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Not all criticism of Jews is anti-Semitic dog-whistling

Pete Buttigieg doesn’t like the way a GOP mega-donor spends his money. Republicans should also be able to oppose Democratic moneybags without being called anti-Semites.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg addresses a Victory Fund National Champagne Brunch, Washington, DC, on April 7, 2019. Photo by Ted Eytan/Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons License.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg addresses a Victory Fund National Champagne Brunch, Washington, DC, on April 7, 2019. Photo by Ted Eytan/Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons License.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s upstart presidential campaign has gone far better than anyone could have predicted. The mainstream media and elites on both coasts have championed him as possibly the first openly gay president of the United States, as well as a Middle America everyman and military veteran with wide appeal. But when speaking in Las Vegas this week, he made a remark that generated criticism from both the Jewish right and the left.

The comments in question came in a speech Buttigieg gave for an LGBTQ-rights advocacy group at a Las Vegas casino. The mayor noted that while he was “a guest in Sheldon Adelson’s town,” he believed that “real democracy means that the voice you have in our political process is gauged by the merits of what you have to say and not by the number of zeros in your bank balance.”

His message didn’t go over the heads of the audience, which loudly booed at the mention of the casino mogul/philanthropist’s name. The fact that he mentioned only Adelson, who gives lots of money to Republicans like U.S. President Donald Trump, as an example of someone that he thinks has a baleful influence on the country rather than, say, George Soros, Michael Bloomberg or Tom Steyer—who give their wealth to Democratic candidates—made it clear that this was a cheap shot.

However, some Jews were offended by the remark.

Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, jumped on the comment and called it an “anti-Semitic dog whistle.” Perhaps Brooks was merely mocking the way Democrats use that term to demonize Republicans, but a leading voice on the Jewish left agreed with him.

Forward editor Batya Ungar-Sargon tore into Buttigieg on Twitter. Noting that he was the only top-tier Democratic candidate who accepted money from Washington lobbyists until a recent about-face, she pointedly asked, “I guess it’s just Jewish money that’s dirty, Mayor Pete?”

She went on to assert that, “Of course, one can criticize Sheldon Adelson without using anti-Semitic dog whistles. But if blaming George Soros … is a dog whistle, so is this. Either all money is dirty or no money is dirty. But when you focus on Jewish money, you’re talking to people who hate us.”

Give Ungar-Sargon credit for consistency.

The Forward has championed the notion that any time Republicans attack Democratic sugar daddies like Soros, Bloomberg and Steyer for throwing their money around to promote liberal causes and Democrats, it’s a dog whistle intended to signal to far-right voters their hostility to Jews.

Left-wingers have used this sort of reasoning to attack mainstream Republicans like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy for his willingness to note the way the aforementioned liberal mega-donors have helped congressional Democrats. Indeed, whenever Republicans try to hold to account Democrats like Representatives Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) for trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes and hatred for Israel, some on the left bring up McCarthy—an ardent supporter of Israel—in a bout of “whataboutism” aimed at making us ignore overt anti-Semitism.

The trope that Jews use money to buy influence or manipulate non-Jews—the very theme Omar and Tlaib have championed—is a classic tactic in the anti-Semitic playbook. But the idea that Jewish political donors are off-limits for criticism when they engage in partisan politics is preposterous.

Attacking political donors is an effort to divert the voters’ attention from the issues and the candidates. That’s true whether it’s aimed at Republicans or Democrats. But while Buttigieg’s use of this tawdry gambit does him no credit, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he was dog-whistling to the growing numbers of anti-Semites on the left who buy into false intersectional arguments, and who despise Adelson because he is Jewish and an ardent supporter of Israel.

The billionaire has poured a great deal of his wealth into Jewish philanthropies. But he’s also a big giver to Republicans. Such donations are a form of constitutionally protected political speech, but Democrats like Buttigieg are entitled to not like his choices and to say so publicly. The fact that Adelson is Jewish doesn’t make Buttigieg an anti-Semite for criticizing his donations. The same applies to those on the right who have bashed Jewish big givers to Democrats like Soros, Bloomberg and Steyer.

The problem here is not just that there is a lot of hypocrisy about weaponizing this issue on both sides of the political spectrum. It’s that all this talk about dog-whistling is an effort to distract us from real anti-Semitism.

Too many on the left have spent the last two-and-a-half years twisting themselves into pretzels while making arguments claiming that the most pro-Israel president in U.S. history is really an anti-Semite. They’ve gone all out to connect the dots between Trump and the tiny minority of far-right white nationalists who present a clear and present danger to Jewish safety in this country.

But such arguments about dog whistles are risible because they are merely lazy slurs intended to appeal to those who don’t really care if the attacks on people they already hate lack intellectual rigor or credibility. Their advocates are trying to sell us on a thesis that works, even if—as in the case of Trump—the dots don’t actually connect.

There are plenty of reasons to oppose Buttigieg, just as there are to be against Trump, McCarthy and the GOP without invoking false accusations of anti-Semitism. But Mayor Pete’s attack on Adelson should be the moment when we should all, regardless of our partisan loyalties, stop assuming that any criticism of a Jewish donor is inherently anti-Semitic. As Omar and Tlaib—and multiple synagogue shooters keep reminding us—there are enough real examples of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias for us to focus on, without cheapening the subject by mistaking partisan cheap shots for genuine Jew-hatred.

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

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