Meta Semitism

Jewish Light Editorial

“Of course, indifference can be tempting — more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims…for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbor are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the other to an abstraction.” 

— Elie Wiesel, Millennium Lecture Series, White House, 1999

We’ve forever heard the claim that some Jews are “too sensitive to anti-Semitism.” One of the most famous examples derives from Woody Allen’s classic award-winning film, “Annie Hall,” where his character, Alvy Singer, says, “You know, I was having lunch with some guys from NBC, so I said … uh, ‘Did you eat yet or what?’ and Tom Christie said, ‘No, didchoo?’ Not, did you, didchoo eat?  Jew?  No, not did you eat, but Jew eat? Jew. You get it?  Jew eat?”

There’s a reason in this deliberate caricature that Alvy is so willing to ascribe ill intent to the world around him. It’s because he knows that very bad things have happened, and words and actions that have the potential to propagate hate have often been the precursors to those very bad things.

The late Elie Wiesel, during his extremely meaningful life, constantly challenged us to be vigilant, to not look away, when we see hate in the offing. With the above quote, he reminds us that it’s all too easy to indifferently cast aside things that can quickly lead to terrible acts.

The tweet from the Trump presidential campaign that was the subject of so much attention this week — portraying Hillary Clinton, a six-sided star, money and a reference to Clinton as the “most corrupt candidate ever” — is an example of that indifference from a presidential campaign.

Let’s get one thing straight from the outset: There’s no evidence that the tweet emanating from a presidential campaign represented an intentionally anti-Semitic act; in fact, that intent was expressly disavowed by the campaign.

But as noted, “the campaign tweeted an image that had previously been posted on an anti-Semitic, white supremacist message board. (The spokesman’s) statement also didn’t explain where the campaign obtained the image.”

So regardless of the campaign’s intent, there is a linkage between the use of the tweeted image and words and those who would condemn Jews. In other words, the portrayal was just one iteration removed from its usage by those with extremely ill intent.

This did not sit well, as one would expect, with the Anti-Defamation League, whose chairman, Jonathan Greenblatt, said, “The imagery is the classic trope of Jews and money implying that she’s raising Jewish money, or something along those lines.”

For all we know, the campaign is being wholly truthful in denying any intention of playing to anti-Semitic supporters. Regardless, it should have immediately recognized the undertones of such a graphic, and opted not to publish the tweet. By publishing, the campaign wasn’t sensitive to where the image came from, what the intention was of those who previously distributed it, and how the visual and accompanying words could be perceived.  Those failures are the essence of negligent indifference.

The issues this week weren’t limited to one side of the political aisle.

Case in point: This week, Max Blumenthal, son of a Clinton confidante who has disseminated theories embraced by anti-Semites in the past, tweeted that “Elie Wiesel is dead. He spent his last years inciting hatred, defending apartheid & palling around with fascists.”

The Blumenthal quote is, in our opinion, particularly loathsome. No matter what one’s view of the Israel-Palestinian situation, Wiesel was a lifelong proclaimer against all forms of hate, including apartheid. His memory deserves the respect that Wiesel afforded the memories of others, not a blathering defamation such as Blumenthal offered.

Clinton has no obligation to apologize on behalf of a third party’s statement (just as the Trump campaign reminds us often it is not responsible for the utterances of all those who support the candidate). Nevertheless, as her campaign was readily willing to ascribe anti-Semitic intent to Trump’s tweet, we think she should shun indifference by making clear that the kind of speech Blumenthal tweeted is also well beyond the pale.

We look to our presidential candidates to set a tone and standard by which they intend to lead the country. This week presented a particularly disappointing period in that regard, especially with respect to the cloud of anti-Semitism and the treatment of a universal icon in Wiesel. Let’s avoid our own indifference and insist on something better going forward.