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Playing American Race Politics in the Middle East

New York Congressman Jamaal Bowman and others are grafting a domestic psychodrama onto a foreign region—and endangering American Jews in the process

Liel Leibovitz
May 12, 2021
Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
New York Democratic House candidate Jamaal Bowman greets supporters in Yonkers, New York, on June 23, 2020Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
New York Democratic House candidate Jamaal Bowman greets supporters in Yonkers, New York, on June 23, 2020Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Congressman Jamaal Bowman’s district includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester County. He was elected with support from Jewish voters, four of whose synagogues were recently attacked and defaced by maniacs in his district.

Yesterday, responding to the onslaught of Palestinian violence against Israel, Congressman Bowman had this to say to his constituents: “Whether it’s the infringement of human and civil rights of Palestinians living in Sheikh Jarrah, the violence against those praying in the Al-Aqsa Mosque during the holy month of Ramadan in East Jerusalem … my heart is breaking for people around the world experiencing oppression and hurt.” And in case the virtue signal wasn’t heard loudly or clearly enough, Bowman added in a tweet, “enough of Black and brown bodies being brutalized and murdered.”

Now, this might be confusing to you, especially if you’ve been following the news over the past day. If so, you would have heard about Soumya Santosh, a 32-year-old Indian woman who, in order to provide for her 9-year-old boy, found work in the Israeli city of Ashkelon, caring for an 80-year-old woman. The pair were ducking for cover when their home was directly hit by one of Hamas’ rockets. Santosh’s brown body was torn apart by a projectile hurled by a terrorist organization and aimed at innocent civilians, none of whom, by the way, have any use for silly and preening identity politics.

Or maybe you know about 19-year-old Yehuda Guetta—his family hails from Libya, a country located, of all places, in Africa. Yehuda was shot and killed earlier this week by a Palestinian American named Muntasir Shalabi, who was motivated, according to his neighbors, by equal parts Jew hatred and heavy gambling debts.

In general, I am loath to deny Americans the right to play their national sports, which these days apparently include mau-mauing “white people”—though I will say that it seems creepy to use skin color as the primary way to identify human beings, like 19th-century “race scientists” did. But since Congressman Bowman is being joined by a host of other elected officials including Rashida Tlaib in trying to chauvinistically transpose their own American psychodrama onto a foreign region, this is now starting to get terrifyingly dangerous—and I don’t mean for Israel, but for Jews living here in the United States, including those in Congressman Bowman’s own district.

Judaism is an identity that predates ‘race,’ just as it predates America, and the sin of slavery, and the idea of nations and the Christian and Muslim faiths.

So let’s be clear as day: Israel isn’t America, Jews aren’t white, and Palestinians aren’t “Black and brown people.” Judaism is an identity that predates “race,” just as it predates America, and the sin of slavery, and the idea of nations and the Christian and Muslim faiths.

Reckless, ignorant racializing, precisely of the kind that Bowman is practicing these days, has a trickle-down effect. In a statement last month, the congressman and his fellow progressives released a statement declaring themselves shocked, shocked! by the anti-Jewish violence in their own districts. Sir, the call is coming from inside your house.

Moreover, if people like Congressman Bowman can’t see how being openly denigrated by powerful people—like, say, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives—makes members of a minority group feel vulnerable and targeted, then I really have no idea what progressive politics are even pretending to be about anymore.

Of course, Bowman is free to ignore Jewish history and all the suffering of real people in the present, and to fantasize about skin-based affinities while fundamentalist terrorists lob thousands of rockets at people who are family members, both figuratively and literally speaking, of his own constituents. But how about the other side of what’s happening in Israel? In the past 48 hours, thousands of Israeli Arab citizens, whose skin color is exactly the same as that of their neighbors, and who enjoy the highest standard of living in the region as well as every right to practice their religion freely and attend great universities, launched a wave of pogroms against their Jewish neighbors. They attacked and defaced synagogues in Lod—just like in Bowman’s district in Riverdale. They also beat up children in the street, bombed buses, dragged drivers from their cars, and smashed shop windows, targeting the Jewish regional minority.

A rabbi traveling with his students told the Israeli press about feeling helpless when their bus was blocked by throngs of Arab rioters armed with burning tires and large rocks. Four police cars, the rabbi reported, stood idly by and did nothing as the pogromists pelted the bus with boulders. “I didn’t open fire,” the rabbi, who was armed, said. “I didn’t want to be the subject of a police investigation myself.” Instead, he told his underage charges to lie on the ground, keep their heads down, and pray, as they were pelted with stones and shattered glass. Is this a righteous or “understandable” punishment for the teacher and his students for “occupying Palestine”?

The world’s sole Jewish state was not formed to give Jews yet another ghetto in which to cower in fear. The country’s restraint in the face of these deadly provocations is not some kind of acknowledgement of guilt or slick PR move, the way woke corporations write checks to Black Lives Matter. In a dangerous part of the world, real bad boys move in silence, with violence—and believe me, no one will care how loudly progressives in America may howl. We know that America can bring peace, or it can bring war by encouraging our enemies and rewarding them when they try to kill us. In which case, the bloodshed that follows is on your head.

The Jewish state has known deadly attacks before, but this week’s onslaught marks a turning point. It marks the end of false pretenses, the end of politely engaging with those who tacitly or otherwise engage in violence against Jews. In Ramla and in Riverdale, the message should ring loud and clear: The choice is between our own safety, and the other side’s twisted political games. Choose wisely.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.