On Tuesday, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul announced his candidacy for president and almost immediately was accused of insensitivity towards Jews. The problem was not something he said in his campaign kick-off speech, but rather an avatar that appeared on his web site for prospective supporters to use. The offending phrase? “Jew for Rand.”
As soon as this graphic was spotted, it was denounced on Twitter by a user named Holly Shulman–who just happened to be the national press secretary of the Democratic National Committee.
Dear Rand: I think we would prefer “Jewish American”… pic.twitter.com/hdYb5h9dMW
— Holly Shulman (@HollyShulman) April 7, 2015
The tweet started a mini-firestorm among liberals and some members of the media–including a New York Times reporter–and was picked up by several online outlets. On its face, though, this objection is absurd. As one can clearly see from the other graphics on Paul’s web page, “Jew” is simply being treated as a religion, like “Catholic,” rather than an ethnicity, like “Italian-American.” Jewishness encompasses both traits, and so there is no right or wrong way to refer to it–unless, of course, one is in the business of manufacturing outrage for political or professional gain. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop put it, “my main takeaway from the coverage is that the media industry is hungry for clicks, and easy gotchas like this are a great way to deliver them.”
This faux faux pas is unfortunate not merely because it tars a national politician with an unearned accusation of ethnic insensitivity, diluting the charge for when it is truly warranted. It is also disheartening because the nontroversy over Rand Paul’s reference to Jews distracts attention from real questions that ought to concern them. Among other things, Paul has sought to eliminate all foreign aid, including to Israel. For another, his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, infamously published a long line of bigoted newsletters, while later disclaiming responsibility for their contents, which impugned blacks, gays, and Jews.
Rand Paul has taken great pains to distance himself from these unsavory aspects of his father’s legacy. He has done significant outreach to the African-American and Jewish communities, and emphasized his support for Israel, framing his opposition to aid in a Zionist context. Paul’s positions on issues of concern to these two groups, from criminal justice reform to foreign aid, are matters of substance that deserve robust debate. The sincerity of his stances deserves to be tested. But none of that will happen as long as we remain caught up in pseudo-controversies about glorified bumper stickers.
Let’s hope the coverage of Paul’s campaign proves more serious than that of its launch.