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The GOP tried to use Jews to sabotage the highest-ranking Muslim in the Biden administration

Dilawar Syed’s confirmation was derailed by Republicans for two years over unfounded accusations of being anti-Israel

Dilawar Syed, the highest-ranking Muslim person in the Biden administration, and one of its longest-stalled nominees, was just confirmed as deputy administrator of the United States Small Business Association. And while this shouldn’t really be news — Syed is professional, respected and extraordinarily qualified for the job — the battle toward his confirmation is a cautionary tale of MAGA Republican lawmakers’ cynical attempts to use Jewish people as a smokescreen for their racist, antisemitic and anti-democratic political project.

Syed, a business executive, entrepreneur and civic leader, was first nominated as head of the SBA in 2021, early in the Biden administration’s tenure. Senate Republicans acted to block his confirmation, first by raising objections to his affiliation with Emgage Action, a well-respected Muslim community organization. The smear was so thin and so blatantly false that it couldn’t even produce concrete accusations, but it was enough for Republican members of the Small Business Committee to begin a blockade of his nomination that would last more than two years.

Jewish organizations, from progressive stalwarts like Bend the Arc, where I am Washington director, to more centrist and conservative organizations like the Jewish Democratic Council of America and the American Jewish Committee, were quick to step to Syed’s defense. We were offended and outraged that our community was being weaponized for character assassination, and we raised our own voices to set the record straight: We wouldn’t be used as a smokescreen for MAGA Republicans’ Islamophobia and racism.

The strategy worked – for a while. When it became clear that Jewish organizations refused to take the bait, Republicans on the committee moved on to other lines of attack that had nothing to do with Syed, such as the Paycheck Protection Program loans that Planned Parenthood received during the height of the pandemic shutdown (Syed wasn’t at the SBA at the time). The fact that they had no substantive reasons to protest Syed’s nomination didn’t stop Senate Republicans on the committee from boycotting the committee entirely, in order to block a vote on Syed.

Following the 2022 elections, Democrats gained full control of the Senate. When the new session of Congress began and all unfinished nominations from the previous session expired, Syed was re-nominated. At first, the confirmation hearings were conducted professionally, with most committee Republicans asking relevant questions about Syed’s work and his positions and commitments relevant to the position. Then in walked Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, whose own use of antisemitic tropes is well-documented

Hawley immediately grilled Syed for his entire allotted time on the long-debunked smear that he is anti-Israel, with the implication that he is anti-Jewish. No matter that each of these questions were answered calmly and clearly, the bombastic innuendo had its intended effect.  When the committee voted, every single Republican voted no. 

In the final hours before the floor vote in the Senate on June 8, 2023, the same tired, false accusations were again trotted out by right-wing organizations, publications and politicians in a failed last-ditch attempt to sabotage Syed’s confirmation.

It would be tempting to write this story off as typical Washington politicking. But this episode is emblematic of a still-developing playbook used by the MAGA movement, including its political representatives. In service of a white nationalist agenda, this movement seeks to exclude people of color — and especially Black and Muslim Americans — from holding power in our government. But because their white supremacist motivations are necessarily anti-democratic and, therefore, unconvincing in a democratic process of government, they need a smokescreen — a palatable justification to help cover their obvious racism. And these days, they have chosen Jews as their smokescreen of choice.

We’ve seen this strategy deployed relentlessly, and sometimes successfully, against leaders like Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, the first Muslim American elected to Congress, and Reps. Summer Lee and Jamaal Bowman, among others. While those episodes are typically framed around progressives and their views on Israel, the fact that Syed, who was endorsed by Israel advocacy organizations like the Democratic Majority for Israel as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, could be so relentlessly smeared using the same tactics makes clear that what is happening is not about an individual’s policy views, but about how simple it is to attack any Muslim or person of color.

This wasn’t the first time and it certainly won’t be the last that Jewish people are used for anti-democratic reasons. But we’ve also proven by Syed’s successful confirmation that when Jewish organizations don’t take the bait, we can throw a wrench in the MAGA movement’s machinery of division and fear. This requires Jewish groups to recognize what’s happening and the way we’re being manipulated over our very real concerns of antisemitism, and to refuse to participate. It is essential for American Jews to throw our voices, power and support behind those targeted with racist, xenophobic or Islamophobic machinations. It requires us to stand into our power as a community and refuse to be isolated from other marginalized communities who are also targeted for their identities, and the threat they pose to the white supremacist future some politicians dream of.

At a time when the United States faces a growing anti-democratic authoritarian political movement, it is crucial to recognize that this movement is cynically manipulating Jewish fears, if the Jewish community is to be on the right side of history. 

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