Can a black-Jewish congressional caucus bridge the divide?

It will be easy for members to unite against white supremacists. It remains to be seen whether this new group will be of any use against the growing threat of left-wing anti-Semitism.

The U.S. Capitol building. Credit: Martin Falbisoner via Wikimedia Commons.
The U.S. Capitol building. Credit: Martin Falbisoner via Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Something needed to be done. With tensions rising between African-Americans and Jews, it was time to reaffirm the need for both a greater emphasis on mutual understanding and recognition that hate poses a threat to both groups. Kudos to the American Jewish Committee for its work in helping to create a new Black-Jewish Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, whose formation was announced this week. The AJC’s initiative brought together Jews and blacks, Republicans as well as Democrats in an effort to bridge the growing divide between the two communities, including some well-known names like Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.); the former head of the Democratic National Committee, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.); the head of the House Democratic Caucus, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an icon of the civil-rights movement; and Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), a leading congressional supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump.

But while the symbolism is valuable, the question remains as to whether or not this caucus will be of any use in combating all forms of hate. At first glance, the caucus seems like it will be primarily be working on doing something easy—combating white supremacism—rather than the much more difficult job of uniting Americans of all races and political affiliations against the growing threat of left-wing anti-Semitism and hate that has been produced by intersectional ideology.

It makes sense that blacks and Jews should come together to work against white-nationalist extremists. Those who support the neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan and similar groups view both blacks and Jews as objects of hatred and targets for violence. Whether it’s a black church in Charleston or synagogues in Pittsburgh or Poway, such armed extremists present a clear and present danger.

These tragic incidents provide a reminder to both blacks and Jews that the far-right despises them both, and that the bonds forged during the struggle for civil rights a half-century ago needed to be rediscovered and nurtured. There is a need to rekindle a sense of shared values and commitment that must extend throughout both communities. The creation of this caucus does have the potential to set the kind of example that can help in that respect. But by announcing that its exclusive focus will be opposing white nationalism, it’s not clear that it will do much to undermine the forces and the ideas that are driving blacks and Jews apart.

The tragedies in Pittsburgh and Poway shone a light on the threat from racist extremists. But as shocking as those crimes were, the fact remains that support for white nationalism remains confined to the fever swamps of American life. Though they have a loud voice on the Internet and have inspired a few individuals to commit acts of mass murder, the numbers of those who support such groups are tiny. Nor do they have any backing from within the mainstream of American society or political life.

So while stating opposition to such groups is necessary, it also doesn’t require much political courage. The same cannot be said for standing up against left-wing anti-Semitism.

The BDS movement promotes an anti-Semitic ideology that seeks to destroy the one Jewish state on the planet, and to isolate and intimidate Jews who support it. It has established a growing foothold on North American college campuses. More importantly, in the last year, it gained a beachhead in Congress with the election of two members: Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who are open supporters of BDS and who have trafficked in anti-Semitic invective.

Yet while Republicans disciplined Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa)—the one member of their caucus with ties to white nationalists—Democrats have embraced Omar and Tlaib as new and exciting leaders of their party. While some prominent Democrats condemned the hate speech by these congresswomen, the party refused to strip them of their committee assignments, as the GOP did to King, leaving Omar on the prestigious Foreign Affairs Committee. The Congressional Black Caucus was particularly vocal in defending them. Tlaib and Omar have become popular figures on the left, celebrated in prominent media outlets like the cover of Rolling Stone magazine (where they were pictured with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) and with guest spots on the late-night television comedy shows.

At the same time, supporters of hatemonger Louis Farrakhan remain in control of the Women’s March, which continues to lead the “resistance” to Trump. Farrakhan has hundreds of thousands of Nation of Islam adherents and millions more who may sympathize with him in the African-American community.

And yet, some on the left—like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio—continue to pretend that anti-Semitism is limited to the right. This is astounding considering that there has been a huge spike in the rate of violent anti-Semitic incidents in New York in the last year. As some members of New York’s City Council noted in response to the mayor’s astonishing comments, those responsible for hate crimes—committed largely against Orthodox Jews—were not white supremacists, but African-Americans. That fact should be a wakeup call for those who insist that Farrakhan’s hate is meaningless or that he isn’t influencing anyone.

Given the polarized political climate, those Democrats who joined the new caucus deserve credit for being willing to work with Republicans under any circumstances. That’s especially true with respect to someone like Zeldin, who has been vilified by left-wingers. Palestinian-American activist/hatemonger and Women’s March Leader Linda Sarsour, who has promoted the lie that anyone who calls out Omar and Tlaib for their anti-Semitism is an Islamophobe, has been especially vocal in denouncing the caucus.

Unless the Black-Jewish Caucus is going to denounce Farrakhan, Omar, Tlaib and the BDS movement, it will be ignoring the variety of anti-Semitism that has the most support in contemporary America—and not doing much to stop hate.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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