Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and Other Prejudices

Muslim representation in Congress is good for America. But with the racist demagoguery of the Trump Administration, it is important for Jews and Muslims to discuss intergroup rhetoric and prejudice. I’ve heard some nonsense about Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s remarks about Jews. Let’s clear it up.

First, criticism of Israel, Hamas or the PLO are neither anti-Semitism nor Islamophobia. Lots of us are critical of the regimes in places sacred to us.  So are many who live there.

But charging disloyalty is a problem. Omar said “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” Charging disloyalty because people care about what happens to a country or people abroad is over the top and fans prejudice. Omar is one of those who cares and should be concerned about the implications of her own rhetoric.

Americans have cared about foreign nations and peoples since the acrimony here over the French Revolution. America’s first political parties split over it, with successive presidents Adams and Jefferson on opposite sides. Other prominent examples include American support for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire early in the 19th century. More recently many Americans supported the IRA, the PLO, Hamas and Israel though all are controversial here and abroad. Sympathy isn’t disloyalty though we disagree about who’s right. Treating sympathy as disloyalty would make traitors of us all.

Democracy cannot survive loose generalizations about disloyalty. Plus, they block sensible responses, tying us up fighting each other instead of dealing with the issues. Dealing sensibly with the Middle East requires coming back from the brink. Obama had a point in saying that we need to disengage from the Middle East because it’s more difficult and takes more attention and energy than it’s worth. My view is that America should refuse to support either side that breaks agreements and creates serious problems for America – killing innocents, uprooting people from their homes, expanding settlements – both sides have committed plenty of atrocities. But amid loose charges of disloyalty, sensible policies are off the table.

With good reason, Jews are very sensitive to anti-Semitism and Muslims to Islamophobia. Prejudices are fanned by sloppily extending disagreement to attacks on peoples’ decency and legitimacy. In my course on comparative constitutional law we took up the troubles in Ireland. There was plenty of criticism to go around. But it didn’t and shouldn’t have made any of us anti-Irish. Americans once were viciously so. Before Trump, those days seemed over for the Jews, Irish, Poles, Italians and they should end for the Muslims, Blacks and others. And good riddance. Americans have been attacked and killed not only over race but over support for unions, and sloppy, unsubstantiated charges of disloyalty against Catholics, Germans, Italians, and Japanese, to name a few – in some cases just for knowing people’s languages. It was a sordid past that we should be doing our best to put behind us, for everyone’s sake.

I would make it a criteria of loyalty to back off generalizations about people and deal with our work, our ideas, our contributions and our mistakes on their own terms. The very idea that some of us are better than others because of our ancestry is un-American to the core. The very idea that our sympathies for the peoples from whom we came justify charges of disloyalty is a threat to us all, and to everything that did make America great. The very fact that Trump and others are now challenging that consensus is the biggest threat to the future of our country. Prejudice and hatred are a disease that can destroy America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 12, 2019.

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