Andrew Lapin | JTA
The incidents, data, and experiences that have many American Jews on edge received prime-time treatment last weekend in a CNN Special Report titled “Rising Hate: Antisemitism In America.”
CNN Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that having the opportunity to report on modern antisemitism for a special hour-long segment on her network was “one of the most important things I’ve ever done.”
“The bad news is there is antisemitism in America,” said Bash, a member of Temple Micah in Washington, D.C., and the great-granddaughter of Hungarian Jews who were murdered at Auschwitz. “The good news is I work in a place that wants to shine a spotlight on it, and allow for an investigation into what is happening, why it’s happening and what are the solutions.”
It was a broad overview of the last few years of antisemitism in America, with a particular focus on how it has evolved in the digital age. It also covered the Coleyville, Texas, synagogue hostage crisis that unfolded earlier this year; the role former President Donald Trump’s campaign played in fomenting antisemitic rhetoric; Jewish college students reporting discrimination on campuses; and the operations of the Secure Community Network, a nonprofit that tracks and responds to antisemitic threats from an undisclosed bunker in the Chicago area.
The topic is a personal one for Bash, in more ways than one. To accompany the special, she authored an essay on CNN’s website in which she discussed her own recent apprehension when her preteen son asked her if he could wear a Star of David necklace in public.
Bash spoke to JTA, which viewed an early cut of the special, in advance of its Aug. 21 premiere. (This interview has been condensed and edited.)
JTA: What does it mean for you as a Jew, and as the descendant of Holocaust victims, to be hosting and reporting on the topic of antisemitism?
Bash: It’s one of the most important things I’ve ever done, for sure. Like so many Jewish Americans, I have a rich and sad and storied family history. I’m taking myself out of [the report], for the most part, and truly researching and talking to people who are experts, who are monitoring it, who are victims of this hate, and trying to understand the origins – and, more importantly, the reasons for the rise now.
How did this special come together? When did you start talking about it?
Our senior producer on the program is Melissa Dunst Lipman. She has been pushing the bosses to do this for a while. And unfortunately, the news environment made it clear that there’s a need for it, because there was attack after attack after attack. We had Pittsburgh and we had Poway and we had Colleyville, the list goes on. They said, “Yeah, we should do this.”
I was really, frankly, nervous, because it’s such a big, important topic; but I felt honored, in a really twisted way, to be able to participate in this, because it’s so important and runs so deep in my soul.
In conjunction with the special, you published an essay on CNN about your son’s desire to wear a Star of David necklace in public, and your own nervousness or apprehension around that. Tell me about that.
I feel very, very lucky that our children are who they are. From an early age [my son] was very proud of his Judaism. And he goes to Jewish summer camp — that, in his words, unlocked his Judaism even more.
Last Chanukah, he said, “I want a Jewish star. That’s what I want for Hanukkah.” And I kind of blew him off, because I didn’t think he really meant it, and halfway through the eight days, he sheepishly said, “Mom, do you remember that I asked for a Star of David?” And I said, “Wait, you really want one?” And he said, “Yeah, I do.”
And I asked why, and he said, because he feels a very strong Jewish identity, and that kids in high school, who are Christian, are also very proud of their religion, and they wear crosses. So why shouldn’t he wear a symbol that shows who he is?
So I said, “OK, sure,” but I was apprehensive about it. And I certainly didn’t say this to him, for all the reasons that made this special a necessity: because I think he’s innocent, and he didn’t really realize the millennia that we have to look back on persecution against Jews. He just thought, “This is who I am, and it’s no big deal.” I just said, “OK. How can I argue with that?”
Now I’ve heard from Deborah Lipstadt, and also Jeff Cohen, who was one of the hostages in Colleyville, saying that he wears his kippah out in public much more than he did before, even after he was a victim of antisemitism — almost died! He said, “The way that we combat this is by normalizing Judaism. They normalized hate. Well, we’re going to normalize Judaism.”
I learned a lot, and in my son’s very — I thought naive, but it turns out very wise — way, he knew that innately.
Let’s talk about the special itself. It’s very wide-ranging. What are you hoping people will take away from it?
I’m hoping that people take away a couple of things. Number one is that it’s so easy, especially in the world in which we live, to have a point of view and be dug in and not listen to somebody else.
Let’s just take antisemitism that is growing on the progressive political left. What I learned in doing this, which was probably the most fraught, complicated part of this hour, is that people are just talking past each other. Rabbi Danny Zemel, he’s a proud progressive and he’s my rabbi [at Temple Micah in Washington, D.C.]. I called him, and I said, “You have to help me here, because I have to get this right.” And I talked it through with him. He completely understood, because not everybody who’s on the progressive left, who stands up and says they’re an anti-Zionist, really means that they’re anti-Jewish, that they’re antisemitic. He suggested I talk to Rabbi Jill Jacobs, who runs [the rabbinic human rights group] T’ruah, and I interviewed her, and she’s the one who explained and described that to me.
What she does with her friends in the secular progressive world [is] to try to stop their rhetoric and their approach from devolving into antisemitism. When she hears them say, “Well, I’m anti-Zionist,” she says, “What do you mean by that? Explain what you mean by that.” If they say, “Well, I don’t like the policies of the Israeli government,” well, that’s not antisemitism. Lipstadt says that if you want to hear the biggest criticism of the Israeli government, go sit in a cafe in Jerusalem and listen to the Jews.
What is antisemitism is criticizing the Israeli government with tropes, like, “The Jews run the world, the Jews are power-hungry or money-hungry.” And then it gets into much more of a slippery slope, which is what happened to this young woman who I profiled who goes to SUNY New Paltz, where she said she is a proud Zionist in an Instagram post and she got kicked out of a group to help victims of sexual assault, that she founded. Because they didn’t even want to hear what she meant by that.
Really what I want to get across is that it’s an age-old conspiracy theory. We’re now, unfortunately, much more familiar with conspiracy theories. A disease pops up, it’s the Jews. A thunderstorm pops up, it’s the Jews. The economy goes down, it’s the Jews. And it is corrosive when it comes to society.
Education is really the number-one thing that I learned that we have to be aggressive and zealous about, because that’s the way to combat antisemitism: to educate. There are people who just have hate in their heart, period, and they don’t want to hear it. But for the most part, people get caught up in using tropes or using language that is inherently antisemitic and they don’t realize it until it’s pointed out, which is education.
The other thing that I learned is how pervasive this is online. And it’s not just in the deep dark web. It’s on social media. It’s in online gaming that our young kids are using, and that we think is a safe space. And that’s something that we have to be incredibly aware of.
You’re describing such a central part of the debates within the Jewish community about how to talk about antisemitism, how to frame it, especially when it comes to the left versus the right, and the question of whether they’re equivalent.
And I just want to say, they’re not equivalent. I did not talk to one person who said that they’re equivalent. The extremism and antisemitism on the far right has devolved into real violence, people with semi-automatic weapons going into synagogues and shooting down Jews for no reason other than they were Jews.
On the left, it’s more discourse. Jonathan Greenblatt at the ADL said to me, “On the right, it’s like a category-five hurricane or tornado and they just come in and that just tears everything apart. On the far left, it’s more like climate change. It’s slow moving, it’s growing. Some people deny it exists, but it does exist, and if you ignore it, it’s going to envelop you.” And I thought that was a really good analogy.
On the note of Jewish practice, there wasn’t a ton in the special about Jews as Jews. How important do you think it is for understanding antisemitism to understand Jews beyond the context of like victims of antisemitism?
Good question. Let me answer this way: My great-grandparents were secular Jews in Hungary. They weren’t self-hating Jews. They didn’t run from their Judaism, but if you would ask what they were, they would say, “We’re Hungarian.” And then eventually they would get to the fact that they were Jewish. The Nazis didn’t care. They still took them to the gas chamber and killed them in Auschwitz.
So religious practice and observance is so important. It’s something that is personally important to me and to some Jews, but it’s irrelevant to the notion of antisemitism.
Andrew Lapin is the managing editor for local news at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA).