Well, she got the headline she wanted. “Kamala Harris ‘Strongly Disagrees’ With Student Who Said Israel Was Carrying Out Ethnic Genocide,” the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports. But a closer look at the vice president’s “denial” suggests that it was, in fact, a classic non-denial.
The controversy began when the vice president was taking questions after speaking last week at George Mason University. A student, who identified herself as “Yemeni and Iranian” rose to ask a “question,” which was actually a diatribe about how Israel supposedly commits “ethnic genocide” and therefore should not receive any aid from the United States.
There are several ways for a politician to handle such a situation.
Harris, who was seemingly nodding in agreement with the student as she spoke, could have rebuked the student for lying. That’s the standard of honesty to which our leaders should adhere.
Alternatively, she could have ducked the question. That’s what politicians usually do. Recall Hillary Clinton pretending her headphones weren’t working when Suha Arafat infamously ranted about Israelis conspiring to cause cancer among Arabs.
Instead, Harris tried to have it both ways. She praised the student without directly commenting on the anti-Israel libel. “Your voice, your perspective, your experience, your truth should not be suppressed,” Harris declared, which was actually a non sequitur since nobody was “suppressing” the Yemeni-Iranian student or her viewpoint. On the contrary, the Israel-genocide slur is featured prominently on university campuses and op-ed pages all the time these days.
The vice president evidently thought she could keep the anti-Israel wing of the Democratic Party happy by praising the student, while preserving her ability to tell the shrinking pro-Israel wing of the party that she hadn’t actually praised the Israel-hater.
When a storm of criticism erupted, Harris continued to try to have it both ways.
She privately “reached out” to two Jewish organizations to assure them that she herself is not anti-Israel, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Those organizations were the Democratic Majority for Israel and the Anti-Defamation League, both of which are very close to the administration. Naturally, their leaders immediately heaped praise on the vice president.
But, crucially, Harris said nothing in public. That’s what was needed—a clear public denunciation of the anti-Israel libel. The attack on Israel was made in public; the defense needed to be made in public as well.
Days passed. The criticism of the vice president continued. So, on Friday—three days after the initial incident, Harris’s spokeswoman, Symone Sanders, emailed a statement to the JTA saying the vice president “strongly disagrees” with the Israel-bashing student.
Here is how Ms. Sanders put it: “While visiting George Mason University to discuss voting rights, a student voiced a personal opinion during a political science class. The vice president strongly disagrees with the student’s characterization of Israel.”
It was the classic non-denial denial. Notice how Sanders didn’t acknowledge what the student said—thereby drastically diluting the power of Harris’s response. Next, Sanders said the vice president “strongly disagrees” with the student’s non-quoted words. Not “condemns.” Just “disagrees.” As if accusing Israel of “ethnic genocide” is a perfectly reasonable, legitimate charge, one that intelligent people can debate. You know, like whether or not there was a Holocaust, or whether the earth is round or flat.
Harris got the headline she wanted—the one she hopes will diffuse the controversy. The Jewish community will read that she “strongly disagrees” with the genocide slur. But the truth is that the vice president has taken a bad situation and made it worse.
She should have rebuked the student on the spot. Failing that, she herself should be speaking about it now, not her spokeswoman. And she should be speaking about it in public, not “privately reaching out” to a few Jewish supporters.
And, most of all, the vice president should be saying these simple words, whether the radical wing of her party likes it or not: “Israel is not guilty of genocide. The Arab war against Israel, by contrast, is, very much an attempted genocide—an ongoing attempted genocide which the United States, and all civilized countries, should be doing their best to prevent.”
Because that’s the truth.
Stephen M. Flatow, is an attorney and the father of Alisa Flatow, who was murdered in an Iranian-sponsored Palestinian terrorist attack in 1995. He is the author of the book, “A Father’s Story: My Fight for Justice Against Iranian Terror.”