David Zurawik

Zurawik: As anti-Semitism rises, a ‘numbness’ to hate in our media and society

 Neo-Nazis and white nationalists brandished TIki torches as they shouted, "Jews will not replace us," in a nighttime show of strength in Charlottesville, Va., in August, 2017.

Days of Remembrance, the nation’s official commemoration of the Holocaust, comes to a close Sunday, but we should not move on without deeper consideration of how increasingly visible and dangerous anti-Semitism has become in this nation and its media in the Age of Trump.

Former Vice President Joe Biden's launch of his presidential campaign with a video that focused on neo-Nazis marching with Tiki torches through Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 has been much discussed during the last week, but not yet fully appreciated.


Meanwhile, while much has been written, more yet needs to be said about the virulently anti-Semitic cartoon published in the New York Times and the shooting at a synagogue in California that left one dead. And all of these events need the kind of rich and moving context provided by “The Last Survivors,” a superb “Frontline” documentary about a group of some of the last living survivors of the Holocaust.

One of the more surprising aspects to me of Biden’s launch video was the negative reaction to it, and not just by political opponents like President Donald Trump and his counselor, Kellyanne Conway, she of the alternative facts.


Politico opened its analysis of the video with these words: “The campaign world knew that Joe Biden would announce his presidential bid Thursday in an early morning video release. But few were expecting it would be so dark and funereal.”

The piece went on to say, “Filled with extensive footage of white supremacists marching with torches, scenes of Nazi and Confederate flags and pegged to President Trump’s reaction to the 2017 racist march in Charlottesville, the 3-minute, 30-second spot was an unlikely announcement video — especially for Uncle Joe, one of the last of the happy warriors.”

Conway labeled the video “very dark and spooky.”

The video is dark, but truth sometimes is. I think it was a great choice — one that made me respect Biden far more than I ever had.

Of all the Democratic candidates, Biden’s video showed him to be the one who far and away best understood and articulated what a monumentally dangerous moment that neo-Nazi march in Virginia was and how it tied directly to the corrosive effect Trump has had on the moral life of the nation.

Trump has been dog whistling so hard to neo-Nazis and white nationalists since launching his campaign for president that his lips are permanently puckered.

It makes me think his repeated false claims that his father, Fred, was born in Germany aren’t the result of the president being forgetful or just plain stupid, as some of his critics allege. Given Trump’s track record, they sound to me like a calculated appeal to those neo-Nazis in Charlottesville who were chanting “blood and soil” a Nazi reference to the ideological importance of heredity and physical connection to the Fatherland as tests of Aryan purity.

Biden’s video lasered in on Trump’s shameful reaction to the march and and a clash between neo-Nazis and counter-protesters the next day that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer a member of the latter group.


In his video, Biden described Trump’s claim in the wake of Heyer’s death that were “very fine people on both sides” of the conflict as the act of “assigning moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it.”

Biden’s attack was successful enough that Trump and Conway took to social media and cable TV immediately to once again try to spin Trump’s words from 2017. He wasn’t talking about neo-Nazis or white nationalists when he said “very fine people,” Trump and Conway now insisted, he was talking about those who were against the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.


But all praise to Biden for taking the risk of focusing his campaign right out of the box on the moral decay that Trump’s egregious dishonesty and transgressive behavior has fostered.

The Times cartoon published on April 25 in its international edition showed Trump as a blind man being led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who was depicted as a dog. In case anyone didn’t get all the anti-Semitism, Trump is shown wearing a skull cap while Netanyahu has a Star of David hanging from his collar.

What astonished me over the weekend was the the Times initial response to the outrage rightfully generated by the cartoon.


On April 27, the Times issued a statement saying the cartoon was “offensive” and contained “anti-Semitic tropes,” but the paper did not apologize. It called the cartoon only an “error in judgement.”

On April 28, I was part of panel on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” that discussed the cartoon and criticized the Times’ surprisingly empty response. Later that day, the Times did finally apologize.

Tuesday the Times ran an editorial denouncing the cartoon. Among the more important points it made was in seeing the cartoon as evidence of the rise in anti-Semitism and the societal “numbness to its creep.”

But even though the paper announced Wednesday that the editor responsible for publishing the cartoon would be disciplined and that company training would now include a focus on anti-Semitism, I don’t feel as if the Times fully understood how deep and long running the creep is in its own house.

As a journalistic and cultural force, the Times should have led the way in the reporting facts and finding the deeper meaning of what happened in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017.

But it didn’t. Frontline and ProPublica teamed up to lead the way with two of the finest documentaries I have ever seen: “Documenting Hate: Charlottesville” and “Documenting Hate: New American Nazis.”


The films show some real evidence of societal “numbness” to the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the fact that one year after the Tiki march, federal and Virginia law enforcement officials had done next to nothing to bring the neo-Nazis and white nationalists responsible for the violence in Charlottesville to justice. It was the investigative reporting of Frontline and ProPublica that exposed some of the hatemongers living on the underbelly of the web and American life.

Which is why it should come as no surprise that in this week of remembrance one of the best media antidotes to the anti-Semitism and the spin, lies and ahistorical ignorance that fuels it should come from Frontline with “The Last Survivors.”

The film started streaming this week on in the wake of its broadcast premiere on public television. At a time in TV programming history when there seem to be great documentaries airing virtually every night, it is easy for even a special one like “The Last Survivors” to not find the audience it deserves. See it while you still can for free and whenever you want courtesy of Frontline and the PBS streaming service. This is what socially-conscious public television looks like in the digital age.

The 55-minute film features interviews with members of the last generation of survivors of the Nazi death camps. They were taken to the camps as children, and in some cases saw their parents and siblings killed. They bear witness to what they saw, and in their voices you can still hear the horror, grief and cosmic sadness.

I heard some of that same pain in the voice of Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, of the Chabad of Poway, California.

Driving back to Baltimore Sunday from CNN’s Washington bureau, I was listening to the rest of the live telecast of “Reliable Sources” on Sirius radio. Host Brian Stelter interviewed Rabbi Goldstein live from the hospital where he was recovering from a gunshot wound.


The sadness was palpable as the rabbi talked about the death of a member of his congregation, 60-year-old Lori Kaye, who was commemorating the death of her mother when the gunman arrived.

But there was also determination, courage and strength in Goldstein’s voice — just like in the voices of some of the survivors in the Frontline documentary.

“Let’s fill up the synagogues. Let us show these terrorists, let us show these evil, wicked people, that they will not do anything to hinder us from being proud Jews,” Goldstein said.

As inspired as I was in that moment by his words, I have been wondering ever since how we got to this place where Jews now have to put their lives on the line to publicly worship their God.

That’s a story we in the media all need to do a better job of telling in 2019.