|Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana discusses antisemitism with Ezra Oliff-Lieberman
The partisan argument over which side of the political spectrum is more responsible for antisemitism in America hit Louisiana as member of the left-wing IfNotNow group confronted Republican House Minority Whip Steve Scalise on the topic at a town hall meeting in Mandeville on Oct. 14.
Ezra Oliff-Lieberman and Elias Newman pressed Scalise to condemn antisemitism in the Republican party, then posted videos of the encounters, saying he refused to condemn “the role his party has played in antisemitic and white nationalist violence,” instead touting his support for Israel.
In a statement after the event, the activists said Scalise and Republicans “continue to traffic in the same antisemitic and racist conspiracy theories that have inspired white nationalist mass shooters to murder dozens of Jews and Latinx people in the past year alone.”
At the town hall, Oliff-Lieberman noted it was approaching the one-year anniversary of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, and said he recalled Scalise visiting Shir Chadash for the New Orleans community vigil. Saying he was “terrified” about an incident in New Orleans while he was attending High Holy Day services recently, his “worst fears were realized” on hearing about the synagogue attack in Halle, Germany, on Yom Kippur and that gunman — who was unable to enter the synagogue — “espoused the same antisemitic and anti-immigrant rhetoric that your party, the GOP, espouses on a daily basis.”
Scalise said he “disagrees strongly” with that characterization, and said that antisemitism has grown “even in the halls of Congress” and “I have stood up against the antisemitism, frankly it’s two of our colleagues on the Democrat side,” Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, that have used antisemitic statements in their criticism of Israel.
After Scalise spoke about the Democrat representatives, Oliff-Lieberman said “the president called me a disloyal Jew because I disagree with what has been coming out of the Republican party.”
Scalise told him, “I don’t know when you had that meeting with him.” Trump’s recent statement that Jews who vote for Democrats are being “disloyal” has been characterized by opponents as questioning the loyalty of American Jews, a common antisemitic trope, while those who defend Trump said he was merely asking why some Jews would be disloyal to Israel and their fellow Jews by voting for a party that he considers hostile to Jewish interests.
When others in the room shouted out about Steve King, a Republican representative with a history of antisemitic statements, Scalise said “by the way, we removed King from all of his committees” and contrasted that to Pelosi’s inaction regarding Reps. Omar and Tlaib.
Scalise spoke about how he is standing up to the BDS movement, which seeks to isolate Israel economically and eradicate the Jewish state. “I think the BDS movement is a real danger to Israel… and it is rooted in antisemitism.”
When Oliff-Lieberman concluded that Scalise was not going to condemn antisemitism, Scalise said “I absolutely condemn all of that” and urged Oliff-Lieberman to condemn “the antisemitism by Reps. Omar, Tlaib and others.
He added, “I’ve stood up to all of it, on both parties, Republican or Democrat. I haven’t heard you condemn any on the Democrat side, I encourage you to acknowledge it.”
Newman said he is also “terrified of rising white nationalism and antisemitism,” and asked Scalise to “condemn antisemitism and white nationalism in the GOP.”
“I condemn antisemitism and white nationalism wherever it happens,” Scalise replied. “For anyone to think it is exclusive to one political party, you are fooling yourself.”
When Scalise mentioned working with Israel on issues, Newman said “I’m not from Israel” and continued, “Donald Trump called me a disloyal Jew and you said nothing,” adding that the charge of being disloyal “sent my grandfather to Auschwitz.”
After Scalise reiterated that he condemns antisemitism “in all parties,” Newman continued, “so you will not condemn.”
After the encounter, Newman referred to Scalise’s “both sides condemnation, saying “only one side is inciting the mass murder of Jews and our neighbors. Only one side is spouting antisemitic conspiracy theories from the White House.”
Newman added, “until he can acknowledge and condemn the role his party has played in the rising violence facing minority communities across the nation, until he apologizes for his own voting record on the rights our communities hold dear, Scalise can never credibly present himself as an ally of the Louisiana Jewish community.”
Newman also stated later that Scalise steering the conversation toward his support of Israel was itself antisemitic because it conflates Jews with Zionism, and the Republicans use support for Israel “as a shield” to cover white nationalism.
Oliff-Lieberman said he was giving Scalise the opportunity to “do teshuva” but “his refusal to condemn antisemitism in the GOP and from the president is emblematic of his entire party’s embrace of white nationalists — the same people who, all across the country, have been opening fire on Jews as we pray, attacking mosques, and setting fire to Black churches in Louisiana.”
Oliff-Lieberman noted that Scalise “once spoke at a convening hosted by the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, a white supremacist group founded by David Duke.” In 2014, he issued a statement of “regret” that in 2002, while speaking to numerous groups while pushing a legislation package, “one of the many groups that I spoke to regarding this critical legislation was a group whose views I wholeheartedly condemn. It was a mistake I regret, and I emphatically oppose the divisive racial and religious views groups like these hold.”
In January, Scalise co-sponsored House Resolution 72, introduced by Rep. Lee Zeldin, which rejects “anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hatred in the United States and around the world.”
In a statement at the time, Scalise said “I am alarmed by incidents of anti-Semitism across the country, including a growing incidence of anti-Semitic rhetoric and association with anti-Semitic leaders from some Democrat Members of Congress. We cannot pretend this is a thing of the past; anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise, including the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the vandalism of a synagogue in St. Tammany Parish in my district last September.”
Scalise added, “Like the House of Representatives recently condemned the hateful ideology of white supremacy, we must also condemn anti-Semitism. Hate in all its forms is wrong, and we as leaders need to stand up against hate and bigotry. Speaker Pelosi should immediately schedule a vote to pass this resolution on the House floor.”
When the vandalism occurred at Northshore Jewish Congregation in Mandeville last fall, Scalise said “Hatred and bigotry have no place in our society. This cowardly act of anti-Semitism is disgraceful, and I hope the criminal who perpetrated it is brought to justice. I am proud to stand with the good people of the Northshore Jewish Congregation, and I know they will not be intimidated by this hateful act.”
In April, Scalise called out Democrats who had voted for an amendment to condemn antisemitism for turning around two weeks later and voting down a similar amendment that also opposed the boycott-Israel movement. “Democrats have no consistency,” he said. “It’s simple: anti-Semitism is a vile ideology that deserves our condemnation and the State of Israel is our strongest ally in the Middle East that deserves our undivided support.”
In 2015, he praised passage of a resolution calling for the U.S. and European governments to take action for the safety of Jewish communities in Europe, where the bulk of antisemitic attacks have come from radicalized Muslim immigrants. “With an alarming uptick in anti-Semitic activity happening across Europe, it’s critical for America to partner with our European allies to combat this bigotry and support the Jewish community groups working to promote peace and prevent violent attacks like those we’ve seen in Paris, Copenhagen, and Brussels.”
What is IfNotNow?
Founded in 2014, IfNotNow uses social activism and direct action to end “the American Jewish community’s support for occupation” of the Palestinians.
The organization states “we do not take a unified stance on BDS, Zionism or the question of statehood” for Israel but they “work together to end American Jewish support for the occupation” and seek to disrupt support for Israel through public criticism of mainstream Jewish organizations and by provoking headline-grabbing confrontations.
The New Orleans chapter was established a year ago with a “Sukkot Against Demolitions” campaign, criticizing Israel’s policy of demolishing homes of those who commit terrorist acts against Israelis. When it launched, the chapter wrote an open letter to the Jewish community asking them to “seek safety in solidarity with other marginalized groups” instead of working with Republicans, “the very people who uphold white supremacy.”
While Newman and Oliff-Lieberman spoke of their fears of white nationalist violence, and Jewish communities including New Orleans are working closely with law enforcement to strengthen security at community institutions, the New Orleans chapter had a petition drive last year, “New Orleans Jews Say: Safety through Solidarity, Not GOP Leaders and Sheriffs,” reiterating a call to unify with “marginalized communities” to “resist together” because “sustainable safety is not found in right-wing politicians and sheriffs.”
Several IfNotNow chapters have organized public recitations of Kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer, for Palestinians killed in clashes with Israel as Palestinians have tried to overrun the Gaza border and attack Israeli communities. Most of those killed in those clashes have been acknowledged by Hamas to be their operatives, leading most Jewish groups to condemn IfNotNow.
In 2016, IfNotNow members were arrested for blocking access to the Anti-Defamation League’s national headquarters, refusing to meet with the ADL unless the ADL adopted IfNotNow’s viewpoints. ADL National Chair Marvin Nathan wrote “the group is less interested in meaningful discussion of the many issues involved in achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace, but prefers theatrical stunts and unrealistic ultimatums,” and “ADL does not and has never supported a view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which sees only Israelis as responsible for resolving it.”
IfNotNow members have also staged highly-publicized walkouts on Birthright Israel trips, claiming that the free trips to Jewish young adults does not adequately address the situation with the Palestinians. They have also showed up at airports where Birthright groups are departing, in an effort to get participants to disrupt their trips.
Other members have tried to get Jewish summer camps to include their viewpoint about the occupation is their curriculum; when the camps refused, the organization has attempted to train potential counselors to quietly push their agenda anyway.
They do this under the umbrella of “You Never Told Me,” which accuses the American Jewish establishment of not teaching about their perspectives of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, portraying themselves as disappointed alumni of these groups that “ignored or justified the Occupation.”
This past summer, a group of IfNotNow activists formed Never Again Action, to mobilize against Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities and block action against illegal immigration. They have blocked access to ICE headquarters in Washington and stopped traffic in other cities to protest current enforcement of immigration law and force closure of detention facilities, which they refer to as concentration camps.
While the group asserts it is fighting antisemitism, in March the group said leaders of the Women’s March “erred” in praising Louis Farrakhan, but said the Jewish community overreacted to that while ignoring “the rise of violent, anti-Semitic white nationalism” and “racism and Islamophobia in the American Jewish community.”
In January, the New Orleans chapter picketed and held an “alternative Shabbat service” outside Beth Israel in Metairie, protesting the visit to New Orleans by Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon. They said Danon “traffics in racist, xenophobic rhetoric to further his nationalist agenda” and their goal was “to keep occupation supporters out of New Orleans synagogues.”
This summer, after a founder of IfNotNow was hired by the Elizabeth Warren presidential campaign as director of progressive partnerships, Progressive Zionists of California referred to IfNotNow as “a small, fringe organization which, while focusing exclusively on the ‘evil’ of Israel, refuses to affirm Israel’s right to exist as the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people.”