Anti-Semitism and The Left

The complainant, Jim Wright, thought a column by Neil Macdonald analyzing the response to anti-semitism from left-wing activists was based on a false premise and biased. There were examples cited to back the analysis and the article did not violate CBC journalistic standards.

COMPLAINT

You objected to both the headline and the analysis in a column by Neil Macdonald published on CBCNews.ca. The headline was “Has the activist left decided anti-Semitism doesn't exist?” You thought the headline was “inflammatory” and did not properly reflect the body of the article. You stated:

...it is a framing statement which seems to implicitly accept the inherently inaccurate statement that there is widespread anti-Semitism in the left, and that the left ignores anti-Semitism elsewhere.

You also believe that Mr. Macdonald did not have any proof for his statement that “the left has decided anti-Semitism is an insignificant issue.” You stated that the majority of BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] activists are “rigorously anti-racist.” You added that the subject of racism and anti-Semitism is a major concern of left-wing activists. You also wondered why Mr. Macdonald, cited as proof, an article written by New York Times journalist Jonathan Weisman about his experience of anti-Semitic attacks through Twitter by followers of Donald Trump. You pointed out this would hardly be considered a left leaning source.

You believe that Mr. Macdonald is repeating accusations of anti-Semitism against the left, which you said is “merely a trope, repeatedly endlessly without evidence.” You stated that most anti-Semitism originates on the right, not the left. You added that supporters of Israel often accuse critics of anti-Semitism, which is unwarranted because it conflates different issues:

What is true is that supporters of Israel relentlessly accuse critics of Israel of anti-Semitism, and this is repeated tirelessly by many members of the media. Every campaigner for Palestine must tread carefully around a minefield of 'no go areas' because the pro-occupation campaign has managed to redefine almost every criticism of Israel as a criticism of Jews, and therefore anti-Semitism. It often accomplishes this by muddying the definition of religious, ethnic, political Judaism, Zionism, and the activities of the state of Israel. And it does it by diverting focus away from the occupation and against its critics.

You thought this piece was generally “ill-conceived” and should have been labelled opinion.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Chris Carter, the senior producer for Politics on CBCNews.ca replied to your concerns. He did not agree with your assessment and told you he thought that most of the objections you had raised were addressed within the column. He pointed out that Mr. Macdonald observed that anti-Semitism seemed to “be met with less public outrage” by the groups of people who helped to fight anti-Semitism in the past. He pointed out that might be the case because they are concerned it deflects criticism of Israel. He added that he gave some specific examples - the experience of a Jewish New York Times columnist, incidents on U.S. campuses, and online postings from people who support causes “that once represented the consensus of the liberal-left coalition.”

Mr. Carter pointed out other instances where he believed Mr. Macdonald addressed the points you raised:

At that point, he looks at a possible reason for that ambivalence, namely the equating of the BDS movement with anti-Semitism. Proponents see it as a form of non-violent protest, an extension of tactics used effectively by civil rights activists for years. Opponents of BDS, including the current Israeli government and some Western governments, see it is as hate speech or worse.

In discussing those points of view, Mr. Macdonald notes many of the same points you make in your email:

The conflation of all supporters of BDS with Jew-hating is as scattershot and sweeping as the conflation of all Jews with Israel.

It ignores the inconvenient truth that some pro-Israeli Jews are embarrassed by that country's current government, as well as the fact that some of the strongest proponents of BDS are Jewish.

He concluded by telling you that he believed Mr. Macdonald had treated a difficult topic even-handedly.

REVIEW

Part of the mission of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices states:

Our mission is to inform, to reveal, to contribute to the understanding of issues of public interest and to encourage citizens to participate in our free and democratic society.

That implies the exploration of a range of ideas, based, again as the policy demands, on the knowledge and expertise of CBC journalists and outside experts. Mr. Macdonald’s analysis piece falls in this category. You are free to strongly disagree with it, but that does not make it inherently wrong. You rejected the notion that there is an issue of anti-Semitism on the left, and that its existence has been downplayed in the recent past as a “trope” that has gained currency through repetition. That too is an opinion you are entitled to, but it doesn’t make it a singular truth. In scanning the literature on modern anti-Semitism one finds multiple references to the issues Mr. Macdonald raised. Mr. Macdonald actually provided several examples to reach the conclusion that there seems to be a downplaying of anti-Semitism, among them the case of a professor at Oberlin College, and the experience of students on various campuses. He was making the point that various forms of discrimination exist, and that one does not cancel out the other. He posited that this might be part of the shift in perspective on the left:

The plight of Palestinians is a prominent cause in the activist portfolio, along with victims of sexual assault, black rights, gay rights, transgender rights, immigrant rights, Indigenous rights and a slew of other causes, all of which are deserving of attention and concern.

But because victimhood is such a potent form of modern currency, the activist left seems to have decided that hatred of Jews should be downplayed, or even submerged, for the greater good.

He addressed your concern that there is an equating of criticism of Israel and support for Palestinians as all being anti-Semitic, and he actually spent quite a few paragraphs explaining how that came to be, but he does make a distinction:

The conflation of all supporters of BDS with Jew-hating is as scattershot and sweeping as the conflation of all Jews with Israel.

It ignores the inconvenient truth that some pro-Israeli Jews are embarrassed by that country's current government, as well as the fact that some of the strongest proponents of BDS are Jewish.

But it is all of a piece with the scorched-earth nature of modern political discourse.

He also provided a series of examples of incidents where anti-Semitism was downplayed by members of the “activist left” or dismissed outright, especially on college campuses. As for the example of the New York Times columnist, he did not cite it to imply that the anti-Semitism was coming from the left - he was clear these were supporters of Donald Trump. Rather, the question he posed was why there was not more public and outspoken support for Mr. Weisman and other Jewish journalists who were likewise targeted and subjected to vicious attacks on social media:

"I [Weisman] was served an image of the gates of Auschwitz, the famous words 'Arbeit Macht Frei' replaced without irony with 'Machen Amerika Great.'"

Such clear racism, you would think, would provoke the fury of progressives everywhere.

But, no.

While they certainly despise Trump (some students regard even the appearance of his name on campus as an offence requiring official intervention), their main concern is attitudes in Trump Nation toward Latinos, or black Americans, or Muslims, or women.

I agree with Mr. Carter that Mr. Macdonald actually addressed many of the issues that you raised. You also stated that this was opinion, and not analysis. As I have observed many times before, the space between the two is grey. Mr. Macdonald is a particularly forceful writer, and his columns provoke strong reaction, and one hopes, thought about the issues he raises. In this case, he provided examples on which he based his conclusions. There is rarely, if ever, absolute truth, and you may disagree with the interpretation, but it is not a violation of policy.

It would be helpful if CBC management were able to more clearly spell out Mr. Macdonald’s role and what they see as the limits of analysis for their news and current affairs staff.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman