The appearance of a small swastika painted on a sign at the Rego Park Jewish Center was quickly addressed last week by Queens Shmira volunteers who had it scrubbed, public officials who condemned the unknown vandal, and the Police Hate Crimes Unit recognizing it as an unambiguous example of anti-Semitism.
But then there are tweets from individuals and one-liners from late-night comedians who have said things about Jews that were not meant to be anti-Semitic but have been interpreted that way because of how such words are perceived in public.
In the crowded Democratic Primary field for New York City Mayor, former presidential candidate and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang has been receiving much attention, having atoned for his past statements criticizing bris milah to his strong support for privately-run education that includes religious instruction. Last week, the online news nonprofit Gothamist reported on Yang’s Jewish outreach effort as it relates to ranked-choice voting.
This recently-enacted voting method was championed by the advocacy group Common Cause, which expected it to promote coalition building and better chances for minority candidates. So how did the group’s executive director Susan Lerner react to Yang’s effort to court Orthodox voters?
“One of its goals is to build a consensus majority, and you don’t do that by taking extreme positions,” Lerner told Gothamist. “If you’re pandering to an extremist bloc, you’re perhaps not being strategic.”
Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein of Borough Park, who met with Yang to discuss yeshivos, quickly noted Lerner’s use of a polarizing term, and his elected colleagues agreed. “We have work to do to build a more inclusive society and democracy, but this unacceptable labeling is dangerous and moves us in the wrong direction,” Councilman Mark Treyger tweeted.
Met Council CEO David Greenfield, a former City Councilman, noted that if the purpose of the “extremist” label was to discredit bloc voting, then it is being applied selectively by voting reform advocates. “It’s actually more offensive that the purpose of a ‘good government’ reform was to disenfranchise one group of voters. Unions endorse and vote in blocs, too. The idea that a ‘bloc’ is bad is false,” he wrote.
The purpose of labor unions is to give its members power by speaking with one voice that carries many votes. Likewise among Orthodox organizations that recognize the power that comes with a strong voter turnout behind a single candidate.
Rather than apologize, Lerner offered to clarify, arguing that indeed there is extremism when politicians “offer to flout the NYS substantial equivalency law to the benefit of voters who’ve made it a litmus test issue.” For the parents who chose a religious education for their children and expect them to become law-abiding contributors to society, such a “clarification” contributes to the stereotype of Orthodox Jews as uneducated and intolerant.
On the late-night screen, Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update segment had a one-liner falsely accusing Israel of racism in its coronavirus vaccination distribution. “Israel is reporting that they’ve vaccinated half of their population. I’m going to guess it’s the Jewish half,” smirked anchor Michael Che.
“Spreading anti-Semitic lies & misinformation is already a problem. Fanning the flames just to get a laugh is not only wrong, it’s irresponsible,” Israeli Consul General in New York Israel Nitzan tweeted. “Israel has made the vaccine available for its entire population equitably, regardless of gender, race, or religion.”
For many younger Americans, late-night comics are a leading source of news content, as they condense complicated matters into memorable one-liners; but they also exaggerate to make an inequality appear as a policy. It is true that Israel is making an effort to vaccinate its Arab citizens, and at the same time the percentage of Arab citizens who are vaccinated is lower on account of widespread distrust towards the government.
Concerning the Palestinian population, there is an internationally recognized peace agreement that assigns healthcare of Palestinians to the Palestinian Authority. The lack of vaccinations in areas ruled by this entity is mainly the result of its refusal to work with Israel, which it prefers to boycott and punish in international forums as a means towards achieving statehood.
Michael Che may not have intentionally meant to say that Israel is spreading a plague, but the American Jewish Committee noted this stereotype in its petition to NBC. “Saturday Night Live’s ‘joke’ isn’t just untrue – it’s dangerous, a modern twist on a classic anti-Semitic trope that has inspired the mass murder of countless Jews throughout the centuries,” the AJC said in a petition posted online on Sunday. “In the Middle Ages, thousands of Jews were burned at the stake after being blamed for the Black Death and accused of protecting only themselves.”
In the grievance-driven “cancel culture,” where careers can be terminated for an ignorant tweet, the intent is not the point. It is often based on whether an advocacy group judges a statement’s impact to be racist, homophobic, or sexist. But when the Jewish community identifies an anti-Semitic trope, we are told that it is a reflection of actual conditions or merely anti-Zionism. To make matters worse, it is not the affiliated and visibly identifiable Jews whose word is accepted by the arbiters of anti-bigotry. We know our history better than anyone, and we’ve suffered for it. We know anti-Semitism when we see it.
By Sergey Kadinsky