Recent Debates Highlight Democrats’ Antisemitism Blind Spot—But It’s Not What You Think

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Religion Dispatches Politics/Law

Recent Debates Highlight Democrats’ Antisemitism Blind Spot—But It’s Not What You Think

Nylah Burton

Though Democrats have recently sought to condemn antisemitism, by defining it solely in the context of Israel they ironically force American Jews into an impossible situation.

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In the weeks since Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-MN) allegedly antisemitic tweets about U.S. support of Israel sparked a firestorm of controversy, the Democratic Party has taken great pains to distance itself from perceived antisemitism. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduced a resolution opposing antisemitism to the House floor, in plain rebuke of Omar’s comments. However, the response to the disproportionate criticism Omar received suggests that many feel the Democratic Party has a blind spot when it comes to antisemitism.

It would seem as if Democrats push back on antisemitism mainly if doing so serves their own interests. And their interests, in this case, unfortunately involve harmful foreign policy objectives. When pro-Palestinian activists decry U.S. support for the oppressive government of Israel, common Democratic responses are statements that assert U.S. support for Israel is “ironclad and bipartisan.” But while Republican support for Israel is clearly more noxious, bipartisan support doesn’t absolve the Democrats of possessing ulterior motives.

It’s worth noting here that the majority of the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls chose to skip the 2019 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference, citing deep disappointment in the treatment of Palestinians. However, as Kamala Harris’ photo-op with California AIPAC leaders (taken after committing to not attending the conference) suggests, this may be more about the preservation of optics for the sake of a high-stakes campaign.

Like Republicans, Democrats frame their support of Israel as fundamentally American and resulting from the abhorrence of antisemitism. But the Democrats don’t seem interested in the nuances of antisemitism, and they damn sure don’t seem interested in examining their own ingrained antisemitism. Recently at the 2019 AIPAC conference, in a flurry of philosemitism, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced that “Israel at its core is there to shelter an oppressed people,” and that “the [Jewish] people cannot be safe without the security of Israel.”  

If Rep. Omar’s comments invoke antisemitic tropes, then this is clearly an antisemitic trope too, invoking as it does both the specter of rootless, wandering, nationless Jews and dual loyalty to Israel. American Jews have a homeAmericaand it’s worrisome for the Mayor of New York City (which is home to the largest Jewish population of any city, including in Israel) to claim that Jews aren’t safe there.

And yet, De Blasio’s comments have not and likely will not be rebuked by the Democratic Party for invoking antisemitic tropes. For Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, the reason why is two-fold, telling Religion Dispatches that “I think most Democrats don’t have a nuanced understanding of the various shades of the Israel conversation. A lot of people have managed to polarize the conversation in two extremes: that supporting Israel means supporting Netanyahu and the occupation, and that opposing Israel means destroying Israel in every way. It’s clear that there’s willful obfuscating of nuance in those conversations. It’s also about race… how do we think about antisemitism when it’s a white person talking?”

Many Democrats simply refuse to hear complaints of their antisemitism, because they feel that as long as they support Israel, they can’t truly be antisemitic. When many Jews expressed concern over the assumption that Omar’s comments about Israel necessarily referred to Jews (because conflating the Jewish people with the State of Israel is deeply problematic) they were largely ignored, and the rebuke of Omar continued.

Some Democrats simply will not stand against antisemitism if it isn’t connected to the criticism of Israel. And they ignore Jews who say their tactics are harmful. But they shouldn’t ignore that criticism.

By defining antisemitism solely in the context of Israel, as they have in deed if not in word, Democrats force American Jews into an impossible situation, whereby Judaism is conflated with a state that arguably doesn’t care much about Jews, particularly women, LGBTQ people, Ethiopian Jews, Middle Eastern Jews, and converts of color. The resulting perception is that all American Jews are seen as the state’s enablers, a dangerous and unfair situation to force Jews into.

Democrats know that the movement to support Palestinian rights and sovereignty is getting stronger and more effective. The days of being able to silence criticism of Israel with logical fallacies is coming to a close. But “in defense of Jews,” the Democrats are setting us up to be holding the matches when it goes up in flames. Rabbi Ruttenberg says that “Antisemitism is about pointing fingers at Jewish people, [and is] used by people in power to point at Jews to say ‘it’s them that’s to blame, not us.’ And everybody in the House is aiding and abetting [this narrative].”

Ruttenberg also stresses that Democratic support (notably from Sen. Corey Booker) for the anti-BDS bill is “a movement to suppress free speech and criticism of a foreign government. That’s a dangerous precedent.”

Through this, Democrats are pushing Jews into an age-old antisemitic trope of being the ultimate oppressor. At the very least, Democrats should be honest about their own self-interest here, not hide behind Diaspora Jewswho are actually growing increasingly and more deeply critical of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a foreign leader, came to this week’s AIPAC conference and railed against Rep. Ilhan Omar, a U.S. Congresswoman. He obsessed over her as though she was the main threat to American Jews, while barely mentioning the 11 American lives lost in an antisemitic terrorist attack in Pittsburgh or the fact that more hate crimes are committed against Jews than any other religious group in the U.S.

This is an affront, and it should have been addressed by Congress. In fact, it’s more than an affront, it’s a deliberate attempt to skew our sense of reality and warp our perception of threat. This endangers American Jews and it sends a deadly message that the antisemitism of violent white nationalistsand Republicans like Steve Kingpales in comparison to the word choice of a freshman hijabi Congresswoman.

Democrats don’t seem to know or care what the real threats facing Jews are, nor do they seem to recognize the diversityideological, political, and otherwiseof the Jewish community.

Furthermore, for certain issues, bipartisanshipheld up as a moral idealdeliberately attempts to obfuscate moral wrongs. As Americans in a two-party system, we’ve been conditioned to believe that if something has bipartisan support, then it must be moral.

American politics still focuses on that ancient dichotomy of good and evil, reflected in the falsely stark choice between Democrats and Republicans. AIPAC and other lobby groups know this and they intentionally try to manipulate this system. If this op-ed by Forward editor Batya Ungar-Sargon, who writes that “AIPAC is the last vestige of a better America, a bipartisan America, an America that knows how to put aside its differences and get things done,” is any indication, it’s working well.

The focus on bipartisanship as the moral ideal is just another way that American politics warps our sense of reality and morality. Democrats would do well to remember that bipartisan support for Israel does not automatically denote support for Jews, and it especially doesn’t signify the absence of antisemitism.