Eric K. Ward is a senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center and executive director of Western States Center. This post first appeared on Medium.
Normally I might have whiplash. One day I’m being asked for comment by national media outlets about a Black NFL player and the next, about FOX News celebrity Tucker Carlson. On the surface Tucker Carlson and DeSean Jackson would appear to have very little in common. But together they illustrate a growing danger in this moment of populist fervor: antisemitism.
Antisemitism is emerging as an equal opportunity ideology.
Antisemitism crosses every line of race, political party, and primary stances on a wide range of issues. Like the novel coronavirus, this virulent ideology disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable — the Jewish population — but in fact imperils us all.
Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson and Fox News host Tucker Carlson
The Jewish community is right to be concerned in this moment of populist impulses across the ideological spectrum: from the grievances that propelled a B-list reality TV star into the presidency to the cry for justice that brings throngs of people into the streets in defense of Black lives. Historically, populist moments have always fed on and in turn fueled attacks on Jewish people. This is just such a moment.
Even before the surge in antisemitism that has accompanied the global pandemic, documented incidents in the United States had reached a new high: over 2,000 in 2019, a 12 per cent increase over the prior year, according to ADL’s Center on Extremism’s annual tabulation. The last few months have created a perfect storm — a life-threatening disease resulting in social isolation and economic collapse — activating the age-old call that “Somebody must be blamed.” From anti-Semitic tropes like depicting Jewish people as disease-carrier rats, to using the word “heil” with a swastika or other Holocaust imagery to critique common-sense public health measures, to deadly attacks — antisemitism is, alarmingly, becoming normalized. In mid-March I asked the staff at Western States Center to start sending me a daily log of key incidents of antisemitism. In only 12 weeks, the tally stands at 198 entries.
I repeat, the Jewish community is right to be concerned.
Here is why we should all share their concern: antisemitism is the paper upon which racial nationalism is written; it is also the template for poisoning populist moments. Antisemitism is not just a form of religious bigotry; it is a racialized form of bigotry that imagines a supernatural race, a threatening “other”. The conspiracist belief that Jews are the all-powerful puppet masters behind a range of concerns from left to right — everything from economic inequality to civil rights gains by the Black community — whips up populist fervor by appealing to everyday folks who feel like the elites are holding out. As others have stated, antisemitism convinces us we’re punching up, when actually we’re punching down. Antisemitism is about not being clear where power really resides.
Just as much of America is waking up to the stake we all have in dismantling anti-Black racism, so too must we realize that a truly inclusive American democracy requires that every community understand and fully disavow antisemitism, whether on the right or left.
Tucker Carlson: The present-day Father Coughlin?
A recent feature on the Fox News star who “for years… has stoked racial anxieties and courted white supremacists,” poses the question: “Tucker Carlson, Trump’s heir apparent and 2024 candidate?” While this is important to consider, we need to ask a deeper question: Is Tucker Carlson the present-day Father Coughlin?
Students of antisemitism and racial hate in the 20th century will remember Father Charles Couglin, “the Radio Priest,” as one of the primary voices of the 1930s in American politics, reaching 45 million listeners via weekly radio broadcasts. Coughlin was a politically radical populist who upheld the rights of ordinary people against those he saw as the elites. While he railed against the abuses of all systems of political and economic control from capitalism to socialism, he saw the chief enemy as “international bankers,” aka the Jews. As History Matters documents, “By the mid-1930s, his talks took on a nasty edge as he combined harsh attacks on Roosevelt as the tool of international Jewish bankers with praise for the fascist leaders Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler.” Coughlin’s 1937 sermon “Twenty Years Ago Today” tuned his audience’s ear to the antisemitic undertone that reverberates in today’s populist moment: “Somebody must be blamed.”
Tucker Carlson has largely avoided overt antisemitism, unlike some of his Fox News colleagues. But we need to ask, why has the Nazi website Stormfront called Carlson “literally our greatest ally”? As I told The Guardian earlier this week, “Tucker Carlson appears to be playing at least a verbal footsie with white nationalists. His bigotry and hatred are infectious. They are as dangerous of a virus as Covid-19. And rather than making people sick, it makes Americans turn on one another.”
What I said next to The Guardian applies equally to the subject of my conversation with ESPN: “Tucker Carlson, whether that is his intent or not, is fueling that extremism through his irresponsible rhetoric. And Fox must hold him responsible.”
DeSean Jackson and the Responsibility of the NFL
Two days before being asked to comment on Carlson, who is white, I spoke with ESPN about the anti-Semitic remarks made by Philadelphia Eagles player DeSean Jackson, who is Black. Jackson has apologized and acknowledged that he needs to learn; that’s the first step. He may well be sincere in stating that he intended no harm. But those of us who work on systemic forms of bigotry know that intentions matter less than outcome. Unintentionally or intentionally, Jackson opened space for anti-Semitism. That’s not only irresponsible and disappointing, but potentially dangerous as well.
As I shared in the conversation with ESPN, what Jackson posted goes far beyond a mere anti-Semitic stereotype. He, as a public figure, shared an ideological position, a position used to justify two racial terror attacks and murders on the Jewish community seven months ago in the New York metro area. One of the gunmen in Jersey City, who murdered three people in a kosher market, was connected with the Black Hebrew Israelite movement and had posted anti-Semitic conspiracy content online before the attack.
The biggest failure in Jackson’s story isn’t his as an individual; it’s a failure within his organization, the NFL, to protect its most valuable employees from ideologies grounded in racial nationalism. That gap needs to be closed. That’s the real lesson and opportunity. DeSean Jackson’s mistake presents the opportunity to go beyond an individual call-out to an appeal to institutional accountability.This organizational accountability needs to be based in an understanding of the larger dynamics of inequality that impact the communities in which these teams live and thrive in. Players like Jackson work damn hard to get to where they are; very few from many of their communities actually make it. We should applaud the way many major league athletes are stepping forward to use their platforms to speak out on behalf of tolerance, opportunity, and diversity. Their organizations shouldn’t restrict that speech — but they should make sure these players are speaking with as much information as they can muster. Without tampering the urgency and passion of their words, their organizations have an obligation to make sure their employees aren’t bringing stereotypes and bigotry into the 21st century civil rights movement.
There’s another lesson DeSean Jackson can teach us, about power differentials. Intersecting forms of bigotry make Jackson a perpetrator of one form of systemic hatred — antisemitism — while experiencing, daily, the anti-Black hate that is also systemic. That racism means Jackson is likely to experience a level of accountability and consequence that white people expressing antisemitism never face in similar circumstances. When someone like Tucker Carlson or Donald Trump traffics in race-baiting, they get rewarded. When someone like Jackson does, he gets an example made of himself. There is no evidence that Jackson was seeking to build a power base through his comments. There are no rewards for him when he traffics in this offensive ideology. But when Trump and his echo chamber do the same thing, with the much clearer intention of increasing viewership or approval ratings, they pay no price.
Taking Antisemitism Seriously, All of Us
I recently spoke to a group of Jewish organizational leaders who wanted to know how they could best support the Movement for Black Lives. I think every jaw on the Zoom screen dropped when they heard my answer:
What should the Jewish community do to fight racism?
Fight antisemitism even harder.
What I meant is that antisemitism isn’t just making the lives of Jews harder; it’s killing the rest of us too. Latinos died in El Paso because the conspiracy-infected shooter thought he was at war with a Jewish cabal. The nine worshippers at the Charleston church died not only because they were Black, but also because the shooter believed he was at war with a Jewish conspiracy. Scratch below the surface of most mission-oriented hate crimes against Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Blacks, and Latinos, and you will find the equal-opportunity poison, the ideology of antisemitism.
The most common theme in the hate messages sent to me, a Black civil rights leader, is that I’m a puppet; whatever I’ve accomplished — whatever we’ve accomplished as a Black community over the last 70 years — is to the credit or the blame of whoever is using me for some greater agenda. Because it doesn’t look like anti-Black racism, we may think it’s not a big deal. But I think it’s the biggest deal. Antisemitism is an effective conspiracy theory that dehumanizes all of us.
Taking antisemitism seriously as a threat to everyone’s civil rights and humanity means challenging it wherever it arises, within our own ranks as well as in our opponents. Opposing antisemitism can’t be used to make partisan or other ideological points. We can’t choose only to point it out when it comes from white nationalists; nor can we ignore or treat it more harshly when it’s expressed by those fighting for civil and human rights. Hypocrites don’t solve problems, they reinforce problems. Our fight against antisemitism has to be value based.
It’s from our common values — inclusion vs exclusion, treating each other as we would want to be treated, liberty and justice for all, no exceptions — that we can have courageous conversations with each other. Conversations like the one New England Patriots player Julian Edelman started with DeSean Jackson, suggesting they walk together through the halls of the Holocaust Museum and the Museum of African American History and Culture. Private conversations, dialogue on social media, organizational education, and institutional engagement are all critical.
The way forward is by strengthening the understanding of leaders in every sector about how antisemitism weakens our quest for racial equity in this country. By raising awareness of how the chaos and disorderly manner of populist moments magnifies and increases antisemitism. By building an analysis and commitment to solidarity in all our social justice movements that protects all targeted communities and punches up at the real levers of power.
We have an amazing opportunity right now to construct a 21st century civil rights movement. Black and Jewish community alliances were essential in the 1960s; they remain essential today. We must refuse to let antisemitism and the conspiracy theories it underwrites be the agent provocateur that derails the righteous energy of this moment. I’m an old-school idealist in the weary body of a pragmatist. What I know is that values run deeper than ideology. Let’s focus on what we can agree on and take on together. This common ground is the foundation on which we can build an America we can all be proud of, an America dedicated to the common good.