Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
You have to hand it to Sen. Ted Cruz; his timing was impeccable. On the anniversary of the deadliest attack on Jews in US history, Cruz raised his voice in the Senate to defend an American’s right to brandish the Nazi salute.
“My God!” he exclaimed as he slammed his desk, railing at Attorney General Merrick Garland during a hearing Wednesday over the Justice Department’s attempt to address harassment and threats of violence at public school board meetings. “A parent did a Nazi salute at a school board because they thought the policies were oppressive!” Then he asked Garland, “Is doing a Nazi salute… protected by the First Amendment?”
Garland responded calmly, “Yes, it is.”
Of all the constitutionally-protected expressions of dissent we see and hear in America today, the Nazi salute is the one Cruz chose to defend?
The Senator’s timing was not just awkward, coming on the anniversary of the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where a gunman yelling, “All Jews must die,” killed 11 people attending Saturday morning services. It was even worse, because just days before Cruz’s curious tirade, a Jewish organization released a survey of anti-Semitism which should worry all Americans and motivate responsible citizens, especially the country’s leaders – including Cruz – to try to take positive, constructive action. (More on the survey in a moment.)
Instead of acting like a statesman in the midst of a growing crisis, Cruz took what has become the road more traveled, trying to score points, provoke an emotional response, and perhaps get noticed, approvingly, in the farthest fringes.
I don’t think Cruz is anti-Semitic. I think he is operating within the model of the rage-chasing Facebook algorithm, which seems to motivate so many politicians in his party ever since it helped drive the former president to power and keep him at the top of the GOP.
Among the recent revelations about Facebook, we learned the social network programmed its algorithm to reward more provocative and emotional content by placing it higher up people’s news feeds. Reaction emojis that allow users to signal either “love,” “haha,” “wow,” “angry” or “sad” for example, were considered five times more valuable than the standard “likes.”This has ratcheted up the use of extreme rhetoric and contributed to the country becoming angrier and more divided. For politicians of a certain ilk, the same pursuit of attention and emotion has become routine.
Social media has promoted a toxic communications strategy and many self-serving individuals have exploited it, making expressions of hatred more commonplace – and more acceptable in some circles. In extreme cases, those expressions include threats of violence, and worse.
A year before the Pittsburgh massacre, White nationalists and supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” More recently, people have flippantly invoked Nazis and the systematic murder of six million Jews and other minorities to protest Covid-19 precautions – as if the two situations are somehow equivalent. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, for example, has repeatedly done this and the comparisons are now common in anti-vaccine, anti-mask rhetoric, including at school board meetings.
Misuse of Holocaust and Nazi analogies devalues the significance of a chapter which remains one of the most thoroughly documented and powerful cautionary events in history.
It’s important to remember now when American society feels like it is coming apart at the seams.
In a survey released this week by the American Jewish Committee, 82% of Jews said they thought anti-Semitism in the US increased in the past five years. Nearly one-third said they feel less secure than a year ago and 39% said they have changed their behavior, avoiding posting online content or wearing items that would identify them as Jewish, out of fear of anti-Semitism.
Interestingly (and perhaps Cruz should take note of this) 46% said anti-Semitism is taken less seriously than other forms of bigotry.
Instances of anti-Semitism have also appeared in schools. During the most important holiday period in Judaism, two swastikas and “Hail [sic] Hitler,” graffiti was found in a high school boy’s bathroom in Cobb County, just outside Atlanta, Georgia. Days later, another school in the same county reported similar graffiti praising Hitler, the man who tried to kill every single Jew in Europe, and nearly succeeded.
The problem today is not just coming from the right. As ADL Director Jonathan Greenblatt wrote in the Washington Post, antisemitism is also rising on the left, even if it’s a more subtle problem. The overwhelming majority of violence against Jews comes from the far right, but an ill wind is blowing from the political left. “Right-wing antisemitism is the lethal category-5 hurricane threatening to bring immediate catastrophe,” he wrote. “Antisemitism on the left, however, is more akin to climate change: Slowly but surely, the temperature is increasing.”
Greenblatt’s article was prompted by an announcement from the Washington DC chapter of the Sunrise Movement, an environmental group, that it would not speak at a climate rally because of the participation of three mainstream Jewish organizations that support Israel. The Sunrise Movement also called on the groups to be banned, even though it did not object to non-Jewish organizations that hold the same views. The historian Deborah Lipstadt, the Biden administration’s nominee for the State Department’s antisemitism envoy, called it “an overtly antisemitic act.”
For his part, Cruz is trying to defend himself without acknowledging any mistakes or expressing any regret. Instead, he doubled down. After attacking journalists, he explained on Twitter, “The parent was doing the Nazi salute because he was calling the authoritarian school board Nazis – evil, bad & abusive,” adding, “calling someone a Nazi is very much protected by the First Amendment.”
Again, no one is disputing that, certainly not the attorney general.
The question here is not about free speech and what it allows. The issue is whether Americans and their political leaders will act on the basis of a higher principle than political point-scoring, and ultimately be able to douse the flames of hatred and division that are weakening the country. Ted Cruz, it seems, doesn’t get it.