In a previous post, Pariahdog explained the historical context and meaning of the anti-Semitic joke told by John Whitbeck to warm up a Republican crowd in September, and Whitbeck’s dismissive response to the outrage it generated. The joke itself embodied the historically lethal ideas of deicide, replacement theology and the “greedy Jew” stereotype: “And by anti-Semitic, I mean really anti-Semitic. It’s about Jews presenting the pope with the bill for the Last Supper, so it packs two of the most toxic anti-Jewish stereotypes into a single punchline: God-killers! Cheapskates!” In their ignorance, or perhaps their cultural hostility, Whitbeck and his supporters have tried to claim that the offense taken to both his joke and his non-apology was manufactured and politically motivated.
Now, the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn has given us a contrasting incident involving accusations of anti-Semitism.
In the Crown Heights incident, the offense was caused by New York Councilman-elect Laurie Cumbo when she made a statement about a recent cluster of “knockout game” attacks allegedly perpetrated by African American youth against Jews. In her initial statement, Cumbo suggested that resentment over “Jewish success” was a factor in the attacks, explaining that in conversations with constituents during her campaign “many African American/Caribbean residents expressed a genuine concern that as the Jewish community continues to grow, they would be pushed out by their Jewish landlords or by Jewish families looking to purchase homes.” The Anti-Defamation League responded:
“…we are troubled by the incoming councilwoman’s sentiments, particularly her comment about resentment over Jewish economic success, which evokes classic anti-Semitic stereotypes.”
So far, the two incidents seem to have some things in common. However, notice that Cumbo was attempting to report a viewpoint that she commonly heard from one group of her constituents about another group of her constituents. She listened to them, took their concerns seriously, and treated what she heard as information about the community she represents. In explaining her intention, Cumbo writes:
“I relayed these sentiments at the forum [organized in the Jewish community to address the attacks] not as an insult to the Jewish community, but rather to offer possible insight as to how young African American/Caribbean teens could conceivably commit a ‘hate crime’ against a community that they know very little about.”
The fact is that there’s a history of racial tension in Crown Heights between African American and Jewish residents, and the concerns expressed to Cumbo are real. In August 1991, a 7-year-old African-American boy was hit and killed by a Hasidic driver as part of a motorcade for a Lubavitcher rebbe, setting off four days of violence due to the widespread perception – fairly held or not – that African American lives are of little value to their Jewish neighbors. Regardless, when Cumbo repeated those concerns in the way that she did, she did evoke “classic anti-Semitic stereotypes.”
Here’s where the two incidents really diverge. In response to Jewish condemnation of her remarks, Cumbo listened to what her critics said – just as she had listened to her other constituents who were concerned about being pushed out of their homes. And by listening, and not starting with the assumption that the outrage was “manufactured” or “politically motivated,” she was then able to issue a genuine apology, one that demonstrates an understanding of what it was about her statement that was both offensive and counterproductive.
“I sincerely apologize to all of my constituents for any pain that I have caused by what I wrote,” said Cumbo, 35. “It was the opposite of my intention. I have taken the last week to reflect, evaluate and meet with Jewish, African American and Caribbean leaders all across New York City, and I understand now that my words did not convey what was in my heart, which is a profound desire to bring our diverse communities closer together.
..I want to build bridges and bring people together and so I especially regret that my comments on the recent violent incidents in Crown Heights were offensive to my constituents. My intent was to stimulate dialogue on an important issue, but in repeating stereotypes, part of what I wrote emphasized the divisions between people, instead of bringing them together.”
The full statement is available here.
A genuine apology generally results in genuine acceptance, as happened here. And since, as Cumbo’s new colleague Brad Lander put it, “Sometimes, our bridges need a little repair work, or we take steps that don’t reflect our best intentions,” this is the best of all possible outcomes. To those who thrive on manufacturing divisive outrage rather than on building bridges, though, it couldn’t be worse. Note that in its reporting of the incident, right wing media outlet Freedomoutpost actually fabricates a “quote” which it attributes to Cumbo – “It’s the Jews’ fault” – something that she of course neither said nor intended to convey. More about that later.
Now, to compare Cumbo’s behavior with Whitbeck’s. When faced with criticism for his offensive joke, Whitbeck’s reaction was the dead opposite of Cumbo’s. Instead of listening to what his critics had to say, and trying to understand and learn something from them, he denied doing anything wrong and went into attack mode. Leesburg Today reported the following (emphasis mine):
Whitbeck said today any “alleged outrage” over the joke he told has been manufactured by American Bridge, a political action committee founded by journalist and author David Brock.
“American Bridge, which has the sole purpose of electing Democrats by attacking Republicans, has repeatedly demonstrated its commitment to defeating Ken Cuccinelli by any means they deem necessary,” Whitbeck wrote in an email to Leesburg Today. “At Tuesday’s rally, I told a joke. I did not tell an anti-semetic joke. I told a joke I heard from a priest at a church service.“
Whitbeck eventually issued a non-apology, in which he admits no wrongdoing and demonstrates no understanding of the offense, on the 10th CD Republican website – and then finally removed mention of the incident altogether. The only thing his behavior conveys is a profound desire for his critics to shut up and go away.
The contrast isn’t only between Whitbeck and Cumbo themselves, though. Here’s what we can expect from the dishonest right wing media: They will join with John Whitbeck in refusing to take responsibility for the anti-Semitic joke he chose to tell (he just repeated what he “heard from a priest”); they will treat with contempt the possibility that there was real offense involved (any “alleged” outrage must be “manufactured”); and they will pretend that the support of his fellow Loudoun Republican Ken Reid (who calls himself “the Jew who saved Christmas,” and has referred to those who object to county-sponsored Christian messaging as “terrorists”) somehow proves that he can’t possibly be anti-Semitic.
That same right wing media will continue to lie by repeating the fabricated Laurie Cumbo “quote” as if it’s something she actually said, and they will then cite that lie to label her an “anti-Semite” and a “fascist,” ignoring all of the facts: That she listens to her diverse constituents equally and tries to build bridges between them; that she is willing and able to accept criticism and learn from it when she makes a mistake; and that the community she offended has reconciled with her.
In other words, we do have a real case of manufactured outrage over “anti-Semitism” on our hands. It just isn’t in Loudoun County and it doesn’t involve John Whitbeck telling a joke.