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The fire they play with

The leadership on both sides has been intentionally divisive on questions of race, giving no heed to the risk of fanning those flames of prejudice
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi walks to the House Chamber, July 16, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi walks to the House Chamber, July 16, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Each of Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi has Jewish grandchildren.  Each handles his/her political affairs, however, with an almost complete obliviousness toward the potential consequences to those grandchildren of their policies and statements.  With an assist to other members of Congress, this past week America reached a dangerous level in race relations not seen perhaps since the run-up to the Second World War.

The week began with an internecine Democratic fight between Pelosi, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, and Freshman Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York City.  Just 29 years old, “AOC” is the leader of a branch of the Progressive wing of the Democratic House caucus, and especially of four females known as “The Squad”.  They have a genius for self-promotion, and have received more press than all of the rest of the Freshman Democrats in Congress put together.

Earlier this year, one of the members of The Squad, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who in 2012 claimed Israel had “hypnotized the world”, declared that support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins” (meaning $100 bills).

Following those statements, which sound closely like historic anti-Semitic tropes about Jews and money, the Democratic leadership in the House thought it had no choice but to condemn publicly Representative Omar’s statements.  This didn’t sit well with many of the Democratic far left, and they resisted.  Pelosi folded.  She accepted the watering down of that resolution to the extent that it became a generic condemnation of all racism, without specific mention of Congresswoman Omar.

In caving to the political pressure, Pelosi gave space to anti-Semites on both the left and right.  The precedent now is set.  Anti-Semitic statements by House members will not be rebuked by the body.

Emboldened by her resistance to the Speaker, AOC began threatening other Democrats who didn’t share her views.  Her Chief of Staff publicity called for challenges to members of AOC’s own party that didn’t agree with AOC’s views.  Pelosi responded by calling out AOC  on these threats, and AOC then accused Pelosi herself of being a racist by singling out “women of color”.  That charge was too much for many of the Black Democratic House members, who fired back at AOC.

This should have been Christmas in July for Republicans.  All they needed to do was sit back and watch the Democrats take shots at each other.  But that’s not Donald Trump’s way.  Never willing just to accept a political gift, President Trump inserted himself into the Democratic maelstrom.  Using his infamous Twitter account, Trump tweeted that if the members of The Squad didn’t love their country, they should go back to where they came from.  This despite the fact that only Omar is an immigrant.  In a flash, the focus changed from the split in the Democratic Party to President Trump’s nativism.

Perhaps Trump’s tweet was strategic.  Perhaps it was his way to place the focus on The Squad as the leaders of the Democratic Party.  He then will use them as his foils in the 2020 Presidential election.  More likely the tweet only reflected the President’s narcissism.  He simply could not accept that he was not driving the news cycle, even if the news cycle entirely was to his benefit.

Regardless, Trump’s incendiary rhetoric raised again the temperature about race in America.  Each member of The Squad is a “Woman of Color”.  Trump’s words once again cheered those who seek to divide Americans rather than unite us.  Instead of seeing an internal Democratic self-immolation about political power, Trump’s words split the country anew over race and ethnicity.

For Jews, this is especially difficult.  When President Trump rails against The Squad, often he notes how much they hate Israel.  Indeed Congresswoman Omar followed up late last week by seeking to expressly permit national boycotts, clearly taking the side of the BDS movement.  Jews now are in a terribly uncomfortable position.  We can cheer the President’s support for Israel and his refusal to close his eyes to the danger of Iran, but we must fear the damage of anyone who seeks to capitalize on racial or ethnic divisions.  We know where that inevitably leads.  This may start directed at someone else, but the lesson of history shows it ends up focusing on us.

Likewise the recent actions of Speaker Pelosi.  Instead of trying to lower the country’s temperature, Pelosi did to Trump what she refused to do to Omar.  The Speaker forced through a House resolution directed solely at Trump’s statements.  Pelosi’s record now is that anti-Semitism doesn’t earn a House resolution of condemnation, but comments against “Women of Color” do.

The House debate was ugly.  The only people cheering were the racists.  They saw America’s elected representatives making a mockery of a united front against racial prejudice.  While perhaps enjoying their short-term gain, members of The Squad also should be wary.  Jews aren’t the only ones who will suffer as nativism rises.  Given American history, it’s difficult to see how any rise in racial prejudice and hate will not boomerang onto them as well.

As the week ended, it was impossible to feel anything but fear for the way America’s highest office holders conducted their affairs.  Certain members of The Squad seem determined to stoke one racial fire after another, but at least they are low level members of Congress, notwithstanding the oversized publicity they receive.  Trump and Pelosi are our nation’s highest elected officials.  When faced with challenges involving race, each took the politically easy, incendiary way out.  This has been all too common for the President, but the Speaker now twice has joined him in this ignominious endeavor.

Each of Trump and Pelosi worked in ways that were intentionally divisive on the question of race and ethnicity.  Each sought short term political gain to placate a political base.  In doing so, each fanned the flames of racial prejudice and animosity that exist always just below the surface.  Neither seems to appreciate the intensity of the fire with which each is playing.

The racist genie keeps extricating itself further from its bottle.  We must pray that all of our elected officials will appreciate that a willingness to utilize this hatred only means that each of the President’s and Speaker’s grandchildren, as well as those of The Squad, could face the full force of that hatred down the road.

About the Author
Daniel B, Markind is an attorney based in Philadelphia specializing in real estate, commercial, energy and aviation law. He is the former Chair of the National Legal Committee of the Jewish National Fund of America as well as being a former member of the National Executive Board and the National Chair of the JNF National Future Leadership. He writes frequently on Middle Eastern and energy issues. Mr. Markind lives in the Philadelphia area with his wife and children.
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