but somehow admirable. In this way, it is mainstreaming their agenda as an essential element of progressive thought.
Author Ellen Barry, who serves as the Times’s mental-health correspondent, fails to explain how social-media activity that did nothing more than circulate posts about Sarsour’s already widely reported vicious record as an Israel-basher, played even a marginal role in undermining the Women’s March’s reputation.
An investigative article in Tablet in December 2018 helped expose the fact that Sarsour and Mallory had used their roles as heads of the anti-Trump Women’s March to exclude Jewish women from the group’s leadership and to make it clear that anyone who supported Israel’s existence had no place in the organization. Yet Barry didn’t mention this article even once in her 4,000-word piece. Instead, she noted criticism from marginal activists on the right, as if only fringe figures were paying attention to the way anti-Semitism and hate for Israel had become a key element in an organization that came to embody progressive attitudes toward Trump.
The Women’s March mobilized more than a million people to join a protest in Washington in January 2017, the day after Trump’s inauguration. That success spawned many other similarly well-attended marches across the country, both on that day and later on.
While initially presented as a non-political assertion of support for women’s rights and opposition to sexual harassment, it was formed by a loose coalition of more mainstream left-wingers, along with more radical groups. It quickly morphed into what was termed a “resistance” against the new president whose election was widely disparaged as the illegitimate result of collusion with Russia. Those at its helm were treated by the mainstream media as activist heroines.
So perhaps Sarsour’s claim that she was shocked by the sudden torrent of negative pushback, based on her record, is understandable. Having now been informed by the Times that Russian bots were among those circulating information about her background, she said that she called Mallory to say that their belief that the anger at them had to be the result of a conspiracy was vindicated.
“We weren’t crazy,” she recalls.
But anyone who thinks that a relatively low volume of social-media mischief-making was the reason why the two are viewed with disdain isn’t crazy. Instead, they’re the victims of gaslighting.
The Times’s effort to depict the pair as blameless activists who were victims of a plot seeks to create a new, even more dangerous, narrative in which anti-Semitism is legitimized and those who call attention to it are denounced for undermining democracy.
As early as 2017, critics of the March and some in the Jewish media, including JNS, had noted that Sarsour was a raging anti-Zionist and a practitioner of hate speech against both Israel and the Jews, and that Mallory was a Farrakhan supporter. But at a moment when the Women’s March was being portrayed as a righteous defender of democracy, few listened. Indeed, mainstream Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League have continued to betray their mission to fight anti-Semitism by making common cause with Mallory as part of their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Any amount of foreign meddling in American public discourse, whether from Russia, China or any other hostile country, is deplorable. But to seize on what doesn’t even deserve to be considered a marginal factor in the debate about Sarsour and Mallory as the explanation for the low regard in which they are held by fair-minded Americans is dishonest partisanship, not journalism.
The Times’s obsession with Russian bots shows that it still hasn’t accepted that much of what it published in the first two and a half years of the Trump administration about Russian collusion and the 2016 election was a farrago of lies and half-truths. Far from enterprising journalism, it was the result of an elaborate hoax fomented by the Hillary Clinton campaign and aided by anti-Trump figures inside the F.B.I. and the Department of Justice.
The Times won a Pulitzer Prize for its Russia-conspiracy reporting in 2018. But, like its articles denying the reality of the terror famine in Ukraine in the 1930s by Stalin apologist Walter Duranty—for which it also won an underserved Pulitzer—the newspaper isn’t giving it back.
Barry’s reporting must be seen as part of the Times’s unwillingness to acknowledge the mendacity of the narrative about the “resistance” that it did so much to buttress. It was based on a conspiracy theory aimed at convincing Americans that foreign plots were the reason that Trump was elected. It has now extended that argument to embrace claims that people like Sarsour and Mallory are victims of Russian plots, rather than exposed for their anti-Semitism.
This must also be placed in the context of a century of Times downplaying of anti-Semitism that included the Holocaust, as well as its consistent opposition to Zionism and Israel. Right now, the Times doesn’t think an epidemic of attacks on Orthodox Jews in the greater New York region is worthy of much coverage. But at a moment when even the ADL is prepared to acknowledge that left-wing anti-Semitism is a growing problem, this feature about Russian bots shows that the paper is also now determined to defend progressives who are behind a surge in Jew-hatred. That’s a disgrace worthy of the legacy of Duranty.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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