Soundings

Eugene Kontorovich
Silver Cries Anti-Semitism
Spring 1998

In January, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver accused state Republican Chairman Bill Powers of anti-Semitism. What provoked Silver's charge? A Powers fund-raising letter that doesn't refer to Silver as a Jew or, for that matter, to Zionists, Freemasons, or rootless cosmopolitans. The letter does feature, though, a photograph of Silver sitting behind the governor's desk, with the caption: "Governor Shelly Silver? That's a scary thought."

Silver says that by including the photo, Powers reveals his true agenda: to stir up anti-Semitic feelings among potential donors. Presumably, Silver believes that the photo would tip off Jew-wary Republicans, who will bankroll the GOP to keep the governor's mansion Judenrein—a strange delusion about Republicans. Silver demands the GOP return the contributions the mailing raised.

But slow down. Since the devout speaker wears a yarmulke, if Powers wanted to accentuate Silver's Jewishness without saying so directly, why didn't he just pick a photo where we can see it?

Silver has used his ethnicity as a political cudgel before: in 1995 he charged Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno with anti-Semitism. Bruno had called the speaker a "Lower East Side Liberal"—code, Silver maintains, for "Jew."

Silver's most recent baseless charge, like the earlier attack, is pure Sharpton-style demagoguery. But New Yorkers expect racial grandstanding from the reverend; coming from the state's senior elected Democratic official, such rhetoric is more disturbing. Worse, Silver has cried wolf, making people dubious about any future charges of anti-Semitism they may hear.

Did Silver really think New Yorkers would buy it? In Kiev, the city where I was born, ancient and pervasive anti-Semitism made residents specialists in the art of recognizing who is a Jew. Here, most people aren't aware that one can sometimes distinguish Jews through facial features. It's a good thing, and Silver should stop trying to mess it up.

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