GOP twists debate over civil rights law to smear Democrats as antisemitic

A parliamentary maneuver centered on antisemitism is part of a Republican effort to peel away Democratic Jewish voters ahead of the election.

President Donald Trump arrives in the House chamber prior to delivering his State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., February 4, 2020. (Official White House Photo / Andrea Hanks)
President Donald Trump arrives in the House chamber prior to delivering his State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., February 4, 2020. (Official White House Photo / Andrea Hanks)

In a brazen attempt to exploit concerns over growing antisemitism in the United States for political gain, right-wing politicians, journalists, and organizations are using an obscure parliamentary maneuver to paint Democrats as insufficiently concerned over anti-Jewish bigotry.

It is another instance of Republicans and their supporters using antisemitism as a wedge issue, as the party tries to peel away Jewish voters from the Democrats ahead of next month’s elections, and appeal to right-wing Jewish donors that help fund their party.

Although the effort may play well with those particular donors, it is unlikely to work on the majority of American Jews: a poll last month found that two-thirds of Jewish voters planned to vote for Democratic nominee Joe Biden over President Donald Trump.

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On Sept. 16, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives debated the Equity and Inclusion Enforcement Act, a bill that would allow individuals to file civil lawsuits against institutions that violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits institutions that receive federal dollars from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin. The legislation would allow the suits to be filed over what is known as “disparate impact” — policies that disproportionately affect one group of people over another. The proposed bill was drafted in response to a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that decided that the Civil Rights Act does not allow for private civil suits over such “disparate impact” claims.

Congresswoman Virginia Foxx talks with witnesses at the Education and Workforce Committee hearing on "Streamlining Federal Education and Workforce Programs: A look at the GAO Report on Government Waste," April 6, 2011. (Virginia Foxx/Flickr)
Congresswoman Virginia Foxx talks with witnesses at the Education and Workforce Committee hearing on “Streamlining Federal Education and Workforce Programs: A look at the GAO Report on Government Waste,” April 6, 2011. (Virginia Foxx/Flickr)

Before voting on the bill started, Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina, moved to amend the legislation using what is called a “motion to recommit,” a step that allows members of the minority party to try to change a bill’s language before a final vote. Her proposed amendment explicitly labeled antisemitism as a prohibited form of discrimination under the legislation, even though antisemitism is already illegal under official interpretations of Title VI.

Foxx’s amendment passed 265-164, with 66 Democrats joining 189 Republicans in favor of the measure. The other 162 Democrats opposed the amendment because they saw it as a partisan move to exploit the issue of antisemitism, and because they did not want the amendment to explicitly single out one form of discrimination while neglecting to mention others. 

The bill, including the antisemitism amendment, ultimately passed in the House — but all the Republicans voted against the final legislation anyway. The Senate is unlikely to bring the bill to its floor.

‘Hypocrisy’

Although the GOP opposed the legislation in the House, right-wing news outlets and groups seized on the Democrats’ votes against Foxx’s motion to recommit. A headline in the neoconservative Washington Free Beacon read “162 House Dems Vote Against Measure to Combat Anti-Semitism.” The Republican Jewish Coalition wrote on Twitter: “70% of Democrats voted against legislation that will help combat #antisemitism.”

In response to the RJC, Halie Soifer, the head of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, wrote on Twitter that the Republican efforts were about “using anti-Semitism for political purposes.” And in an open letter to the GOP published in The Forward, Jewish Democrats in the House wrote that “every clearly partisan maneuver in which House Republicans seek to play ‘gotcha’ politics with Jewish lives — including partisan motions to recommit on anti-Semitism — makes the fight against antisemitism harder.”

Protesters march to the headquarters of Fox News, New York, October 25, 2019. (Gili Getz)
Protesters march to the headquarters of Fox News, New York, October 25, 2019. (Gili Getz)

But these Democratic pleas to Republicans are unlikely to work. For years, the GOP has pursued a strategy of painting Democrats as antisemites to try to gain Jewish voters and please their own right-wing donors, such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus, who are convinced that Democrats are anti-Jewish bigots.

Those efforts have reached new heights in the Trump era. When Congresswoman Ilhan Omar sharply criticized the Israel lobby last year, Republicans used Omar’s comments on Israel to target the entire Democratic Party as antisemitic.

In January 2019, the first bill Republicans pushed during the new legislative session was an attempted crackdown on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. It was a transparent ploy to force Democrats to vote against a bill framed in the media as pro-Israel, and to allow the GOP to write off Democrats as anti-Israel and thus anti-Jewish.

Furthering this agenda, Trump signed an executive order in December 2019 titled Combating Anti-Semitism, which authorized the Education Department to investigate activities on college campuses based on working definition of antisemitism set by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance — a definition that conflates anti-Jewish bigotry with criticism of Israel.

President Trump displays the controversial Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism during an afternoon Hanukkah reception alongside members of his administration, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, in the White House, December 11, 2019. (Joyce N. Boghosian/White House Photo)
President Trump displays the controversial Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism during an afternoon Hanukkah reception alongside members of his administration, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, in the White House, December 11, 2019. (Joyce N. Boghosian/White House Photo)

“The hypocrisy of the Trump administration’s efforts to address antisemitism is evident in who and what they’ve targeted to date,” said Meera Shah, a senior staff attorney at Palestine Legal, a group that protects Palestinian rights activists’ free speech. “Rather than protecting Jewish students from the resurgent and deadly white nationalist antisemitism, inspired and bolstered by Trump and his allies, these efforts have primarily targeted advocates for Palestinian rights. These efforts to falsely smear a human rights movement as antisemitic represent the domestic side of the Trump administration’s attempts to foreclose all avenues for Palestinian freedom.”

‘A giant cover-up’ for antisemitism

While the GOP pursues this campaign, Trump’s term in office has seen an explosion in deadly attacks on Jewish Americans, including the October 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 Jews.

Trump himself has repeatedly deployed antisemitic tropes — he infamously complained Jewish Americans are not loyal enough to Israel — and has boosted white supremacists — as he did during the first presidential debate on Sept. 29, when he said the Proud Boys, a white nationalist militia, should “stand back and stand by.”

Progressive Jewish groups say that Trump and the Republicans’ sole focus on criticism of Israel is meant to distract from their own complicity in furthering antisemitism.

“When Trump stokes his base to fear and distrust Jews by parroting dual loyalty tropes related to Jews and Israel, the results lead directly to violence against us, as they have far too many times under Trump’s leadership,” said Rabbi Alissa Wise, deputy director of Jewish Voice for Peace Action. “By insisting that the only real manifestation of antisemitism is critique of Israel, Trump has created a giant cover-up for the antisemitic tropes and threats he regularly trades in, and simultaneously threatens all free speech in support of Palestinian rights.”