The Forward’s “Both Sides” Approach Has Failed

How an editor’s handling of the Omar controversy alienated Jews of color.

Nylah Burton
May 15, 2019
A tweet from Batya Ungar-Sargon, the opinion editor of the Forward, comparing Ilhan Omar to David Duke.

THE FORWARD is a treasured institution in Jewish media. Founded in 1897 as a Yiddish language socialist newspaper, in its English incarnation it has at times sought to speak for the entire Jewish community. This is the mandate claimed by the Forward’s online opinion editor, Batya Ungar-Sargon, who took up the post in 2017: to publish the full range of Jewish opinion, from far-left perspectives to far-right perspectives, in the name of intellectual debate and diversity.

In practice, however, that approach has alienated multiple writers of color, myself included, who no longer feel that the Forward is a suitable home for our work. When this “bothsidesism” spilled over into mainstream politics this past February, with Ungar-Sargon personally fanning the flames of a dangerous situation in an interaction with Rep. Ilhan Omar, many of us felt it was a defining moment. The Forward’s commitment to representing all sides, including right-wing opinions, is neither new nor unique to the Forward. But in the context of Ungar-Sargon’s recent behavior, the costs of writing for the Forward have come to outweigh the benefits for many of its contributors, especially people of color.

Voicing my own concerns about the Forward brings me no pleasure. When I was first published by the website last year, I was elated. The experience of writing regularly for them made me the writer I am today. It was a tremendous privilege to be able to amplify the narratives of Black Jews, who are exhausted and traumatized by the constant racism we endure in our Jewish communities. I and other writers of color were grateful to Ungar-Sargon for making an effort to include our voices.

However, the same urge that spurred me to continue writing for the Forward—to explore racism in depth and without apology—now compels me to critique it. Under the guise of standing up to antisemitism, the Forward has been fueling racism that threatens the safety of all marginalized people, including Jews of all races and ethnicities. In the process, they are eroding the trust of Jewish writers of color and our progressive allies, resulting in further erasure of our voices. This impoverishes the Forward and its readership, as well as the writers of color who find ourselves unable to write for the publication.

IN FEBRUARY, Ilhan Omar engaged in an explosive Twitter exchange with Ungar-Sargon. Omar tweeted a lyric to the iconic Puff Daddy song, “It’s All About the Benjamins,” referencing the influence of the powerful pro-Israel lobby on Congress’s lopsided approach to the conflict. In response, Ungar-Sargon charged Omar with antisemitism and compared her to David Duke, the former leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Ungar-Sargon’s charge was quickly amplified by Chelsea Clinton, and soon Omar became the victim of bad-faith attacks on a massive scale. Besides being harassed and threatened on Twitter, she faced calls to resign her committee assignments, and even her position in Congress, from members of both parties.

In the midst of all this, the Forward sent their readers a fundraising email praising Ungar-Sargon’s response to Omar as “ fighting the new antisemitism.” As I pointed out on Twitter, the email is teeming with anti-Blackness and Islamophobia. The phrase “new antisemitism” is a racist dog-whistle, as seen in this December 2018 Detroit News op-ed claiming that the new antisemites are “increasingly black.” The trope of inherent and pervasive Black antisemitism has been used to condemn Black public figures from Angela Davis to Barack Obama. To add insult to injury, the original email appeared to mix up Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, suggesting that the only two Muslim women in Congress are interchangeable.

Since the fundraising email, the Forward opinion page has published several lazy, bad faith attacks on Omar that relied on grossly misinterpreting her words—claiming that her discussion of Islamophobia, Israel, and American politics was “doubling down” on violent antisemitism. One op-ed equated Omar’s words with white supremacist rhetoric from Republican politicians. In the same period, the Forward also published a letter to the editor penned by someone who had reposted a meme calling for Omar’s murder. To make matters worse, the letter argued in favor of Israel annexing the West Bank and Gaza, which would formalize the apartheid-like conditions under which Palestinians already live. The Forward has condemned the social media post, but the letter remains on the site. While the Forward has also published articles in support of Omar, these feel hollow and disingenuous in light of the many attacks.

Ungar-Sargon was warned by many people that her actions were dangerous, to Omar and to all of us. In the weeks since her brief Twitter exchange with Ungar-Sargon, Omar has experienced a frightening increase in death threats. On April 12th, Donald Trump tweeted a video smearing Omar as unconcerned about the victims of the 9/11 attacks. This fueled yet another round of threats against Omar. Many of the people who had previously criticized Omar as antisemitic spoke out against Trump’s tweets, including Ungar-Sargon, but few acknowledged any responsibility for fueling such smears in the first place.

White nationalist ideology, and its recent resurgence under Trump, is clearly to blame for the recent shooting in Poway, California, the second lethal attack on a synagogue in six months. In response, Ungar-Sargon chose to call out antisemites “on the left” for inspiring the shooter’s expressed belief that Jews controlled the slave trade, conflating the views of some reactionary Black figures like Louis Farrakhan with “the left.” Regardless, Ungar-Sargon once again evoked the racist, mythical trope of pervasive and lethal Black antisemitism instead of attributing the shooting to the white nationalist movement that inspired it. In doing so, she helped obfuscate the nature of the evil both Jews and people of color now face.

THESE INCIDENTS OF RACISM against Omar quickly became too much for some Black writers, including myself. Ben Faulding, a Black Jewish writer, and I both emailed Ungar-Sargon with our concerns before we both stopped writing for the Forward altogether. On March 3rd, Faulding, whose work was published in the Forward six times last year, wrote an email to Ungar-Sargon pleading with her to rethink her approach: “I don’t know if you don’t understand why what you’re doing is wrong or don’t care,” he wrote, pointing out the distance between publicly “egging on” racism and Islamophobia against a black, Muslim woman, and supposed accountability.

Ungar-Sargon never responded to this email; instead, she promptly unfollowed Faulding on Twitter. His concerns have not yet been addressed or even acknowledged. Faulding stressed that he wanted to hold the Forward accountable so that it could better serve the entire Jewish community. He had an established professional relationship with Ungar-Sargon, so his decision came with a sense of loss.

“I don’t write for the money. I write to change minds and let people see the world through my eyes. That’s what the Forward gave me; a very specific audience made of the people I was trying to reach,” Faulding told me. “It was very frustrating when [Ungar-Sargon] would respond to your work with such exuberance and respect, and then say things that indicated she hadn’t internalized any of it. Like what was the point? Was I reaching anybody?”

In my case, Ungar-Sargon reached out to me the day after the Omar incident asking me to write up my own thoughts for the Forward. When I declined by email two days later, citing Ungar-Sargon’s behavior toward Omar as well as the fundraising email, I received no response, and we have not interacted since. Ungar-Sargon also unfollowed me on Twitter.

In a short span of time, the Forward opinion section lost the trust of writers of color like Rafael Shimunov, Y.M. Carrington, and at least one other contributor I spoke with who declined to be named. Carrington, a Black Jew and labor organizer, had been in the process of pitching a piece to Ungar-Sargon at the time the Omar controversy erupted. Carrington ultimately withdrew the piece in response to Ungar-Sargon’s stoking of the controversy and the subsequent Forward fundraising email.

A few white writers, including Noah Berlatsky and Avigayil Halpern, also committed to not writing for or pitching the Forward. “I wasn’t writing for the Forward for several years before I publicly committed to not doing so [because of] the mercenary bothsidesism of the opinion page,” Halpern told me. Earlier this month, Berlatsky, a freelance writer who has written for Ungar-Sargon 21 times since 2017, tweeted, “I didn’t want to make a huge deal of it or anything, but I’m not pitching to the Forward at the moment. I’m not comfortable with the way they’ve dealt with Omar.”

When Shimunov, a filmmaker and activist who wrote an op-ed for the Forward in April 2018, attempted to discuss his concerns and expressed his refusal to write for them again, he said that Ungar-Sargon instead “ended all communications” with him. It wasn’t an easy decision for him to make, as he feared the professional consequences of such a public break with a major Jewish publication. But he told me he “had to make a choice once it became clear that they not only doubled down on overt racism and Islamophobia, but especially when they began to fundraise off of it.”

While these writers have publicly expressed their intent to boycott the Forward, other writers, like Carly Pildis, voiced their intent to “unequivocally” stand with both Ungar-Sargon and the Forward as a matter of principle. But the former contributors I spoke with insist that they also want the Forward to thrive, and for it to continue to be a valued resource for the Jewish community. Each of these writers told me their goal was not to destroy the publication, but to make it better. Several also said that it was important to continue supporting writers of color who still write for the Forward, recognizing both the importance of the publication and the potential professional damage that could result for writers of color and their allies on the left who refuse to write for them. Not everyone can afford to follow their principles without reservation.

There is always a market for tepid “both sides” critiques of Black figures in Jewish publications (I know because I used to write them). But for those who are committed to calling out racism in the Jewish community without apology, opportunities are scarce. The Forward’s opinion section has frequently published anti-racist pieces, but they’ve also published racist smears against Black figures like Angela Davis, unjustified rejections of the Black Lives Matter movement, bizarre calls to befriend Nazis, and claims that Birthright protestors were “wealthy dissenters” with no values. The Forward’s contributor network, Scribe, has published two op-eds by Mort Klein, head of the far-right Zionist Organization of America, including one praising Vice President Mike Pence. Ungar-Sargon herself penned an op-ed claiming that AIPAC, an Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian organization, was the “last vestige of a better America” because of its supposed commitment to “bipartisanship.” The section has published nuanced, thoughtful pieces, but in the name of “balanced perspectives,” it has also amplified deeply harmful perspectives.

The Forward has always presented itself as committed to fighting the dangers that face the Jewish community. Ungar-Sargon also personally described herself to many of us as identifying with the left. But by giving quarter to dangerous ideas, the Forward, and especially Ungar-Sargon, are actually undermining the left and the safety of the Jewish community. Especially right now, given the violent white supremacist threat we’re facing, giving voice to racism and Islamophobia and obscuring the real threats to Jewish communities in the name of hearing “both sides” is untenable. White supremacists are killing Jews, people of color, and Muslims right now in America. Jews of color are on the forefront of speaking out against that threat, and the Jewish community as a whole cannot afford to ignore us. Eschewing real solidarity in favor of “bothsidesism” ensures that we will face threats alone.

In spite of what the Forward’s fundraising email claims, anti-Blackness and Islamophobia are not subversive, new, or brave. They are predictable, destructive, deadly forces. By engaging in them without self-awareness and by ignoring criticism, the Forward has burned bridges with many Black Jewish writers and our allies on the left. This is a loss both for these writers and for the entire Jewish community.

Editor’s Note: Before publication, Jewish Currents reached out to Ungar-Sargon to verify the claims made about her in this article. She did not want to comment on the record, but did not provide any evidence that any of these claims are inaccurate.

Nylah Burton resides in Denver; she has bylines in The Forward, ESSENCE, and New York Magazine.