The subtle nuance of racism and anti-Semitism

The borderline incendiary dustup between Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D. Mich.) and Congressman Marc Meadows (R. N. Carolina) during the Michael Cohen hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform last week created an explosive spectacle. Only Chairman Elijah Cummings’s wisely dignified conciliation of the discord brought civility back to the proceedings (and hopefully its viewers on both sides of the divide).

When nudged by Cummings toward reconciliation, Tlaib backed off and reluctantly allowed a distinction – Meadows was not after all a “racist” because he propped up the African-American Trump appointee and the president’s “personal friend” Lynne Patton to stand behind him at the hearing as proof that the president was, himself, not a racist; but, rather, doing so was merely a “racist act”.  With this explanation, Meadows withdrew his counterclaim, as it were: Tlaib was herself not racist for labelling Meadows a racist and claiming he produced the Black woman (Patton) as a “prop.”

Kudos to Chairman Cummings. Notwithstanding the celebrated Tlaib/Meadows “hug” that eventuated on the hearing room floor as essentially orchestrated by Cummings, however, does Tlaib – do we – nonetheless accept in the depth of our souls that Meadows is  not racist after all? Does Meadows – do we – believe Tlaib is not?  Who knows – too much for my paygrade. And truly not important here.

Here’s the real thing: Can someone really commit a “racist act” and not be a racist? Yes, I suppose there’s a distinction of sorts.  But what does that distinction really mean?  Muslim-American Democrat Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D. Minn.) tweeted very loudly some weeks back that it “is all about the Benjamins” for AIPAC.  Tlaib openly supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel and is tied to those who question Israel’s very right to exist as a Jewish state.  Are these positions anti-Zionist; anti-Semitic; or are they “merely” anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic acts borne of a person’s opinion?  A distinction without a difference?

In his extraordinary 1946 work, “Anti-Semite And Jew,” the iconic existential philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, notably before the State of Israel was born, put his finger directly on the fatuousness of distinguishing between one who is an anti-Semite and one who “merely” has anti-Semitic opinions:

If a man attributes all or part of his own misfortunes and those of his country to the presence of Jewish elements in the community, if he proposes to remedy this state of affairs by depriving the Jews of certain of their rights, by keeping them out of certain economic and social activities, by expelling them from the country, by exterminating all of them, we say that he has anti-Semitic opinions.

This word opinions makes us stop and think.  It is the word a hostess uses to bring to an end a discussion that threatens to become acrimonious.  It suggests that all points of view are equal; it reassures us, for it gives an inoffensive appearance to ideas by reducing them to the level of tastes.  All tastes are natural; all opinions are permitted.  Tastes, colors, and opinions are not open to discussion.  In the name of democratic institutions, in the name of freedom of opinion, the anti-Semite asserts the right to preach the anti-Jewish crusade everywhere.

Let’s look at what Sartre said so many years ago in the context of today’s world.  When, for example, college students attack Jews among them for being Zionists who support the purportedly “colonialist” regime of Israel, do we simply see them as having anti-Zionist opinions, or do we recognize that they are in fact anti-Zionists?  And perhaps more to the point, an anti-Zionist opinion that says the State of Israel should not exist (and not one which merely criticizes Israel’s politics or policy) is in practice no different from being anti-Semitic. Subtle differences, for sure, but stripping the nuance aside, they are really the same thing.  Is there really a difference, then, in maintaining that someone is not a racist, despite the fact that they may occasionally make racist remarks or perform racist acts? Aren’t we letting the offenders cut the baloney too thin?

Letting people off the hook for articulating their sometimes disquieting opinions about another’s race or religion when they rely on their personalized First Amendment right to their opinions is too easy, too facile. They unquestionably do have a constitutional right to express their opinions, but lack any “right” whatsoever to have their opinions, and they themselves, go  unexcoriated when appropriate by the rest of us.  If they have come to believe that James Madison wrote the First Amendment to allow their hostile opinions to go unchallenged by those who oppose them, they really don’t understand the First Amendment at all.

I, for one, certainly don’t believe that every time a person says something, even offers a clearly challengeable  “opinion”,  about another’s race or religion means that they are a deplorable person – e.g., a racist or anti-Semite. Still, generally, I recognize – and probably you do too — that it says a lot about who they are.

It is, finally, important to remember that Jews, people of color, Muslim-Americans and many others have much more in common about this kind of thing than one might think. And probably each of us need to look more closely in the mirror if, in saying these things, we even try to suggest that we’re doing nothing more than “exchanging our thoughts in the marketplace of ideas.”

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers.