Rep. Hank Johnson, Your Words Have a History

by: David Robbins

July 28, 2016

By Jonathan Green­blatt
CEO of the Anti-Defamation League

Much has been said and written about our response at the Anti-Defamation League to the recent comments by U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) comparing the Israeli settlement enterprise to “termites” undermining the two-state solution. (You can watch the offending comments here beginning at 34:00). Some appreciated our strong words. Others anguished over our response on Twitter, suggesting that we did not go far enough in condemning him.

This was one of those moments when 140 characters failed to fully convey our feelings.

So I wanted to take the opportunity now to put this issue into full context, to explain why the remarks were so offensive both to Israelis and Jews across the political spectrum and to elucidate what elected officials must do in such instances to assure the public that they do not support the kind of anti-Semitic notions the remark suggested for so many.

First, to the remarks themselves: As I myself tweeted, there’s absolutely no doubt that Rep. Johnson’s comments were both irresponsible and reprehensible, particularly because they played into traditional anti-Semitic canards. The image of “termites” being used to describe Jews has sordid connotations. In the annals of anti-Semitism, from the medieval period to Czarist Russia, and most pronouncedly in Nazi Germany, there is a common leitmotif of Jews being portrayed as subhuman – rats, cockroaches and other undesirable creatures. Even today, depictions of Jews in anti-Semitic cartoons that pervade the Arab press often conform to this legacy.

Surely Rep. Johnson can understand a people’s legitimate sensitivities that emerge from a long history of oppression. And surely there is room for legitimate and balanced criticisms of policy which do not resort to these prejudiced tropes.

In light of the fact that the comment – inadvertently or not – evoked classic anti-Semitic stereotypes, our initial tweet on the remarks calling it an “offensive and unhelpful characterization” did not go far enough in spelling out precisely why it was so objectionable. Indeed, that impelled my subsequent tweet that “yes, there was apology, but no ‘point’ justifies referring to human beings in such an abhorrent, inappropriate manner.”

Our concern about Rep. Johnson’s remarks and those of others whom we have taken umbrage with during the campaign is not about politics—it’s about an expectation of civility in our politics. ADL consistently has spoken out about inappropriate and offensive language made by candidates and supporters of both political parties. This is not new and will never change.

Because this is an election year, people tend to read more deeply into our criticism of candidates and other political pundits, suggesting our statements reflect a “hidden” agenda or trying to pigeonhole us as “left” or “right.”  Let me be crystal clear on this point. For us, it does not matter whether it is a Democrat or a Republican or an Independent. It is the comment itself that justifies our response. This is not about candidates or parties – it is about ideas.

We will call out ideas that run counter to the values we believe in so deeply – civility, pluralism and tolerance – even as we continue to abide strictly by our status as a 501c3 nonprofit which appropriately requires us not to oppose or support candidates for office.

All should understand that Rep. Johnson quickly apologized and subsequently restated his apology to me and to Rabbi David Wolpe. This was meaningful because we have seen others who refuse to demonstrate any public contrition after analogous lapses. But he and others need to know that it is unacceptable to denigrate any group of human beings regardless of one’s views on the Israeli Palestinian conflict.

Considering the where Rep. Johnson was speaking adds additional context to the situation. His remarks were delivered at an event sponsored by the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a group with a one-sided view of this long-standing and deeply complex conflict, who advocate for boycotting Israel and who provide a platform for the most outrageous charges against Israel. Rep. Johnson was playing to a crowd—a crowd that eagerly applauded his remarks.

If we hope in any way to advance the cause of peace and reconciliation, we need to resist demonization of the other side, to desist from incitement and refuse to slide into slander.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an enduring one and its history is complex. It has so far frustrated the attempts of our country’s most able negotiators. Achieving its resolution will not be easy and may not happen soon. But one thing is for sure: assigning blame only to one side fails to move us any closer to that destination.