We Must Fight Divisive Figures on the Right and the Left
There is no end in sight to worries over alleged Russian hacking — past, present, and future — into our elections. But there are others who’ve also successfully hacked into the mainstream of America’s body politic. The deadly virus they carry is not limited to social media, and left unchecked it could infect large swaths of our democracy. It’s a virus that transmits hate, and here are some of the carriers:
- In California, Holocaust denier John Fitzgerald captured 23 percent of the open primary vote in a California congressional district near San Francisco. It took the state Republican Party two months to rescind its endorsement.
- In Illinois, Arthur Jones, who boasts that he was once head of the American Nazi Party, won a GOP congressional primary after running unopposed in a district including parts of Chicago. This even after Jones defended his position that the Holocaust is “an international extortion racket,” Republican Governor Bruce Rauner hesitated before telling the GOP faithful not to vote for him.
- In Wisconsin, Holocaust denier Paul Nehlen received a troubling 11 percent of the vote to replace retiring house speaker Paul Ryan.
- Steve West, a radio talk show hosts who promotes antisemitic conspiracy theories, has defeated three other candidates in a bid for a Missouri state house seat with 49.5% of the vote. “Looking back in history, unfortunately, Hitler was right about what was taking place in Germany. And who was behind it,” West says.
- Spalding County, Georgia, Sheriff’s Office employee Howard Costner commented on YouTube, “I view racism as normal.” He considers Nazis “normal everyday people” and described George Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party, as someone he “respects.” Sheriff Darrell Dix appropriately fired Costner and a like-minded jailer.
The political malpractice that imperils our democracy is not limited to the Republicans or to Georgia jails.
In California, Maria Estrada, the Democratic candidate for State Assembly in Los Angeles, said this on Facebook: “Democrats turn a blind eye to the genocide against Palestinians and justify it by bringing up the Holocaust. … Anyone who believes they are one of ‘God’s chosen people’ automatically feels superior and justified in all they do. Religious fanaticism is used to justify apartheid and crimes against Palestinians… #FreePalestine.”
Estrada, who has praised antisemitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, displays ease and fluency with antisemitic rhetoric. For example, she bashed California Democratic Chair Eric Bauman for not keeping “your party, your religion, and your people in check.”
Estrada’s loathing for the Jewish state was on full display when she posted a cartoon on social media that showed a man with an Israeli flag stabbed into the back of a Palestinian. The cartoon replaced the Star of David on the Israeli flag with the Nazi swastika. Estrada has refused to drop out of the race.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez catapulted into a major political force after defeating a powerful Congressman touted to be the next leader of House Democrats. Ocasio-Cortez criticized Israel’s “occupation” of the Palestinians, but later admitted she didn’t know much about the Middle East. We can only hope that she will engage with fellow New Yorkers who can share the 3,500 year history linking the Jewish people with the Holy Land.
Some other progressives went much further than Ocasio-Cortez. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar have been nominated in safe Democratic Congressional districts. If they win in November, we would love nothing more than to celebrate the first Muslim women elected to Congress. However, in this instance, it will be impossible for us to do so. Both Tlaib and Omar would bring to Washington extremist views that question the State of Israel’s right to exist. They are candidates who have supported the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and have labeled Israel an “apartheid state.”
Criticizing Israeli policies per se does not constitute antisemitism, nor does it pose a threat to the security of the world’s largest Jewish community. But libeling the Middle East’s only democracy — one with a parliament that includes Jews, Arabs, and Druze citizens — as an apartheid regime, along with backing the BDS campaign, demonizes and endangers over six million Israeli Jews.
How then should Americans respond to the mainstream of our body politic?
For starters, we can get involved in the political process from the grassroots up. While the RNC and DNC should more effectively vet all candidates, the responsibility is with the people to act.
Second, we need to rediscover civility in a national discourse before it’s too late.
As antisemitic hate crimes skyrocket in Germany, two political scientists, Peter Selb and Simon Munzert, have released findings from a new study that suggest it was not Hitler’s rhetoric that was most responsible for fueling the rise of the Nazis in the Weimar Republic; it was a breakdown in the culture of civility and the commitment to democracy writ large.
This is a point we Americans can ill-afford not to internalize.
Finally, a word of advice from human rights icon Natan Sharansky, who endured solitary confinement in the Soviet Union for daring to speak up for human rights: Simply put, conservatives should be the first to protest when someone claiming to be a conservative reveals himself as a bigot. The same goes for liberals and progressives. Only by having the courage to take on “your own” when they cross the line can we maintain the integrity of our own beliefs.
Four decades ago, Simon Wiesenthal, who lost 89 relatives in the Holocaust, warned: “Freedom is not a gift from heaven. One must fight for it each and every day.”
It’s time for each of us to join the fray.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a leading Jewish human rights organization with over 400,000 family members. A version of this article was originally published by NewsMax.