By Aaron Troodler
November 22, 2023
(Washinton Jewish Week) — He addressed the rise in antisemitism that has become global in nature and offered his impression of the current crisis, pointing to what he described as a failure in the U.S. educational system.
In the weeks since the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks in Israel, people around the world have been glued to their televisions, computers and mobile devices as they monitor the news for the latest updates concerning the ongoing crisis. One of the people they regularly see and hear is Jake Tapper.
Tapper, the CNN anchor and chief Washington correspondent who is a D.C. resident and a member of Temple Micah, is a familiar face in the media world. Whether it’s through “The Lead with Jake Tapper,” the program he hosts every weekday afternoon, or on “State of the Union,” the Sunday-morning show he anchors, Tapper’s reporting on a range of topics, both national and international, often offers insights and information not found elsewhere. Tapper’s reach extends far beyond his CNN programs. For example, he has a strong social-media presence, including 3.1 million followers on X, formerly known as Twitter, where he often posts about a wide array of issues.
CNN recently sent Tapper on a breaking news assignment to Israel, where he reported on the Oct. 7 attacks and the wider conflict that is taking shape following that fateful day. While in Israel, Tapper had the opportunity to speak with family members whose loved ones were abducted by Hamas and are being held hostage, as well as with survivors of the massacres that took place on Oct. 7. Tapper also reported on the painstaking and difficult process that Israel has undertaken to identify the victims’ remains following the Hamas attacks and he spoke with medics that described the atrocities committed by Hamas against civilians, young and old. Tapper’s on-air reporting from Israel included numerous segments that were brimming with emotion as he had heartfelt and personal interactions with people whose lives have been changed forever.
“The whole trip was soul-crushing, both because of the pain and death and destruction going on in Gaza, and also because of the pain and death and destruction that happened in Israel on Oct. 7. … The face-to-face conversations I had with survivors of Oct. 7, or people whose loved ones were killed or kidnapped on Oct. 7, were obviously very upsetting,” he said.
In trying to describe the magnitude and horror of the Hamas attacks, Tapper noted that he’s “covered a lot of horrible things.” Citing his coverage of wars in Iraq, Ukraine and Afghanistan, as well as natural disasters and mass shootings, Tapper pointed out that “it’s not particularly constructive to compare people’s pains and decide one person’s pain is worse than another person’s pain.” However, he said it was “mind-bogglingly awful to experience and talk to the people that went through what they went through on Oct. 7.”
One of the many difficult aspects of the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks has been the graphic and incredibly disturbing images and video footage that Hamas has circulated. The idea that a group so proudly and brazenly engaged in such barbaric acts, proudly documented their barbarism and then propagated it for the world to see is hard to fathom. And for members of the media, how to report on those unsettling images is an issue that has become very pertinent.
Noting that he’s reported on a lot of difficult stories over the years—some of which were heart-wrenching—Tapper likened the Hamas images to the horrific ISIS videos; the beheadings of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl in 2002 and Nicholas Berg in 2004; and some of the individuals who were beheaded in Syria and other parts of the world.
Yet, Tapper drew an important distinction between those ghastly acts and Hamas’s actions on Oct. 7.
“Those tended to be one-offs. One individual kidnapped, beheaded. The things that happened to families, the things that all happened on one day, Oct. 7, were in aggregate. … The willful infliction of torture on civilians and children and women and the elderly, the willful infliction of sexual violence in front of other people, the willful infliction of murder of parents in front of children and murder of children in front of parents, no, I’ve never seen or heard anything like it,” Tapper said.
While reporting from Tel Aviv, Tapper spoke with Dr. Chen Kugel from Israel’s National Center of Forensic Medicine about the difficulty of identifying some of the victims’ remains because of what Hamas did to them. Even though many of the remains were unidentifiable, Tapper and CNN blurred the images before showing them on-air. “It was still horribly grotesque … the photographs that I saw that I wish I hadn’t were just horribly haunting and disturbing.
Tapper acknowledged that he’s been wrestling with the issue of what to show in the media and how much to describe. In this particular instance, Tapper said one of the reasons he reported on the attacks the way he did was because there are people out there who deny that the atrocities of Oct. 7 took place.
“There’s a 10-year-old girl whose head is not part of her body anymore. And forensic scientists are very precise with what they’re saying. They don’t know when and how the head was separated from the body, they’re being very honest and clear. But however you parse it, this is a 10-year-old girl, and her head is not attached to her body anymore. I can’t believe we’re having these discussions even.”
‘They do not see humanity in that face’
With calls for a ceasefire growing, Tapper offered a factual assessment of the situation, without stating a personal opinion.
“I think the question is—and I think this is a question that everybody who is calling for a ceasefire who is a world leader needs to answer—what is the solution? Because the Israelis and the Americans say a ceasefire cannot happen because Hamas needs to be destroyed. And if you are saying that we need to have a ceasefire, how do you counter the arguments from the Biden administration and the arguments from the Netanyahu administration that if you do a ceasefire, then all Hamas is going to do is regain strength and then commit more atrocities against Israel? What’s your response to that? They have a point because Hamas says that’s what they’re going to do. And then we’re just continuing in the cycle of then Hamas does that and there’s more Israeli deaths,” Tapper said.
“Calling for a ceasefire, while I completely sympathize and I’d love the idea of no more innocent people dying, how do you get to a place that it’s not just, OK, ceasefire. Because what we know is that a ceasefire doesn’t stop—Gaza and Israel were in a ceasefire on Oct. 6. So, we know that that’s not a solution, because then Oct. 7 came, so you have to think beyond Oct. 6,” he added.
Tapper, who has never been shy about confronting the issue of antisemitism, addressed the frightening rise in antisemitism that has become global in nature and offered his impression of the current crisis, pointing to what he described as some sort of a failure in the U.S. educational system.
“Somewhere along the line, it started being taught that Jews cannot be victims,” he said. “That’s just what I’m picking up from looking at college campuses and looking at the kind of people that are ripping down the signs of the kidnapping victims. … I’m looking at these people to a degree as victims, too. They have been taught that there is no humanity in Jewish life, that they can look at a poster of a baby or a 3-year-old who is Jewish, who has been kidnapped, and they do not see humanity in that face.”
Referring to the “kidnapped posters,” Tapper noted they were created by artists, not the Israeli government, do not contain an image of the Israeli flag and were likely intended to be as apolitical as possible, yet they have become a hot topic of conversation as some people have taken to ripping them down in anger.
“There are people looking at them and they are seeing politics, and they are seeing a justification for war, and they are seeing Zionism, and they are seeing Netanyahu, and they are seeing a whole bunch of things that the artists, I believe, were trying to avoid. And they are not seeing humanity,” Tapper said. “And the only thing I can interpret is that somehow, somewhere, these people were taught to reject the idea of humanity in these faces.”
Tapper cited various examples throughout history of people being taught that there is not humanity in the faces of certain ethnic and religious groups, which he said is absolutely horrible, and suggested that Jews seem to be enduring that same sentiment today.
“We are now seeing in a generation that has been instructed to value diversity, somehow, something happened where it appears to me that Jews were kind of left out of the picture and I don’t understand why or how that happened, because it does not seem to be necessarily just about Israel. It does seem to be about Jews,” he said.
“It’s one of these things where Jews know that the hate is not just on one side, and sometimes people who are either conservative or progressive pretend that it’s just on the other side, but I think Jews who are honest know that it’s on both sides,” he added.
‘Grounding in the value of debate’
Tapper spoke fondly of his synagogue, Temple Micah, which he called “a very warm and open place, with a lot of Jewish pride.”
He noted that his in-laws, who aren’t Jewish (Tapper’s wife converted to Judaism), used to come with his family to the synagogue when they lived in the D.C. area, and they always felt comfortable there.
“It’s very progressive in terms of social justice and helping the community, helping victims of domestic violence. It’s really just a wonderful and warm place.”
For Tapper, who attended Akiba Hebrew Academy in the Philadelphia area and who proudly wears his Jewish identity on his sleeve, his Jewish upbringing played a prominent role in making him the person and professional he is today.
“Judaism gives you a great grounding in the value of debate, because that’s what the Talmud is—it’s rabbis sitting around and debating. It’s a religion that is rooted in discussion and debate. And that’s just very healthy, I think, as an intellectual pursuit and really good for a journalist, because it really causes you to be steeped in the idea of analyzing and poking and prodding issues from all sorts of sides. And that really stuck with me. Because that was a class we took—Mishnah and Talmud,” he said.
“It [my Jewish education and upbringing] really gave me respect for faith and not just my faith, but all faiths. And so, I have always been acutely aware of my status as a religious minority and been acutely and keenly respectful, or trying to be at least, of other people’s faiths,” he added.
In that vein, Tapper recalled how when Mitt Romney was running for president in 2008 and 2012, he found the attacks on Romney’s faith very offensive. Tapper talked about how mindful he is of the dangers of religious bigotry, pointing out that it’s not just antisemitic religious bigotry, but all types of religious bigotry that should be cause for alarm.
Tapper made headlines last year after Doug Mastriano, the Republican gubernatorial nominee in Pennsylvania, took aim at now Gov. Josh Shapiro, criticizing him for attending a private/parochial Jewish school, saying Shapiro attended a “privileged, exclusive, elite school.” Tapper took umbrage at Mastriano’s statement, which referred to his alma mater, Akiba Hebrew Academy, the same school that Shapiro attended, and denounced him for attacking the Jewish school in an emotional, on-air segment.
“Let’s be very clear. First of all, this is a guy who was allied with a major antisemite, Andrew Torba, who is one of the founders of Gab, which is the number one site for Nazis, where the Tree of Life shooter was hanging out right before he went in and committed the worst act of antisemitic violence and mass murder in the United States, period. Mastriano paid him as a consultant. And that’s who Mastriano hangs out with. That’s his ilk. Mastriano knew exactly what he was doing when he went after Josh Shapiro’s school. And he painted the school in a way that he knew exactly what he was doing, which was to paint the school in a way that was false and in a way that appealed to antisemites, which is to make it sound out of touch and snobby and elite,” Tapper said as he described the incident and made it very clear that Akiba was not “elite” in any sense of the word.
“Anybody who had walked through the halls of Akiba Hebrew Academy, to be told that it was going to be described someday in a campaign as ‘elite,’ it would have amused everybody,” he said. “Akiba was like a parochial school, and it was fine. But it was not fancy.”
Calling Mastriano the “Gab candidate,” Tapper said he understood what Mastriano was trying to do to Shapiro, who is Jewish, “and I wasn’t going to have it, because that was an issue I knew something about.”
“I used to be a lot more quiet about this sort of thing,” Tapper added. “But the antisemites just kept getting louder and louder and louder. And nobody was saying anything. It’s not like other anchors were saying anything. So, I started saying things more. I would love to not talk about this stuff because other anchors were taking up the slack for me, but they’re not, so I’ll say it.”
In addition to being a renowned journalist, Tapper also has a second career as a best-selling author. His most recent novel, All the Demons Are Here, which is a political thriller and the third book in a series about fictional characters Charlie and Margaret Marder and their family, was released this past summer. Tapper spoke about his love of writing, why he was inspired to write this particular genre and how he finds time to write novels in light of his very busy schedule.
“I like [writing] historical fiction, and I like thrillers because I read them. That’s just honestly what I read, so that’s what I wanted to try doing. I’m a history buff, so it’s fun to fun to write,” he said. Tapper noted that he tries to grab at least 15 minutes a day to write, often when his wife takes their kids to school in the morning and before he has his first call with his team at CNN, although he acknowledged that it can be a struggle at times to carve out that time. For a person as busy as Tapper, time is definitely at a premium.
This story originally appeared in the Washington Jewish Week.