Almost immediately I shuddered when I switched on the television Wednesday night last week and learned that U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff was censured by the House of Representatives. I felt as if I was watching a replay of the trials of Alfred Dreyfus and Leo Frank.
It sounds like a leap to compare a partisan political spectacle to two of the most antisemitic debacles in modern history.
Schiff’s censure was an act of antisemitism in a very real sense, just like other shameful steps taken by Republicans during the past six months. The GOP, which now controls the House by five votes, probably had no intention of harming Jews, but that is nonetheless what happened. I do not believe that they censured Schiff because he is Jewish.
In a 213-209 party-line vote, Republicans violated the social contract between government and American Jews since our founders signed the Constitution. It codified their respect for minority religions, however brief the mention, rejecting any “religious test” to hold public office. The founders took this up as Pennsylvania’s lawmakers considered creation of a religious test.
During the first session of Congress, then-Congressman James Madison proposed the Bill of Rights which offered Judaism the same legal standing as Christianity. The First Amendment denied any single religion domination over the theocratic landscape.
President George Washington even bonded with Rhode Island’s Moses Seixas, the warden of Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel of Newport, in an exchange of statements affirming the Jewish connection to the government. In his letter of Aug. 17, 1790, Seixas wrote, “Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People – a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance – but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine.”
Borrowing some of Seixas’s own words, Washington’s responded: “The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy…All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship…May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants, while everyone shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
These events made the Jewish relationship with America special. America and the Jewish people’s values, beliefs and need for legal protections matched so seamlessly.
As a rule, the American government gives us freedom to do what we want. We can worship as Jews or not worship. If a Jew is assaulted or a synagogue is vandalized, the authorities will investigate. If one of us is arrested, our right to defend ourselves will be respected.
It does not always work out this way, and antisemitism is out of control in America and around the world. Jews have felt comfortable with the workings of our government since its founding, even with the rise in antisemitism during the past decade or more.
By this standard, most other groups can accuse Republicans of racism, sexism, homophobia and the like for its domestic policies, or lack of domestic policies. What Republicans have done is anti-American, which translates into most forms of prejudice. They are trying to deprive us of the benefits and advantages that make America America.
The censure resolution is accompanied by sweeping accusations that the sponsors have yet to prove. The resolution commands Schiff’s censure for misleading the public followed by its decree that “the Committee on Ethics shall conduct an investigation into Representative Adam Schiff’s falsehoods, misrepresentations, and abuses of sensitive information.”
Schiff was first to publicly charge that a vengeful Donald Trump ordered the censure vote to punish Schiff for leading the first impeachment which accused Trump of colluding with Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
“With his call now to imprison me and primary any Republican who didn’t vote to censure me,” Schiff wrote in a fundraising email, “Trump is telling the entire Republican Party that they must seek retribution against me politically and do whatever they can to prevent me from being elected to the Senate.”
The censure vote recalls the kind of act done by a petty monarch, not 213 members of Congress, as Moses Seixas has referenced. If a petty monarch would do something like this to punish a Jew, that would be antisemitism. That 213 lawmakers would slide back to the world of cruel kings, whether or not their target is a congressman because he is Jewish, this is the kind of act that Jews expect to avoid in America. That makes it antisemitism.
Republicans are not helped in the perception department that their victim is Jewish. Yet it is not a complete coincidence that Schiff is Jewish. Jews are drawn to the law and politics in high proportions. The Harvard Law graduate served as a federal prosecutor, is in his 23rd year as a congressman and is running for the Senate in California.
What’s more, the censure process was done backwards. The motion first lists a series of accusations and then decrees that the Committee on Ethics investigate Schiff. Shouldn’t they wait for the committee to investigate before voting for censure?
At the same time, the resolution is written as if Schiff’s so-called abuses are established. So if the sponsors know that Schiff is guilty, why do they need an investigation?
Schiff is being deprived of his due process rights, and that is a freedom the Jews would lack in their old countries.
Like Dreyfus and Frank, Schiff was scapegoated. Dreyfus, a French military officer, was jailed on Devil’s Island after he was falsely accused of selling military secrets to Germany, and Frank was lynched by a mob after being falsely convicted of murdering a 13-year-old girl in Atlanta. Neither Frank nor Dreyfus committed these crimes.
Originally, Republicans proposed fining Schiff $16 million, but dropped it. Such a fine might violate the Eighth Amendment, which states: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
Considering that Republicans had yet to prove their allegations, we can safely say that $16 million is an excessive fine.
To clarify once and for all, Republicans did not vote to censure Schiff to harm an American Jew, but the outcome is the same as any anti-Jewish act that could have readily occurred in any medieval nation where Jews were oppressed.
This is not to ignore the GOP’s strong support for Israel and other Jewish concerns, nor is it to deny the Democrats’ weak response to anti-Israel hostility in their own ranks. However, we must spell out that Adam Schiff’ censure gives bigotry sanction and prejudice assistance.