The House campaign arm of the Republican party has made name-calling a part of its strategy for 2020.
National Republican Congressional Committee chair Rep. Tom Emmer, of Minnesota’s Sixth District, has made it clear in interviews that party leadership endorses the effort. In June, Emmer told Politico his staff has a “direct mandate” from himself and Republican leadership to “to be ruthless.”
They’ve also called House Democrats “anti-semitic.”
In the wake of comments about The American Israel Public Affairs Committee by Rep. Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota’s Fifth District, that were criticized by some Jewish groups as playing on stereotypes about Jews, the NRCC press releases came fast and furious: not aimed just at Omar, but on any of her Democratic colleagues who didn’t condemn her remarks and demand her removal from the House Foreign Affairs committee. No Democrats had asked for her removal and the messages from the Republicans argued that Democrats’ non-condemnation of Omar amounted to antisemitism.
One big problem with leveling the charges of antisemitism far and wide: several of the House Democrats labeled as antisemitic are a themselves Jewish. And Rep. Emmer is not.
Intra-state collegiality didn’t protect Emmer’s colleague, Third District Rep. Dean Phillips, from being targeted with such an accusation. Phillips, who comes from a prominent Jewish family in Minnesota, was not amused: “I’m a business person and I happen to be of the Jewish faith. I’m certainly not antisemitic and I’m not a socialist,” he said, noting that such language might be an effective tactic.
“But we should hold ourselves to higher standards in this country. Both parties. And that’s just a woeful example of I think dangerous rhetoric that makes this country a more dangerous place for a lot of people.”
Rep. Max Rose of Staten Island, also accused of antisemitism, was more explicit about where he places blame: “As the first Jewish congressman from Staten Island, it’s downright disgusting for Congressman Emmer’s NRCC to question my faith. This isn’t a joke or partisan game to me because across the country, we’ve seen Jews murdered in synagogues or sucker punched because they were wearing a kippah,” Congressman Max Rose told MinnPost.
“I’ve condemned people in both parties who have made anti-Semitic comments, but Emmer can’t find his Twitter password or a microphone when someone on the right traffics in antisemitism. What a disgrace.”
Jewish organizations have concerns about Republicans’ wanton use of accusations of antisemitism to attack political opponents.
David Goldenberg, the Midwest Regional Director for the Anti-Defamation League, said that using antisemitism for politcal gain or saying that it is limited to one political party makes it harder to confront antisemitism.
“Politicizing antisemitism, both within and between political parties, is dangerous and undermines broader efforts to confront this growing problem. We expect more from our elected officials,” said Goldenberg.
Stefanie Fox, Deputy Director at Jewish Voice for Peace, noted “It’s incredibly important to recognize that actual antisemitism is on the rise, and clearly connected to the rise of white nationalism embraced by the White House – from the adoption of antisemitic tropes by right wing officials, to the murderous attacks spurred on by that language.
“But we also have to recognize that many of the key actors promulgating hatred against Jewish people are simultaneously using Jewish communities as a shield for their racist political agendas.”
Some also object to the conflation of criticism of Israel with antisemitism. Sandy Pappas, a Jewish legislator who represents District 65 in the Minnesota Senate, said that criticism is simply a part of being a concerned citizen.
“What the Republicans are doing, and others are saying: ‘To be critical of Israel is antisemitic.’ And I think that’s not true. I think we can still be supportive of Israel and not antisemitic and critical of Israel,” said Pappas.
“If you’re critical of the U.S. are you anti-America? No, not necessarily. You’re just critical of certain practices and certain actions by certain officials in America.”
Isaiah Breen, who is the Communications Director for Jewish Community Action Minnesota, echoed that sentiment: “It should be self-evident, I think, that disagreeing with the political or military decisions of a different country, or our own government’s support of those policies, isn’t antisemitic. Especially absurd to even suggest that American Jews who do are antisemitic,” said Breen.
“But there are tons of people, especially on the right, and especially among non-Jews, [saying] that they’re the same thing. And besides the obvious absurdity of this argument, it’s also itself potentially antisemitic. Equating American Jews to Israelis, something President Trump has done on numerous occasions, is a classic example of otherizing Jews. Making them out to be different or separate from other Americans.”
Chris Pack, the Communications Director at the NRCC, did not explicitly address how the NRCC defines antisemitism as or if he thinks Jewish members can be antisemitic. Instead he said in part:
“With antisemitism on the rise, it’s important for all sides to be sensitive with regards to this serious issue. It is also important for all sides to hold those accountable who turn a blind eye to the anti-Semites within the House Democratic conference.”
Breen, who also previously served as Keith Ellison’s press secretary, said that antisemitism is a problem for both parties. But he also said it’s much more of a problem on the right. And he said it rarely gets covered with the same level of scrutiny as with Democrats, because reporters often feel uncomfortable without a false balance.
“We had a county level Republican party share a meme that compared Bernie Sanders to Adolf Hitler. And you had [Congressman] Hagedorn and Keith Ellison’s opponent Doug Wardlow going on conservative talk radio and talking about, ‘We need to get all of our people to turn out, because George Soros is stealing the election,’” said Breen. “And you had Trump pushing out campaign ads about shadowy bankers and globalists.”
The ad that Breen is referencing was actually run by the NRCC last year, before Emmer became chair, and used several antisemitic tropes. Although they ran in several places, one ad that ran in Minnesota’s 1st District depicted an image of George Soros, who is Jewish and also one of the larger Democratic donors, with money flowing around him.
“Look at who finances Dan Feehan’s employer,” the NRCC ad says. “Radical George Soros, Wall Street’s biggest banks, a crooked lobbyist tied to Pelosi.”
The ad itself was targeted at Dan Feehan, who was running against Jim Hagedorn in the First District. In an interview, Feehan described the messages he saw then as “geared toward division and antisemitism.”
“Certainly under the leadership of Rep. Emmer they’ve made very clear that they’re doubling down on truly the hateful rhetoric, division centered messages that have absolutely nothing to do with policies whatsoever,” he said.
Phillips said that he is worried about how antisemitism is being used in the political conversation and is explicitly calling on the NRCC to stop.
“I’m seeing is a weaponization of antisemitism that is just as dangerous and just as destructive as antisemitism itself. And you know, I have called on those in positions of power in the NRCC and the Republican Party to recognize the implications,” Phillips said.
“It creates danger and it creates division. And I think it’s unhealthy and inappropriate and wrong.”