By Jonathan S. Tobin
Does it matter if politicians let lies told by people they meet publicly go unanswered? That’s the question that many in the Jewish community, especially the majority who regularly vote for Democrats, are asking in the wake of an incident last week involving Vice President Kamala Harris.
After giving a brief talk at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., advocating her party’s position opposing the passage of what Republicans believe to be voter integrity laws and that Democrats claim are “voter suppression,” Harris took questions from students. One of them, who identified herself as “half-Iranian and half-Yemeni,” launched into a diatribe where she contrasted the “protests and demonstrations in astronomical numbers” on behalf of “Palestine” with the fact that Congress had passed funding for the Iron Dome missile-defense system for Israel. “That hurts my heart,” the student said, because Israel’s existence is an expression of “ethnic genocide” and the same thing “that happened in America.” She went on to say that instead of funding Israel’s ethnic genocide, the money should have gone to health care.
As the student spoke, the masked vice president listened quietly and nodded. But rather than push back against that false and libelous characterization of the Jewish state — and why Israel has a right to self-defense and that it is America’s obligation to stand with a fellow democracy — Harris responded with a lecture about pluralism and the need for activism.
“Your voice, your perspective, your experience, your truth cannot be suppressed, and it must be heard,” said Harris.
The video of the confrontation, broadcast live on C-SPAN, went viral and led to an avalanche of criticism, largely from Republicans and Israelis, who regarded Harris’ refusal to express any disagreement with the student and her nodding along as she said those things as tantamount to agreeing with her.
It would be a full two days later, as comments about the incident began to intrude on the news cycle, when the vice president, through her spokespeople, said that she disagreed with what the student had said.
Reaching out to liberal groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the partisan Democratic Majority for Israel, and then to various news outlets, the vice president’s office said that she “strongly disagrees” with the student and sought to claim that she has always supported Israel.
At that point, the Democratic spinners also sought to point out that the video of the incident seen by most viewers had cut off before Harris replied to the student: “The point that you are making about policy that relates to Middle East policy, foreign policy; we still have healthy debates in our country about what is the right path, and nobody’s voice should be suppressed on that.”
That last part is true. America is still a free country, and those who wish to debate U.S. support for Israel, even by making false and defamatory arguments, should be allowed to do so.
That still begs the question as to why Harris felt the need to validate the student’s point of view in some way. It also leaves open the matter of why, if the vice president was such a strong supporter of the Jewish state, she didn’t think it appropriate to preface her entirely superfluous defense of the right to dissent with even a hint that the views being expressed were not only wrongheaded but dangerous.
The likely correct answer to these questions is both prosaic and provides an illustration of what it means to be a “progressive” in 21st-century America.
Not everyone is always ready with the right response or quip in the moment when it’s needed. But Harris — a quick-witted veteran attorney, prosecutor and politician — is actually known for her sharp tongue and readiness to use it on anyone with whom she disagrees.
It’s also true that politicians are generally not in the business of telling people “no.” They love to be loved and generally seek applause wherever they go. Even when confronted with disagreement, protest or hecklers, most respond gently, even if something roils them.
Yet in order to understand the significance of an incident that loyal Democrats insist is a meaningless kerfuffle, ask yourself this question.
What would Democrats have said if former Vice President Mike Pence had responded with the same sort of blather about diversity and pluralism if he was confronted with a question by someone who expressed racist views disparaging African-Americans or Hispanics?
After all, Jewish liberals spent the four years of the Trump administration insisting that the coarse and imprecise language used by Pence’s boss was somehow responsible for a rise in antisemitism, even if his policies were the most pro-Israel in history, and he had taken strong stands against Jew-hatred.
More than an example of liberal hypocrisy, what happened at George Mason was likely an expression of the dynamic that currently exists on the political left these days.
Instead of being a meaningless kerfuffle, more evidence that Harris isn’t up to being veep or even the perils of living in a 24/7 news cycle, what happened at George Mason University gave us some insight into the state of discourse on the left about Israel.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.