Antisemitism isn’t a partisan issue — it’s a crisis both parties must fight together
One of us is a Texas Republican who served under President George W. Bush. The other is a former Democratic congressman who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In spite of our differing backgrounds, we are deeply concerned at how antisemitism has become a partisan debate. This must end.
Antisemitism is being reduced to ‘what-about-ism’ — a race to the bottom over which political party has the most odious antisemitic activity. One side points to the grotesque equivocation by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) of the Holocaust and COVID-19 masks; the other side asks what about the similarly grotesque trope about Jews from Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) when she said, “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.” One party points to the escalating violence against Jews by the left-wing, progressive, anti-Israel protesters in New York; the other party responds with the torch-bearing neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va. None of this bodes well for American Jewry — much less American democracy.
The bitter truth is that this isn’t a Republican Party or Democratic Party crisis, this is an American crisis. We are turning antisemitism from what it is — hatred of Jews — to what it should not be: a matter of partisan bickering.
Antisemitism is not new in America, but reducing it to a partisan football certainly is. It has plagued us since the first Jews arrived from Brazil in the 1650s. It has ebbed and peaked for centuries. But fundamental to America was George Washington’s description in his letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport: “grant bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Sadly, today, we sanction bigotry and assist persecution when we downplay the embers of hate growing in our own parties and deflect to the failings of the other. Instead of isolating antisemitism from partisanship, we engage in selective condemnation of antisemitism. The result: The hatred of Jews joins the deafening, numbing echo chamber of partisan warfare. It is reduced, diluted to just another battle between Democrats and Republicans.
Antisemitism is not deterministic. Statements by the right and the left have downstream effects that compound and accelerate. Soundbites from influential figures carry weight to their respective constituencies. If we do not confront the problem of antisemitism in a bipartisan way, we fan its flames. And one thing that Jews know bitterly is that once the flames start, they soon sweep out of control. David Duke and Louis Farrakhan are both vile antisemites. Their views should not be used to score a partisan point but should be quashed and whisked immediately to the distant and irrelevant fringes where they belong.
We must agree on certain realities.
First, the violence that we have witnessed on the streets of New York and Charlottesville simply does not represent the mainstream of either the Democratic or Republican parties. They represent far-fringe movements, which are out of bounds of the normative American political establishment.
Second, both parties do have, in their midsts, varying degrees of antisemitism. It is sometimes nuanced, and other times overt. It takes the form of subliminal biases, quiet double-standards, and even fiery congressional speeches and animated convention debates.
Third, the more attention we give to finger-pointing about which party’s antisemitism is worse, the more we legitimize antisemitism in American politics and dilute its real effects at the same time.
We are not interested in which side of the partisan scale weighs more. We are interested in a vast center that anchors America in the aspirations, at least, of equality, opportunity, and justice for all.
Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.
Fred Zeidman is the co-chairman of the Council for a Secure America. He is on the board of the Republican Jewish Coalition and is the chairman emeritus of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, appointed by President George W. Bush. He is chairman of WoodRock and Company.