By RABBI HERSHEL D. LUTCH
BALTIMORE (JTA) — As Americans of conscience, many of us are deeply troubled by the hyperpartisan tone that seems to color almost every news story and cycle. The sensationalism that is so often present within our nation’s discourse undermines our collective ability to assimilate information and reach well-reasoned conclusions. At times, the only voices that we hear are the loudest and most outrageous.
If this were not challenging enough, we also live in times in which mass shootings are becoming more common, race relations are growing more fraught and bold displays of xenophobic hatred are increasing in communities across our great country. It is against this backdrop that any new allegation of bigotry, prejudice and hatred is cast.
Therefore it was with frustration and deep upset that I learned a letter sent by Rep. Tom Emmer, R-MI., has been characterized as anti-Semitic by some local Jewish leaders in Minnesota, whose charges were amplified by an item in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
The fundraising letter states in part that “news of impactful, real progress on turning our nation around was undercut by biased media … funded by deep-pocketed far-left billionaires George Soros, Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg. These left-wing radicals essentially BOUGHT control of Congress for the Democrats.”
Because two of the three people named in the letter are Jewish — and, presumably, because Steyer’s father is Jewish and at times he has identified as such — Carin Mrotz, the executive director of St. Paul-based Jewish Community Action, told American Jewish World News that the letter contains “pretty classic anti-Semitism.”
As someone who knows Emmer well, I feel that nothing could be further from the truth.
In the spring of 2016, I led a weeklong mission to Israel with Emmer and a delegation of Jewish community leaders from his home state of Minnesota. As a then-freshman congressman, Emmer made travel to Israel a top priority for his first term in office.
Throughout our trip, Emmer demonstrated a nuanced understanding of the geopolitical tensions that contour Israel’s relations with her neighbors. When we met with the director-general of the Foreign Ministry, mayors of towns and members of Knesset, he showed a genuine concern for Israel’s security. At Yad Vashem, he shed tears with us over the wholesale murder of the majority of European Jewry.
Emmer also demonstrated a deep respect for the Jewish people’s ancestral ties to the Land of Israel and to the Torah. When we met with Rabbi David Lau, Emmer and the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel shared a warm dialogue about the critical importance of protecting the right of American Jewish children to a strong, robust and affordable Jewish education.
These are not the actions of an anti-Semite. Emmer has shown himself to be a true friend of the Jewish community and of the U.S.-Israel relationship. This cannot be said about every member of Congress and, sadly, not even about every member of Minnesota’s congressional delegation.
Indeed, Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat, is encouraging the boycott, divestment and sanctioning of the State of Israel. Rather than a would-be implied anti-Semitism, this is the very definition of modern anti-Semitism. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Britain, “In the middle ages, Jews were hated because of their religion. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, they were hated because of their race. In the twenty-first century, they are hated because of their nation state. Anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism.”
Falsely accusing someone of anti-Semitism is just as dangerous as not calling out anti-Semitism when, in fact, it is present. By falsely flagging conduct as anti-Semitic, we lose our ability to stay focused on combating the very numerous and extant threats of anti-Semitism — and, importantly, we lose our credibility to define and identify them.
If all conduct critical of any Jew is anti-Semitic, then the term “anti-Semite” loses its teeth and becomes just another meaningless expression. Watering down the definition of anti-Semitism is done at great risk to our community.
While I personally may have preferred a different syntax within the fundraising letter, I find any suggestion that Emmer harbors attitudes of anti-Semitism to be profoundly offensive. His record of pro-Israel and pro-Jewish legislation and his deep personal friendship with members across the full spectrum of the Jewish community simply do not support that contention.
By raising the specter of anti-Semitism against our community’s friends, we inadvertently alienate our closest allies. Especially in the dangerous times in which we live, our community can ill afford to take its friends for granted.