Cornel West, RFK Jr. Flirt with Antisemites
Hamas’s October 7 terrorist attack against Israelis was, as it is now known, the deadliest single day for Jews since the Holocaust. The Gazan forces murdered and abducted Holocaust survivors. They raped women and even murdered babies in their cribs. Israel has an existential and moral imperative to destroy Hamas, an extremist faction that has already threatened to repeat the October massacre and long hindered any hope for the peace process. Even still, Israel’s response to the terrorist attack has raised concerns and provoked outrage regarding proportionality and accusations of “collective punishment.” In the weeks of IDF bombing that have followed, thousands of Palestinian civilians, including many children, have died. There is also a refugee crisis, considering that thousands more displaced Palestinians have nowhere to go. Israel will not permit them residency, and the neighboring Arab countries, despite their claims of Palestinian solidarity, have closed their borders.
President Joe Biden has attempted to act as a fair and thoughtful mediator, advancing the best of America’s role in the Middle East by contributing to Israeli security, offering frank criticisms of Israeli policy, and working with Arab leaders, the Palestinian Authority, and America’s allies. Biden is seeking substantial aid to Israel and has cosigned its mission to end Hamas’s brutality. Wisely, he sent two aircraft carrier groups to the region to deter those who would expand the war. He has also warned Israel against making the same mistakes that the United States did after the September 11th attack—namely misplaced, retaliatory violence that led to an unwieldy commitment in Afghanistan and a needless war in Iraq. The administration wants Israel to distinguish between terrorist killers and innocent Gazans. While demonstrating an unbreakable alliance with Israel, it is also giving humanitarian aid to Gaza and has convinced Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow the entry of aid workers and supplies into the coastal enclave.
The candidates, at least for now, who pose the most severe threats to Joe Biden—Cornel West, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and, of course, Donald Trump—do not inspire confidence.
They have parroted or played rhetorical games with antisemitic tropes. They have praised notorious antisemites and diminished the severity and memory of the Holocaust. At a time when the word “pogrom” has rightly been used to describe the carnage in southern Israel, it is essential to consider how Biden, in stark contrast to Trump, Kennedy, and West, is unworthy of accusations of antisemitism.
Trump, vying for a perfect record of abusing every minority, has not spared Jews, despite having a Jewish son-in-law and Jewish grandchildren. He hired as his 2016 campaign strategist and White House advisor Steve Bannon, knowing Bannon routinely amplifies antisemitic conspiracy theories regarding “globalists,” which in many far-right circles is code for Jews and mass immigration. Bannon’s ex-wife says he complained that there were too many Jews at his children’s school, a charge that he’s denied.
Bannon’s theories easily morph into the Great Replacement Theory, the central delusion of the Charlottesville neo-Nazis who chanted “Jews will Not Replace Us” and assaulted college students and counter-protesters before murdering one of them.
As president, one of Trump’s most infamous moments was the assertion that the Charlottesville tragedy had “very fine people on both sides.” He has also insinuated that Jews care only about money and that “liberal Jews” are responsible for America’s imminent destruction. Following the Hamas attack on Israel, Trump showed greater interest in personal slights than in making any contribution to Israeli security and Middle Eastern peace. While the blood of October 7 was still wet, he declared that Hezbollah, an ally of Hamas also committed to Israel’s obliteration, was “very smart.”
Trump’s bigotry and paranoia no longer surprise anyone lucid. Still, he may soon be outdone. RFK Jr., who is running for president as an independent after claiming that the Democratic Party primary was “rigged” against him, has a weird fixation on Jews despite declaring himself a strong supporter of Israel.
Multiple times, the scion of the famous Democratic family compared vaccine mandates and public health protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic to the Holocaust. At an anti-vaccine rally in 2022, Kennedy alleged that surveillance technology coupled with vaccine requirements would soon produce fascism on a worse scale than the Third Reich. “Even in Hitler’s Germany, you could cross the Alps to Switzerland,” he said to cheering crowds. “You could hide in an attic like Anne Frank did.” Kennedy apologized for the repugnant remark, which ignored the obvious fact that the Swiss did not welcome Jewish refugees and that things did not end well for young Anne. He then cheapened the apology by blaming the media for the anger his provocations stirred.
Kennedy also blamed the media for antisemitic tropes when a secret recording at a dinner in July caught him rambling about how the COVID-19 virus was “engineered” to “attack Caucasians and Black people.” He also told others around the table: “The people who are most immune are Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese.” This walks up to the historic blood libel of Jews.
Kennedy defends himself against charges of antisemitism with robust statements of support for Israel and frequent references to his late father’s consistent advocacy for the Jewish state as well as for American Jews (as if Robert F. Kennedy’s inspiring life, cut short in 1968, has anything to do with his son’s bizarre and creepy campaign, already disavowed by many Kennedy family members).
Another data point: RFK Jr. did not weigh in on the latest parole application of Sirhan Sirhan, the Palestinian-American who killed Kennedy’s father in Los Angeles 55 years ago and remains in a California penitentiary. This absence, by itself, is not evidence of anything untoward but put it in context. RFK’s other children addressed their concerns to the parole board. The namesake of the slain senator did not because he does not believe Sirhan pulled the trigger at the Ambassador Hotel on the night of the 1968 California primary. Instead, RFK Jr. blames some cabal of the CIA and hazy evil forces for killing his father, even though Sirhan was quite vocal that his anger at the elder Kennedy was driven by the New York senator’s support for Israel and its victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, a year earlier. That RFK Jr. ignores the role the Arab-Israeli conflict played in his father’s death is not exactly comforting.
In that vein, Kennedy has yet to explain – nor have even his critics asked – why he once championed as a “great partner” one of the world’s leading antisemitic conspiracy theorists, Louis Farrakhan.
As the leader of the Nation of Islam, Farrakhan has a famously staggering resume of Jew-hatred, including a speech to followers in February in which he spewed that the “Synagogue of Satan has destroyed the country” and veered toward justification of Hitler’s genocide, saying, “Hitler went against usury, and Hitler attacked pornography that the Jews had put on the Germans.”
Kennedy, who seems to reverse himself on every issue according to a weekly timer, now calls himself an “opponent” of Farrakhan, despite their coordination in previous years on anti-vaccine efforts. But as recently as 2021, Kennedy hosted Tony Muhammad, a Nation of Islam official, to discuss the documentary Medical Racism: The New Apartheid, which argues that the COVID-19 vaccine was a Tuskegee-like experiment against poor blacks and Latinos.
Another independent candidate in the 2024 presidential race is Cornel West. For decades, West has called Farrakhan a “dear brother,” boasted of having private dinners with him, and even has gone so far as to say that Farrakhan has not made antisemitic remarks but rather that the “corporate media is intent on lying on the brother.”
West is a walking contradiction. There is Dr. West and Mr. Hyde. Dr. West co-wrote a book with Rabbi Michael Lerner about improving the relationship between Blacks and Jews, often hailing Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as a hero. West, as Mr. Hyde, not only praises Farrakhan but combines that with support of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against the state of Israel and companies that conduct business with Israel. The inconsistency of BDS—even hypocrisy—gives the appearance of antisemitism. If BDS advocates like West are concerned about human rights abuses in the Arab world, why are they largely silent on the horrific status quo in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and neighboring countries where women, gays, and nonbelievers are routinely persecuted and executed?
West, as Mr. Hyde, also agreed with the thesis of the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee, cosigned by 33 Harvard student organizations. The statement claimed that Israel and the U.S. were solely responsible for the violence of the Hamas terrorist attack, including the deliberate slaughter of children.
A vociferous critic of Barack Obama, West left Harvard after the university’s then-president, the at-times pugnacious Larry Summers, asked him to concentrate more on his scholarship and less on making media appearances and recording rap albums. While defending himself on the radio, West attacked Summers, who is Jewish, by saying, “I think in one sense that Larry Summers is the Ariel Sharon of American higher education.” West is far too learned of a man not to know that comparing Summers to a former Israeli Prime Minister with a domineering reputation is an antisemitic signal.
On Halloween, West donned a costume of bigotry and delusion, telling a pro-Palestine rally audience in Los Angeles that Israel has practiced “75 years of genocide.”
Polling data demonstrates that neither West nor Kennedy is popular with Democrats or the broader electorate. Many analysts even believe that because of his penchant for cockamamie ravings regarding the “Deep State”—a delusion he shares with the 45th president—Robert F. Kennedy Jr. might inflict more damage on the presidential ambitions of Trump than Biden.
West is a graver concern. He can act as a Ralph Nader-style spoiler, siphoning off progressive votes, especially among Black and young Americans, from the incumbent president. Even more alarming, he represents the growing antisemitism of the American left, particularly in higher education. The continued fighting in Gaza could fuel West’s campaign.
The Anti-Defamation League reports that antisemitism continues to increase on college campuses nationwide, documenting hundreds of incidents every academic year. According to the ADL, one-third of Jewish college students were victims of antisemitism in 2021. Worries are now going national after the Harvard student statement and other recent documented incidents of hatred for Israel and hostility toward Jews on college campuses, from Stanford, where a lecturer is alleged to have made Jewish students stand in the corner, to Cornell, where a professor confessed to feeling “exhilarated” while watching coverage of the Hamas massacre of Israelis.
The Biden administration, recognizing the depth and severity of the problem, has announced a partnership between the Department of Justice, Homeland Security, and campus law enforcement agencies to combat antisemitism in higher education by tracking hate incidents on campus and adopting early intervention programs to prevent violence.
Cornel West, in contrast, has not answered for the antisemitism of the Democratic Socialists of America—an organization in which he is a longtime member and was once honorary chairperson. In the immediate aftermath of the October 7th pogrom, the DSA sponsored rallies in New York; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; and other major cities where speakers and audience members chanted “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free!”—a call for the destruction of Israel. Attendees also mocked Hamas’ victims and slandered Israeli Jews as colonialists and racists.
West has the maudlin tendency to call everyone “brother” and “sister” and rhapsodize about the power of “love and service.” The sermonic routine conceals excuse-making for Putin’s fascist aggression against Ukraine, which he blames on the U.S. for the expansion of NATO. In a similar exercise of lazy moral relativism, he has blamed Israel for Hamas’s terrorism and implicates the U.S. for supporting Israel.
If the recent descent of the Republican Party into xenophobic and authoritarian psychosis has taught observers anything, it’s that responsible leadership has to extinguish internal extremism before it burns out of control. It is reassuring that Biden, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, and the overwhelming majority of Democrats in the U.S. Senate and House, including its 24 Jewish members, have castigated Hamas and rebuked the remarks of Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who initially refused to condemn Hamas, and has, like West, accused Israel of genocide. Democratic congressional leadership has also urged Israel to open humanitarian corridors and abide by international law regarding civilians.
The American left should not feel content to merely levy plausible accusations of antisemitism against the QAnon-associated populist right but must also maintain hawk-eyed vigilance against the antisemitism within its own ranks. Democrats must continue to denounce those who flirt with anti-Jewish hatred, such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr, Cornel West, and, of course, Donald Trump.
Antisemitism is anathema to liberal values. It is both a cause and symptom of a fatal condition, interlaced with fascist politics and the growth of hate movements.
David Masciotra is the author of several books, including Exurbia Now: The Battleground of American Democracy and I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters. He has also written for The New Republic, The Progressive, and many other publications. He lives in Indiana.