When I was growing up, “filibuster” was a dirty word. It was a tactic used by bigoted southern Senators to prevent the enactment of any civil rights legislation. I recall Senator Strom Thurman babbling on for 24 hours in an effort to keep the south racially segregated. We regarded the filibuster as the enemy of democracy and the weapon of choice against civil rights.
Yet, President Obama and his followers in the senate deployed this undemocratic weapon in order to stifle real debate about the nuclear deal with Iran and to prevent the up or down vote promised by the Corker bill. A President, who was more confident of the deal, would have welcomed the Lincoln-Douglas type debates that I and others had called for regarding the most important foreign policy decision of the 21st century. But instead of arguments on the merits and demerits of the deal, what we mostly got was ad hominems. Proponents of the deal trotted out famous names of those who supported the deal, without detailed arguments about why they took that position. No wonder so few Americans support the deal. According to a recent Pew poll approximately one in five Americans think the deal is a good one. The President had an obligation to use his bully pulpit to try to obtain majority support among voters. Not only did he fail to do that, he also failed to persuade a majority of Senate and House members. So this minority deal will go into operation over the objection of a majority of our legislators and voters.
One of the low points of this debate was a variation on the ad hominem fallacy. It was the argument by religious or ethnic identity. Supporters of the deal tried to get as many prominent Jews as they could to sign ads and petitions in favor of the deal. The implicit argument was, “See, even Jews support this deal, so it must be good for Israel,” despite the reality that the vast majority of Israelis and almost all of its political leaders believe the deal is bad for Israel.
The absolute low point in the non-debate was a New York Times chart, identifying opponents of the deal by whether they were Jewish or Gentile. The implication was that Jews who opposed the deal must be more loyal to their Jewish constituents or to Israel than Americans who supported the deal. But the chart itself made little sense. It turns out that the vast majority of democratic Congressmen who voted against the deal were not Jewish, and several of them represented districts in which less than 1% of the voters were Jewish. It is true that two out of the four democratic senators who voted against the deal were identified as Jews, but one of the non-Jewish Senators represents West Virginia where Jewish voters constituted less than one tenth of one percent of the voting population. Moreover, opposition to this deal is considerably greater among evangelical Christians than among Jews.
Identifying by their religion members of Congress who voted against a deal that the Times strongly supported is, as the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) aptly put it, more than a dog whistle; it is a bull horn. It plays squarely into anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews having dual loyalty. Will the Times next identify bankers, media moguls, journalists and professors by their religious identity? Would the Times have done that for other ethnic, religious or gender groups?
This has been a bad month for democracy, for serious debate and for the treatment of all Americans as equally capable of deciding important issue on their merits and demerits. Whether it also turns out to have been a bad month for peace and nuclear non-proliferation remains to be seen. But even those who support the deal should be ashamed of some of the undemocratic tactics and bigoted arguments employed to avoid a real debate and a majority vote.