Tuesday, February 09, 2021

How To Meet With the Jewish Community

Contrast two JTA stories of Republican congresspersons who had recently antagonized, or at least raised the eyebrows of, the Jewish community.

The first is Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC), whose lowlights include a slightly-too-excited trip to see Hitler's bunker, appropriation of a poem about the Holocaust, a stated desire to convert Jews to Christianity, and, of course, inciting an insurrection against American democracy. The story is titled "Following a string of controversies, Madison Cawthorn meets with his Jewish constituents", and details the variety of Jewish community members whom he met with, including a local synagogue director,  an area pulpit rabbi, a Jewish educator, the executive director of a Jewish community center and a Jewish conservative activist. A diverse and seemingly plausibly representative bunch. I'm not saying that I think the meeting was or wasn't productive, or that it makes Cawthorn an ally of the Jews. But if you're going to reach out to the Jewish community after a controversy or scandal, this seems roughly like the way to do it.

Compare that with our second contestant, Rep. Mary Miller (R-IL), who gained notoriety for saying "Hitler was right on one thing" just before the Capitol insurrection. The title of this story is "Congresswoman who said ‘Hitler was right on one thing’ meets with rabbis", and my assumption on reading that headline was that she was meeting with local rabbis from synagogues in her district. But I was mistaken: the meeting was actually with representatives from the "Coalition for Jewish Values", a fringe right-wing group that has long carried water for the GOP. They had no particular connection to her district or the Jews who lived within it; the pull quote they offered as an apologetic for Rep. Miller came from a Rabbi residing in Florida.

This is most certainly not how one "meets with the Jewish community." It is the right-wing equivalent of a Democratic politico addressing concerns of antisemitism via a meeting with JVP. In either case, the clear ambition is not to actually hear the perspective of the Jews one represents, but rather to find some Jews who already agree with you and will offer themselves as shields against the communal majority. I have written at length as to why this sort of tokenizing move is an ethical no-no -- for both the tokenizer and the tokenized -- and I reiterate it here. Nobody should be fooled by what Rep. Miller is trying to pull here (and I wish the JTA would update their headline so that it doesn't have the potential to mislead).

(And, by the same token, kudos to Rep. Cawthorn for doing it right. The tokenization move is too easy and one sees it too often, and so while I don't want to give too much praise for doing the bare minimum, I do feel compelled to give at least a tip of the cap to him for avoiding the easiest dodge available).

1 comment:

Benjamin Lewis said...

The tokenizing move is quite easy to describe and recognize (at least for insiders), so "better than that" is useable as a floor/minimum (as you describe). How can we evaluate whether Cawthorne's response is merely meeting this floor, or whether it rises higher? A standard like "endorsement by __% of the aggrieved" would set an equally recognizable brightline, but is unrealistic. (How many Jewish organizations will endorse Cawthorne under any circumstance?)
A big part of this seems to be accessibility, so one prong of the next-step test might be how much cold-call outreach the politico did to relevant orgs and how much they "made space for" whichever relevant citizens committees asked for a meeting? [For example, from my wife and I recently starting to watch The West Wing: S1E05 involves McGarry directing the staff to take meetings with fringe groups like a UFO society.] Of course information about meetings declined probably isn't publicly available, so that's a problem... Other part of this is the authenticity of the listening, that's absurdly hard to assess because no one in politics is going to say "they asked for ___, we decline to support it because ... "
Is there more here, aside from whether people can get access to talk, and whether the politico actually listens? Follow-through on deliverables requested/agreed and on DBAD, obviously, but something else process-based or short-term?