This is the anatomy of a particular kind of smear, the false and cynical accusation of anti-Semitism. It’s a smear the Republican Party under President Trump has become particularly adept at and enthusiastic about. Here’s how it works:
Step 1: A Muslim Democrat says something about Israel that can be taken out of context, its meaning twisted into something the speaker neither said nor intended.
Step 2: Republicans, full of transparently phony outrage, claim that the statement was anti-Semitic.
Step 3: Conservative media outlets on television, radio and the Internet kick into gear, amplifying and spreading the smear.
Step 4: Mainstream media begins reporting on the “controversy,” framing it as a he said/she said argument, where both sides have an equally valid claim to be telling the truth.
Step 5: Trump spreads the smear on Twitter, multiplying the attention it gets.
That’s what’s happening right now to Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian American in Congress. In a recent interview, Tlaib discussed the fact that the creation of the state of Israel arose out of the Holocaust, increasing the world’s willingness to create a safe haven for Jews. She argued for us to see it as a shared if complicated history of oppression binding Palestinians and Jews together: Jews were slaughtered in Europe, some of those who remained found refuge in Israel, and that refuge was a kind of unwilling gift the Palestinians gave to them — but a gift all the same.
“There’s, you know, there’s a kind of a calming feeling, I always tell folks, when I think of the Holocaust and the tragedy of the Holocaust, and the fact that it was my ancestors — Palestinians — who lost their land and some lost their lives, their livelihood, their human dignity, their existence, in many ways, had been wiped out. . . . I mean, just all of it was in the name of trying to create a safe haven for Jews, post-the Holocaust, post-the tragedy and the horrific persecution of Jews across the world at that time,” Tlaib said.
She added that the events of the past have informed her views on how to approach a solution to the conflict.
“I love the fact that it was my ancestors that provided that [safe haven], in many ways,” Tlaib said. “But they did it in a way that took their human dignity away, right? And it was forced on them. And so, when I think about one-state, I think about the fact that, why couldn’t we do it in a better way?”
There are many ways to look at that history, and what you think of this version of it is not really important. What matters here is that Tlaib was arguing that there exists a bond between Israelis and Palestinians that could be the basis for a peaceful future.
But Republicans plucked out those two words — “calming feeling” — and pounced. Rep. Liz Cheney(R-Wyo.) tweeted, “Surely now @SpeakerPelosi & @LeaderHoyer will finally take action against vile anti-Semitism in their ranks. This must cross the line, even for them. Rashida Tlaib says thinking of the Holocaust provides her a ‘calming feeling.’”
If you read Tlaib’s words and decided that she said that thinking of the Holocaust itself gave her a “calming feeling,” you’d have to be too stupid to be capable of tying your own shoes. Cheney is many awful things, but stupid is not among them. She knew exactly what she was doing. She saw an opportunity to take two words out of context and use them to smear Tlaib, and because she is unconstrained by any concern for truth or morality, she took that opportunity. Her father taught her well.
By now we should be well aware that when someone like Liz Cheney, let alone Trump (who has now tweeted a similarly slanderous charge at Tlaib) accuses a Democrat of anti-Semitism, the chances that the charge is made out of utterly cynical bad faith are approximately 99.99 percent. Nevertheless, they know that a story like this one will be reported as “Republicans Criticize Tlaib Over Holocaust Remarks,” and not how the headlines should read: “Republicans Smear Democrat with Bogus anti-Semitism Charge.”
So let’s get one thing clear: Republicans don’t care about anti-Semitism. If they did, they’d have spoken out about the fact that the president they revere has done more to promote, elevate and validate anti-Semitism than any American in decades. Where was Cheney when Trump said that a rally put on by white supremacists and neo-Nazis where the participants chanted “Jews will not replace us!” was full of “very fine people”? She condemned the Nazis, but praised Trump.
It isn’t some kind of accident that there has been a dramatic increase in anti-Semitic incidents since Trump became president. It’s no accident that many white supremacists and Klansmen were cheered by his election and felt that their hateful beliefs could now be brought into the light. They saw Trump’s long history of racism, xenophobia and, yes, anti-Semitism, and knew he was their guy. That truth will not be obscured no matter how many times Republicans try to smear Muslim Democrats with phony charges of anti-Semitism.
So why do Republicans do this again and again? It serves many purposes for them. It’s possible that some of them actually think it will win them support from American Jews, but that is a vain hope. It allows them to put Democrats on the defensive. And, perhaps most importantly, it serves as a roundabout way of validating their own anti-Muslim bigotry. They’d like nothing more than to draft Jews into the war of civilizations they want to wage against Islam.
But I can promise you this: Jews themselves are not fooled when the likes of Trump and Cheney pretend to care about anti-Semitism. They know whose ideology it is that allows anti-Semitism to thrive. It’s an ideology that demonizes immigrants, that fosters hatred and fear, that fights against pluralism and an inclusive vision of America. That ideology is the enemy of the kind of society where Jewish values are honored and Jews can feel safe.
What Republicans don’t get is that most Jews don’t see the battle against anti-Semitism as separate from a fight against the kind of hate Trump and his party spread. When Trump says that Mexicans are rapists, or proposes banning Muslims from entering the United States, or says we shouldn’t accept immigrants from “shithole countries,” Jews know that those ideas seep out of the same rancid wellspring of hate that has turned on them so many times throughout history. You don’t fight anti-Semitism by joining up with a group of people animated by hate just because — for now — they say their hate isn’t directed at you.
So no, Jews are not fooled. And no one else should be either.