While the Democratic Party has wrapped itself around identity politics for the purposes of building a coalition in elections and perhaps out of a desire to avoid meaningful dialogue on larger issues that actually impact minority communities, a dangerous drift toward coded antisemitism appears to be underway.
Take for example a recent Orlando Weekly cover story that identifies Alan Grayson as a “Jewish New Yorker,” whose “shitck” has lost its luster. Or how Philip Levine’s campaign for governor is often framed as ‘can a Miami Jew win Florida.’ Over the course of the last several months, I’ve heard whispers and even some written communication questioning the ability of Phillip Levine to win statewide since he’s from south Florida (or more specifically, Miami Beach an place many love to stereotype) and is Jewish. This is despite (as will discussed later in this piece) three Miami-area based Jewish Democrats won statewide a total of EIGHT times in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
In recent months we’ve seen primaries outside this state which involve Jewish progressives framed around issues of the “media” and “Hollywood.” For some activists and newbies these terms might not elicit the sort of reaction they do from others – a dog-whistle meant to reinforce that the more progressive candidate is in fact, Jewish.
We expect this sort of coded demagogic politics from Donald Trump and some of his closest associates who use code to label minority groups including Jews, in order to elicit a reaction from the right. Why are some on the center-left taking the same tack with regards to Jewish Democrats?
This goes beyond geographic identification which has long been a staple of the Democratic primaries in Florida (hence the most recent run of nominees for Governor all from the Tampa Bay area). Mainstream, establishment Democrats so often mimic the conservative playbook (even when it comes to manipulating elections internally) the use of antisemitic code should come as no shock to progressive observers.
Geography has also been coupled with religious and racial considerations which is why Democratic insiders determined that Miami-based African-American Kendrick Meek would be a “disaster” as a US Senate nominee in 2010 and opted to recruit a sitting Republican Governor to run as an independent splitting the the anti-Marco Rubio vote. Unsurprisingly, Rubio walked into the US Senate.
Movements for social and economic justice have historically been led in many cases by Jewish-Americans particularly in southern states. Without the contributions of Jews, the NAACP would not have been able to keep its lights on in the era when they were fighting lonely battles in the courts to try and force incremental desegregation, nor would Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights efforts been so well-funded or supported. In fact, the presence of Jewish leadership and contributions to these efforts gave white segregationists and even those like FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover license to accuse the movement of being communist or socialist.
In the course of this discussion, It’s important to distinguish the difference between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. This article isn’t concerned about attitudes related to the State of Israel or the sloppy conflating of how stands on the Middle East get rolled into determinations about antisemitism (For example, President Trump is very supportive of Israel and the politics of the Likud Party but the dog whistle commentary on the media has its roots in antisemitism something I pointed out privately to many people in 2016 and early 2017 then saw later articles in 2017 like this one pointing out the same thing).
Additionally, the frequent use of the term “socialism” among those on the right has antisemitic undertones if you look at its historical usage in American politics, particularly in the south. Historically the emphasis of many in the Jewish-American community on social and economic justice and adherence to left-leaning politics (again in domestic matters, the issue of the Middle East is irrelevant to this discussion) has allowed the community to be the subject of demagoguery for years from populists.
It’s disappointing when some Democrats who hail from the “mainstream” neoliberal wing of the party use dog whistles to tarnish Jewish candidates based on their cultural and religious heritage. Nationally, Bernie Sanders bore the brunt of these smears when Democratic operatives aligned with the Clinton campaign resorted to lazy ethnic or geographic stereotypes to describe him in a negative manner. During the 2016 Democratic Presidential Primary Clinton insiders strategized sometimes openly ways to call attention to Sanders’ faith tradition, writing in an email released by Wikileaks, “Can we get someone to ask his belief? Does he believe in a God? He had skated on saying he has a Jewish heritage. I think I read he is an atheist. This could make several points difference with my peeps,” wrote Brad Marshall in an email to Amy Dacey. In a second email Marshall wrote: “It’s these Jesus thing.” Ms. Dacey wrote back, in capital letters: “AMEN.”
Clinton campaign staff believed that casting aspersions on Sanders’ heritage would resonate with their ‘peeps’ in West Virginia and Kentucky, but it’s remarkably stupid to do so here in Florida, where we have a huge Jewish population that votes overwhelmingly Democratic, thanks largely to the party’s perceived stands on social justice, economic issues and secularism. That might explain why Levine continues to poll so well.
Washington Post columnist and apparent Clinton partisan Jonathan Capehart took subsonic racial stereotyping to new depths in an effort to define and ultimately derail Bernie Sanders. Capehart regularly impugned Sanders’ allegiance to the Democratic Party and Clinton partisans taking cues from him or others in the media alternately characterized Sanders as a hustler, an interloper and an infiltrator—each slur having its own sordid history in antisemitism. On Chris Matthews’ MSNBC show Hardball one night, the host wondered aloud, with a giddy smirk, as to why Sanders didn’t discuss his religion more. It was stunning from Capehart, whose history as a writer and commentator had been to that point largely associated with progressive ideas including on race and LGBTQ issues. But his commentary was simply the most obvious and overt attacks on Sanders using the same sort of coded wording. But defining Sanders using whatever religious or ethnic code was needed seemed to be a universal effort among many mainstream Democrats and among partisan allies in the media and chattering class.
Capehart at least managed his coded antisemitism with a measure of smarmy restraint. The same cannot be said for Orlando Weekly writer Monivette Cordeiro, whose piece actually uses the Yiddish word ‘shtick’ in its headline. Lest anyone not catch her drift, Cordeiro waxes skeptical about internal polls showing Grayson ahead, then moves directly to framing the District 9 race as Darren Soto, man “of Puerto Rican descent” versus the “Jewish New Yorker.” The subtextual wish for a cultural face-off has all the subtlety of a brick thrown from an overpass.
While it’s fair for Puerto Rican voters to prefer Soto, the implication is that a “Jewish New Yorker” can’t possibly represent Puerto Rican constituents (tell that to Elliot Engel, the progressiveNew York Congressman, a liberal Jew who has represented Puerto Ricans for decades well).
As shocking as it is, The Orlando Weekly piece is hardly alone in insulting appeals to identity over policy and principle. Plenty of other writings from Democratic Party-aligned sources have taken shots at the likes of Sanders and Grayson as the living embodiments of white privilege—no matter both are minorities themselves, from humble roots, with possessing long records of activism on behalf of social and economic justice. The rhetorical move is necessary because the neoliberal elite of the party must first protect wealth. Social justice is good. Economic justice is free stuff that isn’t practical in a capitalist or “free” society.
Given the Democrats desire to always put forth winning potential nominees in a state where Democratic registration outnumbers Republican registrants, you’d think the Democrats have a winning playbook since the party’s establishment wing so often play in primaries. But in fact the Democratic record in statewide elections since 2000 looks like this:
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When you take out races involving Bill Nelson who has served in public office since the 1970’s the record looks like this:
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If you look strictly at races for Governor or the statewide cabinet the record looks like this:
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Yet Democrats in Florida continue to make the same mistakes and push the same buttons and themes when it comes to whom to nominate and assumptions about the statewide electorate. Part of this is based on simple business: the professional left which has taken hold of the party during its long losing streak has to nominate candidates aligned with them to maintain control of the party’s infrastructure and continue to profit off the electoral process. But part of it is also based on stereotypical assumptions and perhaps cynically held beliefs about certain types of people.
Eighteen months ago, I wrote this in an article titled Trump’s Nixonian Populist Antisemitism is an old playbook page:
Populist demagogues have a long history of using race, religion and ethnicity here in Florida (a subject for tomorrow) and around the country. Trump’s political base as he showed again yesterday in Melbourne wants red meat about the establishment. Like so many previous demagogues on the right or left, Trump has mixed a subtle antisemitism into greater anti-establishment appeals. Make no mistake about it – historical attacks against the media and specifically The New York Times have an antisemitic ring to them. Richard Nixon’s similar attacks were interpreted by many at the time as antisemitic and Trump’s rhetoric doesn’t sound that different than Father Coughlin’s in 1930’s on so many scores. The conspiracy theories which mirror many of the antisemitic ones of the 1930’s advocated by Coughlin and the America First Committee (whose rhetoric on foreign affairs Trump also has mimicked) and media attacks by Trump are carefully designed antisemitic hits – given Trump overwhelmingly lost the Jewish vote in 2016 his political advisers probably see little risk in what is subtle to many but naked overt antisemitism to those who are students of history. What they do see is an opportunity to build an electoral coalition to maintain Trumpism beyond his administration by using racial fear and demagoguery along with antisemitism to win the day.
Meanwhile as stated above a perception is being formed among some in the chattering class about Philip Levine’s General Election prospects because of his ethnic sounding name and geographic base. While it is very possible many voters outside southeast Florida would vote against a Jewish-American based on ethnicity, it is also likely in this era where moderate voters have essentially disappeared and partisan identification is locked in, those who case ballots based on this factor would not vote for ANY Democratic nominee for a statewide office. Oddly similar whispers haven’t begun to spread about Jeff Greene though he too is Jewish, but is from Palm Beach County not Miami Beach. But it might have more to do with Greene’s perceived ideology and his choice of allies in the past than with anything else.
But even as Levine’s electoral prospects are questioned by establishment Democrats whose losing pedigree is unparalleled in the recent history of the state, oddly little has been discussed about previous successful Jewish statewide candidates from southeastern Florida. These successes include Gerald Lewis who was the Comptroller of the state for many years and Richard Stone who served one term in the US Senate. George Firestone, who was elected twice as Secretary of State was Jewish. While Stone was a moderate (who was eventually defeated for renomination to the Senate by another moderate, Bill Gunter who was more or less Bill Nelson’s political mentor), Lewis and Firestone (for a time) tended to be further to the left of the mainstream in Florida.
Stone had represented (Miami) Dade County in the State Senate before being elected Secretary of State and then to the US Senate. Firestone represented Coconut Grove, a historic and traditionally liberal part of Miami in the legislature before he was elected statewide.
But as is typical, institutional memory among many of Florida’s Democrats isn’t knee-deep. It’s reactive and based on stereotypes that are either recently formed OR simply developed to benefit an establishment and a class of consultants based in Tallahassee.
It’s disappointing to see the drift of some in the Democratic Party and media towards these sorts of coded attacks. The implications are of course that racism and antisemitism are terrible things when coming from the fascists or the right, but when they happen on the left it’s because we are trying to protect (other) minority communities or preserve an electibility on a macro scale.
One way or another true progressives and fair minded people should reject antisemitism in all forms, be it subtle, coded or direct.
The better angels of a society that is truly color blind and devoid of ethnic and class prejudice is a goal of liberalism in the United States. But some in the Democratic Party prefer to divide groups into pots for maximum political gain. This situation is no different.