by Isaac Brosilow
AS PART OF ITS ANNUAL “Forward 50” list of influential individuals, the Forward – America’s largest Jewish publication – last week featured several far-right political figures destructive to American politics, and particularly minority life in our country. By featuring Islamophobic and racist individuals, the Forward, once a Jewish socialist paper, abandons its critical role in representing American Jewish communal life to the rest of the world.
The Forward is navigating a critical and confusing time for American Jews. The New York Times reported that the 2016 election brought for the magazine, “a sudden clarification of its mission that would be strikingly familiar to the publication’s founders: covering the rise of public displays of anti-Semitism.” If countering antisemitism is the goal, then why does the Forward 50 feature individuals like the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who provides a Jewish face to Trump’s presidential administration, Trump adviser Stephen Miller, and internet troll Laura Loomer who peddles in Islamophobic and antisemitic stereotypes?
Every year since 1994, the Forward has released a yearly list of people who are important to the American Jewish story. In 2009, editor Jane Eisner reworked the Forward 50 to include Jews whose work has been “dramatic...and destructive,” and move the list away from “stalwarts of the Jewish establishment” who were representative of the kind of “authority and leadership” prevalent in 1990’s.
“Whatever happens to America happens to its Jews, so often more so,” Eisner wrote in the introduction to this year’s Forward 50.
This past year in America has been marked by a normalization of the extreme right, and we have indeed seen that reflected in the Forward's pages, as in an article titled “We Need to Start Befriending Nazis” and a piece published by rightwing troll Ben Shapiro. Left and progressive readers have taken issue over Bernie Sanders being told to “shut his mouth,” and apologetic attitudes towards the sexual abuse of Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein to name two more. But the inclusion of far-right elements in this year's Forward 50, combined with the total absence of leftists, brought frustration to a new level.
FACEBOOK AND TWITTER have been the main avenues by which young Jews vented over the Forward 50 and the overall direction of the publication. Some popular leftist Facebook groups frequently feature posts lamenting recent articles, and a new group sardonically titled “Is the Forward Ok?” has emerged, where hundreds of members post links and screenshots of articles that represent the perceived crisis of the magazine. Articles are often bemoaned as “clickbait,” meaning their concern for attracting high volumes of readers is the most important function of the written content. And frustration over this trend reached the pages of this publication when the Forward reposted an article calling for Columbus Day to become a Jewish holiday – despite Columbus’s well known crimes against native peoples.
For some, this dismay reached a fever pitch when this year’s Forward 50 included Laura Loomer, a well known figure in the alt-right, and a self-identified Islamophobe. The staff at the Forward profile her as “hard to categorize,” and “proudly Jewish,” and wondered whether she is an alt-right provocateur or a new wave journalist – a performance artist or the Jewish Richard Spencer. Loomer is described as having embraced the “anti-immigrant, anti-Islam ideology of the fringe right, minus the antisemitism.”
Loomer has been recently banned from ride-hailing applications Uber and Lyft for anti-Muslim screeds. One social media user quipped that Uber and Lyft, both controversial companies for various misconduct involving immigration and labor relations, “had more scruples than the Forward” because they had refused service to Loomer while the Forward featured her. The Forward responded to criticism over Twitter by deleting its congratulatory tweet to Loomer, though she is still included prominently on their website.
Loomer expressed excitement on Twitter for being included in the Forward 50, and also questioned why her congratulatory tweet was deleted. “Is it because I am a Jew who actually admits that Marxist Jews run the media and have aligned themselves w/ Islam? Why delete.” she tweeted.
The Forward prefaced this year’s Forward 50 by declaring that, “Washington’s political drama has sparked a new wave of social activism from the Left, Right and Center,” yet the stories of Jewish Leftist activism of the past year is missing from the list. The Sumud Freedom Camp in Palestine, a coalition between Issa Amro’s organization Youth Against Settlements and the Center For Jewish Nonviolence, marked a renewal of Diaspora Jewish politics and Palestinian solidarity. Missing are any of the hundreds who protested AIPAC with IfNotNow, a growing movement of young American Jews challenging the Jewish establishment to end support of the occupation; Jewish Voice for Peace is also absent. New York City’s Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, who blocked traffic in protest of racist and xenophobic police violence, isn’t on the list. Neither are Rabbis from T’ruah, the Rabbinic human rights organization, nor the many Jewish counter demonstrators, antifascists, and street medics who confronted neo-Nazis on the streets in Charlottesville. No one involved in this side of the American Jewish story from the past year was featured in the Forward 50.
Only two Jews of Color made the Forward 50 in 2017, rapper Kendrick Lamar for identifying as a Hebrew Israelite in his latest album and Molly Yeh for her blog and cookbook, whom they jokingly described as, “just your typical Jewish Chinese percussionist food blogger In North Dakota.” Nothing’s wrong with including these two, but when viewed against the absence of Jews of Color in the activist, politics, religion and science categories, it seems as if the staff at the Forward may only take the contributions of Jews of Color seriously when they can be culturally consumed and defined as extraordinary. It's not just a politics of representation and identity which should motivate more inclusion of Jews of Color, it is the importance of their current and growing leadership and political influence, both left untold by the Forward 50.
To be clear, not every name was an alt-right luminary. Leah Greenberg, founder of Indivisible, an organization which mobilizes people to raise awareness and call their congressperson, and Minnesota Senator Al Franken are among some of the liberal voices in the Forward 50. And last year included Bernie Sanders. But the centrists' inclusion in 2017, while important, is not a substitute for covering a larger political spectrum, particularly the excluded left. The list as it stands, including Laura Loomer but not a single leftist, is prompting many to think hard about the way American Jews are being represented by our oldest publication during a Trump presidency.
WHAT ACCOUNTS for the far-right’s inclusion and the absence of leftist organizers, particularly Jews of Color? The Forward describes Loomer as a kind of “Jewish Voice for the Alt-Right,” a designation which only makes sense if one believes that the movement to reinvent Nazism in the 21st century has anything to offer Jewish people besides danger. Loomer’s embrace of white-nationalist bigotry as a Jewish person does not make her the Jewish voice of the alt-right, but rather makes her the alt-right’s Jew. I am among the young Jews troubled by her inclusion, because by cloaking Loomer’s bigotry in moral equivalence, the Forward encourages us to imagine a world in which white supremacy and Islamophobia are compatible with Jewish interests.
Given the ongoing crisis of digital media and the many failing print publications, one can (to an extent) comprehend why the Forward hews conservatively to the center. But why court the far right? The growing frustration with the publication underscores the fact that Jews, especially young Jews, are moving increasingly towards the left end of the political spectrum, including questioning the organized Jewish establishment and Zionism’s place in our community. In this political moment, the Forward must choose a side; including the left in the Forward 50 would be a small step towards making the right choice.
Isaac Brosilow is an educator and freelance writer living in Chicago.