Confronting Bigotry---When and How?

By David A. Lehrer

For the past forty-four years I have been active in the civil rights field with a primary focus on anti-Semitism and racial and ethnic bias. My early years dealt with numerous acts of bigotry ranging from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Ford, George Brown (talking about Jews controlling the banks) to the gutter level hate of a resurgent Klan and its leaders David Duke and Tom Metzger.  

 In later decades, although bigotry was usually less overt and less present. Nevertheless, the change in the nature and extent of hate was often not reflected in the community's responses----the "sky is falling" remained the predominant tenor.

 One significant lesson I have drawn from my experiences is that the response to what appears to be anti-Semitism and hate must be measured, accurate, commensurate with the offense and, where appropriate, forgiving. Vengeful furies who are perpetually indignant, always claiming that the "sky is falling" and assuming the worst motivations from even the flimsiest of evidence, lose the confidence of the public and, eventually, the potential to impact public attitudes. Much like the boy "crying wolf," after a while, people won't (and, frankly, shouldn't) listen.

 The past couple of months, as in few times in recent memory, illustrate what can go wrong when excessive and inconsistent responses to insensitivity and bigotry impinge on the accurate assessment of misdeeds. Republicans and Democrats have transgressed.

 First came the Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia storm when the guardians of rectitude and virtue were unleashed with seismic force. Virtually the entire media, and much of our political leadership, were in a race to see who could condemn Northam first. His conduct was undeniably, racist and insensitive and merited condemnation, scrutiny and an apology.

 But the focus of virtually all the condemnations was on the decades old event itself and the risk-free condemnation of Northam's stupidity and insensitivity. What was almost totally missing from the discussion was whether the act of a twenty-five-year old in a fraternity-like environment was conduct requiring summary removal from an important job without a dispassionate examination of the man's life in the decades since.  

 It is often much easier to come up with a catchy sound-bite excoriating the bad act and the actor; it is more difficult to suggest that we all make mistakes and that what is relevant is whether the act reflects deep seated bigotry or racist bias.  

 Similarly, a storm of outrage and indignity was generated by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar's (D-Minn) recent (and repeated) anti-Semitic slur that asserted that Jewish contributions and financial means account for Israel's support in the Congress, and that AIPAC is the culprit. The stereotype is a classic anti-Semitic canard but its hold on the body politic is a fraction of what it was decades ago. Surely it needs to be responded to and its purveyor condemned---but that's the easy part.

 What is more challenging is measuring the response knowing that it is not the end of the world or a threat to the Republic or American Jews. Omar deserves to be criticized and ostracized by her party and the opposition (which she was). She does not, however, merit the self-righteous and hypocritical piling on by the president of the United States or the vice-president. Nor does Omar's transgression warrant a national petition campaign that demands her "censure" and removal from her seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee as the Simon Wiesenthal Center has undertaken.  

 The nuclear option was invoked for a tactical skirmish with a freshman congresswoman.

 Unfortunately, there is little to be gained by a measured and moderate analysis---the headlines go to the vocal, the brazen and the first-out-of-the-box with a comment. Few will later ask if there are consistent standards for evaluating offensiveness.  

 For example, why is the president listened to regarding Omar when, during his campaign, he blithely asserted to a Jewish group, "I know you are not going to support me because I don't want your money.... you want to control your own politicians"? I don't recall the Wiesenthal Center calling for Trump to be politically ostracized and neutered.  

 When the president and groups like Wiesenthal come out with guns blaring,yet have been virtually silent about other bigoted and stereotypic comments, the reserve of goodwill and believability that a minority community has gets depleted. The public will legitimately question what their motivations for indignation are and why now?  

 Every public act of bigotry or seeming racial/religious/ethnic insensitivity needs to be examined, the motivation assessed, the response evaluated, and the impact considered. There is no one size fits all perpetual state of outrage---as the rapid-fire defenders of Jussie Smollett (the actor with the discredited claim of being the victim of a hate crime) learned. Facts are troublesome.

 There were numerous times over the past several decades when I was approached by the press to comment about what seemed like a bigoted remark by a public figure or corporation---Cong. Bob Dornan describing a Soviet spokesman as a "disloyal betraying little Jew", Michael Jackson singing "kick me, kike me, Jew me sue me"[They Don't Care About Us-1995], Walt Disney's original Three Little Pigs cartoon's depiction of the wolf as a menacing, hook-nosed Jewish peddler---but held my fire to determine what the context, the intent and the import of the alleged offenses were.

 The response (or absence of one, as with The Three Little Pigs) was then calibrated to the act---not pre-ordained by a covert agenda to secure PR, claim "purity" or the moral high ground, or to curry favor with one political party over another. In the case of Dornan, I was virtually his sole defender against an onslaught accusing him of bigotry.

 Whether Northam or Omar or Smollett-or even someone accused in the "Me Too" maelstrom--we all ought to hold our fire and our conclusions before going on the attack to label someone as an irredeemable bigot or predator. There are few charges that are as indelible. Such accusations also make the "offender's" redemption and altering course less likely. The weapon of righteous indignation and condemnation must be wielded with care, precision, fairness and, most of all, honesty and consistency; none of which we have seen much of recently.