Ellison, Dershowitz, and the Jewish American Iceberg
Hi there, fellow American Jews. It’s been a chaotic couple of months for us nationally, hasn’t it? Sixty-nine bomb threats at Jewish Community Centers in 27 states, the desecration of almost 200 graves at a St Louis cemetery, Trump’s meeting with Netanyahu last week and all the confusion that came along with it, his inappropriate response to a Jewish reporter questioning his lack of engagement…it kind of overshadows a lot of other things going on.
Basically, what I am saying here is… can we talk? I think it’s past time that we did. (And if you’re not an American Jewish person, dear reader, you are still more than welcome to listen in on the conversation.)
I know I just listed a lot of things, so let’s pick a concrete example in the recent news to focus on. Since it just happened, how about we talk about Keith Ellison and the Democratic National Committee?
For those of you just joining in, Keith Ellison is the first Muslim person to be elected to U.S. Congress. He was one of two frontrunners to become the next chairperson of the Democratic National Committee, along with former labor secretary Thomas Perez. He lost to former Secretary Perez in the second round of voting on February 25, at least in part due to high-profile Jewish establishment opposition: the Anti-Defamation League had been opposing his nomination since November; prominent Democratic members such as Alan Dershowitz threatened to leave the party if Ellison was elected; major donor Haim Saban called him anti-Semitic and anti-Israel. This opposition was based largely on statements made in a 2010 speech about U.S. foreign policy in the middle east and on shaky evidence that Ellison had been previously involved with the Nation of Islam. Perhaps because of this bitter opposition to EIllison, Perez wasted no time in making him deputy chair, and Ellison similarly wasted no time on asking people to accept Perez’s legitimacy. I think we’re all hoping to avoid the bitter Bernie holdouts that plagued the 2016 election.
We need to talk about Keith Ellison, and the National Democratic Committee, in the same breath as the conversation about all the antisemitic incidents I listed above — because these facts taken together represent the visible tip of a much uglier iceberg, and if we’re not careful we’re all gonna crash on it. To unpack this particular snarl of ice and nastiness, we’re going to need some history lessons in their own right. I’ll do my best to be a good tour guide, if you’ll follow me through this corridor…
Some Facts about Jewish Americans
I’ll start you off gently; let’s talk a moment about the ADL and Dershowitz part of the above equation — and to do that, we have to talk about American Jewish history.
The History Lesson
Though history of the American Jewish experience is by no means perfect, it’s no secret that American Jews historically enjoyed much more freedom and assimilation than many of their European counterparts. There is certainly a history of antisemitism among both the general population and prominent figures in the United States — Henry Ford and Walt Disney spring to mind — but there is no history of organized hateful action. We have no history of pogroms in the United States. Outside of the noted story of Leo Frank, we have very little history of Jewish lynching in general, and certainly not the extensive history of other marginalized populations. We also have absolutely no American experience of widespread systemic governmental discrimination like that of the Nuremberg Laws, let alone the ethnic cleansing these laws helped create. Prior to this past year, for the most part, Ashkenazi Jews were simply treated as part of the white landscape.
Nothing illustrates this stark difference in experience more than World War II. World War II was not a great time to be an American Jew; the United States was not very willing to assist refugees and antisemitic sentiment was rampant. But, fundamentally, the same basic populations were systemically murdered on a racial basis in one Western civilization and merely a disliked scapegoat in the other. Confusing issues further, after the war European refugees of the Holocaust resettled in America, adding to a larger Jewish awareness of antisemitic horrors that claimed millions of lives on foreign soil.
This disparate history places the American Jewish consciousness in a strange heisenstate, which contextualizes both Alan Dershowitz (or, to cite a more extreme example, Jonathan Greenblatt) on one side and Jewish Ellison supporters like Bernie Sanders and Chuck Schumer on the other. It also partially contextualizes Breitbart’s strange love affair with Israel and the pro-zionist alt-right generally, though that’s a whole other kettle of fish and we could be here dissecting it all day. In short, American Jewish culture both partially integrates into American white culture and remembers a phantom specter of genocide at the same time, which means it can leverage very real racial privilege to respond to perceived racial trauma. When that leverage is applied to a messy Zionist context, we start to see Democratic attacks like those against Ellison.
Some Facts about Muslim Americans
Now let’s talk about Ellison, and to do that, we need to return to one of the basic facts above: Representative Ellison is the first Muslim person to serve as a U.S. Congressperson.
The History Lesson
The Constitutional Congress as we know it today was created in 1789. Ellison was first elected to Congress in 2006. In other words, we went nearly 225 years as a country before we elected a single Muslim person to serve as a representative. The first documented Muslims in America were brought over on slave ships, and Muslim American communities have existed for hundreds of years — though communities of practicing Muslims have grown considerably in the last century, they are by no means new. So why did it take so long to have a Muslim representative?
American Muslims are an extremely diverse group, making up many different populations, but members of this group have a lengthy history of experiencing oppression and marginalization in the United States spanning centuries, especially as it connects to the American history of Black subjugation — from the populations brought over as slaves to the role of Islam in black nationalism in the twentieth century. More recently, in the wake of 9/11, Muslim Americans also experienced forced registration under NSEERs, a dramatic increase in hate crimes, and a whole other host of other forms of marginalization. These things don’t exactly make it easy to get national representation.
The very history noted above makes Islam a unique faith among Abrahamic religions — it has been associated for centuries with American persecution, enslavement, and suffering. It is probably not a stretch or an exaggeration to say that the American Muslim experience generally, and the Black Muslim experience in specific, mirror the Jewish experience in Europe much more closely than our Jewish experience in America. While American Muslims certainly don’t have a corner on American persecution, the intersection of religion and race is a toxic combination in the hands of white supremacy — as well we know from the Holocaust — and there’s very little quarter to be found right now. This population has both greater need and less entrenchment than Jewish populations do, and those two things are related.
Some Facts about the Iceberg
Okay, so let’s tie all this back to the current political climate.
The History Lesson
It’s becoming axiomatic to compare Trump’s America to Nazi Germany — but if we’re drawing a direct parallel, American Jews aren’t playing the role of the Jewish people in Europe; that honor belongs to Muslims living in America, and Muslim immigrant populations specifically. (Although other immigrant populations are experiencing a close second place.) Ellison got in trouble for comparing 9/11 to the Reichstach Fire, but the past few months have proven the comparison fairly apt, especially as we navigate threats of a renewed registry, a draconic travel ban, and aggressive deportation practices. This is a deeply frightening time to be a Muslim person living in America.
If we extend that metaphor further, the DNC’s obnoxious squabbling starts to look an awful lot like the German political stage circa November 1932, when a unified front probably could have stopped Hitler but instead political intrigue ended free elections for almost two decades. (I know, I know, the Reichstach Fire was actually shortly after that election, but roll with it for now.) Ellison was right to try to bring his supporters into the fold as quickly as possible, and I respect the language he used — infighting is a luxury and we don’t have it anymore. We’re currently experiencing frightening regressions or attacks on so many fronts — immigration policies, LGBT civil rights, healthcare rights, reproductive rights, environmental protections, humanitarian efforts abroad, both the arts and the sciences… the list goes on and on and on. Regardless of who would have made the best Chairperson/President/Supreme Mugwump/roller derbiest, we need a solid coalition or people are going to start dying. (Though, for the record, I do think Perez will make a pretty good Chairperson.) Fortunately for Alan Dershowitz, that leader did not turn out to be Ellison. But if it had been, walking away is a luxury he would not have been able to afford — him, personally, to say nothing of America — and we need to talk about why.
The Implications (for American Jews)
I am safe to walk away from the Democrats, I can hear the Alan Dershowitzes of the country privately saying, because this administration loves Israel so much. Because Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump observe Shabbat and have the direct ear of the President. Dershowitz, and others like him, believe the Republican party would still welcome him despite its new marriage to the alt-right, and he believes they have his back more than Democrats supporting Muslim Americans do.
But Kushner and Ivanka’s roles are themselves nothing new; Jewish people have enjoyed complex relationships with power at many points even in European history, including the Holocaust itself, and the presence of a couple of Schultzjuden in the administration does not make all Jewish people safe. But, more to the point, it’s dangerous to equate Zionism with Jewish interest, and it’s equally dangerous to equate any anti-Israel sentiment with antisemitism. Breitbart and other alt-right voices have their own, complex reasons for embracing Zionism, and they don’t include a deep love of the Jewish people. Similarly, Jews may not be primary targets but that doesn’t make white supremacists view them as white; recent bomb threats and grave desecration are evidence enough of that. And Ivanka might have her father’s ear, but that doesn’t stop him from obstreperously yelling at Jewish people instead of answering questions when asked directly about said bomb threats. This administration put out statements on Holocaust Remembrance Day that amounted to Holocaust denial. I think we can safely assume they aren’t out to learn from it.
Like it or not, Jewish people are not going to be viewed by a fascist America as acceptable — we know from World War II that in times of strife, we might not be outright attacked but nor do we get welcomed at the local country club. I remind you of an important factor in the Third Reich: that primary targets were not sole targets; though racially motivated genocide caused the deaths of millions of Jewish and Romani people, the Third Reich also went after Jehovah’s Witnesses, Communists, chronically disabled and sick people, homosexual people, political prisoners… this list goes on and on, too. Zionism does not make us loved. Islamophobia does not make us safe. The presence of a few protected Jewish individuals does not make us an us to people who make almost everyone a them.
In an ideal world, I would want my fellow American Jews to stand against this administration because it is the morally right thing to do; because we remember the six million and we mean it when we say never again. I would want us to unite under one intersectional banner because our fellow humans need us, and we’re not the primary target but we support those who are. This is certainly my personal philosophy, and I think it’s a good one. But if we can’t bring ourselves to embrace altruistic protection of fellow humans, we should at least acknowledge our true status, avoid the false comfort granted by a history of assimilation, and be thinking about saving our own skins. We need to be building coalitions, because there’s no real alternative party for us to join.