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Media issue of campaign 2016: Anti-Semitism directed at journalists

Presidential candidate Donald Trump at a campaign rally at the University of Northern Colorado, in Greeley, on Oct. 30. (Associated Press Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Last month, Jane Eisner received some troubling emails. “Trump supporters HATE KIKES! HAIL TRUMP!” read one of them. The others expressed thoughts that ring way too familiar to Jewish journalists who’ve taken a stand against Trump. For example: “You would make a nice lampshade.”

As she is very quick to note, Eisner isn’t at the center of this election’s anti-Semitic journo-backlash. “I have suffered nowhere near some of my colleagues, who’ve really been on the firing line,” she tells the Erik Wemple Blog. And that may just be the point.

There are lots of media stories revolving around campaign 2016. We can thank CNN for many of them, including the drawbacks of placing political hacks on the payroll of prominent news outlets and of spending too much time airing Trump rallies. Fake news stories also have had a glorious run, as have the ethics of reporting on the FBI and the Justice Department; fact-checking organizations are entitled to a long post-election vacation; and journalism professors will be referring for decades to Election 2016 as a crucible of false equivalence.

The media story of the 2016 campaign, however, is the anti-Semitic backlash against journalists critical of Donald Trump. Political hacks at cable networks, after all, aren’t exactly a new thing; nor are fake news stories or overworked fact-checkers; and people have been griping about false equivalence before Donald Trump came along and invalidated all political comparisons. The horrific and voluminous anti-Semitic attacks against journalists writing about Trump, however, are new and very frightening. “I myself have never experienced something like this,” says Eisner, 60, whose resume includes more than two decades at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“This” is the subject of a recent exhaustive report by the Anti-Defamation League under the title, “Anti-Semitic Targeting of Journalists During the 2016 Presidential Campaign.” The study focused on the playground for this rash of hatred — Twitter, that is. Between August 2015 and July 2016, it found that 800 journalists were targeted in almost 20,000 anti-Semitic tweets. The top 10 targets got it the worst, receiving 83 percent of the Twitter-born anti-Semitism. As to the provenance of this madness, the ADL report chooses its words with precision: “There is evidence that a considerable number of the anti-Semitic tweets targeting journalists originate with people identifying themselves as Trump supporters, ‘conservatives’ or extreme right-wing elements.”

Nor is it a mystery why Trump supporters may feel they have license to dish out such abuse. The ADL denounced a recent Trump ad inveighing against global “elites” and using the faces of three prominent Jewish people, among others. “Whether intentional or not, the images and rhetoric in this ad touch on subjects that anti-Semites have used for ages,” ADL chief executive Jonathan Greenblatt said. “This needs to stop.” As my colleague Dana Milbank argues, anti-Semitism has moved from an “undertone” of the Trump campaign to its “melody.”

The Forward took note of the story’s dimensions back in January, when it posted a story about Trump having retweeted a tweet from the Twitter account @WhiteGenocideTM. Under the headline “Donald Trump Retweets Creator of Pic Showing Bernie Sanders Sent to Gas Chamber,” the piece inventories the hateful thoughts that had emanated from this account before Trump’s retweet. “It got nearly 350,000 page views, which for us is a real lot,” says Eisner.

The backlash from Trumpland, says Eisner, has complicated her job at the Forward, which was founded in 1897 as a Yiddish-language daily. “We’ve really had to struggle to find people in our community who will put forward other points of view,” she says, referring to pro-Trump perspectives. Neil Berro, a writer who “worked in Jewish communal service throughout the country for many years,” has chimed in with several pro-Trump opinion pieces, including one from September titled, “Trump’s Advisers May Be Thugs, but Hillary’s Chill the Jewish Soul.” In that piece, he ripped Trump’s challenger this way: “Clinton would govern with ever-increasing attention to these uber leftwing noisemakers whose siren sound lures more mainstream Democrats into believing that there is no such thing as too much political correctness. If, along the way, certain minority groups no longer deemed central to continuing political power have to be brushed [aside] into the ashbin of history, so be it. Jews, are you listening?”

Contacted by the Erik Wemple Blog, Berro declined to address the anti-Semitic backlash from Trump backers on the record.

Eisner has also resolved the Trump “struggle” by commissioning opinion pieces on issues relating to the race, as opposed to Trump-centric stuff. For example, the publication ran a piece by Noam Neusner, a former George W. Bush speechwriter, arguing that the Democrats have failed Jews. After explaining that Clinton is a bust, Neusner makes clear he’s not advocating for her opponent: “I recognize that by saying this, I may be accused of supporting the candidacy of Donald Trump. Not at all. I preferred all the other Republican candidates to Trump, and will not vote for Trump. Rather, I am merely arguing here that the candidacy of Clinton will undermine the purpose, spirit and ideology of the Democratic Party.” As a nonprofit, the Forward cannot endorse political candidates.

Asked whether he’d sustained any abuse for his opinions, Neusner told the Erik Wemple Blog that “A couple of people have tweeted at me. They appear to be Trump supporters. I’m not sure whether they’re real or not.” He characterized the treatment as “very minor,” and contrasted his own case with journalists who’ve absorbed endless amounts of online taunts, insults and threats. Those folks are named on one of the grimmest top-ten lists ever assembled; it’s part of the ADL report on this activity:

Now that we’ve reached Nov. 8, it’s comforting to know that many core components of campaign 2016 are over. Trump shaming camera crews for allegedly failing to pan around to his crowds at rallies — over. Cable news chyrons proclaiming “NEW POLL RESULTS” — over, at least for a while. Hillary Clinton straining to practice retail politics — over. Donald Trump lying about his alleged opposition to the Iraq war — never over, but perhaps it’ll pause.

What about this social-media anti-Semitism that we hadn’t before glimpsed? What about tweets like this one, directed at the New York Times’s Jonathan Weisman?

The cessation of election activities, worries Eisner, won’t mean a cessation of hatred. “I don’t think this is going away no matter what happens [on Election Day]. I think we’re going to have to work very hard as a society to understand why people resort in their anger and resentment to doing the things they do…. The use of Holocaust imagery by the alt-right is at a level that I have not seen before,” says Eisner, who has served as the Forward’s editor in chief since 2008. “And that’s amplified through social media. We don’t know who these people are.”

Though Trump famously failed to denounce his apparent fans for spreading anti-Semitic thoughts and attacks, he also didn’t “orchestrate” the activity, says Eisner. And that’s crucial to understanding what’s happening. Since “it is a strange grassroots phenomenon… I don’t think a particular decision by the voters is going to put this genie back in the bottle,” says Eisner.

Noah Rothman, assistant online editor at Commentary magazine, has written critically about Trump and has made the fight against tweeting anti-Semites a part of his routine. In a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog, Rothman — whose father is Jewish and mother is Catholic and wasn’t “raised religious” — spoke of getting up every morning in the spring and finding 50 or 60 attackers on his Twitter timeline. “Block, block, block until they’re almost all gone,” says Rothman. These days, the onslaught is more slight. “There will be a day or two that goes by that I don’t see anything,” says Rothman. Does that qualify as progress?