Boehner, Israel and Race – Juan Williams/The Hill
Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) trip to Israel this week is so blatantly political that even the avowedly impartial Associated Press describes it as looking “like a jab at the White House.”
It is worse than that. President Obama can jab back in any political fight.
The real issue here is the way Boehner is recklessly sowing division along party lines on Israel. He is also — intentionally or not — heightening the silent but simmering racial tensions that increasingly divide Americans on the subject.
The racial division is the most troubling of all to me, as a black American.
Boehner’s visit is his latest embrace of Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, a man who used strong racial language to rally his conservative supporters and win another term in office earlier this month.
“The right-wing government is in danger,” the prime minister wrote to supporters on the day of the election. “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out.”
Obama’s spokesman condemned the use of such noxious rhetoric as a “cynical” tactic. But there has been no comment from Boehner or other top Republicans.
There is a terrible history of race-based political appeals in the United States. As a civil rights historian, I know the sharp edges of racial politics as revealed in coded campaign language, gerrymandering, voter suppression and even today’s strong black-white split when it comes to views of how police deal with poor black communities.
But both major American political parties reject having their candidates directly and openly play on racial tensions for short-term political gain.
It is dangerous politics, at odds with maintaining a socially and economically stable nation of many different races, as well as a rising number of immigrants. It is also not in keeping with America’s democratic values, specifically the Declaration of Independence’s promise that “All men are created equal.”
To overlook Netanyahu’s racial politics is to send a troubling message to Americans at a time when blacks and Hispanics are overwhelmingly Democrats and the Republican Party is almost all white.
Boehner is acting as if Netanyahu’s racial tactics and his government’s insensitivity to its Arab minority do not matter inside American politics. They do.
Last year, polls showed black and Hispanic Americans, along with younger voters, had become less likely to support Israel than older, white Americans. The Pew Research Center found that 36 percent of black Americans and 35 percent of Hispanic Americans then believed Israel had gone “too far” in its strong military response to Hamas. Only 22 percent of white Americans agreed.
Pew reported that “as many blacks blame Israel (27 percent) as Hamas (25 percent) for the fighting; and Hispanics are somewhat more likely to say Israel is to blame (35 percent) than Hamas (20 percent.)”
This disagreement among American racial groups is reflected in the split between Republicans and Democrats over Israel.
Republican voters are more likely to support Israel in its fight to control the West Bank and Gaza than they are to support the Palestinian opposition. “Nearly three quarters of Republicans (73 percent) said they sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians, compared with 45 percent of independents and 44 percent of Democrats,” Pew reported.
These divisions are likely even deeper now, after Netanyahu’s racial political appeal.
He has already pushed back against long-standing United States policy, which calls for a “two-state solution” with a safe, sovereign Israel as the neighbor of an independent Palestinian nation. (Netanyahu, after the election, appeared to moderate his position to some degree, but his lack of enthusiasm for the two-state solution remains plain.)
Boehner seems oblivious to the deteriorating levels of support for Israel among America’s liberals and young people, especially black and Hispanic young people.
With blinders on, he is doubling down on Republicans using Israel to rally their base. Boehner’s trip comes after he invited Netanyahu to address Congress without informing the White House in advance, and after President Obama made clear his distaste for the Israeli leader’s campaign tactics.
Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, described Netanyahu’s address to Congress, which was intended to undermine Obama’s efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran, as a “tragedy of unintended consequences.”
In the broadest sense, the consequences of the current political atmosphere include rising anti-Israel sentiments on U.S. college campuses.
“On college campuses, pro-Palestinian groups like Students for Justice in Palestine have long framed the Israeli occupation as the civil rights issue of our time,” a recent New York Times magazine article noted. Jeffrey Salkin, a New Jersey rabbi, wrote in a syndicated column last year that “Israel Apartheid Week is a regular feature of [American] campus life.”
The decline in support for Israel extends to Capitol Hill where, the Times reported, “a recent focus group of congressional staffers — tomorrow’s policy makers — revealed ebbing support for Israel.”
It is time to hit the stop button on the cynical political spin at play when Boehner appears indifferent to Netanyahu’s racial appeals.
The Speaker is playing a dangerous game by mixing support for Israel into the powder keg of American racial and partisan division.