September 19, 2019

A Time and a Place for Civil Debate

Councilman Kalman Yeger

The latest Twitter flare-up between New York City Councilman Kalman Yeger and supporters of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) was another example of social media’s usefulness: oxygen and fuel for fires that never seem to die down.

Yeger tweeted: “Palestine does not exist.  There, I said it again. Also, Congresswoman Omar is an antisemite. Said that too.”

This statement served three purposes: First, to shore up the councilman’s Brooklyn base; second, to rally Omar’s supporters, who will continue to defend her offensive remarks about American-Jewish support for Israel in Congress; and third, to ensure that division between Zionism and Palestinian nationalism festers like an open wound. As of April 1, Yeger had been removed from the city council’s immigration committee at the request of city leaders. Sadly, this will only add fuel to the fire, raise cries of “political correctness” and not advance the conversation in vital ways. 

How unfortunate.

Omar’s earlier remark about support for Israel in Congress being “all about the Benjamins” or her trafficking in the centuries-old canard implying Jews have dual loyalty are far better addressed in quiet conversation than in digital screaming matches on the internet.

I am reminded of 1984, when civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, during his presidential campaign, referred to Jews as “Hymies” and to New York City as “Hymietown.” I was a Jackson delegate at the Wisconsin state Democratic convention that year and was criticized by some of my fellow Jews on the University of Wisconsin campus for supporting someone accused of using anti-Semitic tropes. But as a student of history at Wisconsin, I also was familiar with Jackson’s career and knew that such aspersions against him were absolutely false. Jackson was a proud ally of Jews who offered support in the struggle for black civil rights and was a supporter of Israel.

Personally, I grew up hearing my grandmother, a child refugee from anti-Semitism in her native Belarus, refer to her black cleaning woman as a “shvartze,” the Yiddish term for black that is understood to be a term of denigration and racism. Many of us say things we shouldn’t. The Washington Post and The New York Times extensively covered Jackson’s mea culpa. At a campaign stop in Manchester, N.H., Jackson stated to Jewish leaders at a local synagogue, “It was not in a spirit of meanness, an off-color remark having no bearing on religion or politics. … However innocent and unintended, it was wrong.”

Some Jewish leaders were satisfied, others were not. But in a world that had no social media, the controversy evolved elsewhere. In his book “The Making of a Jew,” the late philanthropist Edgar Bronfman Sr. told the story of his encounter with Jackson when, as head of the World Jewish Congress, Bronfman planned a 1992 meeting in Brussels to examine anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia. “This international conference was called ‘My Brother’s Keeper,’ ” Bronfman wrote. The questions before us were how to promote the positive aspects of three forces — nationalism, ethnicity and religion — and how to prevent them from becoming destructive.”

Prescient, no?

Bronfman decided to ask Jackson to participate in the Brussels meeting. He knew the earlier remarks were not the sum of the man. Bronfman then recalled that, soon after the 1984 incident, Jackson was invited to meet for lunch with Bronfman at the Four Seasons Restaurant — on Bronfman’s home turf in the Seagram Building. During my 15-year friendship with Bronfman, I loved to hear him tell the story of the conversation they had that day and the advice he gave to Jackson: “You might have said, ‘Before I apologize, and I will, I would like everyone in this synagogue who has never called a member of my race a shvartze to stand up.’ That would have put your use of the word ‘Hymie’ in the proper context.”

This remarkable story about two great leaders hashing out a problem over lunch is at the moral center of my own confrontation with the ugly turn of political discourse in our current enflamed era. And I believe it is an object lesson for Yeger, Omar and other elected officials who wade into the intractable politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to strengthen their own bona fides rather than lead by example to forge a new path forward.

The 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., and the 2015 Charleston, S.C., church shooting are two examples of how extreme rhetoric and hatred are made manifest as violence, destruction and death. And it is people of African descent, along with Jews and Muslims, who usually are the victims of such dangerous discourse. We are better served while being in alliance, however difficult, than by taking to the barricades,  spewing hatred.

In a quiet room over a shared meal, Yeger and Omar might be able to better communicate their positions. Money in politics, along with charges of “dual loyalty,” are actually worthy of a book-length seminar. That’s how we learned it at Wisconsin with great historians such as George L. Mosse. Nazi racism and Aryan dogma rendered the Jews and blacks as subhuman, as untermenschen. It is how slavery, genocide and the Holocaust have been made possible.

In addition, it is fundamentally gratuitous to argue that “Palestine does not exist.” Of course it does. Are Jerusalem, the Galilee, Jaffa, the Negev, Gaza and the West Bank not home for the millions of Palestinians who say they are home? Who exactly does it help to deny this reality? 

Israel may not be a full state yet, but it is an idea on the way to becoming one. Eretz Yisrael, Jewish prayer in the Diaspora oriented toward Jerusalem for 2,000 years, and the concept of Zion were all in existence long before the United Nations declared Israel a state in 1948. To deny Palestine’s existence is as equally hurtful a statement as claiming, as anti-Israel activists are wont to do, that Israel and Zionism are colonial impositions on indigenous people. 

Is any of this aided by the presence of hypocritical politicians like New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who showed up to support Yeger recently but is known in the black community as the Jewish politician who showed up at a Purim party in blackface?  

To respond adequately to all of this would require too many words for Twitter. 

So let me suggest some deep breaths, and some space to read and think and talk. Bronfman is dead and the Four Seasons is under new ownership. But I’ll host anyone holding office today at my apartment in Brooklyn. I am close to the subway and the food is good.

Andy Bachman is executive director of the Jewish Community Project Downtown in New York City.