Friday, July 24, 2020

I Have To Talk About Omar and Melton-Meaux, Don't I?

I really don't want to. I really, really don't. But sometimes something falls too close to your wheelhouse to ignore it. And with separate antisemitism controversies hitting both Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and her main Democratic primary opponent Antone Melton-Meaux within a few days of one another, I -- writer on antisemitism and former resident of Minnesota's 5th congressional district -- probably can't sit this one out. As much as I want to. Which I do.

Both candidates are under some fire for things put in campaign communications. Melton-Meaux released an "FAQ" which included the questions "Why do you have so much support from Jewish people/pro-Israel people" and "Will the money you received from the Jewish community influence your policy decisions?" (to the latter of which he replied "no" and noted his opposition to many policies undertaken by Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu). Omar's allies said that by implying that Jews only care about Israel-related issues and supposedly conflating "Jewish people" and "pro-Israel people", he was invoking in veiled fashion a dual-loyalty trope.

Omar sent out a campaign mailer accusing Melton-Meaux of being in the pocket of conservative, big money interests, with all of the named donors being Jewish (plus a "Michael from Scarsdale, New York"). This was alleged by Omar's opponents to be an allusion to his opponent being "bought" by Jews (cf. fellow Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer (R) sending out a mailer naming three Jewish billionaires who had "bought" control of Congress).

What do I think?

Most importantly, while I don't think there is no fire behind this smoke, obviously a lot of the high dudgeon on display here from both sides is really just shots-of-opportunity. That's not exactly surprising, given the nature of politics and all, but still disappointing. I also reiterate my point that while people outside of the 5th District only care about this race for Israel/antisemitism/Islamophobia reasons, the dynamics within the district are generally concentrating on other things (including whether Rep. Omar is more concerned with her national profile than with the particular needs of her district).

On the specifics: Melton-Meaux's FAQ is clearly styled as responding to "questions" that amount to hostile whisper-campaigns (i.e., that he's a stalking horse for far-right Jewish and/or pro-Israel interests). On one level, this is why I don't really see the first question as conflating "Jewish" and "pro-Israel" -- aside from the fact that they are listed separately, in context it denotes two variants of a similar question he receives (and the questioners probably aren't too fastidious about the distinction).

But the problem with such whisper-campaigns is that it can be really hard to respond directly to the allegation without in some way legitimizing or retrenching it. Imagine being asked if a candidate supports "the gay agenda" -- you can't really answer "yes" or "no", because the entire way the question is framed makes answering it a trap. This is why you don't accept your opponents' framing of questions, as any halfway competent campaign should know. Doing otherwise means you suddenly are putting out statements answering questions like, well, "Will the money you received from the Jewish community influence your policy decisions?" There's no good answer to that question, which is a good sign that Melton-Meaux shouldn't be asking it to himself. To the extent that some Jews cringe while reading it, he has no one to blame but himself.

As for Omar. While all of the named persons in her mailer are Jewish, none of them are specifically identified as Jewish (the theme of the mailer is that many of his opponents' donors are backing him solely because they hate her, which is probably true).  But on face, this doesn't distinguish her mailer from Emmer's, or Trump's 2016 "closing argument" ad which featured Hillary Clinton and then three Jews associated with money -- George Soros, Janet Yellen, and Lloyd Blankfein (none of whom were explicitly identified as Jewish either). For those in the right circles, Scarsdale is well-known as a very Jewish and very rich town (hence its appearance in the "JAP battle rap", featuring "two hard-as-nails she-brews from SCARSDALE!"). It is fair to say that few people in Minnesota are likely to know this though (had she called out donors from St. Louis Park, by contrast, everyone in her district would know what she meant even as nobody outside the Twin Cities would have a clue).

On the whole, my real takeaway is feeling more convinced than ever about the need to think about antisemitism less as a question of motives and more as a question of impact. It strikes me as implausible that Melton-Meaux was intentionally trying to antagonize the Jewish community by loudly disavowing his support; it was an awkward effort by a novice campaign staff to respond to a smear -- but one that nonetheless retrenched the perception that the Jewish community is a force one needs to declare his independence from. Melton-Meaux may be a political newbie, but he has an obligation to be attentive to that dynamic and not blunder into traps quite that obvious.

With respect to Omar, I likewise find it highly unlikely that her campaign staff went on a hunt for rich Jewish donors to her opponent in a sly bid to dog-whistle at her opponent being owned by the Jews. Nonetheless, it is probably the case that the Jewish associations of the people cited -- while not likely to be picked up by many if not most of her readers -- likely do help make the attack land more effectively for those who do spot the pattern. I've written elsewhere about how one thing antisemitism does is it greases the wheels of plausibility; when you're trying to tag your opponent as in the bag for big Wall Street money (or Marxism, or "globalism" for that matter) it just feels more right when there's a Jewish hook to go along with it. It's in accord with deep-seated background intuitions, it makes the entire package feel more harmonious. This is one reason why I think someone in the Omar campaign could have reasonably been expected to check and see whether everyone they're talking about is Jewish -- and if not, find some different names (one has to think that there are some non-Jewish rich people who also are pumping money into her opponent's campaign, yes?).

But ultimately, I think this is all relatively small fries. The hypocrisy is perhaps more bothersome than anything else. I get the frustration from Omar's allies that they think she's constantly being pelted with small-ball nonsense on the antisemitism front, and so perhaps they think turnabout is fair play when they can accuse Omar's opponent of being the "dual loyalty" trope guy (you can almost feel the catharsis from here!). But either they think stuff at this level is fair game or they don't; they can't have it both ways unless they really do believe that antisemitism can legitimately be treated as instrumental political football. And on the other side, regarding the conservative media ready to stand up and shout about "yet another instance of Ilhan Omar being antisemitic!" -- unless they're willing to concede that the bulk of the Jewish community was absolutely correct in saying that the contemporary GOP, what with its brazen targeting of Soros, Bloomberg, Steyer, etc., is shot through with antisemitism from root to branch, they need to sit the hell down. As always, however strong or weak you think the case for Ilhan Omar being antisemitic is, it's far less strong than the case for the GOP being antisemitic. If I have to listen to one more attempted gotcha from the Republican Jewish Coalition about Jewish Democrats staying out of the 5th District endorsement game, when they're affirmatively trying to put this guy into a Minnesota U.S. Senate seat, I'm going to have an aneurysm.

Okay, I've done my duty. As a palate-cleanser, please read this lovely column by a Minnesota Jewish Republican explaining, in touching and heart-felt terms, why he considers Ilhan Omar a dear friend. It really is a nice piece of writing from a man whom I have to assume has decided he never wants to have any role in Republican Party politics again, because any public dictation about Ilhan Omar that's friendlier than "she's a she-devil" is grounds for immediate ex-communication from the party. And, just so nobody thinks I'm endorsing one way or the other (I'm not, and will not), read as well this column from Avi Olitzky explaining why he is such a fan of Melton-Meaux.

1 comment:

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.