The Defense of Bigotry

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote about the media’s coverage of events in Israel in 2014:

Criticism of Israel is not antisemitism, but demonization is. This matters because antisemitism is not really about Jews. It is about how societies treat the Other, the one-not-like-us. For more than 1,000 years Jews were the most conspicuous non-Christian presence in Europe. Today they are the most prominent non-Muslim presence in the Middle East. Jews were hated because they were different. But it is our difference that constitutes our humanity. Because none of us is the same as another, each of us is irreplaceable. A nation that has no room for difference has no room for humanity. The hate that begins with the Jews never ends with the Jews.

American Jews are devoted, especially those of us who do significant social justice work and work with immigrants, to advocating for those communities, to embracing and cheering their success, especially when they take on our concerns of social justice themselves, amplifying our voice in favor of those who are oppressed, those who face challenges not only in distant lands, but in our local communities.

We are advocates for our nation to extend its hands to the poor, open its doors to those in need; a nation that realizes as Rabbi Sacks stated, “none of us is the same as another, each of us irreplaceable.” When groups of people are bullied, persecuted, or worse, we, Jews, “Remember,” “Zachor.” We know what it’s like to need to escape, to need to find a place of refuge, and to arrive in a place wherein we look differently, speak differently, dress differently, believe differently, and are viewed with suspicion even by those who did not slam the door in our faces or construct barriers physical or otherwise to keep us out. Our hearts ache for the families fleeing to our borders.

Does this mean that we are opposed to border security? To concern about threats that could cross the border? No. But it does mean that when a vehicle approaches the border or we see women and children on foot trying to sneak across to safety for fear that if discovered they would be turned away, we do not think solely or primarily about Fentanyl or MS-13.

We think about people like my father’s mother, who as a toddler snuck across a border in Eastern Europe hidden under a blanket and straw being kept quiet by her older sister, afraid of being discovered by the Cossack guard, who would likely have done more to them than turn them back.

We think of people like my mother’s mother, who with an American husband and two American children, had overstayed her visa in this country because going back to Germany in the 1930s was nothing short of a death sentence. She ended up deported to Cuba, where she spent a month before being allowed to reenter the country. Today, that month would have been ten years.

We think as well of the places that thankfully offered refuge for the Jewish people and of the places that distressingly did not or did not do enough, perhaps not quickly enough. Too many of those places did not do so because of their own hatred of Jews. Some just prioritized things other than concern for the Jews.

In relation to this, Jews have been looking at the political situation in Europe with increasing distress. The fact that the Labour party in Britain is led by someone, Jeremy Corbyn, whom 85% of Jews in Britain believe is Antisemitic is a big problem. Over 40% of Jews in Britain in a recent poll said that they would at least consider leaving Britain if Corbyn becomes Prime Minister.

Jeremy Corbyn’s policies on the whole are very similar to those espoused by the Democratic Socialist movement in this country including in relation to Israel. One of the distressing statements made this week by newly elected members of Congress was this one by Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez in a Tweet, “It was an honor to share such a lovely and wide-reaching conversation with you, @jeremycorbyn!”

Wait, what? How many here would be happy if one of our legislators suggested that they were honored to have such a lovely and wide-reaching conversation with a known virulent racist? The response from the Jewish community was both outrage and concern. Eventually, Ocasio-Cortez responded that she would have her office reach out to talk with Jewish supporters about their concerns.

More prominent in the news this week were the words of another Congresswoman. Representative Ilhan Omar is a refugee from Somalia. Many of us cheered her election, bringing a new diversity to Congress. Omar has faced and continues to face all sorts of bigoted sentiments. She is not only a Muslim, she wears a hijab, the first member of Congress to do so. Omar could be a tremendous role model for a large number of Americans, an immigrant whose religion is different, whose dress is different, whose speech is different. Unfortunately, her awareness of things like classical Antisemitism is also different.

When Omar responded to a tweet about opposition to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel, which she supports, with “It’s all about the Benjamin’s baby!” Meaning, money being used to pay off Congresspersons. And then when asked who she believed was doing so, responded with “AIPAC,” the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, which not only doesn’t make campaign contributions but doesn’t even endorse candidates, it set off alarms in the Jewish community again.

Now, first, I think it reasonable to argue that Omar could have phrased her concerns differently, in a way, that didn’t amount to essentially saying, “Jews are paying members of Congress to take positions that they otherwise would see as wrong.” She seemingly tried to do so in her later apology in which she argued against the influence of political organizations, connecting AIPAC with the NRA, but I’ll  address that in a moment..

Second, while AIPAC does not make direct donations or endorse candidates, its supporters do. So there is some truth to the contention that Jewish supporters of Israel donate money to campaigns.

“She just didn’t say it like she meant to say it,”

her supporters suggest.

“Look at the financial influence AIPAC has!

Look at all the money those rich Jews donate!”

Friends, that explanation, now normalized among a vast number of people on the political left, is a rationalization actually far more concerning than what Omar initially stated, yet many Jews nod vigorously when they hear it. Very similarly to those on the right, who nod when discussion turns to references to George Soros and malign intent from financial backing supposedly conducted in secret. These accusations are so normalized that large swaths of both the Jewish political left and right might well rise to defend not only their application by political activists, but refuse to consider even the possibility that their primary impact is to play on traditional anti-Jewish sentiments.

The issue isn’t that Jews donate money, is it?

Is it evil for Jews to donate money to candidates and causes that they support? Because that is at the basis of the assertion about Jewish money being donated and clearly that is the basis of both Rep. Omar’s initial statements and her “apology.” Her connecting AIPAC with the NRA and fossil fuel industry was intended to argue that the financial influence of all of these organizations manipulates Congresspersons into supporting causes that they know are wrong.

Think about that for a moment. Rep. Omar’s “apology” for suggesting that Jews essentially bribe or extort politicians into supporting causes that she and other anti-Israel activists believe they clearly must know are evil is to suggest that Jews are joined in promoting evil in this way by the gun and fossil fuels lobbies. Her “apology” was in reality an attempt to blunt a focus on Jews, but not to alter the problematic assertion.

It’s sort of like a racist child telling a young dark skinned classmate that the only reason anyone invites them to a classmates’ birthday parties is because she’s rich and then apologizing for hurting her feelings through blatant racism by suggesting that in her mind the black girl is not alone in only being tolerated by people whose racism is clearly justified by arguing that people of other races are only tolerated for that reason as well. Would anyone not consider that racist? Stormfront couldn’t have done better.

It wasn’t all that long ago in this country that all of this would have been blatantly obvious and roundly condemned.

Jonathan Freedland, in an article for the Guardian about Antisemitism in the British Labour party wrote:

What has Jews anxious now is the resurfacing of old-school antisemitism, unmoored to the conflict in the Middle East. They are hearing again all the old tunes – Rothschilds, conspiracy, money – replayed on a leftist keyboard…

Remember, antisemitism differs from other racisms in its belief that Jews are the secret masters of the universe, pulling the strings that shape world events – and always for the sake of evil. Once you swallow that canard and see the Jews as the wielders of clandestine, malign power, why, then it becomes your duty as a good leftist to fight the Jews…

And so we see the efforts of American leftists, including no few Jewish ones, just as we find in Britain, supporting accusations obviously based in Jew-hatred, promoting conspiracy theories about Jews wielding “clandestine, malign power.”

The conclusion drawn by Jonathan Freedland about the Labour party in Britain is very much one of concern today in America.

A change in the political climate could have a concrete effect on Jewish life in this country. Less tangibly, it’s the cast of mind, the way of thinking, that antisemitism represents that we should fear. Conspiracy theory, fake news, demonization of an unpopular group: what happens to our politics if all these become the norm? This is why Jews have often functioned as a canary in the coalmine: when a society turns on its Jews, it is usually a sign of wider ill health.

Put another way, hasn’t history shown us that racism never stays confined to mere “pockets”? Once the virus is inside, it does not rest until it has infected the entire body.

Virtually every major issue seems to be about bigotry of some sort.

Think  about what we see in the news my friends. A large percentage of all of the news being discussed has something to do with bigotry. It isn’t merely bigoted accusations against minority groups based upon racial, religious, ethnic, or gender stereotypes that are a problem, advocates for the bigotry go to great lengths to promote their arguments and, worse, supporters of those advocates rush to their defense with rationalizations.

“It’s not what he or she meant!”

“Look, I know that is offensive, but it’s true! See this?”

“What about this evidence?”

Of course, the evidence is taken completely out of context and twisted to fit the narrative.

The application of the principle of intersectionality, a primary philosophy on the political left, that oppressed minorities must band together and advocate for each other’s causes, has significantly resulted in political and social activists coming together to defend their fellow oppressed minority’s bigotry against Jews, often misrepresented as “Anti-Zionism.”

We have a great deal of work to do. The one thing that is an unacceptable response is silence.

Racism, Antisemitism, and bigotry in other forms cannot become normalized in our society.

But it does not take much of an effort if one looks at the news to see that they are well on their way to being exactly that.


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1 Response to The Defense of Bigotry

  1. Rabbi David Ostrich says:

    What strikes me about the “Jews use money to buy influence” complaint is the fact that the Arab/Palestinian viewpoint has been financed and pushed by a economic and political entity with more money that the Jews have ever dreamed of having: Saudi Arabia. From the early 1970s, the Saudis have been buying newspapers and magazines and employing public relations firms to present themselves and the Arab world in favorable light. All that oil money and 50 years of influence! And AIPAC has a few million dollars. Wow!

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