by Jonathan S. Tobin
The vice president not only failed to challenge a student who smeared Israel, but praised her instead. What does this say about campus culture and politicians who see the hard-left as their party’s base?
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 this week in the wake of an incident this 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 vice president, whose performance to date in the undefined and generally non-challenging role of veep, has gotten generally poor marks from political observers for her lack of engagement and poor messaging on a number of issues, such as focusing on the border crisis. But instead of diffusing a difficult moment that she may have feared would provoke unnecessary controversy, she did the opposite.
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’s 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. That’s especially true since the protests in May the student was referring to, which took place as the Hamas terror organization was launching missiles into Israeli population centers, were largely a defense of the right of Palestinians in Gaza to kill Jews. Such sentiments, in the United States and elsewhere, led to anti-Semitic violence on campus and off.
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. A lot of us have to think a bit before we realize what is happening in a conversation and then only come up with what should have been said until much later. 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. That was something made abundantly clear by her conduct on the Senate Judiciary Committee during televised confirmation hearings.
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.
There have also been politicians who take it as their obligation not just to engage and please voters, but to chide them when they are wrong. The late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is remembered for his willingness to scold those who made disparaging remarks about former President Barack Obama, his opponent in the 2008 presidential election. While some Republicans look back on this and say this proves the old baseball adage about “nice guys finishing last,” it was more than an example of his honesty and devotion to fair play. It was also a reflection of his belief that those in the public service were not obligated to pander to the lowest common denominator in their search for votes.
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 anti-Semitism, 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.
Harris went to the school to generate support for her party’s positions from student activists. She had no interest in a Sister Souljah moment in which she would demonstrate either her moderate chops or her pro-Israel bona fides. Speaking up for the Jewish state under those circumstances would have undermined the whole point of the appearance and alienated the very leftist base that is the cutting edge of Democratic Party activism these days. Her instincts were to stay silent because that is what she and many others in her party think are in their best political interests. It was only later when the incident blew up that she and her handlers came to a different conclusion, though it’s likely they still gauge that criticism from pro-Israel groups is a smaller price to pay than the blowback they would have gotten from party activists had she rebuked the student as she should have.
Instead of being a meaningless kerfuffle, more evidence that Harris isn’t up to the challenges of being veep or even the perils of living in a 24/7 news cycle in which no gaffe goes unnoticed, what happened at George Mason University gave us some insight into the lamentable 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.