The Republican Party of Virginia has continued to accuse 5th District Democratic candidate Leslie Cockburn of anti-Semitism in statements that members of the Charlottesville Jewish community describe as “unwarranted” and “hypocritical.”
Following her nomination in May, the state GOP condemned Cockburn for a book she and her husband published in 1991.
Titled “Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the U.S.-Israeli Covert Relationship,” the book analyzed the relationship between the two nations and said the interaction of their intelligence and military institutions contributed to unrest in the Middle East.
The state GOP’s first statement on May 5 said the book claimed that Israel controls America’s foreign policy, an “inherently anti-Semitic” point of view. That belief was echoed by Republican Tom Garrett, the 5th District representative who announced later that month that he wouldn’t seek re-election.
Denver Riggleman, Garrett’s replacement in the November congressional election, has not commented on the accusations.
Cockburn said in May that the book examines the hard-nosed relationship between intelligence agencies and military establishments.
She called the state GOP’s accusations “outrageous and bizarre,” and pointed out violent anti-Semitism in the district following the election of President Donald Trump and during the August Unite the Right rallies in Charlottesville.
“When people were parading around the [University of Virginia] campus, saying, ‘Jews will not replace us,’ that was very disturbing. That’s anti-Semitism,” she said.
Those feelings are shared by several Jewish members of the Charlottesville community.
According to Melvin Leffler, a professor at UVa and a historian who specializes in U.S. foreign policy, the book contains no evidence that Cockburn is anti-Semitic.
As investigative reporters who specialized in U.S. foreign policy, Leffler said, the Cockburns were tasked with examining interactions between intelligence operations that may not have come to the attention of the press or public .
They were successful in doing so, he said, offering details that historians like himself find valuable when looking at the larger context of history.
“The book illuminates how the United States often has tried to use Israel as a conduit to advance American foreign policy in various parts of the world,” Leffler said. “I see nothing in the book that is the least bit anti-Semitic.”
Leffler said the debate over the book has been surprising, given the fact it was written more than 25 years ago.
“To think that this book one way or another represents her present thinking on contemporary issues is ridiculous,” he said.
In late May, Cockburn met with Leffler and about 40 other Jewish community members in the Charlottesville area to discuss their feelings on the accusations and her book.
The meeting was organized by Congregation Beth Israel Rabbi Dan Alexander and Sherry Kraft, a member of the Charlottesville School Board, who had reached out before Cockburn received the nomination.
According to Kraft, the meeting went well and helped to assuage community members about Cockburn’s beliefs. The accusations directed at Cockburn by the state GOP sit poorly with Kraft, particularly attempts to establish a connection between the book and last year’s deadly white supremacist rally.
“I think it’s hypocritical at best. I think [the state GOP] doesn’t have much to attack her on, so they’re flailing around to find some vulnerability and they landed on this,” she said. “Anti-Semitism was the Unite the Right rally last summer, with swastikas and Nazis and our synagogue being targeted — that’s the anti-Semitism that most of us are worried about.”
Kraft said she understands why “Dangerous Liaison” may have rubbed certain people the wrong way, but she doesn’t see criticism of Israel as inherently anti-Semitic.
“Most Jews, right or left politically, do support Israel and understand Israel’s importance in the world,” she said. “You can not like a book and not agree with it without this very hysterical accusation of anti-Semitism.”
Jay Ipson, a Holocaust survivor and co-founder of the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond, was quoted by the state GOP accusing Cockburn of anti-Semitism.
Though he has not read her book, he said the passages he’s been sent made him feel that she is advocating for disarming Israel, which could lead to its destruction.
To Ipson, any attack on Israel is anti-Semitic.
“Imagine the United States not being able to defend itself. Where would we be?” he said.
Ipson said he’s faced anti-Semitism his entire life, even after immigrating to the U.S. in 1947.
But things have gotten worse recently, he said, pointing to the Unite the Right rally.
“It’s gotten so sometimes I am afraid to leave my home without knowing I can defend myself,” he said. “The rally that happened in Charlottesville should have never happened.”
More recent releases from the state GOP have compiled white supremacist websites, like Stormfront, where posters cite “Dangerous Liaison” as evidence supporting their anti-Semitic views. The websites also contain posts praising Corey Stewart, the Virginia Republican nominee for Senate.
Stewart is a vocal supporter of Confederate symbols and appeared alongside Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler in February 2017 at a news conference about the proposed removal of the Gen. Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville.
Following the events of last August, Stewart has distanced himself from Kessler and Paul Nehlen, an unabashed anti-Semite and congressional candidate in Wisconsin.
But that hasn’t stopped some Republicans across the commonwealth and nation from condemning him.
In June, the Koch-funded group Americans for Prosperity said it would not support Stewart’s campaign.
Larry Sabato, a political analyst and founder of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the UVa Center for Politics, said it was no secret that establishment Republicans didn’t want Stewart to win.
His victory puts the party in a difficult position, he said, and one that more directly connects them to the Unite the Right rally.
“It’s certainly made a down-ticket Democratic vote more likely,” he said.