As we learned last summer, violent right-wing anti-Semites aren’t an extinct species. A Ku Klux Klan/neo-Nazi torchlight parade in Charlottesville, Va., scared the daylights out of Jews. Since then, these extremists have continued to pop up to remind us of their existence, even if in doing so they have shown us just how marginal they are.
Nonetheless, the ability of a few neo-Nazi nuts to win Republican nominations throughout the nation have given Democrats ammunition in their attempts to depict the party that nominated Donald Trump for president as the home of anti-Semites. But the emergence of a Virginia Democrat running for Congress who had a history of far-left anti-Israel extremism, as well as the associations of other prominent members of that party, should put to rest the narrative that only one of our two major political factions are in any way tainted by the presence of anti-Semites.
The Republicans’ problem is a function of majority minority districts where up to 95 percent of the electorate is Democrats. In such places, the GOP barely exists, and often doesn’t even bother putting up a token candidate. That means that when an extremist runs as a candidate for Congress in such places, he or she is often unopposed, even if their designation as the Republican nominee appalls the party. That’s how an anti-Semite like John Fitzgerald, who promotes canards about Jews and Holocaust denial, became the GOP nominee for Congress in a district in Oakland, Calif. The same thing happened in Chicago, where former American Nazi party leader Arthur Jones managed to become the Republican candidate for Congress in that overwhelmingly African-American district.
In both cases, Democrats have made a meal of this embarrassing situation, despite the fact that the GOP in both California and Illinois has condemned and disowned these candidates, who have no more chance of being elected to Congress than they have of flying to the moon.
But what’s going on in the Virginia district that just so happens to include Charlottesville is something very different.
The Democratic candidate for Congress in Virginia’s Fifth District is Leslie Cockburn, an author and film producer who is presenting herself to the voters as nothing more than an ardent liberal critic of Trump. But far from a garden-variety Democrat, Cockburn is a veteran left-wing propagandist with a troubling history of anti-Israel extremism.
Along with her husband, Andrew, Cockburn was the author of 1991 book Dangerous Liaisons: The Inside Story of the U.S.-Israeli Covert Relationship. The book was a compendium of conspiracy theories and smears that sought to depict Israel as manipulating U.S. foreign policy. The Cockburns weren’t content to feed the notion that Jews were the tail wagging the American dog to the detriment of American interests. Instead, they sought to blame Israel for a host of international problems, including South American drug cartels, Central American massacres and apartheid in South Africa.
As no less a critic of Israel than The New York Times noted in its review of the book at the time, it was dedicated to “Israel bashing for its own sake,” and that its message was that Israelis “are a menace” who are responsible for “everything that ails us.”
In short, it was an anti-Semitic screed in the grand dishonorable tradition of such efforts to slander the Jewish people. The fact that its authors had mainstream connections and were backed by a major publisher made it no less despicable. But Cockburn has now resurfaced, seeking to present herself to the public as just a skeptical journalist whose book (which she does not disavow) is a non-issue being put forward by conservative opponents. And as The New York Times reported this week, she’s getting an assist from some liberal Jews who, despite the evidence, are backing her up against charges of anti-Semitism. Indeed, she had no less than Daniel Alexander—the rabbi emeritus of Charlottesville’s only synagogue—host a meeting for her, after which he declared that “to criticize Israel is not an expression of anti-Semitism.” The rabbi is right about that, but Dangerous Liaisons was not mere criticism, but demonization and delegitimization.
Why are Jewish Democrats seeking to provide cover for Cockburn?
In an era of hyper-partisanship, Jews are behaving like everyone else in prioritizing their party ties. For some, everything—the safety of Israel and even concerns about anti-Semitism—remain a lower priority than “resistance” to the Trump administration.
Nor is Cockburn the only problematic figure on the left to get a pass from some Jews. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) is a virulent critic of Israel with a shady past as a supporter of Louis Farrakhan, the anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam. Yet many Jewish liberals have chosen to support him—something that has enabled him to rise to the post of Deputy Chairman of Democratic National Committee.
Similarly, the leaders of the Women’s Movement, who have orchestrated mass protests against Trump, have also gotten passes from many Jewish supporters despite their connections to Farrakhan and anti-Israeli stands. The fact that Democrats boycotted the opening of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem is further evidence that much of the party is more interested in fighting Trump even when he does the right thing than in ridding their own ranks of extremists.
Cockburn’s rise is just the latest indication of how the anti-Israel wing of the Democratic Party is gaining traction. And with the incumbent in that district retiring, it’s possible that she may have an outside chance to win in November.
Yet despite evidence of the Democrats’ drift away from Israel and their willingness to make their peace with figures like Cockburn, all we hear from some on the left is complaints about marginal extremists winning GOP nominations in congressional districts that are the moral equivalent of the pre-reform-era British parliamentary “rotten boroughs.”
If Americans are truly interested in fighting extremism and anti-Semitism, then it’s time for both Democrats and Republicans to purge their extremists, especially those like Ellison and now Cockburn, in positions of influence.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.