Vice News, April 9, 2019
The House Judiciary Committee’s hearing on hate crimes and white nationalism was meant to be an opportunity to discuss the rising threat of far-right extremism and come up with targeted solutions.
Instead, Tuesday’s hearing regularly veered off course — and into some of the most bitterly partisan debates of the moment.
The congressional hearing was the first since the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to specifically address the threat posed by white nationalists. But Republican committee members and some of the panelists they’d invited railed against the media’s treatment of President Donald Trump, asked why they were discussing white nationalism instead of antifa, and yelled about Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, one of only two Muslim women ever elected to Congress.
Witnesses called to testify were a mixed bag: Among them were representatives from Facebook and Google, extremism experts, civil rights advocates, and conservative activists, including Candace Owens, a black woman known for her work with the controversial right-wing student group Turning Point USA.
“What I think the hearing illustrated is just how deep the political divisions are: so deep that we can’t have unanimity about hate crimes and white nationalism,” said Brian Levin, a national expert in hate crimes who heads the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “We’re on thin ice with all kinds of extremism — white nationalism in particular — and we missed a real opportunity to explore the risk.”
For example, Mohammad Abu-Salha, a grieving Muslim physician and father whose two daughters and son-in-law were murdered in an apparent hate crime at UNC Chapel Hill in 2015, was repeatedly made to answer for the crimes committed by fanatical jihadists.
At one point, Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America and a staunch Trump supporter, proceeded to lecture Abu-Salha about Islam. “I am confused when the good doctor says that Islam does not promote hatred of Jews,” Klein said. “We need to have Muslims step up.”
In his opening statement, Republican Rep. Doug Collins, a ranking committee member, alluded to the showdown over Omar’s position and asked why “a tolerance of Jewish stereotypes” had become acceptable among his colleagues.
Since taking office for the first time earlier this year, Omar has become the most vocal critic of Israel’s foregin policy and recently found herself at the center of a political maelstrom, in which Republicans and some Democrats likened her criticism of Israel to anti-Semitism.
“I was horrified to see Speaker Pelosi and Leader Hoyer defend Rep. Omar after her vicious anti-Semitic remarks,” Klein said. “That was unfair.” Klein also suggested that the white supremacist accused of murdering 50 Muslims at mosques in New Zealand was “left-wing.”
Republicans also bristled when Eva Paterson, the president and founder of the nonprofit civil rights group Equal Justice Society, suggested that Congress should condemn some of President Donald Trump’s more provocative remarks that she believes “emboldens white nationalists and white supremacists.”
“We understand the political dynamics, but we would love to see Republicans stand up and say, ‘Mr. Trump, what you’re saying is not helpful, it harms people of color, it harms Muslims,’” Paterson said.
“I would love to see my Democrat colleagues condemn anti-Semitism,” said Republican Rep. Greg Steube in response. “One of their own members of their own caucus has said very racist, anti-Semtic remarks, and they’ve failed to directly address it. To your point, I would love to see the other side of the aisle condemn one of their own for their own remarks.”
A “wasted” opportunity
Conservative activist Candace Owens, who House Republicans had invited to testify, argued in her opening statement that white nationalism wasn’t the real problem — but antifa. She also said Democrats were skewing hate crimes — which rose by 17 percent between 2016 and 2017, according to FBI data — to fit their agenda.
“White supremacy, white nationalism,” Owens said. “Words that once held real meaning are now nothing more than an election strategy.”
For its part, the Arab American Institute called the hearing a “wasted” opportunity to substantively address the problem of hate crimes. “Instead of a hearing combating hate, it became a platform for it,” Director Maya Berry said in a statement.
Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu also waded into partisan matters, when he noted that “of all the people Republicans could have selected, they picked Candace Owens.” ...
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