Antisemitism increasingly politicized in 2020 US media coverage – study

Tel Aviv think tank finds that press investigated hatred of Jews expressed around COVID, Black Lives Matter protests, elections

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Rep. Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota left, joined at right by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, listens to US President Donald Trump's State of the Union speech, at the Capitol in Washington, Feb. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota left, joined at right by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, listens to US President Donald Trump's State of the Union speech, at the Capitol in Washington, Feb. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

US media coverage of antisemitism last year left clear indications that the issue has become politicized, according to an Israeli study released on Sunday.

“The Discourse on Antisemitism in the United States as Reflected in the Mainstream Media—Review of 2020,” by Lior Sirkis of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, found that “the two sides of the political map accuse the other of being responsible for the phenomenon. The right blames the left for being responsible for antisemitism and anti-Zionism, while the left attributes it to white supremacists on the right.”

The political divide reflects a split within the US Jewish community, wrote Sirkis, which leads to difficulty in agreeing on the definition of antisemitism, its causes and how to combat it.

This political divide is also apparent in Israeli coverage of antisemitism in the US. Israel Hayom published five opinion columns about antisemitism on the left that year, while Haaretz did not cover the issue at all. It did, however, write about antisemitism among right-wing Americans.

The report was part of an ongoing INSS series on antisemitism in the US

Media coverage of antisemitism in 2020 initially focused on two deadly antisemitic attacks in Monsey, New York, and Jersey City, New Jersey, in December 2019. Beyond the incidents themselves, the coverage addressed the new security measures taken by Jewish communities in the wake of the attacks.

Orthodox Jewish women mourn during the funeral service of Leah Mindel Ferencz who was killed in a kosher market that was the site of a gun battle in Jersey City, New Jersey, December 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

The focus shifted in March to antisemitism relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. This coverage included articles about Jews being blamed for the spread of the pandemic and white supremacist hacking of Jewish community Zoom events.

“The media also devoted considerable coverage to confrontations between the mayor of New York and the Jewish community about the latter’s defiance of COVID-19 restrictions in the city,” according to the report.

There were two periods in 2020 during which the media covered antisemitism among Black Americans: in the wake of the December 2019 attacks in Monsey and Jersey City — both perpetrated by African Americans — and the demonstrations after the killing of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer. In both cases, the press examined hatred of Jews in US Black communities.

A series of antisemitic statements and expressions of support for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan by Black celebrities over the summer — NFL player DeSean Jackson, former NBA player Stephen Jackson, comedian Nick Cannon, and rapper Ice Cube — also brought increased scrutiny of antisemitism in popular culture.

Nick Cannon (R) and Richard ‘Professor Griff’ Griffin, the former Public Enemy member, talk during an episode of ‘Cannon’s Class’ released July 2020 (Screen grab/YouTube)

Interestingly, Sirkis found that while the US media is interested in celebrity antisemitism, it largely ignores antisemitism on campus and on social media. American Jewish outlets, on the other hand, do cover these issues.

Some coverage focused on antisemitic attacks in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests, when synagogues in Los Angeles, California and Richmond, Virginia were vandalized. But, according to the report, while Israeli and US Jewish media covered the synagogue attacks, mainstream American media “did not report on the antisemitic incidents related to the demonstrations at all.”

The 2020 presidential elections sparked a discussion about antisemitism and politics, the study found. Statements by left-wing Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, former president Donald Trump’s response to debate questions about the Proud Boys, and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s announcement that the Trump administration would consider BDS organizations hate groups drove coverage of antisemitism and US politics.

‘Odin,’ in center, wearing a black cowboy hat, with other Proud Boys during a pro-Trump rally in Sacramento, California, November 28, 2020. (Gabe Stutman)

“We chose the issue of media coverage of antisemitism from an understanding that there is a two-way relationship between media coverage of the issue and the way it is seen among different groups,” explained Shahar Eilam, one of the editors of the INSS series. “The media covers the issue and reflects to a large extent the discourse and the existing schools of thought, but at the same time it is also a central factor in creating these schools and influencing them.”

Though US Jewish media outlets focused on the issue far more than national press, there are encouraging signs from the coverage.

“Here in Israel, we were actually impressed by the scope of the coverage,” said Eilam. “We assumed it would be less since the issue is not at the top of Israeli priorities usually.”

The trend of rising antisemitism continued into 2021.

In May, Jews in New York City experienced a string of assaults and attacks connected to the round of fighting between Israel and Hamas.

Major incidents and US media mentions of antisemitism in 2020 (INSS)

In the days following, Jews across New York posted on social media about being threatened, harassed or otherwise attacked for being Jewish. The reports were reminiscent of a string of antisemitic incidents in New York in the months before the pandemic shut down street life globally.

Nationwide, the Anti-Defamation League recorded an increase in antisemitic incidents in the first week of the Israel-Hamas fighting in May.

In addition to attacks on Jews related to the Israel-Hamas conflict, recent assaults on Jews include the stabbing of a Boston rabbi and bullets fired through synagogue windows. Dozens of Jewish institutions have been vandalized across the US since May, including Holocaust museums, Chabad houses, and schools.

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