The conservative Silicon Valley millionaire behind a new campaign to raise the minimum wage in California has received approving coverage from left-leaning media outlets despite his long history of funding anti-Israel activism and inflammatory racial research.
Ron Unz, the former publisher of the American Conservative magazine, has launched a campaign in favor of so-called "living wages." He is sponsoring a California ballot initiative that would raise the state minimum wage from $8 to $12 an hour.
However, these accounts fail to mention that the Unz Foundation issued a grant of $108,000 in 2009 to Norman Finkelstein, a former political science professor, whose 2000 book The Holocaust Industry argued that Jews are exploiting the history of the Holocaust for political gain. Finkelstein, who also compares Israel to Nazi Germany, has been condemned by the Anti-Defamation League.
In an interview with the Washington Free Beacon, Unz called Finkelstein a "very solid scholar," and said he was disappointed when Finkelstein was denied tenure at DePaul University.
Unz has also contributed a combined $60,000 in 2010 and 2011 to Mondoweiss, an anti-Zionist blog, and awarded a $108,000 grant to Paul Craig Roberts, a former syndicated columnist accused of promoting anti-Semitism by the ADL.
Roberts described the United States as "the chattel goods of the Israel lobby" in a 2009 column published in the white nationalist American Free Press. He has called former President George W. Bush a "puppet of Zionist Israel," described Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a "brownshirt," and compared Gaza to a "concentration camp."
Unz grantee Roberts also writes on racial issues, arguing in one column that slaves in the U.S. "were freer than today's American taxpayer. By hard work and thrift, they could save enough to purchase their freedom."
In another column, Roberts suggested that there would soon be ethnic cleansing against white people.
"By the time whites become political minorities, decades of demonization will have prepared the ground for legislation prohibiting their propagation and, perhaps, assigning them to the gulag as a final solution to ‘the cancer of human history,’" wrote Roberts.
Unz said he views Roberts as an important voice.
"I agree with him mostly on the Middle East, but I also agree with him very much on a lot of the economic and other issues he writes about," said Unz.
Unz has also funded several of the "fringe publications" that the ADL singles out for criticism, including $80,000 to CounterPunch and $115,000 to the Randolph Bourne Institute, which publishes Antiwar.com.
He contributed $10,000 in 2011 to If Americans Knew, an anti-Zionist group that advocates against U.S. aid to Israel, and $24,000 to Philip Giraldi, executive director of the anti-Israel Council for the National Interest.
New York Times columnist David Brooks praised Unz in 2012 for an American Conservative essay that questioned whether Asian Americans were underrepresented, and Jewish students overrepresented, in Ivy League schools.
Andrew Gelman, a statistician at Columbia University, described "serious problems with Unz’s methods and his numbers" and concluded that "[l]ooking at the statistics more carefully, we see no evidence that Jews are admitted preferentially compared to other whites."
In the essay, Unz also criticized the alleged overrepresentation of Jews among top university administrators.
Nurit Baytch, in an extensive critique of Unz’s piece, wrote that "Unz apparently regards Jews as an ‘alien presence’ ‘completely misaligned’ in culture, religion, ideology, and ancestry from America’s population."
Unz defended his conclusions.
"As far as I know nobody really found any significant flaw in my analysis," he said.
The writer and former physicist, who made his fortune from Wall Street analysis technology, was the publisher and top funder of the paleoconservative American Conservative magazine from 2007 until this past summer, when Unz claims his "controversial" writings got him axed.
"I had exceeded my permissible quota of heresy, so I got purged," said Unz.
His ouster was a significant shakeup for the small magazine. Unz claimed the final straw was when editor Daniel McCarthy allegedly objected to an article he wrote about the link between race and crime rates, which was bumped from the magazine.
"They said, basically, in a very insulted tone, ‘We've decided not to run [your article], you should go to, like, the racial hate sites and run it there instead,’" said Unz.
"I think what made the American Conservative people so cautious was that whole Jason Richwine controversy [over his writings on IQ and race]," said Unz. "An even bigger thing was that Hunter guy, [former Rand Paul staffer and one-time neo-confederate radio host] Jack Hunter, had been a regular columnist for American Conservative … so I think the TAC people were just very scared about their vulnerability."
According to Unz, he also clashed with the magazine leadership over its financial management and what he described as a "sharp decline" in its website traffic over the past year.
"I was [saying] you have to cut costs, you can't have nine full time employees and also their traffic had been in sharp decline," said Unz. "Personally, I think a lot of the conflict over that racial crime article was more of an excuse to get rid of me."
McCarthy declined to comment.
Unz currently publishes the Unz Review, which includes Juan Cole as a contributor. He also runs Unz.org, a wide-ranging archive of periodicals, books and films dating back to the 1800s.
He has been writing in support of minimum wage hikes for the past several years, arguing that it would discourage illegal immigration by reducing the number of low-paying jobs that are often filled by undocumented workers and minimize the need for public welfare programs by providing livable wages.
Unz’s position is a controversial one. A recent study released by the conservative American Action Forum found that increasing the federal minimum wage would do little to alleviate poverty, as most of the benefits of such wage hikes go to well-off teens rather than the working poor.
He told the Free Beacon that the ballot initiative "would be a perfect focal point for media and public discussion of the issue, and might help drive the debate in D.C. forward as well."
In California, some of Unz’s would-be allies on the left have not embraced his efforts.
"Some of the things [Unz has] said about the minimum wage we agree with," said Steve Smith at the California Labor Federation. "But also he seems to have some anti-immigrant bent to it, in that he believes raising the minimum wage will reduce immigration. Obviously that’s not where we’re coming from at all."
Smith also questioned Unz’s timing. The California labor movement won a major victory in September when a bill to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour was signed into law by California Gov. Jerry Brown. The law will take full effect in 2016. Smith said Unz’s initiative could hurt the labor movement’s future legislative efforts on the issue.
"The timing here is certainly suspicious," said Smith. "To pass a minimum wage increase you need a coalition, and so far it’s a coalition of Ron Unz and that’s about it."
"If the initiative were to fail, the opposition to a minimum wage increase would tout that as a major victory in a very Democratic state, on a core central worker issue, and so certainly we don’t want to see that happen."
Unz said he has not yet tried to coordinate with the leaders of the California labor movement. However, he pointed out that he is not a novice to ballot initiative campaigns, waging a successful battle in 1998 to outlaw most bilingual education in the state.
His minimum wage initiative is pending review by the state attorney general and, if approved, will be placed on the 2014 ballot.