Lessons from the Tlaib Controversy

(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

American discourse on antisemitism went through yet another round of toxic controversy this week following an interview with Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-MI). If you are seeking a deeper and more nuanced understanding of what she actually said, I recommend this editorial by JTA editor-in-chief Andrew Silow-Carrol. And, if you want a quick yet thoughtful read on the problem with the underlying “narrative” Congresswoman Tlaib was referencing regarding Palestinians, the Holocaust, and Zionism, I recommend this opinion piece by Robert Rozett, the senior historian of Yad Vashem.

This is not the first time this year that the comments of a public official rapidly metastasized – rightly or wrongly – into a social media and partisan flame war regarding antisemitism and Israel. We are gleaning critical lessons from these rounds of controversy that should inform and strengthen the work of community relations:

  1. We talk a lot about how it is wrong when folks on the left, outside of the Jewish community, try to tell us how to experience antisemitism or rely on fringe elements of the Jewish community to excuse antisemitic behavior that the vast majority of us find hurtful and dangerous. A responsible media cannot rely on partisan or fringe groups on either side of the aisle to determine what is, or is not, antisemitic. Rather, we must insist that the mainstream of our own community gets to make that determination. Institutions and leaders who represent the sensibility of our community will call it as they see it, both on the left and the right. On matters relating specifically to antisemitism, I look to such groups as the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee, and to scholars like Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, author of the recent and excellent “Antisemitism: Here and Now.”
  2. Somewhere in each of these flare-ups, the vast middle gets lost. Partisans circle around whether someone “is or is not” an anti-Semite; whether their opponents are or are not racists. Extremists will argue over the intent of a speaker but never actually have a serious and important conversation about the impact on an audience. In these tenuous times, many communities, including ours, are feeling vulnerable and under assault. And yet, when the flare-up passes, we end up never having addressed inaccurate or misleading clams which then end up in the permanent public record of our internet era. We never get around to addressing the hurt and undoing the damage caused by the words in question.
  3. When we react, we don’t always pause to ask the question: to whom are we speaking in our response, and to what end? We (whoever the “we” is on any particular occasion) yell because it makes us feel good, because that’s what social media encourages, because others are too. We don’t stop to ask: who needs to hear me, and is this the best strategy to reach them? As I’ve said before, at JCRC we speak with an eye toward one and only one audience – Boston’s civic leaders beyond the Jewish community. Our role is to help them understand how our community experiences a given moment, how we interpret an issue, and what we need from them. Sometimes that involves having the conversation in public. And more often, that means relying on our longstanding relationships of trust with elected officials and faith leaders to have more private and often difficult but necessary conversations.
  4. Lastly, this week is a reminder of the work yet to be done in developing healthy relationships between American Jews and Palestinians (and Arabs and Muslims…) despite our differences of opinion on issues. I do not condone Congresswoman Tlaib’s comments. But, we are going to have to learn to talk to and hear each other as individuals and communities, and that includes coming to understand that we see the events of the past century or so in very different ways. To that end, I strongly recommend that all members of both our communities read “Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine.” It is a genuine attempt by Israeli and Palestinian educators to address the “unbridgeable gulf” of narrative. Reading it has helped me to open myself to the “other” in this conflict, and to learn how to talk to more people about a topic I am passionate about, in ways that will encourage them to be open to my narrative as well.

Events like this week have become, unfortunately, a part of our civic reality. We should learn how to be more strategic and relational in how we respond to them.

I welcome your thoughts about other things we can and should be doing in these challenging times.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy