‘#WeRemember: So should our journalists’

Journalists have a critical role in the fight against antisemitism by providing context, fact checking and sometimes, rebuttals

Remembering the Shoah (photo credit: REUTERS)
Remembering the Shoah
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In recent days we’ve seen many ceremonies and even more news articles surrounding Holocaust Remembrance Day, yet one topic has been conspicuously absent: the absolutely central role of the media, both then and now.
In the 1920s, the Nazi Party took cynical advantage of the Weimar Republic’s free speech laws via such publications as the Völkischer Beobachter (People’s Observer), the official daily newspaper of the Nazi Party which wrote frequently about the “evils” of “world Jewry.” Der Angriff (The Attack), was a paper founded by Hitler’s chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels, which included famous antisemitic cartoons by Hans Schweitzer. These publications accused Jews of the classic “blood libels,” such as the myth that Jews make the traditional Passover matzos out of the blood of murdered Christian babies.
After Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, all of the mainstream press in Germany came under complete Nazi editorial control, making antisemitism both institutionalized and effectively impossible to publicly refute.
Less than 10 years later, the Holocaust began.
This year we mark the World Jewish Congress’s #WeRemember campaign (in memory of the Holocaust) at an especially dire moment for antisemitism in the United States. Last year Jews were the most highly targeted religious group in America, being victims in 60% of religious hate crimes despite being only about 2% of the population. At its peak, Jews in New York were attacked almost daily, including a gruesome attack in which the perpetrator entered a rabbi’s home during a Hanukkah dinner and hacked at guests with a machete.
Attackers have included white supremacists and “Black Israelites,” followers of David Duke and of Louis Farrakhan respectively. Antisemitism isn’t a “Right problem” or a “Left problem,” but an American problem.
And yet, 41% of millennials don’t believe that six million Jews died in the Holocaust, and 23% are not sure the Holocaust happened at all.
How could this happen?
The political landscape in America has become increasingly polarized, with extreme voices preaching hate on both the Right and the Left, under the protection of the First Amendment. The difference between a flourishing democracy filled with free speech versus a weak Weimar Republic on its way to collapse under the forces of hate and misinformation, depends on the critical role of journalists: making sure that free speech is also accompanied by full context, fact-checking and when necessary, even rebuttal.
For example:
The leaders of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement against Israel make clear that their purpose is not peaceful change but the destruction of the world’s only Jewish state, based on a double standard they do not apply to any other country. This squarely fits the international definition of antisemitism. Yet when reporting on BDS-related events, mainstream journalists rarely include this critical context, misleadingly casting the group as a peaceful protest movement.
When Congresswoman Ilhan Omar was denied entry to Israel in August 2019, most media painted her as a mainstream Democrat who happens to be critical of Israel, and omitted essential context: Just months earlier her own party had led the passage of House Resolution 241, “Condemning the antisemitic comments of Representative Ilhan Omar from Minnesota.”
Most media have been reasonably effective in providing context about the neo-Nazi and white supremacist backgrounds behind California synagogue shooter Robert Brewer and Pittsburgh synagogue shooter Robert Bowers, yet most failed to disclose that David N. Anderson, who shot and killed shoppers at a New Jersey kosher deli last month, was apparently inspired by recordings of the antisemitic preacher Louis Farrakhan.
Is it then any surprise that during this week’s ceremonies the BBC’s Orla Guerin equated Israel with Nazi Germany while reporting from Yad Vashem, Israel’s own Holocaust museum?
It is both the beauty and burden of the free world that hate preachers like Farrakhan, extremist organizations like the neo-Nazi and BDS movements, and fringe politicians like Ilhan Omar, have a right to express antisemitic views, as long as they don’t cross the line into the very specifically defined legal categories of incitement or defamation. However, the public should never mistake such hateful extremists for being “mainstream” or “reasonable,” and the free press has a professional duty to provide this context.
The late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis beautifully expressed the American philosophy: “To expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
In a healthy society, free speech cannot stand on its own, but demands even more free speech in the form of context, fact-checking and rebuttals. The result is that our safety as a society depends not only on politicians, judges and police, but also on the ethics and professionalism of our journalists.
Daniel Pomerantz, legal expert and CEO of HonestReporting.com