How Not to Fuel Anti-Semitism When Discussing Israel
House Democrats last week managed to unite around a resolution condemning all forms of bigotry, but debate on the left is still raging about whether Rep. Ilhan Omar’s recent comments, insinuating that supporters of Israel “push for allegiance to a foreign country,” amounted to anti-Semitism.
New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait charged Omar with “directly invoking the hoary myth of dual loyalty, in which the Americanness of Jews is inherently suspect,” while Jacobin’s Seth Ackerman exculpated that the comment “didn’t mention Jews. The words referred to a set of individuals and organizations that insist on unconditional allegiance to Israel and its policies.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, inelegantly, split the difference, describing Omar’s words as having anti-Semitic impact but not questioning Omar’s intent: “I don't think our colleague is anti-Semitic. I think she has a different experience in the use of words—doesn't understand that some of them are fraught with meaning that she didn't realize—but nonetheless, [words] that we had to address.”
Why is this debate so hard for the left to adjudicate? Why is the line separating legitimate criticism of Israeli government politics from illegitimate anti-Semitism so hard to draw?
The reason can be found in what Omar said at the Progressive Issues Town Hall immediately after her controversial comment, which was made in response to a question about how to criticize Israel without suffering charges of anti-Semitism. Here is the relevant passage:
I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country. And I want to ask, why is it OK for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, of fossil fuel industries, or Big Pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobby that is influencing policy?
In Omar’s telling, she is not treating pro-Israel lobby groups any differently than she treats other lobby groups. She is criticizing them all for pressuring politicians to put the special interest ahead of the public interest.
The narrative that well-financed donors and special interest lobbies are what thwart the public will is deeply embedded in our discourse. Just as the left blames Big Oil for our lack of action on climate change, so does the right blame Big Labor for resistance to reform of public schools and government bureaucracies.
We often repeat these sorts of accusations casually, as if they are undisputed fact, not overly simplistic demagoguery. (Even if it is demagoguery, it’s a relatively harmless strain, often based on more than a grain of truth.) However, when we crudely apply the special interest frame to anything related to Judaism, as the recent evidence shows, we play with fire.
Robert Bowers, the man who killed 11 people at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue last October, railed against “ZOGs,” Zionist Operated Governments, on his social media account. During the 2018 midterm campaign, the National Rifle Association accused George Soros, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer – all billionaire donors who are Jewish or have Jewish ancestry – of trying to buy the election, take our guns and usher in “European socialism.” (Then-House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy posted on Twitter a similar swipe at the three men shortly before Election Day, but deleted it after being accused of anti-Semitism.) By the end of the campaign, Soros became a pipe bomb target of the so-called “MAGA Bomber,” Cesar Sayoc.
Of course, Jews are not the only group vulnerable to violence due to dehumanizing bigotry. In 2017, America suffered the biggest jump in hate crimes since the 9/11 terrorist attacks sparked a violent backlash against Arabs and Muslims. African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs, members of the LGBT community as well as Jews have all suffered. We need not treat one group as more victimized than another to recognize the dangers associated with feeding bigoted conspiracy theories.
Should critics of special interest groups and donors be held responsible for the violent actions of a few militant extremists? Not directly. But because loose rhetoric can so easily fuel the insidious conspiracy theories that lead to violence, it is incumbent upon responsible participants in our national discourse to criticize with extreme care and rigorously researched facts. Blithely asserting that a politician’s posture towards Israel is primarily based on weak patriotism, lobbyist pressure and money falls far short of that standard.
What Omar and her defenders chafe at, in Omar’s words, is accusations of anti-Semitism that are “designed to end the debate.” But it is not hard to construct arguments critical of Israeli government policies that do not go near anti-Semitic tropes; there’s nothing bigoted about criticizing the Israeli government’s settlement policies or its efforts to undermine the Iran nuclear deal. The rhetoric only gets uncomfortably conspiratorial when discussing pro-Israel lobbyist influence, and assuming the underlying motives of those lobbyists.
The way to avoid crossing the line into anti-Semitism is to first conduct a thorough assessment of whether unethical lobbyist influence really is distorting the behavior of our government. Then, if so proven, lay out a carefully crafted case that can hold up to scrutiny. If a robust and productive debate about Israeli policies is the objective, then consider whether that objective will be achieved with cheap shots about foreign “allegiance” and clap-back tweets about “the Benjamins,” or with hard facts.
Both the left and the right have a tendency to scapegoat special interest influence as a useful foil for which to galvanize support, and as an excuse to rationalize any difficulty in earning sufficient support. But the obstacles to reform are often more complicated than our preferred pat narratives would suggest, and understanding the complexity is necessary to develop successful strategies. Just because we are comfortable being simplistic when discussing most political issues, that’s no reason to do so on a subject where simplicity is oxygen for hate.