Confronting antisemitism, normalizing Jews

Confronting antisemitism, normalizing Jews

CNN’s Dana Bash, from north Jersey, talks about her documentary ‘Rising Hate’

Dana Bash (CNN)
Dana Bash (CNN)

Dana Bash was on the phone from the nation’s capital, where she was en route to pick up her 11-year-old son, Jonah, from school.  First we make small talk.

Ms. Bash, who grew up in Montvale, is a proud graduate of Pascack Hills High School. One of my granddaughters just graduated from there and another is a junior  So we have that bond, before we move on the topic at hand: Ms. Bash’s recently aired and moving documentary  “Rising Hate: Anti-Semitism in America.”

“I was really honored,” she said at being asked to report and host the film.  But then she quickly decides that doesn’t sound right.  Honored is “a twisted word to use when you’re talking about anti-Semitism.”

But she should take pride in the assignment. Not only is the subject — the level of hate bedeviling this country — urgent, but for Ms. Bash, CNN’s chief political correspondent and co-host of State of the Union with Jake Tapper and Dana Bash — it is also personal.

Antisemitism “is not only something I find incredibly newsworthy, but it also is important because I’m Jewish,” she said. “My family comes from places where they were discriminated against and murdered.

“My grandparents barely made it out of Vienna. They got to America by boat in October, 1941, Columbus Day weekend, two months before Pearl Harbor.”

Her great grandparents and a great aunt weren’t so lucky. Hungarian Jews they “thought they were safe.”

The idea came from Melissa Dunst Lipman, a documentary-unit producer who pitched the idea to her bosses as the news just kept getting worse. Armed attacks at synagogues, swastikas painted on doors, leaflets with Nazi messages posted everywhere.

“It became apparent that this was something we should do.”

Ms. Bash worked on the documentary for months, visiting Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, and Chabad of Poway in California. (A congregant was murdered in an antisemitism attack in Poway, and the rabbis and two congregants held hostage for hours in Colleyville.) She interviewed Deborah Lipstadt, U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor And Combat Anti-Semitism and officials with the Anti-Defamation League and the FBI, among others.

Dana Bash was a cheerleader at Pascack Hills High School. (Dana Bash)

And what she discovered shocked her. “As a citizen of the world, but also as a Jew,” she knew antisemitism was a problem, but was unaware of how bad it had become, Ms. Bash said.  “Looking at these [antisemitic] groups and seeing the actual content of what they’re putting out there, finding the ways this hate has become interactive, I didn’t comprehend the actual insidious nature  and how widespread it has become. It is truly incredibly disturbing.”

Perhaps that initial lack of awareness is why she had no safety concerns going into the film.  “I think it was probably in the back of my mind,” she said. “My parents were probably more concerned than I was.  I was thinking less about safety, but I was expecting to get some hate, either letters or online.  I’m not inviting it by telling you this, but the feedback has been almost exclusively positive.”

Still, the experience “changed me in a way I didn’t expect because of what I learned from Deborah Lipstadt and some of the victims like Jeff Cohen, who was one of the hostages in Colleyville,” she continued.

“They said the way to combat this isn’t to retreat and stay silent, the way Jews have done during the hundreds of years they’ve been persecuted. You know, don’t rock the boat, don’t wear your kippah.  What I learned was do the opposite and normalize the idea of Jews and Judaism. Just like everyone else.  Puncture theories about Jews.  I didn’t think about it that way before.”

Actually, it reminded Ms. Bash of a Chanukah request her son Jonah made last year, and that she wrote about in an op-ed that ran on CNN’s website. Jonah goes to a diverse school and wanted to wear a Star of David in the same way his Christian classmates wear crosses, Ms. Bash wrote. It was a matter of pride for him.

She had reservations about his request, and demurred at first. But halfway through the holiday, Jonah asked why she didn’t get him the one present he asked for.  She relented.

“I didn’t make the connection of his desire to wear the Star of David until the process of investigating the documentary and speaking to Deborah and Jeff Cohen and others,” she said. “That is when — as Oprah says —I had my ah-ha moment.”

Ms. Bash grew up in a Reform home and was a bat mitzvah at the now sadly defunct Temple Beth Or of Washington Township. She now belongs to a Reform synagogue in D.C.

Like his mom, Jonah attended Camp Harlam, a Reform summer camp in Pennsylvania, which is where Ms. Bash believes her son’s Chanukah request was nurtured.

It is constantly reinforced by her own mom, Frances Weinman Schwartz, who went back to school when Dana went off to college and received one of the first masters degrees in Hebraic studies given by Hebrew Union College. Now Ms. Schwartz uses that education in a Zoom call every week with her grandchildren to discuss the upcoming parsha.

It continues a fine tradition of staying true to where you came from.  Frances’s father, Dana’s grandfather, Frank Weinman, wrote an autobiographical collection of stories about his life, “With a Foreign Accent,” and then took the family on a trip to Europe, including Vienna, and Bratislava, Budapest and other sites from his past, giving his descendants a visceral reminder of the subject his granddaughter would document.

Cable subscribers can watch “Rising Hate: Anti-Semitism in America” on demand at CNN’s website and on CNN apps.

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