Why CNN’s Dana Bash Decided to Make a Documentary on Antisemitism in America

'The numbers just made it, unfortunately, very newsworthy,’ Bash said in an interview

The Forward
The Forward
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CNN anchor Dana Bash.
CNN anchor Dana Bash.Credit: CNN screengrab
The Forward
The Forward

When Dana Bash was in her early 20s, her grandfather Frank Weinman took her on a family trip through his childhood towns in Vienna, Hungary and Slovakia along with a Nazi ghetto in Czechoslovakia to give them an up-close perspective of the horrors of the Holocaust and the lessons to be learnt.

Three decades later, now a prominent anchor and the chief political correspondent at CNN, Bash is taking a lead role in amplifying those teachings amid a dramatic rise in antisemitic violence across the U.S.

In the CNN documentary, “Rising Hate: Antisemitism in America” set to air on Sunday evening and available on demand beginning Monday, Bash visits various Jewish communities still reeling from recent attacks, including Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas and the Chabad of Poway synagogue in California.

She also spoke with Ruth Steinfeld, who survived a Nazi concentration camp after being taken to safety by a French organization hiding Jewish children, who said she sees the same kind of hate bubbling up in recent years.

In an interview, Bash said she was honored when asked to do the project for the network, but was also sad that it was even necessary. The producer of the CNN documentary, Melissa Dunst Lipman, pitched the idea following the increased attacks and the hostage standoff in Colleyville. “The numbers just made it, unfortunately, very newsworthy,” Bash said.

In the opening part of the documentary, Paul Abbate, the deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, confirms that the threat level against the Jewish community in America is at historic levels, higher than it is towards people of other religions. The Anti-Defamation League tallied in 2021 the highest number of antisemitic incidents since it started tabulating antisemitism in 1979.

“I honestly didn’t realize how much hate was zeroing in on Jews,” Bash said.

Bash, who is Jewish, said that her recent work “fits the sense of history and the sense of a family” growing up with grandparents who escaped the Nazis. A week after her mother was born, her grandmother learned that her entire family had been killed by the Nazis. Her grandfather told her stories about how the gypsies helped them get across the mountains to Hungary. “Very intuitively, I knew that it was severe antisemitism that upended and changed the trajectory of my family,” she said.

People wearing antisemitism and nazi symbols during a protest, in Tampa, Florida, in July.Credit: Marco Bello / Reuters

Connecting to her Jewish roots

“Judaism has always been part of my life,” Bash said. She said some of her “vivid memories growing up was going to services on Friday nights and having Shabbat dinner” with her parents, Stuart and Frances Schwartz. She went to the Reform movement’s Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, Pennsylvania and was bat mitzvahed at Temple Beth Or in New Jersey. Now a member of Temple Micah, a Reform synagogue in D.C., Bash displays a mezuzah at the doorway of her residence.

In an op-ed published on Friday, Bash shared a conversation she had with her 10-year-old son Jonah last Hanukkah in which he asked her to wear a necklace with the Star of David to proudly display her Judaism.

Bash said the feedback she received after publishing the essay – including emails from strangers – was highly positive. “I got more reaction to almost anything I’ve ever done,” she said. “I have gotten literally no hate mail. It’s all been positive.” Two people who emailed her said that after reading the story they have committed to wearing the Star of David necklace they kept in their drawer.

“I’m speechless at the kind of response that I’m getting to this,” she said.

Bash said that what she had taken away from this is that while it’s in the DNA of Jews to stay quiet and not draw attention to themselves, as a defense mechanism for people who have been persecuted for thousands of years, “the right thing to do is, like my young son knew, innately to wear the Jewish star.”

“If you are observant and you want to wear a kippah, you wear a kippah,” she continued. “Keep the mezuzah on your door – because it’s all about education, it’s all about normalization. And it’s easier to dispense with tropes and conspiracy theories when you’re talking to and talking about real human beings.”

Antisemitism in the political discourse

As chief political correspondent for CNN, Bash covered the antisemitic tropes that dominated the 2016 election and the reluctance of former President Donald Trump to call them out, including attacks on Jewish journalists.

In the documentary, Brittan Heller, the ADL’s first director of technology and society, said she saw the largest spike in antisemitism on social media after journalist Julia Ioffe wrote an extensive profile of Melania Trump. In an appearance on CNN, Trump explicitly declined to condemn his supporters who were viciously attacking Ioffe and her Jewish faith. Heller said antisemites took it as a green light to act.

Bash spoke to the two Greenblatts – Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the ADL, who has repeatedly criticized Trump; and Jason Greenblatt, a longtime Trump aide and a senior administration official, who said he doesn’t buy into the correlation between Trump’s rhetoric and the hate that followed – but added that he “can’t explain” Trump’s doubling down.

In one instance, Jason Greenblatt said that he felt a special responsibility to go to Trump and seek clarification. It was after Trump refused to disavow David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, in an interview with CNN anchor Jake Tapper. “I saw what was happening, I guess as a result of Jake’s interview, and I said, ‘Look here’s what is happening, here is what David Duke actually said, do you stand for this?’ He said, ‘Absolutely not’ and he dictated a condemnation,” Greenblatt told Bash, adding that maybe Trump didn’t understand what was being asked of him. “It’s hard to say.”

The ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt called Trump a “complicated” figure, given that he’s the first president in history to have a close family connection to the Jewish people. Yet his refusal to call out white supremacists and the “both sides” remarks after Charlottesville turned it into an issue. “If he convincingly, consistently, clearly called out the extremists and the antisemites, it wouldn’t even matter what he said at that moment,” he said.

Bash said she hasn’t faced online antisemitism in recent years. The only time she experienced that was in 2012 when she made some comments that were misconstrued as biased against former Rep. Ron Paul who was running in the Republican presidential primary. The attacks against her by Paul’s supporters turned antisemitic. Someone created a fake Twitter account with her face on it, using her maiden name Schwartz, and the Israeli flag behind her.

Bash said that it is incumbent on people to call out politicians who make insensitive remarks that are perceived as prejudice. “You have to call it out – as a journalist, as an American, as a human. You got to do it.”

Bash noted that the dramatic rise in antisemitism last year occurred after Trump left office. She said the coronavirus pandemic and the dire economic situation just fostered the age-old conspiracies against Jews.

This article originally appeared in the Forward. To get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox, click here.

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