Don’t let demagoguery derail new black-Jewish congressional alliance
Earlier this month, African American and Jewish members of Congress, led by Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), Will Hurd (R-Texas) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), announced the formation of a Congressional Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations.
American Jews — reeling from two deadly attacks on synagogues, violent attacks on Jews on the streets of New York City, and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s vocal attacks on Jews and Judaism — should welcome this initiative as a ray of hope against the backdrop of gathering storm clouds.
So, too, should African Americans who have made substantial social and economic gains since Martin Luther King Jr. led the crusade for civil rights a half-century ago. Today, African Americans and Jews still top the FBI’s annual list of groups targeted for hate crimes, and their houses of worship have been targeted by violent racists. Both have much to gain from reinvigorating the historic alliance of African Americans and American Jews.
While we all agree that a new interfaith, inter-racial caucus should champion efforts to protect every house of worship and to support programs that help all those in need to fulfill the American Dream, there is no clear consensus about how, and even whether, to respond to the phenomenon of anti-Jewish and extreme anti-Israel rhetoric emanating from some members of Congress.
Consider freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who drew attention by accusing Jews of attempting to hypnotize the world by using money’s corrupting power, and tweeted in reply to a journalist’s remark about American politicians supporting Israel: “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.”
Now, Omar has announced that she plans to join the African American-Jewish caucus. Yet, virtually in the same breath, she launched a rhetorical barrage designed to sink this ship before it even left port by smearing Zeldin as a racist. Zeldin has called out Omar for anti-Semitism, but has failed to motivate his fellow House members to denounce her by name.
Omar and her supporters claim to oppose anti-Semitism but refuse to acknowledge their anti-Zionist views are a form of anti-Semitism, as defined by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, a definition adopted by dozens of countries. Omar’s cure for Jew-hatred is akin to announcing a war on cancer but first insisting on removing a new deadly manifestation — anti-Zionism — from the symptoms of the disease.
There can be no broad-based coalition against anti-Semitism that decouples attacks on Israel from the other forms of Jew hatred.
To stop anti-Semitic tropes and virulent libels from poisoning the roots of the new effort for a vibrant African American-Jewish coalition for civil rights, the movement must adopt as a foundational cornerstone the “Three Ds” of Natan Sharansky, Israel’s iconic crusader for the freedom of Soviet Jews. Sharansky took his stand against the Three Ds to signal when legitimate criticism of Israel crosses the line into anti-Semitism:
- Double Standard — singling out Israel for criticism while ignoring egregious behavior of human rights abusers such as Iran, China, Cuba and Venezuela;
- Delegitimization — denying Israel’s legitimacy as an equal member of the family of nations and fundamental right to exist; and
- Demonization — distorting Israel’s actions by insidious, false comparisons with the Nazis or South Africa’s apartheid regime. And now, in 2019, we can add the latest big lie: the ludicrous allegation that Israel is a nation of white supremacists. That would be quite a trick, considering that “white (Ashkenazic) Jews” actually are in the minority in the Jewish State.
Ultimately, the success of the African American-Jewish caucus will depend on people rejecting demagoguery. Instead, we must embrace the enduring truths of others’ pain and hope, and commit anew to our common struggle towards a better future for all.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the associate dean and director of global social action for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Harold Brackman is a historian and longtime consultant for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.