NPR’s charged conversation on Israel, antisemitism and Meghan McCain

Ferguson says that some pro-Israel groups “exist to essentially conflate, confuse and confound definitions of antisemitism.”

Leo Ferguson, a community organizer at Jews For Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ), and cartoonist Eli Valley discussed antisemitism and criticism of Israel with Bob Garfield on WNYC’s On The Media May 3 podcast.

According to Ferguson, groups on the right — he singles out the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) and Canary Mission — have created an “entire cottage industry” that seeks to “essentially conflate, confuse and confound definitions of antisemitism” to delegitimize the work of pro-Palestinian groups on campus and other critics of Israel.

Charges of antisemitism prompted by rhetoric by progressive Democrats like Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Ferguson asserts, are “weaponized” out of a “desire to advance a policy agenda or to bludgeon the opposing political party.”

Eli Valley discussed his recent cartoon ridiculing Meghan McCain for linking Rep. Omar to the Chabad of Poway attack last week.

Valley told Garfield that Ms. McCain believes her authority to speak on Jewish issues “comes from her friendship with Joe and Hadassah Lieberman.”

The Jewish cartoonist and satirist also mocked the daughter of the late Senator John McCain for labeling his cartoon ‘antisemitic.’ “A Christian woman is saying a Jewish cartoonist is antisemitic,” he responded. “But given the narrative we’ve been forced to live in, it was not out of the ordinary. And in fact, there was so many people on the Jewish right — who have been condemning me for years for saying maybe Netanyahu is not the messiah, who were embracing her, who were inviting her over for Shabbat dinner — basically saying, not even implicitly, ‘You’re the Jew. That guy who draws cartoons critical of Israel, no Jew.’”

Read a partial transcript of the two interviews on the NPR podcast below:

Ferguson: “There is an entire cottage industry from the Zionist Organization of America to Canary Mission. These organizations that exist to essentially conflate, confuse and confound definitions of antisemitism. They particularly target pro-Palestinian organizing on campus, but they also look for any breadcrumb they can use to delegitimize that work.”

Garfield: So for example, if I were to say, ‘Well, you know, I believe that Israel is not just a security state, but an apartheid state where Arabs are second-class citizens or guest workers.’ I will be accused of antisemitism by one of these groups?

Ferguson: “Absolutely. Another example are folks targeting the BDS movement, where you have organizers working to advocate for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel to pressure Israel to address its human rights abuses and treatment of Palestinians. Whether you agree or disagree with their tactics, this is clearly a legitimate form of political protest, widely used — the anti-apartheid movement, lots of other movements throughout history — and yet there is a ton of energy going towards trying to smear these folks as being across the board antisemitic and to conflate the use of this Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions tactic with antisemitism.”

Garfield: I just want to be clear, sometimes there is even from the right a legitimate grievance. I’m not much of a Zionist, but I am Jewish and sometimes criticism of Israel does sound awfully antisemitic, especially when the subject is U.S. pro-Israel policy and it’s being framed as being beholden to ‘The Jews.’ So the accusation isn’t always empty, is it?

Ferguson: “Absolutely not. There’s antisemitic rhetoric, frankly, that finds its way into all kinds of political discourse. We shouldn’t be surprised by this because antisemitism is an ideology that is pervasive in our society. So it’s going to show up everywhere, and as the temperature gets turned up — it’s unfortunate but it shouldn’t be surprising —  that it seeps into conversations about Israel and into conversations about bankers… It’s our job to get really, really clear about what antisemitism is and how it operates to really up our game in terms of our antisemitism analysis so that we can call that stuff out when we see it. That’s really important, but it’s also important to not conflate terms and ideas because ultimately that actually makes all Jews less safe.”

“When you take charges of antisemitism, be they real or false, and use them not out of a deep concern for the well-being of Jews, but in fact out of a desire to advance a policy agenda or to bludgeon the opposing political party, that’s the weaponization of antisemitism. I think the best example is right-wing Republican leaders in Congress attacking progressive Democrats about antisemitism, completely ignoring the egregious antisemitism in their own party. They won’t criticize Trump for saying that there are very fine people on both sides in Charlottesville, something that he just doubled down on a few days ago. They won’t criticize their own members like Steve King for doing, you know, truly heinous, racist, antisemitic, Islamophobic things. They won’t criticize members who stand up next to white nationalists at rallies and events. They refuse to criticize members of Congress, like Chuck Grassley, who are more than happy to trumpet the antisemitic conspiracy theories surrounding George Soros. But they somehow become outraged — they’re shocked, shocked to find antisemitism in the progressive left.”

Garfield: Which, once again, is cynical, but some of it’s just ambiguous. Right? I’m thinking of the scandal a few months back when Democratic congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota obviously evoked old antisemitic tropes about Jews and money. Now, the Israel lobby does wield a lot of influence in Congress, maybe not on NRA level, but they are not a trivial force in our politics. But nonetheless, Omar took a drubbing, especially from Republicans pointing across the aisle saying, ‘Hey, you guys talk about hate speech, but look who you’re harboring in your tent.’ At a minimum, it was not good optics for a Democratic Party that has been thumping Trump as an apologist for hate.

Ferguson: “It’s a win, win for the folks on the right who are looking to make those gains. The way that I know that their strategy is successful is that today, just a few days after a white nationalist gunman walked into a synagogue in San Diego and murdered someone and wounded others, we’re still having a conversation about Ilhan Omar.”

Garfield: The whole Ilhan affair became a political football. A resolution in the House was floated against antisemitism and that created a hubbub. Then it mutates and almost everybody voted for it, only 23 nays cast. What if anything, did this episode teach us?

Ferguson: “As messy as the process was, I actually look at the outcome in some ways as a win, because it’s actually really important that we get clear that this kind of white nationalist ideology is actually targeting all of us. Like it is actually meaningful to say that we want to fight against Islamophobia, that we want to fight against anti-black racism, that we want to fight against xenophobia. At the same time, as we’re saying, we want to fight against antisemitism while we’re watching antisemitic violence and incidents of hate speech and swastikas being drawn and playgrounds, or we’re watching those things rise in New York City. We know that our Arab and Muslim neighbors, our immigrant neighbors, our LGBTQ neighbors are also coming under threat from the same ideology. And so it’s very much incumbent on all of us to band together, think of this as something in which we have real mutual shared interest.”

Garfield: We last spoke, six months ago after the Tree of Life shooting, and although the crimes are piling up, although the public expressions of antisemitism are piling up, something else was going on that you believe represents positive change.

Ferguson: “As a Jew, and as someone who has spent some time studying antisemitism, one thing that I know is that Jews are less safe when people believe that they have no control over their economic destiny, that they are being crushed by wealthy, powerful people. Unfortunately, the analysis that the white nationalists and the folks on the right have is a sort of cheap one that says, ‘Blame the Jews, blame George Soros, blamed the globalists.’ I have a very different understanding of what it is that is hurting working people. My people were brutally murdered because too many of their fellow countrymen believed that they were responsible for poverty and real economic hardship and pain. So it means a lot that since we last spoke, we saw Amazon get shoved out of New York by a coalition that included Jews and Muslims and Sikhs, and all different kinds of folks, saying, ‘This is not our vision for the city that we want. This is not where we believe we are going to find prosperity.’ That’s very powerful — like us building power together across lines of difference towards a much brighter future. That’s what is going to keep us safe. That is the true antidote.”

Garfield: Well, it’s an interesting thought that if nationalism and white separatism and general right-wing extremism grows out of a sense of economic and cultural insecurity, that if these very same communities can be empowered to see the results of their own actions, that will take the pressure off the Jews as the scapegoats for everything. But does that really deal with the underlying millennia old forces of just plain animus?

Ferguson: “That makes me think of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who points out that we don’t have a roadmap for this. There is no manual for how to undo centuries and centuries of these ideas infecting our society and shaping the fortunes and histories of nations and people. So all we can do is look towards what looks good, what looks right. It looks better to me to have a future in which there is broad shared prosperity in which all people, including Jews, feel safe. My sense is that’s probably a step in the right direction. It doesn’t mean that we don’t also have to call out antisemitism, that we don’t have to name it and identify it and pick it apart and understand it. I don’t think we have to choose. In fact, frankly, I think we can’t do one without the other.”

Eli Valley, discussed his drawing of a cartoon ridiculing Meghan McCain for linking Rep. Ilhan Omar to the Chabad of Poway attack: “In the service of pivoting from the nightmare that we’re experiencing, to blame antisemitism on the left, to blame it on a Muslim Congresswoman who is receiving death threats as a result of this charade, in the wake of the last massacre incited by GOP philosophy and ideology, instead of saying, ‘Wow, we need to be on the White House lawn. The GOP needs to have an enlightenment and stop these horrible antisemitic dog whistles,’ she went on ABC program and didn’t blame Ilhan Omar for the massacre, but both sides of the issue.”

Valley suggested that McCain thinks her authority to speak out on Jewish issues “comes from her friendship with Joe and Hadassah Lieberman.”

Garfield: “There’s one little footnote to this whole story with Meghan McCain and that is when she saw your cartoon ridiculing her, she said…

Valley: “…‘This is the most antisemitic thing I’ve ever seen.’ Everyone else was like, ‘This is hilarious.’ A Christian woman is saying a Jewish cartoonist is antisemitic. But given the narrative we’ve been forced to live in, it was not out of the ordinary. And in fact, there was so many people on the Jewish right who have been condemning me for years for saying maybe Netanyahu is not the Messiah, who were embracing her, who were inviting her over for Shabbat dinner, basically saying, not even implicitly, ‘You’re the Jew. That guy who draws cartoons critical of Israel, no Jew.’”

By Jacob Kornbluh in New York

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