What’s in a word? Plenty, if those words are “racism” or “anti-Semitism.” Just ask Virginia Governor Ralph Northam or freshman Congresswoman Ilham Omar. Last week both found themselves engulfed in political firestorms. All because of those two barbed words.
Governor Northam faced charges of racism when someone discovered a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page That an 80’s yearbook photo could push a governor’s political career to the brink raises questions about how the word “racism” is being defined and how it is being weaponized in political debates.
Northam’s admitted blackface stunt three decades ago was clearly a racist act. But is the Governor a “racist” today, when as far as we know, he has never in his professional life expressed racist views? It’s for Virginia voters to decide his fitness for public service.
Congresswoman Omar learned the hard way that the mere mention of money gifts to Members of Congress (the so-called “Benjamins”) facilitated by the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) would bring down upon her angry charges of anti-Semitism. She said nothing against Jews. She simply repeated a known fact: that money fuels pro-Israel lobbying on Capitol Hill. She later apologized for offending anyone who inferred from her remarks a derogatory reference to historical stereotypes.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “racism” as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior” and “anti-Semitism” as “hostility to or prejudice against Jews.”
The tendency of political opponents to call someone “anti-Semitic” for criticizing Israel’s policies or AIPAC is a regrettable misuse of the words. The unintended personal slights that people of color receive every day from those under the influence of white privilege do not by themselves make someone a “racist.” Slights hurt, but should not condemn someone who always tries to express non-discrimination in his or her conduct and speech.
The recent split in the Women’s March leadership over allegations of “anti-Semitism” is an example of guilt by association. Another is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s rescinding of a civil rights award to Professor Angela Davis (later reinstated) apparently due to her solidarity with Palestinian rights organizations. Do those cases justify the charge of “anti-Semitism?” Reasonable minds may differ.
Recall that when the “Me Too” movement began exposing wayward executives, sports figures and others, it often failed to distinguish between minor sexual harassment (inappropriate speech, for example) and physical abuse. Perpetrators at all points on the continuum were subjected to punishments that ranged from public humiliation to job loss to criminal prosecution.
A similar lack of discernment can be seen now in the undifferentiated charges of “racism” and “anti-Semitism.”
Over time “Me Too” moderated its condemnations of sexual wrongdoing to reflect the varying degrees of offense. Those who are quick to shout “racism” and “anti-Semitism” might wish to follow the “Me Too” example.
In the social media, one still finds accusations by liberals that the President’s supporters are racist. Over time we’ve learned that many of those who voted for Trump are neither “racist” nor “anti-Semitic,” but instead regular Americans who felt ignored by party politicians and urban elites.
Most of the proponents of BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) are not anti-Semitic. They simply believe that Americans should have the First Amendment right to criticize or protest (even by economic boycott) Israel policies that oppress Palestinians.
Many AIPAC critics would like to see Citizens United overturned (by the Supreme Court itself or by constitutional amendment). That and related reforms would achieve the more ambitious goal of stamping money out of politics. Israel and other interest group lobbying could continue, but without the money sweetener.
Political opponents in both parties need to stop pushing “racism” and “anti-Semitism” beyond their dictionary limits. The McCarthy era showed us how good citizens can be toppled, careers up-ended and livelihoods destroyed when barbed words such as “Communist” are spoken irresponsibly.
Dictionary-defined racism and anti-Semitism are demeaning and dangerous. They deserve zero tolerance. Hate speech, vandalism and physical violence in all their forms must be condemned and strictly punished in the courts. That’s when the barbed words racism and anti-Semitism are most apt.