Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
Anti-Semitism – the prejudice that refuses to die – has once again burst onto the global scene, and Americans are struggling to figure out what to do about it. The hatred may be ancient, but the response so far in the United States has been very much of our time: dominated by partisan finger-pointing, defensive recriminations and accusations that only the other party is to blame.
Judging by how intensely Republicans and Democrats reject anti-Semitism by members of the opposite party, they should be able to agree on a common approach to tackling a problem that is already growing at an exponential rate in Europe and has a millennial history of devastating societies that let it fester.
From the days of George Washington, the United States sought to stand above the grimy hatreds of the Old World. Now Americans again have a chance to show there is something different about a country founded by idealists and move beyond shortsighted political wrangling toward a higher goal. But is the current crop of politicians capable of acting beyond immediate partisan interest?
Republicans are no doubt delighted to see Democrats divided over how to handle the latest offensive statements from freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar, who has become an unwitting teacher of anti-Semitism, reverting to the classic themes of the old hatred as she seeks to question US support for Israel.
Instead of plainly criticizing US policy – which is not only permitted but also done repeatedly and vigorously – she has taken to questioning the motives of Americans who advocate a strong relationship between the United States and the Jewish state, last week suggesting that Americans who support Israel have an “allegiance to a foreign country.”
This comes on the heels of bipartisan condemnation of similar comments she made this year.
In January, Omar defended a tweet from 2012 in which she claimed that Israel has “hypnotized” the world and asked, “Allah to awaken the people and help them see the evil doing of Israel.” Omar tweeted in the midst of significant violence; in defense against rockets fired into civilian territory, Israel had launched airstrikes in Gaza that killed civilians.
After criticism earlier this year, she acknowledged that her comments were “unfortunate and offensive.” The following month she apologized “unequivocally” after claiming it was “all about the Benjamins,” meaning support for strong US-Israel ties was motivated by money. In both tweets, which have been deleted, scholars say Omar was echoing the tropes, the themes of anti-Semitism through the ages, painting Jews as disloyal, sinisterly powerful financiers.
Omar’s recognition that her words were hurtful has been inconsistent at best.
When Rep. Nita Lowey complained in a tweet that Omar “continues to mischaracterize support for Israel,” Omar doubled down, twisting the facts, responding that “I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country.” But that was clearly not what Lowey implied.
Omar was again creating a unique cloud of doubt surrounding support for Israel-US relations. The problem is not her criticism of Israel, no matter how often she claims it is, it’s her questioning of the integrity and patriotism of those who disagree with her on the subject.
In the aftermath of her comments, Democrats debated whether to introduce a resolution condemning anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice, but a vote on the resolution was postponed indefinitely on Wednesday when discussions on the topic became heated. The House of Representatives did pass a resolution Thursday firmly condemning anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry, including anti-Muslim bias. All 23 no votes came from Republicans, with Rep. Steve King of Iowa voting “present.”
Democrats missed an opportunity to confront anti-Semitism with the single-minded focus it requires.
And there were earlier reports that Democrats might dilute the resolution, cowering away from calling out anti-Semitism, a profound disappointment to many Jews hoping to see Democrats launch a frontal assault against anti-Semitism in America to prevent matters here from escalating as they have in Europe.
Sen. Kamala Harris was among those that, while saying anti-Semitism is wrong, as is any kind of hatred or discrimination, expressed concern about putting a spotlight on Omar, who has been targeted by anti-Muslim slander. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez lamented that there are no reprimands over other forms of prejudice, for example. As if that in any way diminished the problem with Omar’s words.
Democrats also fired back at the supposedly indignant Republicans, pointing to the anti-Semitic tropes in previous tweets from Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, Rep. Jim Jordan and, above all, President Donald Trump, who opened the gates to extremists with countless statements, topped by his “fine people on both sides” comment about the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, who chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”
There is hypocrisy and whataboutism on both sides.
There is also a dangerous surge in anti-Semitism in much of the world. Some research has found most perpetrators hold extreme-right ideologies, but anti-Semitism is also growing on the left. In addition, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted, some of the new arrivals in Europe come from countries rife with anti-Semitism, adding fuel to Europe’s flames.
In Germany, a former president of the Central Council of Jews said she “never thought it could get so bad again,” as anti-Semitic attacks become more common and Nazi salutes reappear (as was widely reported during violent protests in Chemnitz last year) on German streets. In France, the government says anti-Semitic acts jumped 74% over the last year. Desecration of cemeteries, spray-painting of swastikas and violence are occurring with greater frequency. A gunman hunted down and killed children in a Jewish school in France a few years ago; another killed four at a Jewish deli, to name just a few. The deli was destroyed by suspected arson on the anniversary of the attack.
In the UK, the Labour Party is coming apart over accusations from some journalists, politicians and other observers that it has become a hotbed of anti-Semitism under leader Jeremy Corbyn. Nine members of Parliament have left Labour after reaching the “sickening conclusion” that it has become what they call “institutionally anti-Semitic.”
After hundreds of anti-Semitism complaints, nearly 85% of British Jews agree, according to a poll conducted for The Jewish Chronicle, with nearly 40% saying they would leave the country if Corbyn becomes prime minister. Nine in 10 European Jews say anti-Semitism has increased in their country, while eight in 10 say it has become a serious problem.
But it’s not just Europe with the problem. The United States just saw the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in its history when a man killed 11 at a Pittsburgh synagogue, allegedly shouting that “all Jews must die.” In 2017, the FBI noted that anti-Semitic attacks in the US were also climbing. Jews made up the majority of religious-based hate crimes incidents, at 58. 1%, followed by 18.6% against Muslims.
There is a long distance between ugly tweets and physical attacks, but the world has vast experience with the process. The ideologies of prejudice carve a path to violence.
Despite the hypocrisy of partisanship and self-defeating defensiveness of whataboutism, there is, if we look closely, a consensus amid the finger-pointing.
The vast majority of Americans, including political leaders, reject anti-Semitism. In an era of inflamed divisiveness, wouldn’t it be sweetly ironic if Americans from all parties and all religions found the courage to for once put aside partisanship and come together to reject the prejudice that refuses to die?
This article has been updated to reflect news of the House resolution.