ASCH: Smearing Leslie Cockburn in Virginia

From the start of this campaign Cockburn has been unfairly maligned by her detractors

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Leslie Cockburn, the Democratic candidate for the fifth congressional district of Virginia, at a candidate forum held during the primary. 

Chandler Collins | Cavalier Daily

In October 2017, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial lambasting the treatment of then gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie entitled “Smearing Ed Gillespie in Virginia.” In the article  the Editorial Board lambasted the treatment of Gillespie during the campaign, stating he had been unfairly attacked by the Democrats. While I certainly disagree with The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board’s assessment of the gubernatorial campaign, this framework applies well in this election cycle, where there is a candidate being unfairly attacked — the Democratic candidate for the fifth congressional district of Virginia, Leslie Cockburn.

After she clinched the Democratic nomination, Cockburn was almost immediately attacked by the Virginia GOP for being anti-Semitic due to her publication of a book with her husband, Andrew Cockburn, entitled “Dangerous Liaison,” about the supposedly secret ties between the U.S. and Israel.

Though these attacks have been unfair — and should be called out as such — I will be the first to admit that Cockburn should not escape criticism for this book, as much of it is well-deserved. In a New York Times review of the book, the critic states it was dedicated to “Israel-bashing for its own sake” and was characterized by its use of “selective documentation and unattributed interviews.” I strongly disagree with Cockburn’s characterization of Israel in these terms and believe she should be subject to intense scrutiny over her past work on Israel — however, this criticism does not automatically amount to anti-Semitism. 

One only needs to visit her website and compare her platform on Israel with the working definition of anti-Semitism on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance website to see that these claims of anti-Semitism hold no water. In fact, she has been endorsed by JStreetPAC, which “organizes and mobilizes pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans who want Israel to be secure, democratic and the national home of the Jewish people.” It would be hard to believe that this organization would endorse her, unless she explicitly believed Israel to be the rightful homeland of the Jewish people, a view that by definition is not held by anti-Semites. Also if she was as much of a “virulent anti-semite” as the GOP is claiming that she is, it is unlikely she would have had such a long career following the book’s publication. 

It is also ironic that it is the Republican Party criticizing Cockburn, considering their party’s own issues with anti-Semitism. This cycle the Republicans have strident anti-Semites running under its party banner for Congress and state legislatures. Specifically in Virginia, Republican senatorial candidate Corey Stewart was caught on tape calling avowed anti-Semite Paul Nehlen his hero and appearing with Jason Kessler, a white supremacist and “Unite the Right” rally organizer. 

These candidates and incidents are troubling, and the Republican Party should undergo a thorough self-examination to understand why these individuals have chosen to associate with their party. More importantly, it becomes clear that, especially when compared to them, Cockburn is not an anti-Semite — she’s not even in the same ballpark. 

That reality is likely why members of the Jewish community in Charlottesville seem unconvinced by these accusations of anti-Semitism with Daniel Alexander, the rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel, even stating many in the community did not take these charges seriously. 

In writing this, I am not saying that Cockburn should be beyond criticism. I myself have several points of disagreement with the Democratic nominee and believe that any candidate or elected official should be subject to scrutiny. Cockburn especially should be subject to this scrutiny given the issues with her book pointed out in The New York Times. I am also not arguing that criticism of Israel is not often motivated by anti-Semitic sentiments — which are unfortunately becoming ever more present in our society. However, it is important in a campaign to ensure accusations of anti-Semitism are not thrown around lightly. 

After examining the evidence, it becomes more and more apparent that these inflammatory statements dispersed by the Republican Party of Virginia are not grounded in reality and distract from legitimate criticism of Cockburn’s work and record that should be normal in any democratic society. 

Jacob Asch is an Opinion Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at j.asch@cavalierdaily.com.

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