In the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, the nation was united in its revulsion against the worst act of anti-Semitic violence in American history. The slaughter of 11 Jews who had gathered for a Shabbat-morning service was a reminder of the consequences of unhinged hate directed at Jews.
At the time, mainstream outlets like The New York Times spoke out in editorials against “The Hate Poisoning America.” As with so much other post-Pittsburgh commentary, the main focus of their criticism was not so much the “maniacs” like the shooter, who “have always existed in the dark crevices of American life,” which the Times conceded will not be stopped from “developing poisonous ideas” by any amount of public condemnation. Rather, they were more interested in condemning U.S. President Donald Trump for coarsening public discourse and whose rebukes to bigotry had been either insufficient or inconsistent.
Whatever one might think of their attempt to link Trump to the horror in Pittsburgh, there is something to be said for a policy of zero tolerance for hate. But the Times doesn’t seem capable of living up to its own standard.
After the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville in August 2017, Trump infamously remarked that “there were fine people on both sides.” While the president seemed to be conflating those who opposed the removal of Confederate statues with the Nazis, the words became emblematic of an inappropriate moral relativism.
While the Times knows the difference between the Nazis and their opponents, it has taken the same stand with respect to an anti-Semitic movement whose purpose is the elimination of Israel. And it has been willing to highlight anti-Semitic texts as recommended reading simply because they are embraced by a famous author it chose to honor.
On Dec. 18, the Times editorial column blasted anti-BDS laws that have been passed by 26 states and similar legislation currently being considered by the Senate as violating the First Amendment. This is untrue since the laws in question merely ban discriminatory commercial conduct, and not speech. Just as other laws prohibit businesses from engaging in practices that discriminate against minorities, the anti-BDS legislation penalizes those who discriminate against the one Jewish state on the planet and its citizens, an act of blatant anti-Semitism.
Yet as far as the Times is concerned, BDS is just something that decent people can agree to disagree about. They’re able to sustain that stand by performing the same kind of verbal gymnastics that produced Trump’s Charlottesville gaffe: by confusing what is at stake in the debate about the BDS movement. They claim it is merely a nonviolent form of protest against the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the existence of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. But as anyone can see by perusing the websites of pro-BDS groups, their goal is not adjusting Israel’s borders or changing its policies. What they want is no Israel at all.
BDS is part of an effort to deny to Jews rights that no one thinks of denying to anyone else. Israel is, like all democracies, an imperfect nation. But the attempt to conflate disagreements about the peace process with a movement that wishes to destroy the Jewish state is as dishonest about a form of hate as they thought Trump was being about Charlottesville.
Only days earlier, the Times gave us another example of how anti-Semitism is normalized at the newspaper. The Dec. 16 issue of its Book Review featured an interview with novelist Alice Walker for its regular “By the Book” column. The author of The Color Purple, and other volumes of prose and poetry, was asked to list the books on her nightstand. Among her answers was And the Truth Shall Set You Free by David Icke.
Walker lauded Ickes by saying that in his books, “there is the whole of existence, on this planet and several others, to think about.”
The Times failed to point out in either a rejoinder or an addendum to the interview was that Ickes is a well-known conspiracy theorist and anti-Semite who, among other libels, claims that The Protocol of the Elders of Zion was factual and blames the Jews for most of the world’s ills.
This was nothing new for Walker, who has previously praised Icke and spouted anti-Semitic comments of her own. But as with the BDS movement, the Times saw no problem with publishing her comments as they would any other in a column where such recommendations provide a boost for any book listed. Tellingly, Walker later defended her comments by saying her opponents were trying to suppress criticism of Israel.
The point here is not to say that the editors of Times are anti-Semites. But that in the course of just two days, they gave us two egregious examples of how anti-Semitism can be rationalized and normalized.
This illustrates exactly the sort of problem the newspaper pointed out after Pittsburgh.
At that time, the Times and other outlets were eager to say that those who help to create an atmosphere in which hate becomes normal must in some way be held responsible for those who then go ahead and act on hate. But when they and others treat a movement that is steeped in hatred of Jews as espousing a legitimate point of view—it should be noted that unlike some critics of anti-BDS laws, their editorial did not once condemn BDS—they are doing the same thing. The same is true of their treating Walker’s plug for anti-Semitic trash as a legitimate literary recommendation.
Those who give passes to anti-Semites are giving hate an undeserved seal of approval and must be held accountable for the anti-Jewish violence that is an inextricable part of the movement to destroy Israel or to demonize Jews in general. You don’t have to support Trump or Netanyahu to understand that this is exactly what the Times has done.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.