Why the Left Won’t Tolerate Liberal Zionists
Jonathan S. Tobin / JNS.org
Anti-Israel demonstrators disrupt the Indigenous Peoples Unite panel at UCLA, May 17, 2018. Photo: YouTube Screenshot.
The Columbia Journalism Review touts itself as “the voice of journalism.” While the magazine, which is published by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has faced accusations of liberal bias, it still retains a reputation as a prestigious source of commentary about the news media. So when CJR commissions a hit piece on a publication, it is an event of some significance and, at least in theory, ought to alert readers to serious misconduct.
The latest CJR exposé, however, is important not because it reveals biased or misleading reporting or unprofessional behavior. According to the magazine that still claims to be the “intellectual leader” of the press, the problem with The Forward is that it has taken a stand against left-wing antisemitism and appears open to publishing occasional dissent against its liberal editorial stands on American and Israeli politics.
The Forward’s financial troubles made news last year when it ceased publishing in print, fired its editor, and laid off much of its staff. I have strong disagreements with the left-leaning editorial philosophy that the English-language successor to the historic Yiddish newspaper has adopted since it ousted Seth Lipsky, its founding editor, in 2000. But I view The Forward’s struggles as indicative of problems afflicting the media and Jewish publishing that transcend politics. We need publications that can reflect the legitimate debates on important issues that are being conducted in the United States and Israel.
But CJR’s decision to publish a rant against The Forward’s editorial decisions in the last year by far-left anti-Zionist writer Mairav Zonszein is important. That’s because what CJR has done here is essentially to smear a liberal Jewish journal because it had the temerity to call out left-wing antisemites like Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Minn.), as well as antisemitic activity on campuses like Bard College. Zonszein claims that The Forward, which in recent years has disappointed many in the Jewish community by providing space to Palestinian opponents of Israel and Zionism, let the left down by calling out such hatred and claims that its occasional publishing of conservative opinion is “polarizing.”
She also cheers CNN contributor/writer Peter Beinart’s defection from The Forward to the smaller but openly anti-Zionist Jewish Currents, as a harbinger of a power shift on the Jewish left.
It is curious that CJR would consider Zonszein, whose work has regularly appeared in far-left anti-Israel publications like Jewish Currents, +972mag and The Nation, to be qualified to comment in their august pages on any subject, let alone a Jewish one. But as new Forward editor Jodi Rudoren pointed out, it was a gross breach of journalistic ethics on the part of CJR to commission her to write an evaluation in a forum supposedly dedicated to the study of journalism about a publication that she has bitterly criticized in rants on Twitter and elsewhere. The Forward was entirely correct to refuse to cooperate in the writing of an article that could not possibly have been fair in its treatment of its subject.
From the point of view of pro-Israel opinion, does any of this matter? Does anyone really care if the far-left thinks a liberal paper isn’t left-wing enough to suit the tastes of radicals? No doubt that would be the point of view of most on the right, as well as centrists.
It does matter. For two reasons:
One is that while The Forward has often been deeply and often unfairly critical of Israel, if the center of gravity in the liberal Jewish world has come this far to the left, then American Jewry is in deeper trouble than many of us had thought.
The second and perhaps even more important reason to be alarmed is that the CJR’s decision to publish such a flawed and biased article indicates that liberal elites are now seeking to legitimize not merely anti-Zionism, but open antisemitism.
The notion that Jewish Currents — a publication founded by the Communist Party USA in 1946, and more recently, a place for radical Israel-haters to vent their spleen — represents mainstream American Jewish opinion is ludicrous. But there is no denying that Beinart’s move and the decision of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the current leader in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination and the most critical of Israel of the candidates, to publish an article there demonstrates the way the far-left is gaining ground on traditional liberals.
But the imprimatur that CJR gave to Zonszein’s assertion that The Forward’s opposition to the antisemitism and anti-Zionism of Omar and Tlaib is a betrayal of Jewish values and the principles of journalism remains truly outrageous. When the BDS movement that is drenched in the traditional language of Jew-hatred has been legitimized in this manner, it means that antisemitism is being mainstreamed. Indeed, when a CJR article approvingly quotes cartoonist Eli Valley, whose work has smeared Israelis and supporters of Israel with imagery that is straight out of the playbook of the Nazi publication Der Stürmer, as being critical of a Jewish publication pushback against Jew-hatred, then it’s clear that the journalistic establishment has been hijacked by those who would tolerate, if not laud, hate for Jews and Israel.
We all ought to be worried when an authority on journalism denounces those who oppose hate. The firewall that ought to separate mainstream and establishment opinion from anti-Zionist invective rooted in antisemitic hate seems to be disappearing. If we are now at the point when a liberal publication like The Forward, which has in recent years welcomed anti-Zionist writers to its pages, is not liberal enough for the Jewish left and is subjected to unfair attacks in the CJR because it opposed antisemitism, then a sea change for the worse really is in progress.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter @jonathans_tobin.