It’s media—not Bernie Sanders—that have an antisemitism problem

If media wish to seriously discuss the very real rise of antisemitism, they should probably start by taking a look at themselves.

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Image Credit: AP Photo/John Locher

Have you heard the news? Democratic presidential front-runner Bernie Sanders is antisemitic. Yes, yes, he’s Jewish, and has a long history of anti-racist activism—but that doesn’t matter.

So goes the story in several prominent media outlets, who accuse him of leading “the most antisemitic [campaign] in decades” (Washington Examiner, 12/13/19). While unable to point to Sanders’ own actions or words, the national press has associated him with hatred of Jews by attacking those around him. Throughout 2019, for example, Sanders supporter Rep. Ilhan Omar was constantly labeled antisemitic across the media for comments she made about the undue influence of the US/Israeli lobbying group AIPAC on American politics (e.g., New York Times, 3/7/19; Wall Street Journal, 7/12/19; Washington Post, 8/20/19).

Fox News (1/9/20) claimed Sanders would be “the most anti-Israel” president ever, conflating criticism of Israel and/or the Netanyahu administration with antisemitism:

It’s disgraceful that instead of taking a stand, instead of taking this opportunity to change people’s minds about the dangers of antisemitism, Sanders enables and endorses the anti-Zionist rhetoric of his base.

The National Review (12/17/19) claimed that the “ugly characteristics” of Bernie’s campaign, “already normalizing anti-Jewish antagonism,” were “appalling.” Commentary (12/13/19) agreed, claiming Sanders was “tolerating” the antisemitic “indulgences” of his followers. At times, conservative outlets seemed to be trying to replicate the success that the British press had had in tarring Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as an antisemite—a smear that certainly contributed to his decisive 2019 loss (FAIR.org, 12/21/19).

Antisemitism is certainly on the rise in the United States; the number of incidents recorded by the Anti-Defamation League is approaching an all-time high. In October 2018 an anti-immigrant gunman attacked the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11. In April during Passover, a white nationalist opened fire at the Poway Synagogue near San Diego. And last month, an assailant stabbed five people celebrating Hanukkah in Monsey, New York. Much of the worst violence has been perpetrated by the far-right, who, in 2017, led a well-publicized rally in Charlottesville, Virginia chanting, “Jews will not replace us”—and afterwards President Donald Trump described the marchers as “very fine people.”

Trump has frequently evoked antisemitic tropes like the accusation of dual loyalty, telling American Jews that Netanyahu was “your prime minister” and Israel “your country,” and describing Jews who vote Democrat as “disloyal” to the US and Israel.

Trump, who once insisted that he only wanted “short guys wearing yarmulkes” to count his cash, has repeatedly invoked the stereotype that Jews are interested only in money. In 2015, he told a group of Jewish Republicans (Real Clear Politics, 12/3/15), “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money…. You want to control your own politicians.” To go along with the slur of Jews as puppetmasters, Trump threw in the stereotype of Jews as obsessive bargainers:

Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t renegotiate deals? Probably 99% of you. Probably more than any room I’ve ever spoken in…. I’m a negotiator, like you folks.

Last month (CNN, 12/9/19), Trump told a largely Jewish audience at the Israeli American Council National Summit that they were “brutal killers, not nice people at all”—because “a lot of you are in the real estate business.” But, he added, “you have to vote for me, you have no choice,” he said, because “you’re not going to vote for the wealth tax”—implying that Jews care only about their own wealth: “You’re going to be my biggest supporters because you’d be out of business in about 15 minutes if they get it.”

Support the tropes

While media express concern about the use of antisemitic tropes by the left, they seem oblivious that their own discussions of the Sanders campaign might evoke them. One analogy that appears frequently in Sanders profiles is associating the Vermont senator with the Old Testament, what Christians call the Jewish holy scriptures. The Washington Post (8/29/19) claimed that Sanders is “content to thunder against evildoers like an Old Testament prophet,” while the New York Times (8/2/19) described him as “wild-eyed, scowling and angry as an Old Testament prophet on the downside of the prediction racket.” The Detroit News (7/30/19) wrote that Sanders “presents as an Old Testament prophet of doom, a zealot shouting at the immovable mountain.”

For some reason, this particular metaphor comes to the minds of a great number of journalists covering Sanders: e.g., Washington Post, 9/24/19; Newsday, 9/17/19; London Independent, 1/24/16; New Yorker, 10/5/15; Bulwark, 1/8/20). The New Yorker (10/19/19) wrote that Bernie’s tone is “equal parts old Brooklyn grandpa and Old Testament preacher,” managing to squeeze two stereotypes into one sentence.

Corporate media have also made some highly questionable graphic choices while discussing Sanders. Numerous cartoonists have chosen to make a hooked nose—prominent in anti-Jewish stereotypes, not so prominent on Sanders’ actual face—a hallmark of their caricatures of the candidate.

A number of outlets have featured images that bear a distinct resemblance to the “happy merchant” meme, a common alt-right image condemned by both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League as a hate symbol and described by Buzzfeed News (2/5/15) as “the Internet’s favorite antisemitic image.”

On the news that his campaign had brought in over $34 million in the fourth quarter of 2019, the Huffington Post (1/2/20) and a number of NPR affiliates decided to illustrate their stories with an image of Sanders rubbing his hands together and smiling. In case you think the symbolism was accidental, the Washington Post (1/2/20) covered the same story about a Jew amassing a great fortune with a different image of Sanders rubbing his hands in happy merchant style, changing it only after a public outcry.

HuffPost depiction of Sanders compared to antisemitic stereotype
HuffPost (1/2/20) chose an image to illustrate Bernie Sanders’ fundraising success that bears a disturbing resemblance to a famous antisemitic caricature.

The practice is not limited to Sanders, however. On the story of freshman New York congressmember and Sanders supporter Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez revealing distant Jewish ancestry at a Hanukkah event, both USA Today (12/11/18) and Fox News (12/12/18) used an image of her clasping her hands together in a manner similar to Sanders.

USA Today: Incoming congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez reveals Jewish ancestry at New York Hanukkah event

Reporting on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Jewish heritage, USA Today (12/11/18) also chose an image that visually echoed crude stereotypes.

Ocasio-Cortez has called out the media on antisemitic portrayals before. She took Politico (5/24/19) to task on Twitter (5/25/19) for photoshopping money trees onto a picture of Sanders. The article it illustrated was headlined “The Secret of Bernie’s Millions,” Politico introducing it with the words: “Sanders might still be cheap, but he’s sure not poor.” Hey! Why is my dog suddenly barking?!

A media so sensitive to antisemitism that they could see the word “bedbug” as an anti-Jewish trope (as the New York Times’ Bret Stephens did) cannot claim ignorance at all the antisemitic dog whistles it is blowing with regard to Sanders.

Tiana Lowe: So @Nero is just as awesome in real life.
Tiana Lowe, the right-wing journalist (Washington Examiner, 12/13/19) who launched the campaign to call Bernie Sanders “antisemetic,” called Milo Yiannopoulos “awesome,” despite his neo-Nazi trolling.

The corporate press has also played its part in normalizing far-right ideology, giving glossy portrayals of prominent American fascists (FAIR.org, 11/23/16, 11/1/19). Indeed, the writer of the Washington Examiner article quoted at the beginning of this article, worrying that Sanders is bringing with him an era of antisemitism, is herself a friend of far-right antisemitic troll Milo Yiannopoulos, whom she calls “awesome,” and regularly boasts of her pride in her Nazi-collaborator grandfather, whose organization participated in the Holocaust that killed Sanders’ close relatives.

Media motives appear less to do with genuine concern over anti-Jewish sentiment and more about weaponizing smears against a progressive campaign taking on the power of the wealthy—and multi-confessional—elites that own and control the corporate press. If media wish to seriously discuss the very real rise of antisemitism, they should probably start by taking a look at themselves.

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