Monday, March 04, 2019

How To Avoid the Trap of the House Antisemitism Resolution

Here's a truncated timeline of certain events today:

  1. I read story about the House considering introducing a resolution on antisemitism, "in response" to certain comments by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D). The story indicated that the resolution came about in part due to a letter from Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL.
  2. I called my contact at a major American Jewish organization and left a somewhat frank voicemail suggesting that, unless the House Resolution made crystal-clear that it was not solely addressing Omar but equally targeted antisemitic remarks emanating from Republican representatives -- most notably, the Soros-style "wealthy Jewish financiers 'own' us and are pulling the strings behind the scenes" conspiracy theories -- there would a massive backlash and it would be entirely deserved.
  3. Draft text of the resolution was released (it does not mention Omar, or any other elected official, by name).
  4. The official at the aforementioned Jewish org called me back and I had the opportunity to provide a bit more color to my suggestions regarding how they should handle this situation.
  5. I read a statement from Bend the Arc arguing that the House Resolution is a "trap", in that it functions to single out Omar without any sort of concurrent condemnation of antisemitism from elected Republicans like Jim Hagedorn, Kevin McCarthy, and Jim Jordan.
So, as the day closes, here's my question: How do we avoid the trap? How do we tackle antisemitism in a way that does not give succor to the false narrative that the problem of antisemitism in America is solely represented by Ilhan Omar, and not the vicious antisemitic conspiracy mongering flying through the political right?

The thing is, believe or not -- lots of us fully see the trap. That includes the mainline Jewish organizations. They're frustrated by what seems like the endless foot-in-mouth/apology/foot-back-in-mouth cycle Omar is going through, but they're also frustrated at the expectation that the primary subject of their counter-antisemitism energy should be Ilhan Omar. There are many, many other antisemitic things in the world, and they understand how bad a look it is that Omar seems to be catching the brunt of all the attention. 

We should be casting scrutiny on the Soros-style antisemitic conspiracy theories that run riot through the GOP at its highest levels. When we condemn antisemitism, that should be front and center in our attentions. The fact that it isn't represents a real problem, and Omar and her backers have a legitimate grievance here. There's a reason why I opened my column on Omar by talking about Jim Hagedorn, and there's a reason why nonetheless nobody seems interested in having me write a column or giving a quote on Jim Hagedorn. The "bad look" is, at least in part, a product of a bad reality.

But how do you change that reality?

The text of the House Resolution doesn't single out Omar. It doesn't single out anyone; it names no names. Yet nonetheless, there is no question that it is perceived as a swipe (albeit a sub silentio swipe) at Omar, specifically. Nobody is reading this resolution and saying "wow, the House Democratic leadership is really turning the screws on Jim Jordan!"

Is that reading unfair? The text of the resolution is a bit meandering, but on the whole it focuses on the type of antisemitism -- allegations of "dual loyalty" -- that Omar is alleged to have engaged in. There is no significant mention of Soros-style conspiracy theories; these are at best very briefly alluded to and then dropped. In context, I can't say that readers are unfair in viewing the resolution as targeting Omar. And then we're right back to where we started: a very legitimate grievance Omar and her backers have that alleged antisemitism doesn't seem to matter unless it's being done by people who look like her, in a political climate where there is very real and very dangerous antisemitism that is an exceptionally live part of mainstream conservative discourse.

So the first step -- an obvious step, a step I can't believe I have to suggest because it's should have been blindingly self-evident step -- to avoiding the trap is that the resolution should dedicate equal time to the type of antisemitism that we see on the mainstream political right: conspiracy theories about wealthy Jewish financiers pulling the strings on political and social campaigns, "owning" certain politicians or slyly controlling American society from the shadows. Such antisemitism has a deep historical pedigree in America -- dating at least to Henry Ford, and almost certainly beyond that -- and there is a straight-line between it and such atrocities at the Tree of Life massacre. 

Or put differently, and with apologies to Max Rose, the House shouldn't write a chickenshit antisemitism resolution. The first step to changing the bad optics of the resolution is to change its bad reality, and that makes holding the active forms of conservative antisemitism accountable too.

Would that be enough? It's hard to say. We've gotten very keyed into a narrative whereby if we're talking about antisemitism in American politics, we're talking about Ilhan Omar, and the media hates giving up a perfectly good narrative without a fight. If a few paragraphs about that sort of antisemitism were inserted into the resolution, it still likely wouldn't be seen as an equivalent swipe at GOP antisemitism, even if that was the intent, and even if that was the fairest reading of the resolution. Something has to be done to break the narrative. Somebody has to stop playing the part the narrative insists that they play.

And so my suggestion to the Jewish organization went. I suggested that, if they really wanted to avoid the trap -- if they really were as tired as they said they were about being perceived as one side of a "the Jews vs. Omar" controversy -- they needed to take a bold step:

They needed to insist -- explicitly, and publicly -- that they will not back the House Resolution unless it clearly condemned the Soros-style antisemitic conspiracy-mongering which is the other prominent antisemitic trope currently raging through our polity. They needed to come out and say that an resolution purporting to fight antisemitism is not acceptable unless it speaks out clearly and decisively against that form of antisemitism too.

That'd be a man-bites-dog story. That'd be a case of someone not playing their role. That might actually break the narrative of "the Jews vs. Omar." Might. I'm not confident, because fundamentally I don't believe that the behavior of Jewish groups exerts much influence on how the non-Jewish pres talks about Jews.

Still, as an added bonus, one thing it almost certainly would do is get a change in the resolution text. One has to think that the Democratic leadership thinks that it is satisfying the mainstream Jewish community with this resolution; its concern is how it will be received on its left flank. If it doesn't even have the backing of mainline Jewish groups, and the reason it doesn't have such backing is because the resolution needs to be adjusted to satisfy the concern that it is too soft on the right, then all the vectors of political pressure are in accord, and the resolution will change in a positive direction.

The fact is, it is a trap to agree to premise that the fight against antisemitism in America boils down to a fight against Ilhan Omar. It is a trap stemming from the right -- which wishes to pretend as if their own antisemitism isn't real and doesn't matter; and it is equally a trap emanating from the left -- which wishes to frame the fight against antisemitism as nothing more than the fight to silence politicians like Ilhan Omar. The right wants us to believe that if the House condemns antisemitism in America, they are condemning nobody but Ilhan Omar. And the left wants us to believe the exact same thing.

We need to avoid that trap. I can't make it happen. But if the big Jewish organizations have the guts to do what is necessary and step out from their default roles -- we may just manage to avoid it.

1 comment:

Mikhail Turkhan said...

What a storm in a teacup.

That said, the anti-Zionist movement in America is a bit struck between the extremes of “death to Amerikkka, from the sea to the sea Turtle Island shall be free” and ZOGing.