Stereotyping begets stereotyping, and worse

Stereotyping, such as lumping people together because of their faith, their politics or their national origin is becoming more accepted. That is not a good development. Nor is blaming a group because of the misconduct of individuals.

In an essay published recently, Gary Branfman quoted Martin Niemoller, a pastor who had previously supported the Nazis and was antisemitic. Niemoller had a change of heart. He became a defender of the Jews, and a thorn in Hitler’s side. His famous essay that describes how the Nazis came for the socialists, then the trade unionists, then the Jews, and by the time that they came for the Lutheran pastor, there was no one left to speak out.

The irony of the essay is that it labels one of our country’s largest political parties as having an “antisemitic wing”. And that incendiary charge was based on the words of a young Muslim congresswoman which were indeed antisemitic, as were Pastor Niemoller’s words during his younger years. The young congresswoman did something we teach people to do when they use words that hurt: she apologized profusely after she was called out by the leadership of her own party as well as the opposition party. She is younger than Niemoller was when he was a Nazi and antisemitic himself.

And now, her life is threatened by Islamophobic Americans. And since in a world where language is so strident and irresponsible, we have seen Jewish synagogues shot up in Philadelphia, mosques shot up in New Zealand, and Christian churches bombed in Sri Lanka.

And the young Congresswoman’s life is threatened. Her words matter, yet we must learn to criticize such policies without using antisemitic language. One question each of us might ask: am I helping in the effort to stop stereotyping and demonizing those who are different?

To libel an entire party for the actions of one person is to engage in the very stereotyping that we all know is wrong. Such logic would lead others to say that the Republican Party has an antisemitic wing because many of its candidates engaged in antisemitism only last year. 

Stereotyping would allow someone to make that accusation against a party because then candidate Trump used antisemitic imagery against his opponent, a pile of dollar bills overlaid with the star of David and a picture of his opponent.

That would be as wrong as claiming that the Democratic Party has an antisemitic wing. It does not. The Democratic leader of the Senate is led by an observant Jew, and the first Jewish nominee for Vice President was selected by the Democratic Party. Contrast that with the treatment that former Majority Leader Eric Cantor received as a Republican leader, when his office was defaced with antisemitic graffiti and then he was run out of the Congress by a tea party Republican.

That the Democratic Party and Republican Party have supporters who engage in language like the language Dr. Branfman quotes do not define those parties. As a long time friend, I know that he intended no libel, since he is a well known independent and is a leader in ecumenical dialog and bridge building. Like President Bush and President Obama, who are from different parties, he attacks antisemitism wherever it is found. These former Presidents, along with President Clinton and President Carter, also had the courage to speak candidly about our need to find peace in Israel and the middle east without stereotyping and lumping people into groups. To be sure, we should not stereotype the Jewish people because Benjamin Netanyahu has been indicted for corruption, nor should we blame an entire faith for the acts of Islamic extremists. Fortunately, our Presidents defended the rights of Muslims to be free from stereotyping and discrimination even after the 9/11 attacks that were perpetrated by members of their faith. These former Presidents spoke against travel bans based on religious faith instead of security risk.

And yes, that goes for the news media, too. The notion that our nation’s media does not cover antisemitism is thankfully not accurate. Only last month, our nation’s newspaper, the New York Times featured a lengthy expose on antisemitism. Even here in Victoria, when our temple was defaced with Nazi imagery, the Victoria Advocate covered the story relentlessly. It did so again did when our mosque was burned down to the ground. And yes, when the temple’s leaders extended the hand of friendship to their Muslim neighbors, that too was part of the coverage. We didn’t turn on each other by claiming that Jews, Christians or Muslims have antisemitic or anti Muslim “wings”, even though there are members of each faith who use incendiary language about other faiths.

Words matter, especially in America. Our country has stood up to bullies before, and now there are many bullies in Eastern Europe, the same place where millions of Jews were taken to the camps to be killed as their neighbors looked on. In Hungary today, antisemitic leaders demonize Holocaust survivor George Soros and have forced educational institutions out of the country. And in Poland, leaders have made it a crime to speak the truth: that some Polish people helped the Nazis send Jewish people to their deaths. The two American political parties, to their credit, fight such actions, and the fact that some in each party engage in antisemitic language does not brand them as having an “antisemitic wing”. They don’t.

Ironically, the Victoria Advocate recently published its “100 years ago” feature, and included in it was this: in February 1919, two years after World War 1, the Victoria City Council passed an ordinance that made it a criminal offense for any citizen to speak the German language within the city limits. Talk about stereotyping. After all the German immigrant Texans had done for the United States in fighting the Germans in World War I, we told them that they would go to jail in a time of peace, simply for speaking their native tongue. We have come far since that unfortunate action, and now one can hear many languages spoken in our diverse community.

Antisemitism is a cancer unlike any other. It must be rooted out. We are taught: Never forget. We will not. At the same time, branding our nation’s political parties as having an “antisemitic wing” is to engage in the same kind of stereotyping that Pastor Niemoller lamented after his change of heart. Stereotyping begets antisemitism and islamaphobia and encourages people to hate, and to retreat into silos instead of working together for the common good. If we do that, there will always be someone there when they come for us.