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An ad from the Jewish Democratic Council of America claims that John James is trafficking in anti-Semitism, citing a 2018 campaign ad that included an image of a swastika, which James called a “terrible error.”
James said neither political party paid as much attention to Black voters as Jewish voters.
The Jewish Democratic Council of America, a political action committee that advocates for Jewish priorities, is targeting Michigan Republican Senate candidate John James with an ad that links him to anti-Semitism.
The ad points to two examples as evidence that James has been "caught red-handed trafficking in anti-Semitism," which the ad says is "at an all-time high because of people like John James and Donald Trump."
The first was an ad James aired during his unsuccessful 2018 campaign against Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow that included an image of a swastika. The James ad made no mention of the imagery, and James said its inclusion was a "terrible error."
The PAC’s ad also highlights a June television interview on WDIV in Detroit during which James criticized both the Republican and Democratic parties for "genuflecting for working-class white males and for college-educated women and for our Jewish friends" while ignoring Black voters.
The digital ad is part of the council’s effort to target Jewish voters in Michigan and increase support for incumbent Democratic Sen. Gary Peters.
The council claims James has "invoked antisemitic language, imagery, and tropes" in his campaign.
James campaign spokesperson Abby Walls said this is "a baseless and completely hollow attack."
Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, defended the ad, saying it was "important for the more than 100,000 Jewish voters in Michigan to consider as they cast a vote for the U.S. Senate." Soifer stands by its claims that James has invoked anti-Semitism.
Karla Goldman, a professor of Judaic studies at the University of Michigan, said she wouldn't call James anti-Semitic.
But given the rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. in recent years, Goldman said, "voters might say, in this context, there are no innocent mistakes. Is that fair to James? My guess would be it’s not fair."
In a 2018 campaign ad, James identified a number of problems he would help address if elected.
When James talked about addressing "failing schools," the ad showed an image of an empty school hallway. On a piece of paper pinned to the bulletin board on the left side of the hallway was an image of a swastika.
"That was an intentional subliminal message," Jen Strayer, a Democratic political consultant, wrote in a Facebook post.
"His team is either too lazy to spot check their ads or they’re willfully pushing out this type of imagery," said Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan.
James dismissed these comments, which he said revealed "how low people are willing to go" to smear him.
He said the image’s inclusion was a mistake. "We should have caught this error and we didn’t, and there’s no excuse," James said at a press conference following the ad’s release.
Günther Jikeli, a professor at Indiana University’s Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, suggests that to judge a candidate on the basis of such incidents, voters should examine whether the candidate is "doubling down or issuing a sincere apology."
"James has issued a sincere apology for the swastika that appeared in his video," Jikeli wrote in an email to PolitiFact Michigan.
Responding to a question during a June television interview on how he would address racism, James claimed that the Democratic Party’s longstanding advantage among Black voters "ensures that neither party works for our vote."
James, who is Black, called on both parties to "treat us the way they’re genuflecting for working-class white males and for college-educated women and for our Jewish friends."
Following the interview, the Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus condemned James’ remark as anti-Semitic.
"I think it’s fair to associate it as an anti-Semitic trope," said Goldman. The remark "suggests that the Democratic Party is answerable to Jews at a time when anti-Jewish conspiracy theories are very much being invoked — if not overtly then covertly by the president and many others."
Goldman noted that the inclusion of Jewish voters among the constituencies James listed appeared suspect. While white working-class men and college-educated women fitting certain demographic characteristics are considered swing voters, a majority of Jewish voters, like Black voters, favor the Democratic Party.
Jikeli agrees that James played on an anti-Semitic stereotype based on "some special power that Jews allegedly have," but said that James "puts Jews, working-class white males and college-educated women on the same level, and demands the same for Black people. I don’t think that this is enough evidence to portray John James as an anti-Semite."
A report released in May by the Anti-Defamation League, which has tracked anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. since 1979, found that a record number of anti-Semitic incidents occurred in 2019, including incidents of harassment, vandalism and assault against the American Jewish community. The number of such incidents doubled in Michigan between 2018 and 2019, ADL found.
Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the ADL, has attributed the increase to political leaders who repeat the rhetoric of extremists and social media platforms that allow prejudice to grow.
During the final stretch of the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump released an ad featuring financier George Soros, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein — all Jews — and warned voters that American and global leaders "partner with these people that don’t have your good in mind." Some said the ad played on anti-Semitic tropes about prominent Jews controlling the "levers of power."
And after white nationalists marched in Charlottesville in 2017, giving Nazi salutes and chanting "Jews will not replace us," Trump described the protesters and counterprotesters as including "some very fine people on both sides."
But James himself is not a catalyst for this kind of violence, Goldman said.
"Would John James lead to more anti-Semitism? I don’t think so," Goldman said. "Would the continued power of the Republicans in the Senate and Donald Trump in the White House lead to more of that? I would say yes."
Speaking at a Trump rally in Michigan on Sept. 10, James called for dispelling "any hint of hate, racism and anti-Semitism in our ranks."
Jikeli wrote that while "the most extreme perpetrators of anti-Jewish violence in this country have come from the extreme right," recently, the radical left and Islamists are also responsible for rising anti-Semitism.
"Blaming Trump and Republicans exclusively for the rise of anti-Semitism is not supported by facts," Jikeli wrote.
Jewish Democratic Council of America, YouTube, "Jewish Democrats Support Sen. Gary Peters," September 3, 2020
Jewish Democratic Council of America, Press Release, "Jewish Dems’ New Ads Condemn Antisemitism, Support Senate Candidates in MI and GA," September 3, 2020
WWMT, Mikenzie Frost, "Questions raised over swastika in John James' TV ad," October 15, 2018
The Detroit Free Press, Todd Spangler, "John James admits swastika in TV ad was a mistake," October 15, 2018
Pew Research Center, "In Changing U.S. Electorate, Race and Education Remain Stark Dividing Lines," June 2, 2020
WDIV, Devin Scillian and Natasha Dado, "Flashpoint 6/28/20: Conversation with US Senate candidate John James; Fall schooling as virus cases surge," June 27, 2020
Michigan Jewish Democratic Jewish Council, "MDJC Condemns GOP Senate Candidate John James’ Antisemitic Remark About Political Parties 'Genuflecting to Our Jewish Friends'," accessed Sepember 9, 2020
Anti-Defamation League, "Antisemitic Incidents Hit All-Time High in 2019," May 12, 2020
Anti-Defamation League Michigan, "Antisemitic Incidents Double in Michigan in 2019," May 11, 2020
The Hill, Rebecca Klar, "Anti-Semitic incidents hit record last year: ADL," May 12, 2020
Los Angeles Times, Jaweed Kaleem, "Q&A: Anti-Semitism is on the rise in America. The head of the Anti-Defamation League explains why," February 1, 2019
The New York Times, Alan Rappeport, "Donald Trump Deletes Tweet Showing Hillary Clinton and Star of David Shape," July 2, 2016
The New York Times, Patrick Kingsley, "Anti-Semitism Is Back, From the Left, Right and Islamist Extremes. Why?," April 4, 2019
The Atlantic, Rosie Gray, "Trump Defends White-Nationalist Protesters: 'Some Very Fine People on Both Sides'," August 15, 2017
PolitiFact, Louis Jacobson, "Donald Trump’s ‘Star of David’ tweet: a recap," July 5, 2016
Pew Research Center, "A Deep Dive Into Party Affiliation," April 7, 2015
Slate, Daniel Politi, "Is Donald Trump’s Closing Campaign Ad Anti-Semitic?," November 6, 2016
Karla Goldman, Sol Drachler Professor and Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan and Director of the Jewish Communal Leadership Program, phone interview, September 8, 2020
Abby Walls, John James campaign spokesperson, email exchange, September 9, 2020
Abby Walls, John James campaign spokesperson, email exchange, September 10, 2020
Sarah Garfinkel, Senior Strategist, West End Strategy Team, email exchange, September 9, 2020
Günther Jikeli, Erna B. Rosenfeld Professorship at Indiana University's Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at the Borns Jewish Studies Program, email exchange, September 10, 2020