Why Ambassador Dermer is wrong about Southern Poverty Law Center


Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, recently referred to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as “defamers and the blacklisters.”

In a time when we sit at our computers furiously preparing for arguments we’ll never have with people we’ll never meet whose opinions we’ll never change, I won’t presume to discuss the events leading to Dermer’s comments.

What I will discuss is the SPLC and why, no matter what the circumstances, Dermer couldn’t find an organization less deserving of his criticism.

In the heart of Montgomery, Ala., is a looming, six-floor high-tech fortress where 248 people do nothing all day but fight hatred in the United States. Without propaganda, they wage their wars through the courts, through schools, through meticulous intelligence gathering. Without guns, they take on the Ku Klux Klan, the neo-Nazi movement, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, Black separatists, anti-government militias and Christian Identity adherents. Without being asked, they answer back. 

Where the people of the Southern Poverty Law Center find it within themselves to dedicate their lives to protecting all that’s good in America is a mystery roughly equivalent to man’s entire passage through the Stone Age. Many of these people — married, with kids, worries, minivans and mortgages — take evasive-driving classes because fighting hate in this country is a wickedly dangerous business. 

But that’s what they do and have done for 46 years. They fight hate. 

The center’s work is so comprehensive, the FBI, The New York Times,  The Washington Post and the Anti-Defamation League consult the Law Center for intelligence on hate groups throughout the United States. In 2009, when the perfect storm of a bashed economy and a Black president caused a horrifying spike in these hate groups, the Law Center was the primary vigilant opposition — a responsibility most Americans mindlessly shirked. 

Also unlike most Americans, the SPLC doesn’t occupy a bubble in which discrimination against, say, Latinos is unacceptable but bias against, say, Muslims is OK. Whatever the groups — Blacks, Mormons, Native Americans, LGBT, Jews — the SPLC stands up for their rights to be fully blessed Americans. 

I don’t know how boned up on American history Dermer is, but before aspersing the SPLC he should pause a moment and consider its location. Montgomery, Ala., is an epicenter of America’s shameful — and triumphant — civil rights history. American Jews risked — or lost — their lives to be on the right side of that history. If ever there was a moment in time to be proud of the Jewish role in American life, that was it. 

With several Jews among its leadership and legal team, the SPLC is still in that role, still in the game, still running on the right side of history. With a moment’s deliberation, hopefully Dermer would see that one difference of opinion hardly merits the full-frontal, verbal assault he blew south toward Montgomery.  

Personally, I find it deeply depressing that so many of today’s American Jews have become so distanced from the kind of social consciousness our parents and grandparents exhibited. Worse yet, it’s dreary to see how a vocal minority of Jews have drifted right toward being single-issue citizens. Yes, we liberal Jews love Israel. We are proud of Israel. We defend Israel fiercely. But when so many American Jews focus their attention and cast their votes purely on the issue of Israel — to the exclusion of concern over racism, sexism, environmentalism, wealth disparity, guns, health care, Russia, redistricting, the death penalty, fracking, homelessness, minimum wage, education, refugees, famine, genocide — we not only lose our socially conscious past, we become unworthy citizens of America. And when we mutely excuse Israeli actions we deem provocative and wrong, we become unworthy supporters of Israel. 

It seems unlikely that a man as educated and worldly as Dermer is blind to the tightrope on which American Jews balance. However, his attack on SPLC indicates a certain lack of sync with the best of American Judaism. So, just to clarify: We are Jews and Americans, even as the best of us hopscotch back and forth, minute to minute — are we Jews first or Americans first?  

Being an Israeli Jew, while a thousand times more perilous, is ideologically simpler. Israeli Jews are surrounded by a hostile Muslim world bent on their destruction. Vigilance and suspicion are, unfortunately, necessities of daily life. But no matter how strong our ties to Israel, American Jews are obliged to breeze safely through our lives while insisting on equally safe lives for Muslim Americans. Our rights are theirs. Standing up for them, along with every other bias-stained group, is what we do.

That is why Dermer’s appearance at an award ceremony held by the Center for Security Policy, a think tank that clearly espouses anti-Islamic views and conspiracies, sparked the crossfire between him and the SPLC. 

(Oh damn. I said I wouldn’t discuss the events leading to this debate but … what can I say? I was a journalist before lapsing into the comedy field.)

But then, maybe it’s not that important deciding who’s right or wrong in this mini-controversy. Maybe it all comes down to a matter of rhetorical restraint. After all, Dermer knows all too well how Israelis have grown justifiably tired of the loud, often uninformed and occasionally condescending ways in which they’re told how to live their lives by American Jews. His condemnation of the SPLC — and, by extension, how Americans are supposed to live our lives — is similarly intrusive and wrongheaded. 

Six years ago, I went to Montgomery for the SPLC’s 40th anniversary celebration. After witnessing the mind-blowing commitment of everyone involved, I sat down for a moment with the late, great civil rights icon Julian Bond. He was one of the founders of the Law Center but, as someone who also hosted “Saturday Night Live,” he really wanted to talk comedy. Nervously in awe of this beautiful, legendary man, I obliged. 

Finally, I got around to asking him: “How does it feel to know you devoted your life to standing up for what’s right?”

He smiled and said, “It feels uncertain. You do what you believe and just hope you’re right.” 

In a speech an hour or so later, Bond said basically the same thing. There was a certain touching humility in how members of the Southern Poverty Law Center wistfully nodded their heads.


Peter Mehlman is a novelist, comedian and former writer and executive producer of “Seinfeld.”

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