Where’s the line between criticizing Israel and anti-Semitism and does a Virginia congressional candidate’s book cross it?

By: - October 23, 2018 6:15 am

From left: Democrat Leslie Cockburn and Republican Denver Riggleman are candidates for Virginia’s 5th Congressional District

Hours after Democrat Leslie Cockburn earned the nomination to run in the 5th Congressional District, the Republican Party of Virginia had an attack line ready.

A 1991 book Cockburn wrote with her husband, Andrew Cockburn, proved she was a “virulent anti-Semite,” the party wrote in a statement after her nomination. The shadow of the book has hung over Cockburn’s campaign ever since, surfacing again earlier this month in an attack ad from the Republican Jewish Coalition.

The book, “Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the U.S.-Israeli Covert Relationship,” pushes the “inherently anti-Semitic belief that Israel controls America’s foreign policy,” the Republican Party of Virginia said in a statement.

And Republicans have doubled down on claims that the book is anti-Semitic, a charge Cockburn and some Jewish groups reject, in a political back-and-forth that illustrates the thorny debate over what’s legitimate criticism of Israel and what’s anti-Semitic rhetoric.

In the past two weeks, the party posted a digital ad on Facebook that said Cockburn “basically hates America.” They listed other things she “hates:” veterans, for when she questioned opponent Denver Riggleman’s Air Force service during a debate, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Israel.

The Republican Party of Virginia posted a digital ad last week accusing Democrat Leslie Cockburn of “hating” veterans, ICE and Israel. They’ve repeatedly attacked Cockburn on Israel based on a book she co-authored in the early 1990s.

A candidate’s stance on Israel could influence Jewish voters but it wouldn’t necessarily cause Jewish voters to brand them anti-Semitic, said Eric Mazur, chair of Judaic studies at Virginia Wesleyan University in Norfolk. 

“There are a lot of Jews who would not vote for someone who is perceived to be anti-Israel, but they wouldn’t necessarily consider them anti-Semitic,” he said.

‘A serious work of journalism’

Cockburn’s book, which explores the deep and sometimes secretive relationship between Israel and the U.S., has been referenced on fringe websites, including a forum on white supremacist site Storm Front. It perpetuates the anti-Semitic idea that Jewish people from Israel and America control the United States’ foreign affairs, Virginia Republicans said.

Cockburn has dismissed the accusations, calling her book a “serious work of journalism” that white supremacists wouldn’t read with a critical eye. She’s been endorsed by several Jewish groups, including the JStreet PAC and religious leaders in her district.

“Of course, reasonable people can disagree with some of my conclusions or writings, or take issue with particular choices of words from 27 years ago,” Cockburn wrote in an email. “Yet the Republican Party is not interested in good faith discussion or disagreement. They would rather besmirch my reputation than tackle the harder question of how the U.S. can help end this intractable conflict, advance our national security and secure the peace we all seek for Israel.”

And besides, Cockburn argued, the Republican Party of Virginia and Riggleman shouldn’t point fingers. The party’s divisive Senate candidate, Corey Stewart, has come under scrutiny for ties to far-right, white nationalist and anti-Semitic figures.

Riggleman denounced white supremacy and neo-Nazis in a letter to the editor in the Roanoke Times in August, just before the one-year anniversary of the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.

“What really impresses me at this point is not Cockburn, it’s (Stewart), who is egregious, who is surrounded by anti-Semites,” said David Schoenbaum, the author of the 1991 New York Times review of Cockburn’s book the Republican Party has quoted.

“And here are guys who really are guilty of anti-Semitism, accusing her of anti-Semitism.”

‘Change the fate of nations and peoples’

The Cockburns’ book explores the unique relationship between the Jewish state and American foreign policy and politics.

The United States provides major assistance to Israel, especially through the Department of Defense, according to the United States Agency for International Development.

In 2016, the most recent full year available, Israel received $3.3 billion from the United States. Only Afghanistan received more security assistance from the U.S. than Israel.

“Israel has always enjoyed the support of American Jews, who have deployed a formidable lobby on its behalf,” the Cockburns wrote. “But the success of Israel in using American power and money to advance its position has depended on far more than just a lobby. It has been one result of a symbiotic relationship between the two countries that functions in ways of which the public knows little but that has helped mold the world and change the fate of nations and people.”

The Cockburns’ book deals in numerous examples of U.S.-Israeli intrigue, arm sales and other covert operations, ranging from Iran-Contra to the U.S. invasion of Panama and the Gulf War. The Cockburns cited their previous reporting work and Israeli — some anonymous — sources to discuss those connections.

However, other sections are backed up in other news accounts, like The Los Angeles Times reporting in 1989 that Israelis trained private paramilitary units for the Medellín cartel, which was also reported on by The New York Times.

What counts as anti-Semitism?

What is considered anti-Semitic is often up for individual interpretation, Mazur said.

“There is heightened sensitivity in the Jewish community on issues related to Israel because of the long history of the persecution of Jews for the last thousand years,” Mazur said. “Everywhere else in the world is everybody else’s and nowhere, since the year 70 …. has there been a Jewish place.”

That meant for most of the history of the world, Jewish people lived everywhere, Mazur said, which was uncommon. It’s what led to one stereotype that is often used to identify anti-Semitism: the myth of a global Jewish conspiracy.

“It seemed like if there were an international conspiracy, it would be conducted by an international people,” Mazur said. “They fit that because they were not French, Jews were not German, Jews were not British, but they were in all those places.”

According to the U.S. State Department, anti-Semitism “employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits” to Jewish people. In practice, that can mean accusing Jewish people of being more dedicated to Israel than their own native country or making accusations about a collective, global Jewish power that controls institutions like the media, the economy or the government.

It can also be as extreme as denying the Holocaust happened or accusing Jewish people of exaggerating the scope of it.

Cockburn’s book didn’t have any of that, said Logan Bayroff, spokesperson for JStreet PAC, which says it reviewed the book and interviewed her several times before endorsing her.

The liberal organization has endorsed more than 100 Democratic candidates who support JStreet’s mission of a two-state solution in Israel while maintaining aid to the country and the Palestinian Authority.

“Certainly reasonable people reading a book written 30 years ago can find individual passages they disagree with, and that’s fine,” Bayroff said. “We certainly didn’t find the book to be anti-Semitic or advancing any kind of conspiratorial thinking.”

The Republican Party of Virginia has relied in part on quotes from The New York Times book review by Schoenbaum, a former professor at the University of Iowa, to ground their anti-Semitic charges. 

“Their book … is largely dedicated to Israel-bashing for its own sake,” Schoenbaum, who is Jewish, wrote. “Its first message is that, win or lose, smart or dumb, right or wrong, suave or boorish, Israelis are a menace. The second is that the Israeli-American connection is somewhere behind just about everything that ails us.”

Schoenbaum is now retired and lives in Maryland. He regularly contributed book reviews to The Times while he was a professor in Iowa and studied the Middle East. 

“She was suggesting that Israel was unique and malevolent and corrupt and a bad influence on the U.S. in ways that she didn’t question the motives and policy of quite a lot of other people,” he said in an interview.

But, in his review, Schoenbaum also wrote that the book was “not without merit.”

“Unlike other Israel-bashing volumes, this one at least acknowledges the long shadow of the Holocaust, as well as Stalinist anti-Semitism, Syrian hysteria, Egyptian and Iraqi poison gas and Palestinian unloveliness,” he wrote. “Intent on reporting the facts of life, the Cockburns bring to mind that threshold stage when children discover where babies come from. For the aspiring student of liaisons, dangerous and otherwise, this is, of course, an important discovery. But as any grown-up can confirm, it is barely the beginning of wisdom about how things really work.”

A 1991 Los Angeles Times review of the book by a CBS News correspondent took a similarly mixed stance.

On the one hand, “in the Cockburn universe, Washington’s interests are basically evil and Israel ministers to every ugly whim,” Dan Raviv wrote. “There is little sensitivity to Israel’s unique problems or to the unadorned, though difficult, challenge of creating a haven for Jews in the wake of centuries of oppression.”

On the other: “There is no denying the Cockburns’ point that Israel has weakened its own moral case by longtime liaisons with brutal dictators and shady operators whose side activities include drug trafficking,” wrote Raviv, himself an author of a book on Israeli military intelligence. “Readers who filter out the hostile undertones will glean much food for thought.”

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.