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Biden Was Right About Both Antisemitism and the Palestinians

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In the wake of the most recent spree of antisemitic harassment, President Biden made a statement denouncing the harassment of Jews, while gesturing toward sympathy for the plight of Palestinian Arabs: “I condemn the antisemitic protests. That’s why I’ve set up a program to deal with that. I also condemn those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians.”

Unsurprisingly, this caused an outrage response from the eliminationist left. Somewhat more surprisingly, unless you are familiar with this particular pathology, Biden’s statement also generated outrage on the political right.

“Biden condemns ‘antisemitic protests,’ and ‘those who don’t understand’ Palestinians in echo of Trump ‘both sides’ remark,” blared the New York Post. The Federalist (“Joe Biden Says There Are Very Fine People On Both Sides Of The Oct. 7 Debate”), The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page (“Biden Has a ‘Very Fine People’ Moment”), and other conservative media have repeated the theme.

This is a familiar anti-anti-Trump tactic: finding Trump’s most indefensible moments and then attempting to blow up a minor or imagined Biden infraction to an equivalent size to neutralize the issue. In this case, they are pretending Biden’s expression of sympathy for Palestinians is the equivalent of Donald Trump calling the pro-Confederate demonstrators in Charlottesville “very fine people.”

But there was nothing in Biden’s remark that hinted of sympathy for the antisemitic protests he was denouncing. He was remarking that Palestinian people are suffering and deserve sympathy and attention, and not allowing his radical critics to take ownership of that sentiment.

Since both sides has now become an epithet used by, well, both sides, it is worth making a defense of the general construct. The term both sides became sarcastic shorthand for a common practice in the mainstream media of pretending offenses that were solely committed by the Republican Party were being shared by Democrats. You could find this trope in stories about subjects like, say, the debt ceiling, where fake neutrality would cause reporters to pretend both parties were using hostage tactics.

Yet the general idea of adopting a broad moral framework and balancing competing moral principles remains correct. The error is to misapply it to situations in which all fault is concentrated in a single party. But I do not think that is a useful way to approach all political conflict. And it is an especially poor one for the conflict in the Middle East.

Biden has taken abuse from all directions for attempting to hold multiple values in his head at once. The president has, at various times, expressed the following ideas:

1. Terrorist attacks on civilians are wrong.
2. Israel has a right to self-defense that is bounded by a requirement to minimize civilian casualties.
3. Bigotry against Jews, Muslims, or Arabs is categorically wrong.

Now, one might object that, in praising Biden for these morally intuitive positions, I have set the bar too low. And it is a low bar indeed. But the pertinent thing is that Biden and his allies are the only faction in American politics that has managed to clear this low bar.

The groups leading the left-wing protests against Biden not only refuse to condemn Hamas’s butchery of Israeli civilians, they actively glorify it. The Republican Party has overlooked or justified Trump’s naked bigotry against Muslims and frequently dismissed the idea that Israel’s counterterrorist attack needs to follow any standard of care for civilian life.

Trump defenders Alan Dershowitz and Andrew Stein, writing in the Journal, blame Biden for the “politicization of a clear moral issue”:

Mr. Biden should unqualifiedly condemn antisemitism and harassment and violence against Jews. Trying to balance that justified condemnation by suggesting a false moral equivalence is wrong and will hurt him politically. Most Americans understand the difference between the murderers and rapists of Hamas and the defenders of Israel, even if they sometimes fault Israeli actions. If Mr. Biden fails to understand that difference — or, worse, understands but deliberately blurs it — voters will see through his politicization of a clear moral issue.

Many of these antisemitic rioters are as anti-American as they are anti-Israel. Their chants include “Death to America,” “Revolution,” and “Genocide Joe.” Some openly support Iran.

The sheer chutzpah of this passage is astonishing. They are blaming the president for slogans being used by anti-Biden protesters. Meanwhile, Trump has been delighting in chants of “Genocide Joe” at his rallies. Yet Trump’s defenders have somehow transmogrified the blame for an attack line used against Biden, and taken up by Trump, onto Biden himself.

Devising an effective and moral response to a terrorist group that deliberately maximizes civilian casualties is hard. Influencing policy in another country, even one that is subject to your leverage, is even harder. It is fair to fault Biden for having failed to stanch the conflict.

But it’s easy to devise a solution when you’re free to ignore the humanity of one side of the conflict. Biden is struggling to create and carry out a vision because he is trying to do something morally complex. That is a basic standard of decency his critics on the left and right alike have failed to clear.

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