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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

An Unconscionable Smear: Israel, Race, and the American Left

If the steady, but manageable flow of ignorant commentary on Israel of late has turned into a flood, it’s because of a particular tactic of the left employed in abundance since the Israeli elections. A surefire way to misunderstand Israeli politics is to view it through the stable lens of America’s two-party system. And one meme that has gained traction on the left during Benjamin Netanyahu’s premiership is the lazy, obtuse narrative that he acts as some sort of representative of the Republican Party rather than his own party and country. Such self-refuting nonsense doesn’t generally need to be dignified with attention. But the latest version represents a despicable smear that demands a response.
Juan Williams’s column in The Hill changes the attack in two ways. The first is that he joins some of his more doltish peers in the new belief that congressional Republicans are now responsible for Netanyahu’s words and actions. This is merely an escalation of the Democrats’ recent campaign to turn Israel into a partisan issue and demand the left break with Israel to show appropriate loyalty to Barack Obama. In doing so Williams and others are now pawning Israel off on the Republicans: they don’t even want to deal with the Jewish state except to periodically upbraid it.
This is toxic, but it pales in comparison to Williams’s next trick. Once he’s assigned Republicans blame for Bibi, he then transfers the left’s racial grievances to Netanyahu as well. And he thereby threatens not only to rewrite recent Israeli history but to do so in a way that attacks the history of black-Jewish relations in the U.S. and agitates for the crumbling of African-American support for Israel in the future, all in a deeply dishonest way.
It should be noted that while reasonable people can disagree about Netanyahu’s Facebook comments about Arabs voting “in droves,” it’s perfectly understandable to object to them. In truth, the comments, while inartful, were aimed more at the fact that foreign groups, including American-funded anti-Bibi efforts, were busing leftist voters in to improve turnout, thus raising the vote count a party like Likud would need in order to keep pace with its share of the overall vote.
That was lost on many, and that’s not a surprise. But Williams goes completely off the rails:
Obama’s spokesman condemned the use of such noxious rhetoric as a “cynical” tactic. But there 
has been no comment from Boehner or other top Republicans.
There is a terrible history of race-based political appeals in the United States. As a civil rights 
historian, I know the sharp edges of racial politics as revealed in coded campaign language, 
gerrymandering, voter suppression and even today’s strong black-white split when it comes to 
views of how police deal with poor black communities.
But both major American political parties reject having their candidates directly and openly play 
on racial tensions for short-term political gain.
It is dangerous politics, at odds with maintaining a socially and economically stable nation of 
many different races, as well as a rising number of immigrants. It is also not in keeping with 
America’s democratic values, specifically the Declaration of Independence’s promise that “All 
men are created equal.”
To overlook Netanyahu’s racial politics is to send a troubling message to Americans at a time 
when blacks and Hispanics are overwhelmingly Democrats and the Republican Party is almost 
all white.
And thus does Juan Williams, in a fit of rancid political sour grapes, connect Benjamin Netanyahu with America’s civil-rights era racial politics and voter suppression. When you are a liberal hammer, every problem is a nail with Bull Connor’s face on it.
First, some facts. There was no voter suppression of Arabs in Israel’s election. The joint Arab list won the third-most seats in the Knesset, behind the two major parties. Arab turnout was the highest it’s been since at least 1999, and among the highest it’s been in decades. Bibi did nothing to derail Arab voting, nor was he even trying to scare voters to the polls in a traditional sense. He wanted Israelis who were already planning on voting and who supported Israel’s right wing to vote Likud instead of a minor party further to the right, because the increased turnout on the left meant the right needed a stronger anchor party to be able to build a coalition around.
Additionally, as Evelyn Gordon wrote in the March issue of COMMENTARY, “Israel doesn’t have a law banning minarets, as Switzerland does, or a law barring civil servants from wearing headscarves, as France does; nor does it deny citizenship to Arabs just because they can’t speak the majority’s language, as Latvia does to some 300,000 ethnic Russians born and bred there. But over the past two decades, successive Israeli governments have invested heavily in trying to create de facto as well as de jure equality.”
Statistics on Arab education have improved dramatically. Employment in the high-tech sector “almost sextupled from 2009 to 2014”–and who was prime minister during that time? Arab consumption patterns are improving, integration is on the rise, and all without increasing anti-Arab prejudice, despite what some in the media would like to believe.
That’s not to solely credit Bibi or any one single politician, but Netanyahu’s time in office has undoubtedly been good for Israel’s Arabs. Even if you choose to believe the worst interpretation of Netanyahu’s Facebook comment (for which he apologized), the picture Williams paints of Likud’s relationship with Israeli Arabs is so distorted as to be unrecognizable as the reality of modern Israel.
But Williams has another purpose: not only to falsely explain the present and the past but also the future. The tension between the Jewish and black communities is a source of great tsuris to the Jews, who felt called by God to stand with African-Americans in their times of trouble and to march with them to assert their inalienable rights which were denied for so long. But too many influential black leaders–think Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton (who was at the forefront of the closest thing America ever had to a pogrom), and even Jeremiah Wright, whose church guided our current president for so long–have sought to discourage such solidarity, and resorted to anti-Semitism to do so.
I imagine this greatly pains Williams. He spends some time in his column recounting the lack of support for Israel among America’s minorities, principally African-Americans and Hispanics, and he seems fairly unhappy about it. But he notes, correctly, that the Democratic drift away from Israel threatens to be even more profound among these minority communities. And so he blames Bibi:
This disagreement among American racial groups is reflected in the split between Republicans 
and Democrats over Israel. …
These divisions are likely even deeper now, after Netanyahu’s racial political appeal.
Going forward, it will now be gentler on the consciences of Democrats like Williams if support for Israel deteriorates among minority communities. From here on out, they’ll say it was inevitable after this election. That’s much simpler than taking on the Sharptons and the Jacksons and the Wrights, and the president whose ear they have had.
And it’s much simpler than swimming against the tide of leftist hostility to Israel. It’s the easy way out, and there’s nothing principled or noble about it.

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