Sunday, April 10, 2016

Boos and Cheers from Bernie's Harlem Crowd

As many of you know, Bernie Sanders fielded a question at a rally in Harlem yesterday where he was asked about the "Zionist Jews run the Federal Reserve, they run Wall Street." Obviously, this is a very distressing thing. It's not the first anti-Semitic question Bernie has received this campaign, and it probably won't be the last. And I have to say -- as much racist vitriol as I can remember Barack Obama experiencing over the last eight years, I can't remember him getting a question quite like this at one of his own rallies. That this happened is an important testament to the ongoing salience of anti-Semitism in American political life. It falsifies the "nobody would ever say that about Jews" (the ultimate anti-discrimination winners) trope that is so common in American public discourse. Far be it from me to discount that.

I also understand Yair Rosenberg's frustration that Sen. Sanders' response was not as impassioned in denouncing anti-Semitic bigotry as it could have been, though I am also sympathetic to the difficult predicament Bernie was in. It is "easy", in some sense, for politicians to condemn bigotry against groups not their own -- but when they start tackling prejudice against their own people, they're immediately going to be hit with labels like "whiner", "special pleading", and so on. It's why Barack Obama must tread lightly around race, why Hillary Clinton can't be too loud about sexism, and why Bernie Sanders has to keep a low-profile on anti-Semitism. To be clear, Yair is well aware of these restrictions -- I'd wager we only disagree on proportions (I generally am sympathetic to the catch-22 Bernie was in, with a residual sense of unhappiness at Bernie's relatively muted response; Yair is unhappy with Bernie's relatively muted response, with a residual recognition that he was in a difficult situation).

But one thing that hasn't been commented on, which I think also deserves recognition, is the reaction of the largely Black, Harlem crowd Bernie was speaking to when the anti-Semitism occurred. As soon as the anti-Semitism became evident (it was "Zionist Jews" that was the giveaway), the crowd erupted in boos. When Bernie proudly proclaimed his Jewish heritage, the people cried out in cheers. When the questioner attempted to persist in making anti-Semitic remarks, he was drowned out with chants.

There is, as everyone knows, a particular narrative about resurgent anti-Semitism in the African-American community. It goes beyond the banal assertion that there are Black anti-Semites (which there obviously are, as this event demonstrated). It contends that the Black community is particularly anti-Semitic, and that as a community it is at best indifferent to Jewish suffering and at worst revels in it.

Over and over again, this hypothesis has been falsified. When Reps. Cynthia McKinney and Earl Hilliard drew the ire of the Jewish community, both were kicked out of office by their predominantly Black electorate. When Nikki Tinker ran a Jew-baiting campaign to primary out Rep. Steve Cohen (a Jewish congressman representing a majority-black district in Memphis), she got trounced. When Charles Barron's open anti-Semitism won him the endorsement of David Duke in an open New York congressional race ("It's a new morning in America when a white supremacist and a black nationaist can join hands in a shared hatred of Jews."), he was throttled by Hakeem Jeffries. Over and over again, the (very real) anti-Semitic wing of the Black community has vastly overestimated its support among Black voters writ large. And over and over again, the Black community as constituted by its voting public demonstrates in word and deed that they will, in fact, be there for the Jewish community when we need them.

And so I was pleased to note the headline JTA selected for covering this story: "Bernie Sanders’ expression of Jewish pride wins cheers in Harlem." Indeed, and while it is worth pointing out and taking seriously the anti-Semitism and it's worth interrogating why Bernie had to give such a modulated response to it, this is something worth pointing out too.

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