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Forgetting to Never Forget
On Michael McFaul, MSNBC, and condoning anti-Semitism
I like to think I have a thick skin for anti-Semitism. I’ve never faced alienation because of my religion, I don’t take personal offense to political criticisms of Israel, and I’ve never felt an acute fear for my safety because I’m a Jew. But as we have all (re)learned over the past few years, there is immense danger in platforming and enabling those who traffic in anti-Semitic ideas — at a rally, from a podium, and in the media.
This past Monday, Michael McFaul was a guest on Andrea Mitchell Reports, MSNBC’s midday news program, to talk about relations with Russia. This was not noteworthy in itself — as the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, a current professor at Stanford, and a self-styled public intellectual, he goes on MSNBC quite frequently. But it caught my eye because of what happened the last time I heard about McFaul being invited on TV to talk about the war in Ukraine.
On March 11, McFaul went on The Rachel Maddow Show to discuss the brutality of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In doing so, he offered an observation (allegedly heard from a journalist friend) comparing the current atrocities in Ukraine to those of the Holocaust. “One difference between Putin and Hitler,” McFaul said with an air of profundity, “Is that Hitler didn’t kill ethnic Germans, German-speaking people.”
If you’re wondering if he was misquoted or had a statement taken out of context, you can watch the video here. Or just look at the transcript the show’s social media team approvingly promoted:
Let’s not mince words: This is straight-up Holocaust revisionism, under a veneer of journalism, broadcast on national TV. Yes, Hitler did kill ethnic Germans, since apparently that doesn’t go without saying. To believe that being Jewish is incompatible with being ethnically German is to accept a tenet of Nazi ideology, to say nothing of the dark present-day implications of viewing Judaism in opposition to nationality. And of course Hitler’s regime killed many, many German gentiles for reasons that had nothing to do with ethnicity. There’s an internet aphorism that if the National Holocaust Museum responds to you, you know you screwed up.
After coming under fire on social media, McFaul apologized the next day — sort of. In his initial Twitter apology, he defended himself by claiming he didn’t know that Hitler had killed fellow Germans. Maybe it’s possible for someone as well-credentialed and -connected as McFaul to lack even a layman’s understanding of one of the most-significant events of the last century. (Such ignorance of basic history would reveal a stunning lack of judgment from the Stanford political science department for having him on their faculty, from President Obama for trusting him with one of the highest-stakes ambassadorships in the world, and from his middle-school social studies teacher for letting him pass their class.) Or maybe, considering that he deleted his first apology and spent the rest of the morning doubling down on the idea that Jews were not ethnic Germans, he was feigning ignorance to weasel out of the consequences of saying something blatantly anti-Semitic.
And of course, there haven’t been any consequences. Apparently, espousing Holocaust revisionism is not enough to stop MSNBC from booking McFaul on its shows. This wasn’t even his first appearance since the incident, as he showed up on Morning Joe less than a week after deleting his insincere apology. Not that he needs their microphone to make his voice heard — when he’s not on national TV, he’s sending 280-character armchair analysis to an astounding 800,000 followers on Twitter.
The problem is not just McFaul. The folks behind the scenes at MSNBC apparently saw no problem in what he said, seeing that they uncritically promoted the video clip on Twitter. The show’s social media account later acknowledged the criticism, but conspicuously did not apologize for it; as far as I know, no one from the network has publicly addressed it since, let alone said they were sorry. To say nothing of the fact that they are continuing to platform McFaul as a Serious Thinker despite the alleged Holocaust-sized gap in his knowledge of international affairs.
What message does it send that a public intellectual can remain in good standing despite espousing such harmful beliefs? How deep into the weeds of Holocaust revisionism could a pundit go before MSNBC stopped inviting them back? Is our appetite for anti-Putin polemics so great that nearly a million followers don’t mind him using his platform to label people like me as others? Condone his words if you must, but — as McFaul demonstrated — when it comes to anti-Semitism, we should never forget.
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