Jacob Labendz on why two Jewish magazines went to war over a Trump appointee
“Trump is not Hitler.” Over the past year, I have had to repeat those words too many times for my own comfort in courses on the Holocaust at Penn State. I hope it makes the President uncomfortable as well that students of the twentieth century perceived similarities between Hitler’s rise to power and his own campaign for office, especially the use of xenophobia to build a movement.
Our country is deeply divided and, in such times, we tend to reach too easily for comparisons to Nazism to score political points. The now-infamous and still ongoing Gorka Affair should remind us how serious such accusations are and why they matter. The case forces us to ask questions about our theories of history and nationalism, and to understand how profoundly these debates can affect—even mortally—our fellow citizens and people around the world.
Since February, an implicit debate between two online Jewish publications, Tablet and The Forward, has spilled into the public sphere. It began on February 12, when Eli Clifton of LobeLog noted that Sebastian Gorka (b. 1970), deputy assistant to the President and a member of his Strategic Initiatives Group, appeared in public wearing a pin associated with Vitézi Rend, a racist-nationalist organization that operated in Hungary from 1920 to 1944 and whose members collaborated with the Nazis. In article after article, The Forward dug into Gorka’s past and questioned his suitability for employment in the administration—implicitly accusing him of antisemitism (even if they avoided making such allegations). Despite attempts to defend Gorka by Tablet’s Liel Leibovitz and others, the accusations persisted. Democratic Senators demanded an investigation and calls circulated for Gorka’s ouster or resignation. His future at the White House remains a matter of speculation.
Gorka has no business holding a position of influence within the government and it would be better if media outlets refrained from offering him a platform. Putting aside entirely the question of his ties, real or imagined, to the Hungarian racist right, he is unqualified for his position as an expert on Islamist violence. He deserves such opposition because he promotes Islamophobia (as do many of his defenders) and because he seems already to have left his stain on the Trump administration and, by extension, the United States of America.
Neither the flimsiness of Gorka’s academic credentials nor the thinness of his qualifications for his job are in serious question. That fact should be clear enough to anyone who reads Gorka’s sparsely footnoted, pseudo-intellectual mini-book, Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War—not to mention his dissertation. But I will leave these matters to the general public to judge.
Still, there are many questions about Gorka’s reception, particularly within the Jewish community, that remain and are worth asking. Why has the campaign to scuttle Gorka’s career focused so intently upon his alleged ties to antisemitic organizations? What does the Gorka Affair teach us about the contemporary political moment and the intersection of historical memory and politics? And finally, what lessons may we learn from how and why the two main outlets of the American Jewish press have gone to war over this problematic character?
“Naming the Jew”
Neither a lack of qualifications nor Islamophobia preclude one from rising to great heights in the Trump administration. How could they? The President is both unqualified and Islamophobic. He has had little to say about the fact that hate-crimes against Muslims and the number of anti-Muslim organizations in America have risen since he launched his campaign. Trump’s policies and rhetoric signal to the Islamophobes among his supporters that their day has come.
Within American political culture more broadly, we offer legitimacy and split-screen media attention to proponents of Islamophobia and other bigotries. They command the respect due in a civil society to those who would politely disagree on more banal issues of policy. And we, through our participation and passivity, endorse the very ideologies we should oppose.
Jews in America enjoy something of an exception to this rule. In the shadow of the Holocaust, antisemitic expression rightly brings reproach and consequence. Thus does “naming the Jew,” revealing one’s identity while levying predictable accusations against “the Jews,” confer legitimacy upon Alt-Right personalities, as they compete for attention. Public antisemitism, in those circles, signals one’s commitment and willingness to sacrifice for the cause.
Donald Trump has cast fear into the hearts of many Jewish Americans by threatening the anti-antisemitic consensus upon which we have relied. As candidate, he courted White-Nationalist voters with audible dog whistles—the not-so-subtle use of paranoid anti-Semitic symbols and tropes to communicate that he shares their perspective—and by partnering with Steve Bannon. Anti-Jewish hate crimes rose with Trump’s candidacy and after he took office; and it took the President far too long to react. In February, he even harangued a Jewish reporter for asking him to condemn this trend. That same month, Trump suggested without providing evidence that the terrorist threats received by Jewish communities across the country may have been part of a false-flag operation. Even if the President had suspected at the time that a Jewish Israeli was responsible for many of the terror calls—which I doubt—his assumption of conspiracy reflects traditionally antisemitic fears of “Jewish power.”
Trump cast fear into the hearts of many Jewish Americans by threatening the anti-antisemitic consensus upon which we have relied
Despite his self-proclaimed status as an “alpha-male,” Sebastian Gorka is little more than low hanging fruit—an easy target for Americans uneasy with this normalization of antisemitism and frustrated with Donald Trump’s imperviousness to scandal. The Gorka Affair thus offers a window into contemporary Jewish-American politics and to the place of Jews in America. Yet it also attests to our collective inability to reject Islamophobia and to demand competence from our leaders. To that end, it bears noting that Gorka’s alleged comfort with antisemitism has damaged his reputation far more than these latter factors combined, even though they make a better case for his public censure and removal from power. They pertain to his job.
We must pursue seriously the present discussion of antisemitism and consider it when thinking about Gorka’s future. At the same time, we should also recognize that political expediency—likely having little directly to do with Jewish affairs—may have driven the anti-Gorka pile-on to one extent or another. There is an historic danger in so using the politics of anti-antisemitism to achieve even noble goals. It offers fodder and confirmation to those who believe and promote myths of Jewish conspiratorial power. What choice, though, do we have, when our society treats Islamophobic ideas as legitimate positions on the political spectrum? Even Gorka understands that the attacks upon his character have been motivated, in part, by animosity for Trump and his agenda. David Reaboi, a lifelong friend of mine and one of Gorka’s primary defenders, makes this case as well. None of this excuses Gorka’s views or his influence.
The Case against Gorka
The case against Gorka turns primarily on allegations that he belongs either to Vitézi Rend (“The Order of Heroes”) or, more accurately, to one of its successor organizations. Miklós Horthy (1868-1957), the regent of Hungary from 1920 to 1944, founded Vitézi Rend as a post-feudal order to honor with inheritable title and land Hungarians who fought in the First World War and who helped defeat the Hungarian Soviet Republic established by Béla Kun in 1919. Horthy professed a politics of Hungarian racial-nationalism (Turanism) and antisemitism. Vitézi Rend effectively barred Jews from its ranks, even converted ones. Members of the organization supported the anti-Jewish laws introduced by the Horthy’s Nazi-aligned regime in the 1930s and 1940s. During those same years, many of them participated in deadly attacks on Jews and their communities. They also received properties confiscated from Jews, under the guise of returning the economy to “Hungarian” hands. The fact that Yad Vashem has recognized one member of Vitézi Rend as “Righteous among the Nations” does not change this history or what it means.
Hungary’s postwar communist regime disbanded and outlawed Vitézi Rend and subjected many of its members to its own brand of Stalinist justice. The U.S. Department of State still lists the order as one of twelve Hungarian “organizations under the direction of the Nazi Government of Germany.” (This designation may refer to the period of Nazi Occupation, from March 1944 through early 1945.) Its members must argue for exceptions to obtain entry visas to the USA.
The evidence linking Gorka to Vitézi Rend includes the following. He affixed the group’s pin to the jacket that he wore to Trump’s inaugural ball. He has repeatedly included into his signature an honorific lower-case “v.,” which is a privilege reserved for sworn members of Vitézi Rend. The letter appears, for example, on his testimony to the House Armed Services Committee from June 2011. Leaders from a main successor organization to Vitézi Rend, founded in exile in 1953 and restored to Hungary in the 1980s, claim that Gorka swore an oath of allegiance to the group after accepting his inherited right to membership therein (pending an approval process). If this is true, it could complicate Gorka’s citizenship status in the USA, not to mention his role at the White House. Another suggestive accusation against Gorka, that he supported the emergence of a racist militia in Hungary in 2007, has been called seriously into question but remains a subject of debate. The more scurrilous attacks against him—and there have been many—do not merit repeating.
It is easy to perceive the debate which has ensued since February as one over Gorka’s status as a Nazi-sympathizer and potential antisemite. I find this wrongheaded, not the least of all because we lack consensus on the definition of antisemitism (as well as Islamophobia). Gorka, moreover, claims credibly that he does not hold overtly antisemitic views—although, as per below, how we evaluate this assertion depends upon our approach to national memory. Gorka supports the State of Israel and poses often for pictures with his Jewish friends. He has also argued persuasively that if any evidence existed that he had said something wantonly antisemitic, it would have already made its way into the public record. Unfortunately, the same might apply to Gorka’s claim that he has fought actively against antisemitism on the Hungarian right. I (and others) have found little evidence to support this assertion. Indeed, in defense of his years of association with that movement, Gorka tweeted a quote from an article written in his defense by Richard Miniter: “Sharing a room w Helen Keller does not make 1 blind; sharing a subway car w Albert Einstein does not make 1 a genius.” This may be true, but it also does not take a genius to understand that those are different types of association. In response, I’ll quote my mother’s favorite Spanish proverb, “Tell me with whom you walk, and I’ll tell you who you are.”
It pays to be clear about Gorka’s past
It pays, however, to be clear about Gorka’s past. His association with the racist right in Hungary has been traced back to his prominent participation in a conference on “Hungarian National Radicalism” in 2003. The following year, Gorka’s name featured on campaign materials belonging to the extremist party, Jobbik, for which he seems to have made at least one public appearance. In January 2007, he founded a new political party with two former Jobbik leaders who, according to David Reaboi, expressly repudiated their former party’s “retrograde, anti-Semitic extremism” —which had become a terrifying spectacle during the political upheavals of 2006. Reaboi argues that Gorka spent his political career in Hungary pushing conservatives to adopt more centrist, neo-liberal, and pro-American positions. He offers a similar explanation for Gorka’s decision to publish—allegedly upon request—in a Hungarian journal associated with antisemitism. The extended quotation with which Reaboi supports this claim, however, makes no mention of Jews, racism, or antisemitism. It bears mentioning as well that the party that Gorka founded, the New Democratic Coalition, “aimed to represent ‘conservative values, decidedly standing up to corruption and bringing Christianity into the Constitution.’” While the latter goal is not necessarily antagonistic to Jewish Hungarians, it is by no means a warm embrace of them either. Ron Kampeas of The Forward compares Gorka to Bannon of whom he writes, “… while he has acknowledged that the nationalist movements he admires attract anti-Semites and white supremacists, has also said he repudiates these tendencies.”
In an interview with Leibovitz, Gorka denied the charges levied against him. He explained:
I have never been a member of the Vitez Rend. I have never taken an oath of loyalty to the Vitez Rend. Since childhood, I have occasionally worn my father’s medal and used the ‘v.’ initial to honor his struggle against totalitarianism.
He insisted that he was not a full member of the Order of Vitez. “By the bye laws [sic] I inherited the title of Vitez through the merits of my father, but I never swore allegiance formally,” he said. In some of Gorka’s recent appearances, he has tended to avoid declarative statements about his membership in Vitézi Rend.
Sebastian Gorka’s father, Pál Gorka, joined a successor organization to Vitézi Rend while in British exile in 1979, an honor conferred upon him in recognition of his fight against Stalinism in Hungary and the torture and imprisonment that he endured at the hands of the country’s secret police. The younger Gorka has also pointed to passages from his father’s memoir in which the latter claimed to have protected his Jewish friends from assault by “German forces” as a child during the war. (These lines appear to have been struck from the Hungarian translation of the memoir, which originally appeared in English.) Sebastian Gorka explained to the Telegraph, “I am proud of what my father did… I am proud of his resistance to all forms of totalitarianism.”
Gorka’s unsworn membership in Vitézi Rend and his affinity for the group thus reflect his wish to merit his father’s legacy of moral resistance—to which he dedicated one-tenth of Defeating Jihad. This sentiment motivates his fight against “totalitarianism”—however puerilely (and narcissistically) he understands that concept. Gorka wishes to be a knight, fighting alongside his forebears on the right side of history. He is, unfortunately, nothing of the sort.
“Anti–Totalitarianism” and Historical Memory
Eli Clifton challenged the tradition that Sebastian Gorka inherited from his father of vaunting his anti-totalitarian bona fides with markers of association with Vitézi Rend:
But we in turn are compelled to ask why his father joined a group with a known history of anti-Semitism and collaboration with the Nazis. And why does [Sebastian] Gorka himself choose to honor his parents’ memory with a medal issued by Vitézi Rend, which apparently still propagates anti-Semitism and a degree of Holocaust denial…
How can Gorka call himself a fighter against totalitarianism when he celebrates an organization that was, at least, complicit with one of the two twentieth-century movements that he associates with totalitarianism?
Gorka’s “anti-totalitarianism” draws from a tradition, popular in Europe and more common on the right, of bringing Nazism and Communism together under the category of “totalitarianism.” This tradition originated among rightwing scholars and politicians frustrated with the perception that Hitler’s legacy burdened their movements, while the left progressed apparently unsullied by Stalinism. In the late 1980s, rightwing historians in Germany attempted to redeem German national memory by portraying the Holocaust as a response to Stalinist atrocities and to the gruesome war in the East—one aspect among many of the twentieth century’s ugly beginnings and thus an insufficient reason to brand Germany with extraordinary guilt. Jürgen Habermas opposed this line of reasoning in a public debate, now know as the Historikerstreit, carried out in the pages of German dailies.
For Gorka, then, the twin histories of Nazism and Communism offer universal lessons about human suffering and about the dangers posed by ideologically driven regimes which do not tolerate any opposition to their world-transformative programs. (He believes that our failure to heed these lessons accounts our inability to defeat “Radical Islamic Terrorism.”) As the historian Carolyn J. Dean explains with regard to French discourses, proponents of this type of historical meaning-making can perceive Jewish claims about the uniqueness of the Holocaust, its relevance to the Jewish experience and Jewish history, and even the lessons drawn therefrom by Jews as impediments to the propagation of universalist messages about human civilization and suffering. They perceive Jewish memory as stifling and “exorbitant.”
This may help explain why Gorka defended the White House against criticism from the Anti-Defamation League, the Zionist Organization of America, and the Republican Jewish Coalition for failing to mention Jews overtly in its statement commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day. Gorka refused to acknowledge that this showed “questionable” judgment, arguing:
No, I’m not going to admit it… Because it’s asinine. It’s absurd. You’re making a statement about the Holocaust. Of course it’s about the Holocaust because that’s what the statement’s about. It’s only reasonable to twist if your objective is to attack the president.
Donald Trump may have been dog-whistling to White Nationalists by omitting overt reference to Jews precisely where one would expect it—“naming the Jew” in relief, perhaps. Gorka lacks the track record to suggest such a vile interpretation of his comments. His blustery defense of the indefensible, rather, reflects what Carolyn Dean has characterized as “a deep ambivalence about victims [the opposite of alpha-males], and noisy, Jewish ones in particular….” (Gorka writes pejoratively of victims in Defeating Jihad.) For Gorka, it seems, Jewish memory crowds out the universalist lessons he would like to draw from more abstract impressions of Nazism and Communism. To wit, the original White House statement mentioned only the “victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust.”
Recalling the Jewish specificity of the Holocaust, however, does not prevent one from drawing universal lessons from its history. Just the opposite: doing so is fundamental to such endeavors. Context and specificity matter when interpreting the past. Human affairs do not unfold in the abstract, and to imagine so is to lose what makes them both human and meaningful.
The Nation Worth Saving: Ideal or Real
If Gorka fights totalitarianism, he does so to protect the nation. Indeed, Gorka’s anti-totalitarian historiography can cleanse nations of historic guilt. Jewish memory often competes in Europe with nationalist narratives for the honor and moral high-ground conferred by victimization, under the postwar and post-communist consensus. It is better to have suffered under totalitarianism than to have been responsible for its horrors. The lumping together of Nazism and communism, often imagined—outside of Germany—as foreign forces which oppressed the nation, can occlude histories of collaboration with Nazism, as well as homegrown fascism and communism. To that end, in Defeating Jihad, Gorka attributes the genocide of six-million Jews during the Second World War to the Third Reich alone, without mention of the latter’s accomplices across Europe who murdered their neighbors not for German glory but for their own purposes.
This logic of historical abstraction and elision in defense of the nation prompted (and continues to provoke) criticism of Budapest’s House of Terror, a right-aligned museum commemorating the suffering of Hungarians under both Nazism and communism. As the JTA reported just five months after the museum’s opening in February 2002, some raised a concern that:
…by painting Hungary as one of Germany’s victims rather than an accomplice, it continues a trend in which right-wing Hungarian historians are whitewashing Hungary’s role in the death of some 550,000 Hungarian Jews.
At the time, in 2002, Gorka maintained ties to Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his right-nationalist party, Fidesz, under whose auspices the museum was created. Sensitivity, however, is due to Gorka in this case. His father suffered torture in the building that now houses the museum, but that earlier served as a headquarters for the communist police and the Nazis.
Nonetheless, only craven historical abstraction can enable one to wear, without irony, the colors of Vitézi Rend as a symbol of anti-totalitarianism. Yet this is precisely what Gorka claims:
… and when my father was awarded a medal in 1979 by anti-communist members of a splinter order outside Hungary, I take that as a mark of their suffering and I am proud to wear that as a response to everything that we face today.
The nationalism to which Gorka is an heir through Vitézi Rend is deeply racist, even if he is not–and that threat persists in Hungary today, a fact which even Gorka laments.
For Gorka, like so many others, the nation represents an ideal hovering between nostalgia and aspiration
In 2006, Gorka defended the choice of rightwing, racist protesters in Hungary to march under the Arpad Flag, a symbol with a very long history but which had last been appropriated by the genocidal Arrow Cross movement, during the Second World War. Gorka explained, “if you say eight centuries of history can be eradicated by 18 months of fascist distortion of symbols, you’re losing historic perspective.” That may or may not be so in theory—depending upon how one thinks about nationalism—as even the dean of Jewish-Hungarian history, Andras Kovacs, conceded. In this case, however, when the flagbearers gestured clearly to Hungarian fascism, it would be a loss of “historic perspective” to deny the specific meaning of the Arpad Flag in this case (and even to wonder if the symbol can ever be redeemed). Gorka knew better, but his priority was to defend the rightwing and its conception of the Hungarian nation.
For Gorka, like so many others, the nation represents an ideal hovering between nostalgia and aspiration. Its maintenance and rehabilitation, when necessary, takes precedence over justice and historical memory. He approves, for instance, of the woefully limited denazification of West Germany in the 1950s, which he credits in Defeating Jihad with allowing the country to rebuild:
The chief decision makers of the Third Reich were publicly tried for the war crimes and genocide committed in the name of the Nazi state. Once the verdicts were handed down and the death sentences carried out, the line had been drawn: the most guilty had been punished, and the Germans could move on.
Gorka thus demands for the sake of the nation a tremendous act of forgetting, not only from Jews but from the entire nation. And to ask Jews—or anyone else—to forget the history of Vitézi Rend for the sake of the nation—of for the honor of one’s family—is to cast Jewish memory in opposition to national memory and to exclude from the nation all Jews unwilling to perform gymnastic feats of self-abnegation. Paris is not worth that mass. Moreover, while Gorka may wear the trappings of Vitezi Rend in good faith, he cannot control how White Supremacists interpret the message he thereby sends, particularly given his well-known nationalism and lifelong adjacency to antisemitism.
The contemporary debates in the USA regarding monuments to the Confederacy pose similar challenges and should remind us that they remain tied to persistent issues of racial justice and social welfare. The past years have seen the governments of Poland and Hungary intervene to refashion national memory in frightening ways which trade complex histories for hagiographies. This development has accompanied a worsening of the position of minorities across the region. It reflects the same national protectionism that can lead one to support Trump’s Muslim Ban, as Gorka has. “The nation is ill, the army is ill, and the country cannot be protected,” Gorka said in 2007 to account for the emergence of the Hungarian Guard, the aforementioned racist militia.
Crudely conceptualized and expressed racism and Islamophobia (like Trump’s statement: “I think Islam hates us.”) are anathema to Gorka, who presents himself as a defender of Western values. “We are not at war with Islam,” he protests (too much) in Defeating Jihad. Gorka sincerely believes that one can be an ethno-nationalist and a democrat; a proponent of racial-religious profiling and free of bigotry. As in so many other areas, Gorka is not lying. He is just wrong and he is arrogant about it.
The Israel Connection
Gorka’s brand of nationalism helps to explain why he has found defenders on the Jewish right, even amid a controversy linking him to antisemitism. These defenders have included Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America and Rabbi Heshie Billet, who once served as the head of the Rabbinical Council of America. The Zionist far-right shares with Gorka an embrace of the nation as an ideal whose value and potential cannot be undermined by the inconvenience of historical facts or the experiences of those populations that have suffered the often-deadly misfortune of national exclusion. To that end, in Defeating Jihad, Gorka attributes the opposition to Israel in the Middle East—including the use of the word Naqba to refer to that country’s victory in 1948—not to the (unmentioned) legacies of Jewish-European colonization, conquest, expulsion, and occupation, but primarily to Quranic irredentism.
As far as I can tell, the reason why Gorka has received a pass from lead figures of the Zionist right, well known for vigilance against antisemitism, is that they perceive him to have learned the correct lesson from the Holocaust—to support Israel. Gorka, as many have noted, is considered a friend of that country and its contemporary extremist government. He is also an enemy of Iran and “Radical Islamist Terrorism.” This apparently excuses Gorka’s nostalgia for a Hungarian past that includes yet ignores not a small bit of antisemitism. Nationalists understand and accept one another. Trump benefits from this calculus as well.
Gorka also understands the cleavages within the contemporary American Jewish community and exploits them to his advantage. Speaking at a conference organized by the Jerusalem Post on May 7, he claimed that the campaign against him had been organized by supporters of BDS and the Iran Deal. “Because we are pro-Israel,” he explained, “we must be attacked.” As far as I can tell, this accusation originated in the op-ed that Billet published just two days earlier. Bruce Abramson and Jeff Ballabon, two conservative, pro-Israel strategists, attempted to undermine Clifton’s case against Gorka in a similar fashion in March by labeling the former an antisemite for his views on Israel and, in a show of blatant Islamophobia, as “…a reporter who shares [The Forward’s] commitment to flooding the West with refugees from an antisemitic culture…”
Gorka’s comments reflect a Manichean vision of society in which divisions map too often, too easily, and too comfortably upon ethnic, religious, and national categories
Gorka attempted to illustrate further the commitment to Israel that he presumably shares with Trump by noting that the President had made Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, observant Jews and Zionists, responsible for helping to negotiate peace between Israel and Palestinians. While there is nothing wrong with choosing Jewish representatives for this or any other role, Gorka’s comments reflect a Manichean vision of society—apparent in his writings on Islam—in which divisions framed ideologically map too often, too easily, and too comfortably upon ethnic, religious, and national categories. Gorka has even suggested that one can understand Islamist violence and the successful recruitment campaigns of various Jihadist movements in recent years without focusing too much on the historical and ongoing injustice and inequity visited upon Muslim communities in the Middle East and beyond. Indeed, he warns in Defeating Jihad that attention to such matters—to history—can lead to erroneous conclusions.
The debate about Gorka within the American Jewish community is thus about far more than the significance of whatever relationship Gorka may or may not have with the Hungarian racist right. It reflects, rather, stark divisions within that community on issues of nationalism, international and Israeli politics, and the dangers posed by Jihadist movements and White Supremacy. Fundamentally then, the debate turns on differences among Jews in political philosophy and frameworks of historical analysis, differences which also suggest the rootedness of their debates about Gorka in the broader political contests of our day. We might, therefore, attribute the intensity of the Gorka Affair within the Jewish community to the increasingly combative character of both American and world politics. As the left and right polarize, leaving little room at the center, both camps feel besieged and powerless. This polarization can transform any conflict or disagreement into a symbolic crisis of epic proportions. Sadly, this situation has enabled Jewish media outlets to focus on Gorka’s relationship to his father and to Hungary’s darker past, rather than on his dangerous Islamophobia and the service he provides to President Trump in the role of the good son.
Criticism of Tablet – The Price of Jewish Unity
It is unsurprising that Tablet received considerable criticism for publishing articles in defense of Gorka, given the divided nature of the American Jewish community and its sensitivity to issues of Holocaust memory. Some of this hostility Leibovitz brought upon himself, such as when he defended Horthy for willfully deporting only 20,000 Jews. The Hungarian regent’s legacy in the annals of Jewish history is, indeed, complex—just not that chapter. On the other hand, in that same piece, Leibovitz wisely commented on the importance of writing about the past with nuance:
If your zeal to score political points leads you to reduce the complex and often-repugnant history of an entire people to a triviality, you’re guilty of the same vile logic motivating so many of the real enemies of the Jewish people, who assert that all the crimes committed in WWII by anyone are equivalent, and therefore cancel each other out. To be a Communist is the same as having been a Nazi because both parties committed terrible crimes…. It’s the logic of Holocaust deniers and others for whom the truth is incidental to ideology.
Unfortunately for Leibovitz, this is the exact position Gorka promotes. In the latter’s own words:
I do what I do because I’ve learned that there is a connective tissue between Nazis, Communists, and Jihadists; they are all the same because they are all totalitarians. And if you perpetuate fake news, you are helping the bad guys.
Has Leibovitz been “helping the bad guys?” Maybe. What is clear, however, is that based upon Leibovitz’s own criteria, Gorka has violated a serious taboo. This further demonstrates that Gorka is unfit for his job and lends credence to the charges levied against him in The Forward.
What about Tablet? How should its editors have reacted to the criticism they received? Should they have published Leibovitz’s articles in the first place? What do they and their critics, myself included, reveal about the contemporary state of Jewish life, politics, and culture in America?
Tablet’s editor-in-chief, Alana Newhouse, responded to the controversy with two articles in which she lambasted anyone attempting to censor Jewish voices. In the first, she singled out a Jewish-Studies professor for comments he made on Facebook, which he had never intended to share beyond his “friends.” She scolded him for demanding the imposition of an editorial “‘red-line’—over which no right-thinking person should cross.”
In Newhouse’s second piece, “Among the Jews: What’s the Point of Tablet?” she explained:
We want Jews who are different—definitively, impolitely, even offensively different—to share a space with one another. We want them to face each other, to cajole, and push and shove each other into feeling or thinking something important. Jews cannot be forced to live among each other anymore, thank God, but there was something accidentally valuable for Jews and Jewish ideas in that arrangement—and Tablet was designed as an experiment in figuring out whether we can replicate the benefits of that closeness without the constraints of oppression.
Scholars have fairly criticized the impoverishing effects of this type of nostalgia upon Jewish cultural production at Tablet, pointed to its inevitable failure in America, and proposed new modes of Jewish communion and interaction better suited to our day. In the context of the present discussion, Newhouse’s hope for Tablet to function as an ersatz, if voluntary ghetto recalls Gorka’s nostalgia for a past that he too would like to relive “without the constraints of [oppressing].” I do not mean to draw moral equivalence between Gorka and Newhouse—that would be perverse—yet their visions hold in common the risks of placing too much value on ethnic unity, which can come at the price of integrity.
Tablet faces calls for censorship because it serves a willfully imagined community, composed of individuals and groups with divergent, often conflicting ideologies. Many of them, nonetheless, partake in Newhouse’s nostalgia for a romanticized ideal of bygone Jewish unity. The cultural pluralism derived from this ideal works surprisingly well, until it does not. Debates about Israel and Zionism, for example, plague institutions like Hillel International, which, like Tablet, profess to be a home for all Jews. Even if they were to avoid making such claims, few institutions could function well as alternatives for dissenters. If Tablet has taken it upon itself to be a forum of debate for a united Jewish community, then it must also be prepared for some of us to decide that certain ideological commitments are non-negotiable, such as a rejection of Islamophobia and other bigotries. Many of us hold our political and moral convictions well above our desire for Jewish unity—and we all belong to multiple and often overlapping communities. For many of us, there simply can be no room for Sebastian Gorka or his defenders.
Tablet’s call for unity in diversity is thus inherently problematic. Such calls can sound inclusive and progressive, and to an extent, they are. Tablet deserves commendation for offering a sustained platform where Jews (and non-Jews) can present themselves to the public and express a broad range of opinions. At the same time, however, the self-conscious construction of artificial unity can also work towards conservative ends. It serves the interests of those who benefit most from the status quo. Groups discussions always have boundaries, even at Tablet. (Newhouse conveniently ignores the fact that the communities for which she is so nostalgic also practiced excommunication!) The inclusion of an idea into the range of publishable opinions by Tablet can thus confer upon it a sense of implicit legitimacy. Once printed in Tablet, that idea appears as one opinion, among and equal to the others. While this may sound fair, we must also recognize that we do not all come to our imagined community on an equal footing and that only some of us will ever find ourselves the subjects of debate. Just like the media outlets which provide Gorka with a platform for spreading Islamophobia, so too must Tablet shoulder some responsibility for the ideas and authors it chooses to promote, normalize, and legitimize.
This analysis still does not fully account for the intensity of the campaign against Leibovitz, who had every right to defend Gorka (perhaps elsewhere)—and to do so poorly. Under normal circumstances, his essays might not have provoked such a strong reaction. (I would not have called for censorship, but for better editorial judgment. To wit, some of the opposition to Leibovitz may reflect a growing distaste in some quarters with his work over the past few years.) This may be of little consequence now, however, because nothing has felt normal for some time. Many of us have not yet accepted, let alone understood, the drastic transformation of our political culture, driven by social media and embodied by the Alt-Right. Justifiable anger with Trump and the direction of our country, mixed with feelings of powerlessness, has led the leftwing to radicalize. So too have new civil rights movements, which have pointed to the dangers of normalizing racism. The Gorka Affair may reflect little more than the manifestation of such shifts within the Jewish community.
If Gorka has suffered for being among the lowest hanging fruit on Trump’s proverbial tree, then so too has Leibovitz been punished for his association with Gorka—for defending him and for reiterating his harmful claims about history and its meaning. Might we, nonetheless, consider this ill treatment of Leibovitz well deserved, if perhaps overwrought? Why would he defend a person who promotes Islamophobia? Fairness, perhaps—but fairness for whom? It is frustration with powerlessness and fear that has led to the intensity of the Gorka Affair. If only Americans considered Islamophobia, like antisemitism, anathema to our political culture, we would be having a very different conversation. Yet we live in a country where well-founded allegations of Islamophobia, not to mention incompetence, failed to prevent Donald Trump from rising to the Presidency. These attributes, instead, seem to have paved his way to the Oval Office. Gorka shares these qualities, and this reflects terribly on America—even if most of us voted against Trump and even if so many of us protested the Muslim ban. It reflects poorly on the Jewish community, as well, in that we have failed to incorporate these issues sufficiently into our discussions of Sebastian Gorka. I have attempted to do so here by elucidating the links between his philosophy of history, his celebration of Vitézi Rend, and his Islamophobic “anti-totalitarianism.” Perhaps we have avoided the topic of Islamophobia out of pure narcissism or maybe it is because we fear our country’s recent antisemitic turn. Perhaps it is because we sensed in advance that it could threaten our imagined unity. Should such things matter?
Correction: An earlier version of this paper did not take into consideration The Forward’s response to the RedState article which attempted to show that Gorka had never supported the Hungarian Guard.