Less than a year after hosting a massive rally of white nationalists chanting “Jews will not replace us,” Charlottesville, Virginia is again at the center of a controversy over politics, free speech and anti-Semitism. But this time, the moral lines are much murkier.
Documentary filmmaker Leslie Cockburn won the Democratic nomination earlier this month for the House of Representatives race in Virginia’s 5th district. Almost immediately afterwards, the Republican Party of Virginia accused her of being a “virulent anti-Semite,” citing a book she had written years ago that was highly critical of U.S. policy towards Israel.
The Jewish community is tiny in the district, which extends from the state’s rural south through Charlottesville and more rural parts north. It ranks 302nd nationwide on a list of the 438 districts congressional districts by Jewish population.
But the mere accusation, the latest in the ongoing salvos between the two parties over claims of anti-Semitism and insufficient support for Israel, could still derail her chances of flipping the district and helping the Democrats recapture the House.
“For a Democrat to win in this district, they have to win very large margins in the Charlottesville region,” Geoffrey Skelley of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia told the Forward. “That’s really your only path….[The accusation] puts her on the defensive, it could complicate her life a little bit in the Charlottesville area. Questions are going to be raised.”
Indeed, Cockburn participated in a meeting with members of Charlottesville’s Jewish community on Monday to assuage their concerns, The New York Times reported.
The questions arise from a 1991 book that Cockburn wrote with her husband Andrew, who is also a journalist. A review of “Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the U.S.-Israeli Covert Relationship” in the Times when it was released characterized it as being “largely dedicated to Israel-bashing for its own sake. Its first message is that, win or lose, smart or dumb, right or wrong, suave or boorish, Israelis are a menace. The second is that the Israeli-American connection is somewhere behind just about everything that ails us.”
She and Andrew have three children, including the actress Olivia Wilde, who starred in the TV show “House.”
Cockburn denies that she is anti-Semitic, claiming that her book’s criticisms of Israel were grounded in facts. Her campaign also released a statement of support from Tel Aviv University professor Irad Malkin, who won the prestigious Israel Prize in 2014 for his study of Sparta and ancient Greece.
“I wrote at length about ‘Dangerous Liaison’ for Haaretz and to call Leslie Cockburn an anti-Semite is outrageous,” Malkin said in the statement.
Cockburn says she plans to seek the endorsement of the dovish Israel advocacy group J Street.
“Yes, the U.S. should support Israel, and yes, the U.S. should be supporting, to some degree, the Palestinian Authority,” Cockburn told the Times. “We have a disaster area in Gaza, and the U.S. should get involved in trying to sort that out. I think there’s a real role that we should have.”
Some Jews in the state have come out against Cockburn.
“I don’t know to which hate group she was trying to cater with her book, but her claims are wildly inaccurate,” Jay Ipson, a Holocaust survivor and a co-founder of the state’s Holocaust museum, said in the Republican Party’s press release. “Cockburn and the Democrats want to take away Israel’s ability to defend itself.”
But overall, Cockburn’s Jewish outreach seems to have assuaged the anti-Semitism concerns, though whether she answered adequately about Israel remains to be seen.
“None of us think she’s anti-Semitic,” meeting organizer Sherry Kraft told the Times. “That’s not even an issue. It’s more where are you about Israel. There’s a lot of negativity toward Israel from the political left right now and people who call themselves progressive. And some of that anti-Israel sentiment crosses into anti-Semitism, but not in her case.”
Even if the charges of anti-Jewish racism don’t stick, mere claims of anti-Israel sentiment could hurt her in other ways beyond the small Jewish vote. The district is packed with evangelical Christians who also rank support for Israel as a key factor in determining their vote.
Although President Trump won the district by 11 points in 2016, and the Republican gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie performed particularly well there last November despite narrowly losing overall, Democrats believe that the district can turn blue for the first time since 2011, especially if an expected “blue wave” materializes in swing districts.
The district has certainly been in the news for all the wrong reasons for Republicans.
Rep. Tom Garrett announced Monday that he is an alcoholic and would not seek reelection. Politico had reported last week that Garrett and his wife had forced staffers to pick up their groceries, laundry and even their dog’s poop.
Garrett’s bowing out means the GOP has lost the advantage of incumbency, name recognition and a built-in campaign war chest. But given the circumstances, his relatively swift exit would wind up giving them a better chance to eke out a win in November.
Cockburn is far from the first congressional candidate in this cycle to be criticized over alleged anti-Semitism or insufficient support for Israel. The Forward revealed earlier this month that a charity controlled by Scott Wallace, a Democratic House nominee in suburban Philadelphia, gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to organizations that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel. (Wallace says he personally opposes BDS.) And numerous members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Democratic National Committee deputy chair Keith Ellison, have faced continued questions over the nature of their relationships with the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
On the other side of the aisle, several explicitly racist and anti-Semitic candidates have sought House or Senate seats on the Republican ticket, with one, former American Nazi Party leader Arthur Jones, winning the nomination in a heavily Democratic district outside Chicago after no one else ran in the party primary.
Skelley pointed out that the Republicans could have gone with many lines of attack against Cockburn — she’s a journalist, has elite connections, spent lots of time in Washington, D.C. — but decided that attacking her on Israel and anti-Semitism was their strongest hand to play.
“They must think it must have the potential to be effective,” he said. “Putting someone on defense over purportedly being anti-Semitic is certainly a way to keep them from talking about other things. Because clearly, that’s an issue that I think resonates with people.”
Aiden Pink is the Deputy News Editor for the Forward.