About ten years ago I attended a town hall meeting to discuss a plan for a proposed building in my neighborhood. A Chabad Lubavitch rabbi had proposed building a large community center on a relatively small plot of land zoned for residential housing. I opposed the plan because the building was too big; it required a boat-load of variances from the county board and used land owned by the power company. It was out of character for the neighborhood, too big for the tiny congregation, and set a bad precedent for future development in the long-established neighborhood.
There were other issues that were more important in my view. The Lubavitchers walked to services on streets without sidewalks – one where people regularly sped past them at 55 mph or more. There was no pedestrian crosswalk across that road, and my heart had leapt in my chest once when a teenage Lubavitcher darted out in front of my car only to be pulled back to the side of the road by his friend at the last moment.
The meeting was packed with Jews from all over Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. I spoke up at the meeting and voiced my opposition to the plan – and was pounced upon by the crowd. “Anti-Semite!” one person yelled. Others cheered the comment. An elderly woman – a Holocaust survivor it later turned out – tearfully screamed at me, calling me a skinhead and Nazi. It was hard to say anything, and in the end I was shouted down. After the meeting my wife and I were accosted by several of the audience asking us why we hated Jews so much.
By opposing this single rabbi’s plan I became a Jew hater in the eyes of the audience. I mentioned the meeting to my college roommate, a Jewish biker now living in Connecticut. He knew my feelings about Israel and Judaism, and how stupid the slurs sounded against me – a gentile who supported Israel and Zionism stronger than many Jews. “There’s enough real antisemitism in this world that we don’t need to go around making it up,” he said.
This incident came to mind after the NAACP meeting condemning Tea Party protests as racist. As a Tea Party supporter I saw the NAACP making the same mistake the Lubavitch supporters made 10 years ago: their minds had become so focused on a single issue that they became twisted and closed.
In the case of the Lubavitchers, they lost the ability to see that opposition on this one issue – the building of the community center – did not mean anything more. Instead of seeing us as friends, neighbors or even neutral parties prepared to live and let live, they made us out to be Nazis and Jew haters. By doing this they turned 2000 Brandywine Hundred, Delaware in their minds into 1943 Warsaw, Poland.
Similarly, the NAACP has taken criticism of a president who happens to be African-American to mean only one thing: racism. It’s not the health care bill that I oppose, it’s racism. It’s not his kowtowing to our enemies and treating our allies like dirt, it’s racism. It’s not his spending borrowed money like a kid with his daddy’s credit card, it’s racism. The attitude of the NAACP is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Brown v. Board of Education, and the struggle of Americans of all colors to fight racism all haven’t happened; it’s still Mississippi 1960.
The NAACP is like the dimwitted carpenter with a hammer who sees everything as a nail. Not only is this attitude wrong, but it’s counterproductive and in the end encourages the very racism that the NAACP is supposed to be against. By treating everyone as racist the NAACP acts racist itself. It becomes what it has fought for so long: an institution of hate and bigotry. By demonizing those who disagreed with them on one issue as racists – the worst possible epithet one can use in the United States aside from child molester – they turned allies and friends on other issues into enemies. Using the “race card” on a non-racial issue risks losing support from the very same people in the future on topics that are truly racist.
The rabbi won and within six years the Chabad Lubavitch community center was completed. But the fight damaged the relationship between the Lubavitchers and the overall community. The supporters from New Jersey and Pennsylvania had gone home, and the Lubavitchers were left to live amongst the very people they had called Nazis and bigots. The congregation was even more isolated from its neighbors than it had been before.
It probably hasn’t been a problem for the rabbi yet, but there will come a time in the future when he will need his neighbors help – when there true antisemitism rears its head – and he won’t get it. Neighbors have long memories and won’t forget the sting of being heckled in public for a very long time. Besides, when everyone is a Nazi or a Klansman it’s difficult to spot the real swastika or burning cross, and easier to ignore when one appears.