What journalists should know when reporting on antisemitism
Antisemitism is on the rise in the U.S. and globally. Nowhere has this been underscored more than by Ye (formerly known as Kanye West)’s recent unhinged, xenophobic and antisemitic tirades that have cost him billions of dollars in partnerships and a lot of good will.
In October, too, Kyrie Irving, an NBA player with the Brooklyn Nets, shared a link to an antisemitic film on Twitter. After failing to apologize, the Nets suspended Irving from the team, and corporate sponsors soon followed suit. (Irving has since issued an apology and resumed playing with the Nets.)
More recently, an interview between Ye and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on Infowars saw the disgraced musician praise Hitler.
The incidents have invigorated antisemites across the country and the world. They are further emboldened by Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter — a move that has animated xenophobic behavior from powerful people, including elected leaders.
The historical context cannot be ignored. Jewish people have been frequent, recurring targets of persecution throughout history, including but not limited to persecution during the Spanish Inquisition, pogroms in the former Russian Empire, and less than a century ago Nazi Germany’s Holocaust genocide, which resulted in the brutal murder of six million Jews. Concerningly, especially in younger generations, fewer people know about this history.
Alongside the antisemitism in news headlines today, hate crimes against Jewish people in the U.S. are on the rise, too.
This all raises an unfortunate but timely question: how do we as journalists cover antisemitism?
Journalists face a double-edged sword when it comes to reporting on antisemitism. The assignment can be especially challenging when it involves the words or actions of a notable public figure.
“You don’t really want the message to be amplified, but with the situation with Kanye West [Ye] you have this tricky situation because his platform is bigger than most media platforms in terms of his own followers,” said Rudoren. “The idea that people aren’t going to hear what he has to say if we don’t platform him is not really true.”
In a recent example, Chris Cuomo, who was fired by CNN last year for helping his brother, former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, navigate allegations of sexual harrassment, interviewed Ye on his new show on Newsnation. Unfortunately, he allowed Ye to go on an unhinged rant.
The hateful intent behind Ye’s claims were evident from the outset. It begs questions for Cuomo and his approach, and any other journalists who may seek to emulate it:
- What value is added by bringing Ye on live TV to explain his beliefs?
- Is it more effective — and responsible — to cover the story without Ye’s input, given the precedent he has set with his live interviews?
Speaking with people who have beliefs fueled by conspiracies can help inform the reporting process. Getting background is one thing, however — platforming is another. “What do you do when the person has said their stuff? How do you, as Chris Cuomo, or someone like him, hold [Ye] to account — how do you call out in the moment and afterwards in written publications?” asked Rudoren.
The same holds true when the antisemitism is more subtle. “Sometimes there is more nuance and it takes some clarity and rigor in the reporting process to understand why somebody has played into this old trope,” said Rudoren.
For example, terms like “globalist” may not be so obviously antisemitic or always used in an antisemitic way; explaining why it is often used as a dogwhistle for antisemitic tropes requires more nuance than one would need for, say, a Nazi salute.
The same can be said for the supposed “War on Christmas,” around which companies such as Fox News have built a brand. The “War” suggests that the default December holiday is Christmas, even for those who are not Christian. Proponents urge well wishes of “Merry Christmas,” for instance, instead of the more inclusive “Happy Holidays.” It is a microaggression, albeit not necessarily malicious.
Judaism and Israel
It’s also critical to understand that there is a distinction between Judaism and Israel. Judaism is a religion; Israel is a country. Suggesting that all Jewish people must share the same opinions about Israel or any other country is inaccurate. The two are often conflated in antisemitic language and tropes.
News organizations should not allow blanket claims that all Jewish people support actions by the Israeli government, for instance those around the country’s occupation of Palestinian territory.
As an example of this, former U.S. President Donald Trump said on his social media platform Truth Social that “U.S. Jews have to get their act together and appreciate what they have in Israel.”
Journalists should highlight that views among Jewish people around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict vary significantly. They should further counter claims of “dual loyalties” to the state of Israel which suggest that Jewish people are somehow disloyal or unpatriotic when they disagree with Israeli actions.
Providing historical context can be important depending on the nature of your reporting. However, journalists should always carefully evaluate any comparison to historical events they may reference.
Comparisons made to Nazi Germany and Hitler, for instance, should not be used lightly. The brutal genocide of millions of people, and the events that led up to it are not the same as mandates to get a lifesaving vaccine for COVID-19, as certain extremist politicians in the U.S. and abroad asserted, and which were promoted on conservative leaning outlets.
“The horror of the Holocaust is cheapened by the use of Holocaust analogies for incommensurate comparisons and/or political purposes,” said Carla Hill, director of investigative research at the Center on Extremism for the Anti-Defamation League.
Such comparisons should be pushed back on swiftly and unequivocally. “People who are tempted to use such analogies to make a point or win a debate should consider the sensitivities of the Jewish community and the historical trauma that they experienced,” Hill added.