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March 22, 2019 9:36 am

The Multiple Faces of Whitewashing Antisemitism

avatar by Manfred Gerstenfeld


Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN) participates in a news conference at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, Feb. 7, 2019. Photo: Reuters / Jonathan Ernst / Files.

Major cases of antisemitism are usually accompanied by a variety of whitewashing statements. Yet this whitewashing is rarely looked at as a widespread and multi-faceted international phenomenon.

After Congresswoman Ilhan Omar made several extreme antisemitic statements, prominent whitewashers fell over each other to obscure the meaning of her words, or, alternatively, to offer explanations for her remarks.

The statements of Nancy Pelosi contained several whitewashing classics: “The incident that happened with [Omar], I don’t think our colleague is anti-Semitic … I think she has a different experience in the use of words.”

Jewish Democratic Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky’s observation also merits inclusion in this collection. She remarked that “as a Somalian refugee from a different culture, Omar has things to learn.” The uninformed reader might think that Omar arrived recently in the United States. In fact, Omar has lived there since the 1990s. In that time, she has learned to run successfully for Congress — a challenge far more difficult than avoiding the use of antisemitic comments.

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In 2016, when the public disclosure of a number of cases of antisemitism in the British Labour Party started to pile up, its leader Jeremy Corbyn appointed Shami Chakrabarti to investigate antisemitism in the party. The opening sentence of her report was a masterpiece of whitewashing manipulation: “The Labour Party is not overrun by antisemitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism.”

Nobody had claimed that Labour had problems with Islamophobia or racism. With this opening remark, Chakrabarti diluted her report from the very beginning.

Antisemitism in Labour existed before Corbyn became its leader in September 2015, but it was far less pervasive. The Labour Party is now full of antisemitism whitewashers. A poll of paying Labour members in March 2018 found that 47 percent said that antisemitism was a problem, but that the extent of the problem was being exaggerated “to damage Labour and Jeremy Corbyn or to stifle criticism of Israel.” A further 30 percent said that antisemitism was not a serious issue. And 61 percent thought that Corbyn was handling the antisemitism claims well.

There are many other modes of whitewashing antisemites. One of the best known and most virulent American antisemites is Louis Farrakhan, the long-term leader of the Nation of Islam. In 2018, President Obama’s former Attorney General Eric Holder posed for a picture with him.  In 2005, before running for president, Barack Obama stood for a “grip and grin” photograph with Farrakhan. Other prominent politicians have done the same. By meeting with this major antisemite, public figures legitimize and whitewash him.

Prosecutors and judges can also be whitewashers of antisemitism. In Germany, three Palestinians attempted to burn a synagogue in the town of Wuppertal in 2014. A court decided that this was a protest against Israel, and could not be considered an antisemitic act. The perpetrators were given suspended sentences.

In 1851, Norway was the last European country to admit Jews. Yet it has a long antisemitic tradition. Last summer, the rapper Kaveh Kholardi shouted during a concert: “f*cking Jews.” But a complaint against him was dismissed by Norway’s attorney general. He ruled that Kholardi was not engaging in antisemitic hate speech, but rather in legitimate criticism of Israel.

All the above examples pale in comparison with the extensive and extreme whitewashing of Holocaust antisemitism. In Romania, the Communist regimes denied or greatly downplayed the country’s role in the genocide of Jews.

And closely linked to Holocaust whitewashing is Holocaust deflection. This was consistently done for decades by Austrian governments. They presented Austria as one of the Nazis’ first victims, rather than as a country of fellow genocide perpetrators.

The above is only a small multi-layered selection of examples of antisemitism whitewashing that, with appropriate research, could be turned into a major collection.

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