The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No one loses a debate over anti-Semitism. Except Jews.

The politics of condemning Ilhan Omar — or not.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) whispers to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) outside the Capitol during a rally on Friday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Watching the utter disaster that unfolded when congressional leaders suggested making a simple, full-throated condemnation of anti-Semitism this month, I tried to think of something less surprising. I couldn’t. This began badly for the Jews; it ended badly for the Jews; and in the middle was a whole heaping pile of bad for the Jews. The irony was that the resolution wound up rebutting anyone who sees shadowy forces directing Washington. Far from controlling the conversation, Jews are powerless to stop it.

After freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) made the latest in a series of anti-Semitic statements, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had essentially no choice other than to put forth a resolution decrying the kind of rhetoric Omar has been spouting — that Jews are disloyal to America by pushing an allegiance to Israel over the United States. Democrats rebelled. In caucus meetings, Pelosi was ignored. The party finally put forth an All Lives Matter-style resolution crafted to imply that white-supremacy was the reason they were doing this at all, by expanding the language to include condemnations of Islamophobia as well as hatred of African Americans, Latinos, Hindus, Sikhs, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, immigrants, other people of color and LGBT people.

Even for Washington, the cynicism was breathtaking.

But Republicans’ attempts to claim the high ground showed that it’s a hard slog up that hill. The refrain from the right was that, just as the Republican Party stripped Rep. Steve King (Iowa) of his committee posts in January, Pelosi should take tangible, not merely symbolic, action against Omar. To conservatives like me, who have been pressing the GOP to discipline King for his racist statements for years, it’s maddening to watch the party pat itself on the back for finally doing something right. The fact that the GOP punished King once, long after it should have done so, is not a get-out-of-jail-free card, and it’s certainly no occasion for strutting.

The cherry on top of this rancid sundae was that 23 Republicans voted “nay” on the House resolution. Yes, there was good reason for some, like Rep. Lee Zeldin (N.Y.), who is Jewish and was rightly nauseated at the prospect of voting for what amounted to a slap in the face to the Jewish community. But let’s not pretend that King’s “present” vote was a principled defense of American Jewry, rather than a cynical middle finger to the forces of tolerance he thinks unfairly target him.

Who decides when we do — and don't — call out anti-Semitism?

The result of all this showmanship? None of it will hurt anyone involved, politically.

The Democratic Party’s behavior was unconscionable. Freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) led the rebellion against Pelosi’s symbolic denunciation of anti-Semitism, calling the idea of a reprimand “hurtful.” Four presidential candidates — Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala D. Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand — made it clear they feared Ocasio-Cortez, not the speaker. Sanders said umbrage at Omar’s comments was an attempt at “stifling debate.” Harris took it a step further and said those offended were putting Omar in danger. Pelosi has now gotten a humbling lesson in the power of anti-Semitism: It can’t be bribed away with a plum subcommittee appointment or threatened out with a primary challenge.

It’ll cost the party nothing. It’s not like the Jewish vote in 2020 is suddenly up for grabs. Democrats may have thrown Jews who were offended by Omar under the bus, but those voters will file provisional ballots while looking up at the rear axle if they have to. And Republicans who think they don’t play a role in that are fooling themselves. “We finally censured Steve King after he won his ninth term” isn’t the bumper sticker of a party that’s done everything in its power to reach Jewish voters — especially when it’s still led by a president who equivocated on racist, anti-Semitic marchers in Charlottesville.

The false comfort of Trump's condemnation of anti-Semitism

But anti-Semitism is not a partisan issue, no matter how it might have looked in recent days. Anti-Semitism is a virus. It mutates and adapts to survive and thrive under whatever conditions currently prevail. Some Democrats’ defense of Omar held that her utterances weren’t anti-Semitic; they were targeting Israel and its allies in Washington. But anti-Semitism hides easily behind “anti-Zionism.” As Izabella Tabarovsky, who grew up in the Soviet Union, wrote in the Forward about one such case, “It was under the banner of anti-Zionism that Soviet anti-Semitism blossomed.” From the outside, the Soviet campaign against Zionism may have looked like criticism of an external-facing ideology, but to those living under the Soviet thumb, the truth was plain: “We were targets of anti-Semitic insults in the streets. Our educational and professional opportunities were diminished. When I was deciding what college I wanted to apply to to study foreign languages, I learned that my top two schools were off limits to me: They prepared students for careers in foreign service, and these were closed to the untrustworthy Jews.”

Americans cannot fall into the trap of insisting that “the real anti-Semitism” is whatever expression is more ideologically convenient for us to condemn. All anti-Semitism is the real anti-Semitism.

How to tell when criticism of Israel is actually anti-Semitism

And the way we practice politics today is an ideal setting for Jew-hatred to thrive.

The key problem is “negative partisanship,” the way politics has become as much, if not more, about hating the other side as about supporting a particular slate of candidates or policies. In 2016, the Pew Research Center reported that we had reached a milestone: “For the first time in surveys dating to 1992, majorities in both parties express not just unfavorable but very unfavorable views of the other party. And today, sizable shares of both Democrats and Republicans say the other party stirs feelings of not just frustration, but fear and anger.” In 2018, two Stanford political scientists published a study on “partisan strengthening” and found that “today it is out-group animus rather than in-group favoritism that drives political behavior.”

In February, British writer Rachel Shabi explained how, in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, such tribalism served to amplify anti-Semitism — which is also waved away in Britain as mere anti-Zionism: “When complaints of anti-Semitism in the UK Labour Party were amplified by the right of the party, this was seen as another means of undermining the leftist leadership. With supporters of the Corbyn project keen to defend it, anti-Semitism quickly became part of an ongoing factional battle.”

New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, a prominent liberal critic of Omar, recognized this immediately. In an argument that sounded eerily like the intramural GOP battles over Donald Trump in 2016, and whether support for a politician proves sympathy for his or her bigoted ideas, Chait explained: “All these conditions drive many leftists to form a protective cordon around their allies who promote anti-Semitic tropes. Only the most hard-core members actually defend anti-Semitic ideas on the merits. Most of them instead are driven into this position by polarization, defending anti-Semitism as an act of defiance against political enemies inside and outside the party.”

The belief that charges of anti-Semitism are merely one tool being used by establishment politicians to wrest their party back from outsiders is common in the Democratic Party’s internecine battles. “I do not believe that Ilhan Omar is anti-Semitic,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who is Jewish, told Politico. “I absolutely believe that she has become, as a result, a target. I think the Republicans love that, and frankly, I think the media loves to exploit the divisions.”

And in the context of this partisan divide, questioning others’ standing to complain about bigotry is the order of the day. Even many denunciations of Omar include the requisite throat-clearing about the “bad faith” of Republicans leveling the accusations. Republicans do this, too — Barack Obama’s former ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, is a regular target of unfair right-wing attacks along these lines. Americans would be wise to remember that a circle has no exit. The past sins of both major parties will have us mired in endless finger-pointing if we let them.

Here, too, a warning from Britain. As the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland wrote in 2018: “It’s wrong to suggest [British Jews’] true purpose is thwarting the Corbyn project, as if the Jews who demonstrated in Westminster on Monday are pretending to be outraged by anti-Jewish racism when their real motive is stopping the renationalisation of the railways.” Moreover, “what lies beneath such a view is a notion that is itself antisemitic: that Jews do not act sincerely, but always with an ulterior motive or hidden agenda.”

This is the Catch-22 of the Jew. Objections to anti-Semitism are taken as confirmation of the anti-Semite’s accusations to begin with. Americans right now are absolutely obsessed with sussing out ulterior motives. An atmosphere of universal suspicion not only makes it harder to find consensus — it is also, of course, bad for the Jews.

This article has been updated.

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