by Mitchell Plitnick
When Donald Trump declared that 70-80% of the U.S. Jewish community (the percentage that is voting Democrat these days) suffered from “a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty,” it set off a firestorm of objections from most of that community. From the center-right leadership of the American Jewish Committee to the left wing, progressive Jewish Voice for Peace, a wide swath of Jews expressed their outrage at the obvious anti-Semitism in Trump’s words.
Of course, the far-right Jews in Trump’s corner supported him. The Republican Jewish Coalition said that Trump was “talking about the survival of the Jewish state,” an argument Trump himself debunked when he clarified his remarks.
But the right was simply playing its role. The real problem came from the reaction of some so-called “liberals,” a reaction rooted in the same dishonesty that frames the entire Israel debate in the United States.
Trump’s anti-Semitism has, once again, diverted the conversation from the millions of Palestinians living with no rights under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. The fallout from Israel’s refusal (at Trump’s insistence) to allow Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib into the West Bank and Israel has shifted completely from the Palestinians—where it was only a partial focus in U.S. discussion of the incident—to a domestic Jewish debate about “dual loyalty” canards and attempts to save a “bipartisan consensus” on Israel that Israel itself has worked to destroy and that, in any case, was always detrimental to the cause of peace and to the future security of both Israelis and Palestinians.
That bipartisan consensus is one of the foundational falsehoods of discourse on the subject of Israel and Palestine. There are many others, despite the best efforts of many academics and journalists over the years—including many Israelis, and quite a few who identify as Zionist or as Israeli patriots—to bring truth to light and to try to shift the debate to a less mythical and mystical, more fact-based one.
In concocting such myths, liberals are often as much the culprits as right wingers, sometimes even more. While Trump spews his toxic anti-Semitism and the Jewish and Christian right scramble to support him, the counter-narrative that is emerging is even more effective at burying the entire issue of Palestinian rights and the Jewish Americans who support them. That counter-narrative is based on the false equivalence fallacy it draws, in this case, between Trump and Tlaib and Omar. But to even do that, the narrative must distort Tlaib’s and Omar’s words and actions, remove them from context, and build up tortured interpretations of what they do and say. And this effort comes not from the Jewish or Christian right but from ostensibly liberal quarters.
The ADL’s Double Standard
Consider, for example, the contrast between two statements by the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt. Regarding Trump, Greenblatt refuses to accuse the president—a man who has repeatedly made blatantly anti-Semitic remarks, has had known neo-Nazis on his staff, and not only incited the massacre of Jews in Pittsburgh last year, but then showed no respect to survivors by ignoring their request that he stay away—of anti-Semitism. “As we’ve said before, it’s possible to engage in the democratic process w/o these claims. It’s long overdue to stop using Jews as a political football,” Greenblatt tweeted. After a barrage of criticism for the incredibly weak statement, he elaborated, sharpening his criticism, but still stopped short of accusing Trump of anti-Semitism.
Back in March, though, he was not so timid in complaining about a powerless freshman congresswoman of color, a Muslim, and an immigrant. Regarding Ilhan Omar, he directly accused her of lying before listing the many ways that anti-Semitism is growing—implicitly linking this phenomenon to Omar—and then, in case there was any doubt, explicitly called Omar’s words anti-Semitic.
As one might guess, the statements by Omar that Greenblatt was referring to were complaints about being pressured to support Israel unconditionally, a pressure every member of Congress feels. That is a simple fact, which anyone who has ever worked on Capitol Hill knows, despite the many efforts to twist it into an anti-Semitic trope. Granted, Omar framed her complaints in such a way that they rang an anti-Semitic alarm bell for most Jews who heard them, but it took very little to actually look at her statements and realize that they could not possibly mean that she was accusing Jews of dual loyalty, as so many anti-Semites, including Donald Trump, have done.
In February, Omar had said, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” In March, she tweeted “I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee.” It’s clear why this might hit Jews who have faced anti-Semitism on a visceral level and cause a reaction.
But it’s equally clear that all Omar was guilty of was a poor choice of words. She was not impugning the loyalty of Jewish Americans but was saying that the pressure to support Israel unconditionally was so extreme that it amounted to treating Israel’s interests as she would those of her own country. That is a statement about the most powerful and effective foreign policy lobby by far, a point which AIPAC itself takes pride in. Considering that Christians United for Israeli (CUFI) is one of the key components of that lobby, as are the arms and technology industries which take in most, and soon, all, of the aid that the U.S. gives to Israel each year, it’s hardly an anti-Jewish statement. Unless you’re Jonathan Greenblatt.
The ADL has lost a lot of credibility because of its willingness, even eagerness, to compromise its most basic principles to shield Israel from the consequences of holding millions of people with no civil or human rights for over half a century. This is unfortunate, because their work on issues that don’t bear on Israel is often of exceedingly high quality.
Blaming Both Sides
The ADL is hardly alone in this effort. The online newspaper The Forward has targeted Omar and Tlaib in an almost fanatical fashion. Nylah Burton, writing in the progressive Jewish magazine, Jewish Currents, wrote back in May, “When [The Forward’s] “bothsidesism” spilled over into mainstream politics this past February, with [Forward Opinion Editor Batya] Ungar-Sargon personally fanning the flames of a dangerous situation in an interaction with Rep. Ilhan Omar, many of us felt it was a defining moment.” Burton described how Ungar-Sargon stonewalled not only her but other Jews of color who were uncomfortable with the attacks on the first-term congresswomen. When The Forward used their attacks on Omar in a fundraising email, a number of their contributors—Jews of Color and some, like myself, who stood in solidarity with them—publicly declared they would no longer write for Ungar-Sargon.
After Israel barred Omar and Tlaib, a decision Ungar-Sargon says she disagrees with, she unleashed unrelenting attacks on the congresswomen, criticizing them for circulating a cartoon that she argued was anti-Semitic. The artist, Carlos Latuff, has been credibly accused of anti-Semitism, and I agree he has crossed the line more than once into outright anti-Semitic imagery, but this particular cartoon merely showed Trump and Netanyahu each stretching a blue-clad arm to silence one of the congresswomen, with a Star of David between them to make an Israeli flag. Hardly anti-Semitic given what had just happened, and it takes a strong determination to twist the facts to depict it as such. Since it’s unlikely that Omar or Tlaib know who Latuff, is, the idea that this was anti-Semitic on their parts doesn’t pass the laugh test.
As blatantly disingenuous as they both are, no one is arguing that Greenblatt and Ungar-Sargon should not be able to air their views. But a credulous media that doesn’t know better is treating them as liberal arbiters of anti-Semitism. This is intolerable, as both have demonstrated that they will jump at the opportunity to shield Israel from criticism and to attack those whose priority is not the maintenance of a “Jewish and democratic state of Israel”—which never existed and which Israel’s government is not even trying to be any longer. For Omar and especially Tlaib, the priority is Palestinian rights and that comes first. That is not a position everyone has to share, but if you want to call yourself fair-minded at all, it is certainly one that should be respected and not attacked and intentionally distorted.
When Congressman Ted Lieu (D-CA) tweeted at U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman that “Your allegiance should be to America, not to a foreign power,” he was guilty of a very poor choice of words that reflected an anti-Semitic trope. Lieu was remarking on Friedman’s performance as ambassador, a performance which cannot realistically be characterized as promoting U.S. interests. Indeed, one can credibly argue that Friedman hasn’t even been promoting Israeli interests, but only those of the most extreme right wing in Israel, which Freidman has been a part of for many years. The pro-Israel peace group, Americans for Peace Now, makes that case convincingly, simply by detailing his record, setting aside the question of “loyalty.”
But Ungar-Sargon flatly stated that Lieu accused Friedman of “dual loyalty,” even though Lieu apologized immediately when he was made aware of the implications of the language he used.
This is a very dangerous development. It does not merely trivialize the threat from right-wing anti-Semites to the lives of Jews, as well as to people of color, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and others; it also serves to suppress once again the discussion of Palestinian rights. With Gaza on the verge of an unprecedented ecological and humanitarian catastrophe, the increasing despair and degradation of the West Bank, and the ongoing efforts by many leaders to simply forget the Palestinians, suppressing that discussion becomes even more dangerous.
Ungar-Sargon and Greenblatt, who have become the mainstream media’s favorite Jewish, liberal sources on anti-Semitism, are blurring these issues. They thereby make it more difficult for progressives and Palestine solidarity activists to call out real anti-Semites in their midst, which is something that has happened on numerous occasions despite the frequent accusations to the contrary.
The attacks on Omar and Tlaib are based on disingenuity and bad faith, combined with some poor word choices on the parts of the congresswomen that left them vulnerable to these attacks. Of course, most of us would occasionally make such errors if every single word we said were parsed the way theirs are.
But if left unchecked, these attacks will deepen the conflict between progressives in the Democratic party, who want to see Palestinians get the rights to which they are entitled and which we all take for granted, and the lock-step “centrists” who are dooming hopes for both Palestinians and Israelis. That’s a conflict whose only winners will be the extremists in the Republican party. It is imperative that truth be spoken and that anti-Semitism, like racism, Islamophobia, misogyny, homo/transphobia, and fanatical nationalism be called out regardless of the source and the politics around it. But the only way to do that is with honesty and a commitment to fighting anti-Semitism wherever it exists, and not by trying to imagine it into existence where it does not. That’s where Greenblatt and Ungar-Sargon are failing, and misleading many others toward a tragic end.