Ira Rifkin

Beat the journalism clock: Track rising anti-Semitism via Jewish and Israeli news media

Beat the journalism clock: Track rising anti-Semitism via Jewish and Israeli news media

This past Saturday, the Jewish sabbath — just two weeks removed from the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre and 80 years to the day following Kristallnacht -- the Israeli news site Times of Israel ran the following stories on its home page. Each was about anti-Semitism; either a hateful display of it (including one new one in the United States) or warnings about its steady rise in Europe.

Because it would take too much space to explain them all, I’ll just supply the links and note the nation of origin. Please read at least a few of them to gain a sense of the level of concern.

(1) The Netherlands.

(2) The United Kingdom.

(3) Poland.

(4) Germany.

(5) Austria.

(6) United States.

A quick web search that same day uncovered a host of other stories documenting recent anti-Semitic actions, many cloaked in anti-Israel and anti-Zionist rhetoric, including this one from The Jewish Chronicle, the venerable, London-based, Anglo-Jewish publication.

A local Labour party [meaning a regional branch of Britain’s national opposition political party] confirmed it amended a motion about the Pittsburgh synagogue attack to remove a call for all forms of antisemitism to be eradicated and for Labour to “lead the way in opposing" Jew-hate.

The story, of course, included the usual explanations meant to excuse actions of this sort. And, for the record, while I do not consider all criticism of Israeli government actions to be anti-Semitic, I do believe that the line between legitimate political criticism of Israel and hatred of Israel because its a Jewish nation is frequently blurred.

I listed all the above stories to make some journalistic points. The first of them is to point out journalism’s unique internal clock.

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Why Muslim news media have shied away from covering the Uighur persecution story

Why Muslim news media have shied away from covering the Uighur persecution story

As with other religions, Islam embodies the concept of like-minded believers sharing a global destiny no matter which nation they live in.

In Arabic, this idea is known as the Ummah. Militant Islamists invoke it repeatedly to convince Muslims they are obligated to aid Muslims persecuted by non-Muslims.

How does this work in practice? As with Christians (the extensive history of Christian nations fighting other Christian nations is hardly unknown), the idealized notion that co-religionists can count on fellow believers in stressful times is highly limited.

Witness the lack of global Muslim efforts to assist their Chinese Uighur co-religionists currently being brutalized by the Chinese government. Or the relative dearth of Uighur-related news coverage emanating from Muslim-majority nations.

Western media, on the other hand, have covered the Uighur story like a blanket — despite the geographic, logistical and political hurdles making it difficult to do so. Here at GetReligion, we’ve posted repeatedly on the Uighur situation the past few years.

One Western publication I think has done an excellent job with the story is Foreign Policy. The magazine has published, online, two strong pieces on the Uighurs in just the past couple of weeks.

Here’s one from late October that tells how China is planting strangers who absurdly identify themselves as “relatives” in Uighur homes to monitor them. Here’s the second, published last week, detailing that Uighurs are so desperate to escape Chinese persecution that some are actually fleeing to Afghanistan for safety.

Consider that for a moment. True, Afghanistan is a Muslim nation. But it’s also a land of continual warfare where even the innocent can become collateral damage at any time. So fleeing to Afghanistan hardly ensures peaceful sanctuary. And yet they do.

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Friday Five: Synagogue shooting, Messianic controversy, young evangelicals, Squirrel Hill memories

Friday Five: Synagogue shooting, Messianic controversy, young evangelicals, Squirrel Hill memories

Saturday’s synagogue shooting, which claimed 11 lives in Pittsburgh, has dominated religion headlines this week. Here at GetReligion, we’ve produced a half-dozen posts on that unimaginable tragedy.

If you get a chance today or this weekend, check out what we’ve written, and feel free to let us know what you think. We’d love to hear from you.

Among our posts:

• Julia Duin’s thoughtful commentary on how “Pittsburgh horror marks the start of what could become a new atrocity — synagogue shootings.”

Ira Rifkin’s expert analysis noting that “Pittsburgh surprised many: But not those who repeatedly reported rising American anti-Semitism.”

• And my own piece reflecting on “Charleston. Sutherland Springs. Pittsburgh. Why local reporters are crucial in a 'national' tragedy.”

I’ll mention some of our other Pittsburgh-related offerings below as we dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: In a post Thursday, I called Emma Green’s Atlantic report headlined “The Jews of Pittsburgh Bury Their Dead” one of the best religion stories of 2018.

Washington Post religion writer Michelle Boorstein praised Green’s “lovely reporting,” and CNN religion editor Daniel Burke lauded the "sensitivity, nuance, context — and the insights” of the story.

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Pittsburgh surprised many: But not those who repeatedly reported rising American anti-Semitism

Pittsburgh surprised many: But not those who repeatedly reported rising American anti-Semitism

Some 15 years ago I wrote a piece on anti-Semitism for an online Jewish publication that began as follows: “It is an irony of Jewish life that it took the Holocaust to give anti-Semitism a bad name. So widespread was international revulsion over the annihilation of six million Jews that following World War II anti-Semitism, even of the polite variety, became the hatred one dared not publicly express. But only for a time.”

Saturday’s synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh underscored how anti-Semitism is no longer the hatred one dares not publicly express — though that’s been obvious for some time to all who cared to recognize it. I've tried to make the point in numerous GetReligion posts.

The details of what happened in Pittsburg, on the Jewish Sabbath, are by now well known, thanks to the wall-to-wall coverage, much of it sympathetic, detailed and excellent — including their understanding of the Jewish religious and communal aspects.

The extensive coverage is entirely appropriate, I’d say. Because more than just a display of vicious anti-Semitism, what happened in Pittsburg was an American tragedy. It underscored how threatened the nation is today by our corrosive political environment.

That’s likely to continue, if not intensify, regardless of the outcome of next week’s midterm elections.

The coverage I’ve found most worthwhile has not been the breaking news stories, though the facts of the story are certainly critical. Instead, it's the "explainers" that have actually repeated what I've read over and over in Jewish, Israeli and even mainstream American and European media for years now. And which I believe is what the vast majority of self-aware diaspora Jews have long known and feared — that Pittsburgh was only a matter of time.

I highlight them here to underscore what I believe is a critical point. That Jews or any other minority can only be safe in a pluralistic society that tolerates — no, embraces — diversity, be it religious, ethnic, racial or opinion (the last within broad reason; no yelling fire in crowded theaters).

One news backgrounder I liked is this comprehensive story from The Washington Post that ran Sunday. Here’s its lede:

This is what they had long been fearing. As the threats increased, as the online abuse grew increasingly vicious, as the defacing of synagogues and community centers with swastikas became more commonplace, the possibility of a violent attack loomed over America’s Jewish communities.

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Is sane political discourse a lost cause? Even a small Himalayan Buddhist nation faces trolls

Is sane political discourse a lost cause? Even a small Himalayan Buddhist nation faces trolls

My fellow Americans, as you well know the 2018 midterm elections are almost upon us. No matter who you support, I recommend sparing yourself additional heartburn by not letting process tie your stomach in a knot (I know, that’s much easier said than done).

It helps to keep in mind something Winston Churchill is credited with saying: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Democracy also just might be government at its most confusing. Making it far tougher is the enormous amount of misinformation — often just out-and-out lies — purposefully disseminated via the web these days. It’s enough to dissuade me from the notion that that all technical progress correlates with genuine human progress.

No place today seems immune from the havoc that this illiberal nastiness can cause on the left and the right.

Not even once isolated Bhutan, the small Himalayan nation I was fortunate to visit about six years ago, can catch a break. This recent Washington Post story underscores this sad truth. It ran the day of Bhutan’s national election last Thursday.

A small Himalayan nation wedged between India and China, Bhutan is famed for its isolated location, stunning scenery and devotion to the principle of “Gross National Happiness,” which seeks to balance economic growth with other forms of contentment.

But Bhutan’s young democracy, only a decade old, just received a heady dose of the unhappiness that comes with electoral politics. In the months leading up to Thursday’s national elections, the first in five years, politicians traded insults and made extravagant promises. Social media networks lit up with unproved allegations and fear mongering about Bhutan’s role in the world.

It is enough to make some voters express a longing for the previous system — absolute monarchy under a beloved king. “I would love to go back,” said Karma Tenzin, 58, sitting in his apartment in the picturesque capital, Thimphu. “We would be more than happy.”

Bhutan is a devoutly Buddhist nation (more precisely, it adheres to Vajrayana Buddhism, the branch of the faith also found in Tibet). So given the far more deadly social media lies propagated in Myanmar, also a strong Buddhist state, should we assume that there’s something about Buddhism itself that lends itself to this sort of twisted media manipulation?

Of course not. The problem is far more about human limitations than any particular religious constellation.

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New York Times: Climate change is personal in Australian pastor's drought story

New York Times: Climate change is personal in Australian pastor's drought story

Did the recent United Nations report on climate change leave you alarmed but also bewildered?

If so, my bet is you're one among many. Given the situation’s described magnitude, it’s extraordinarily difficult to make sense of the report’s predicted dire consequences.

What's an ordinary citizen supposed to do about it? (Hint: Recycling your jars, can and papers isn’t enough.)

Making it more difficult, I believe, is that some key world leaders either reject the scientific consensus on climate change or prefer to ignore it in favor of shortsighted and immediate economic gains they believe are more likely to attract materially oriented voters. 

No, I’m not just leveling a dig at President Donald Trump. Click here to read a Washington Post story about other important leaders who reject the political steps necessary to stimulate broad public understanding and global action to slow climate disaster, to the degree that’s still possible.

What about journalists? 

Given the depth of climate change’s predicted and irreversible societal upheaval, is climate change the most important story of our time? Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan seems to think so.

But that still begs the question: How can this mind-boggling issue be covered in a way that makes it more comprehensible to the ordinary reader?

Allow me to suggest journalism 101’s time-honored formula: explain the macro by focusing on the micro — which is to say tell the story by highlighting one person’s experience at a time.

The New York Times did just that with this piece that ran as a sidebar to its main story on the UN report. Moreover, GetReligion readers, the piece has a strong, and valid, religion component.

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Soros: He's invoked from DC to Malaysia. An anti-Semitic dog whistle? Atheist straw man?

Soros: He's invoked from DC to Malaysia. An anti-Semitic dog whistle? Atheist straw man?

OK, readers, it’s pop quiz time. My question: What do the following political players have in common; Franklin Graham, George Soros and the Koch brothers?

Did I hear you mumble “nothing,” other than gender and the aforementioned political-player designations?

Not a bad guess. But not the answer I’m looking for at the moment.

The commonality I have in mind is that they all serve as public boogeyman — names to be tossed around to convey a suitcase of despised qualities that need not be unpacked for opponents skilled in the art of in-group rhetoric.

Those on the left tend to think of Graham and the Kochs as despicable actors poisoning the political well with hypocritical religious justifications (Graham) or by employing their vast wealth to back libertarian, hyper pro-business, anti-tax, anti-regulatory agendas (the Kochs).

Those on the right tend to view Soros as an atheist billionaire, internationalist busy-body set on destroying what they view as rightful national norms for the sake of unrealistic democratic (note that’s with a small “d”) fantasies. In America, many conservatives see him as a fierce enemy of the religious liberty side of the First Amendment.

If you paid close attention to the soul-numbing Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation fight you may know that, unlike Graham and the Kochs, Soros’ name popped up at the tail end of that scorched-earth display political bloodletting — which is why I bring him up now. (President Donald Trump, as he has before, first mentioned Soros; Sen. Chuck Grassley disparaged Soros when asked about Trump’s comment.)

But first.

My point here is not to convince you of the rightness or wrongness of Soros or the others mentioned above. Frankly, I have strong disagreements with them all. Besides, love them or hate them, I’m guessing your minds are already pretty well made up about what level of heaven or hell they’re headed for come judgement day. So what chance at changing minds do I really have anyway?

Also, they're all entitled, under current American law, to throw their weight around in accordance with their viewpoints — again, whether you or I like it or not.

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German Jews joining ultra-right, anti-Muslim party evokes a classic 1965 Jewish Nazi story

German Jews joining ultra-right, anti-Muslim party evokes a classic 1965 Jewish Nazi story

Return with me now to 1965, when as a newly minted journalist I read a story in The New York Times that so thoroughly impressed me that I still recall its emotional impact.

This now-legendary piece by John McCandlish Phillips was about a New York Ku Klux Klan leader and neo-Nazi, Daniel Burros, who unbeknownst to his cronies, was actually a Jew, despite his hate-filled public ranting against Jews and Israel.

The legendary reporter dug deeper and deeper In his interviews and research, until his shocking discovery. Burros threatened to kill Phillips, then committed suicide after his true identity was unmasked.

Why am I bringing this up now? Stay with me, please. I’ll explain below. There’s a paywall to read Phillips’ original piece, now a pdf document. Click here to access it. Also, I should note that GetReligion is housed at the McCandlish Phillips Journalism Institute at The King’s College in New York.

When Phillips died in 2013 — long after he left The Times, and journalism, to start a small Pentecostal Christian outreach ministry in Manhattan that still exists — his Times’ obit referred to his story as “one of the most famous articles in the newspaper’s history.” The obit also called Phillips “a tenacious reporter and a lyrical stylist.”

The article’s quality and the splash it made are certainly part of why Phillip’s story has stayed with me. But here’s another reason.

As a Jew, it seemed unfathomable to me back then that someone raised, as was I, in New York in the mid-20th century — when Jewish communal bonds were much stronger than they are today — could think and act like Burros, who at the time was just six or so years older than I was.

So why have I brought up Phillips’s story?

Because of recent stories out of Germany linking that nation’s Jewish community with rightwing, Nazi-sympathizing politics.

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Vatican-China agreement: As misguided as Rome's attempt to work with Nazi Germany?

Vatican-China agreement: As misguided as Rome's attempt to work with Nazi Germany?

Hear about last weekend’s provisional agreement between the Vatican and Beijing to end their decades-long dispute over the appointment of Catholic bishops in China?

China is, of course, arguably one of the world’s worst offenders when it comes to suppressing religious freedom — including for persecution of its estimated six-million strong, underground Catholic church.

You're excused if you haven’t seen coverage of this story, since the American media can barely keep up with the ongoing political explosions emanating from Washington these days. That means a great many international stories, while covered, often receive less overall attention than their long-term importance warrants.

This Vatican-Beijing development — ostensibly designed to unite the much persecuted, Vatican-loyal, underground Chinese Catholic church with the government recognized, and controlled, official Chinese Catholic church — falls into this category.

Given China’s current redoubling of its efforts to allow few, if any, ideologically rivals, religious or otherwise, it seems like an odd time to enter into any such agreement with Beijing.

Which to my mind means this agreement is, for the Vatican, pretty tenuous — as is every agreement held hostage to Beijing’s generally oppressive political power plays.

How will this agreement survive should Vatican officials decide to criticize one or another Chinese human rights violation? Or does China believe that by agreeing to the deal its gained a measure of Roman Catholic Church silence on such matter -- meaning this agreement is just another Chinese attempt to control religious expression?

Today it's China’s Uighur Muslims. It’s not so far fetched to image Beijing lowering the boom on its Catholic population tomorrow should the Roman hierarchy offend China’s politically paranoid sensibilities.

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