Thursday, November 1, 2018

Foreign Policy and Hate Crimes: The Interactions Between International & Domestic Politics

In the discussions swirling around last Saturday's tragic killings in Pittsburgh, one dimension has struck me as particularly interesting. While many (including myself) have argued that the current President has contributed to an atmosphere of anger and hatred in our broader society (and thus bears some responsibility for Saturday's horror), others have countered that the President cannot possibly be to blame because he is (in the words of a number of supporters) the "most pro-Jewish President" in recent history.

This latter defense turns on the Trump Administration's foreign policy vis-a-vis Israel. This Administration has taken a number of steps long desired by a certain segment of the Israeli political spectrum, in particular moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognizing the latter as the capital city of the state of Israel. The President cannot possibly be anti-Semitic, it is argued, because he has done things that are deemed to be pro-Israel.

There are at least two problems to this line of reasoning. First, it conflates the political preferences of the current Likud-led government in Israel with the interests and preferences of all Jews worldwide. Moving the Embassy, taking a harder line with Palestinians, and so forth are not universally held positions even within Israel, much less throughout the Jewish Diaspora. Some Israelis applaud these moves, others condemn them. From an American point of view we ought not to presume that we understand (or can speak for) an entire people on the basis of a particular list of policy preferences, especially when those preferences are so obviously and publicly contested.

This argument also conflates the interests of the Israeli state (defined in a specific way) with the interests of the Jewish Diaspora, which ignores another very complex relationship - a topic for another day.

The second and more interesting problem lies in the blending of foreign policy with domestic policy. The crux of the argument is that "anti-Semitic" is a one-dimensional matter: one either is or isn't, and that this is true across all possible policy and political domains. Because President Trump has done good things for Israel in the foreign policy arena, he therefore cannot be an anti-Semite, nor could he be accused of doing things that are bad for the Jewish community. This sort of simplistic, one-dimensional assumption is very American. It's also, of course, wrong.

Foreign and domestic policy issues occupy different, though connected and overlapping, realms. This administration in particular seems to struggle with the connections between different issues areas, often playing one game in one arena only to discover that those same moves are having different effects on a different game board. No one, not even supporters of the administration, have accused it of an excess of professionalism, and a mastery of two-level games dynamics is something only gained through long professional experience. So it's not surprising that there's not much understanding here.

In this case, it is possible both to be a supporter of a particular Israeli policies preferences while also engaging in behavior that fosters and foments anti-Semitism domestically. A part of the one-dimensional defense involves intention: if I don't mean to be anti-Semitic, I can't be. But this desire to pin everything on intentions both ignores the fact that actions have unintended consequences, and leaves out a third category between pro- and anti-: a lack of concern for those consequences.

There is little argument that Donald Trump, as a private citizen, a candidate, and President, has fed and fomented all manner of conspiracy theories. Many of these things, like the "birther" craze, fed specifically into conspiracies much-loved by White Nationalist movements, as did his apparent support for those movements in the wake of the Charlottesville conflict last year. He continues to re-tweet and otherwise communicate out all manner of conspiracies and unsubstantiated claims, built around terms like "deep state" and "fake news".

The thing about White Nationalism is that it has always been anti-Semitic at its heart. Nearly all of the many and varied conspiracies floated by people in that circle sooner or later loop back to one grounding belief: that Jews control the world, to the intended detriment of (Christian) White Civilization. Not all White Nationalists believe this - but a great many of them do. The extensive and now widespread vilification of George Soros is just the latest iteration of this belief, which stretches back at least to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion hoax over 100 years ago.

This is how we get from continued attacks on Central American migrants (which the President continued in tweets over the last couple of days, continuing unfounded assertions about who those people are) to hatred of Jews. These things seem unconnected, and undoubtedly in Mr. Trump's mind they are. But to White Nationalists, they are all part of the same fabric, which is why Mr. Bowers leapt so easily from fearing a caravan of Spanish-speaking immigrants to believing that Jews are committing genocide against "his people".

We are in a political age in which once-fringe political views have become increasingly mainstream. Many politicians, far more tactical than strategic, have adopted all manner of uncompromising views because they think it necessary to win elections, or to protect themselves from being outflanked by someone more vociferous and outrageous. Old theories about running "out" to the wings for primaries and then back to the center for general elections have gone by the wayside. It's all fringe now.

The thing is, most Americans don't really live out on those fringes. But because those who are most likely to vote do, we're left with little choice when we go to the ballot box. Or we don't vote, ceding yet more territory to those few in number but loud of voice.

Having fueled this mess, our national political conversation won't save us from it. Our real hope is in local, personal, real community. We need to rediscover Tip O'Neill's famous dictum that "all politics is local". We can learn to live and work together, not just despite our differences but made stronger by them. We just need to stop listening to the far-away voices of anger and rage, and start listening to each other in real conversation.

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