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Jews – and Americans – need Biden to stand against extremism from both sides

Joe Biden is undoubtedly a lion in winter, but so much depends on his ability to roar with conviction. The Democratic nominee actually has to run two campaigns: The first is to defeat Donald Trump and save the country from an ongoing nightmare. The second is to save the left from an illiberal future.

It is only by successfully holding ground against both that Biden can live up to his own promise to be “ally of the light.”

Ari Hoffman | Artist: Noah Lubin

Ari Hoffman Image by Noah Lubin

Early indications are promising. Reporting has indicated that Biden personally stepped in to ensure that the Democratic National Committee’s platform did not devolve into a spasm of Israel hatred, but instead held fast to support of both Israel and the two-state solution. In a perfect world, this should not have taken particular courage. In the world we live in, it demonstrated that those of us who oppose a Democratic Party Israel line dictated by Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Rep. Ilhan Omar — both of whom support the movement to boycott Israel — have champions in what hopefully will be the highest of places.

Biden’s denunciation of Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour after her brief appearance at the Democratic Convention was similarly encouraging. Sarsour’s rampant hatred of Israel and hostility to Jews is no secret: She is a useful illustration of the intimate dance between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and she should have no role in a mainstream political party in this country.

Once again, Biden stepped in, rightfully denouncing Sarsour. This time, an aide noted Biden’s support for Israel, his opposition to BDS and anti-Semitism, and noted that “Sarsour had no role in the Biden campaign whatsoever.”

This was a sane response, and what American Jews should expect of our elected officials and political allies, especially one who we seem poised to give our vote in unprecedented numbers.

Biden’s demonstration of clarity in these instances stands in stark contrast to the current occupant of the White House. In only the most recent example of moral turpitude, President Trump has endorsed candidates who subscribe to the toxic conspiracy theories of the online community QAnon and welcomed its support. In contrast, the attempt of neo-Nazi Richard Spencer to back Biden was met by categorical rejection.

The response to Biden’s rejection of Sarsour illustrates the continuing work and vigilance that fighting for a Democratic Party that proud Jews can support will require, even as we need to combat the degeneration of the Republican right under Trump. Reports indicate that Biden aides, including high profile foreign policy adviser Tony Blinken, have apologized for the campaign’s disavowal of Sarsour. There was intense pressure to do so from MoveOn.Org and other organizations. The Council on American–Islamic Relations urged the campaign to retract the statement.

You run a campaign to win, and perhaps denouncing Sarsour in public and apologizing for it in private makes a certain kind of strategic sense. But it also indicates a tug of war, and American Jews need to be firm that we have a stake in the outcome, and that a tent that welcomes Sarsour will eventually have the vast majority of us heading for the exits.

The notion that being sensitive to Muslim Americans involves standing by Sarsour should be just as compelling as asserting that one cannot be pro-Jewish without elevating extremists in our community: namely, not at all. Dignity always goes in both directions.

Political bedfellows never sleep perfectly soundly, and there is no right to a coalition with which you entirely agree. But the very reason that many of us support the Biden-Harris ticket — the importance of decency on the national stage, an aching for competence and pragmatism, a fidelity to our institutions and best selves — are exactly the reason why we need to fight with equal vigor those who would torch those same values, but from the other direction.

This is a difficult path to walk, but it is the only one to take if like me you believe that American thriving and Jewish flourishing are intertwined.

Jews have a heightened stake in Biden’s ability to hold off extremes of both right and left, but all Americans will benefit if he can stand firm against the toxic edges of our culture, which are increasingly seeping into the mainstream.

Some of us might wish he was ten years younger: I’m sure he does as well. But it is this old man, past his prime but finding his time, who holds the key to the possibilities of an American political center. His shoulders are frail and his voice often garbled, but we have to count on yesterday’s man to fight today’s battles.

I hope that Biden is up to the task. But even more importantly, we must be.

Editor’s Note: The original version of this article inappropriately described the Council on American–Islamic Relations’ connection to Hamas. While a judge in 2009 did find there was “a prima facie case as to CAIR’s involvement in a conspiracy to support Hamas,” a federal appeals court later criticized the ruling as going “beyond what was relevant to any hypothetical evidentiary issue.” We have also clarified CAIR’s response to comments about Linda Sarsour.

Ari Hoffman is a contributing columnist at the Forward, where he writes about politics and culture. He is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at N.Y.U., and his writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Tablet Magazine, The New York Observer, and a range of other publications. He holds a doctorate in English Literature from Harvard and a law degree from Stanford.

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