By Jack Rosen, President of the American Jewish Congress
Published originally in the New York Daily News.
The strange case of George Santos illustrates a remarkable paradox in regard to America’s current problem with antisemitism. The far-right Republican congressman-elect from New York has recently been outed by numerous media outlets as a pathological liar about everything from his ancestry to his finances. These lies include Santos’ false claim that he is Jewish.
The paradox is this: On the one hand, antisemitism is on the rise across the political spectrum. On the other, people desperately want to appropriate Jewish identity to serve their own ends, which is antisemitic in and of itself.
Indeed, if there is any silver lining to the Santos debacle, it may be that far-right antisemites across the country must be in a state of shock. Not only did one of their acolytes openly claim to be Jewish, but he is still trying to do so, saying that “I never claimed to be Jewish … I said I was ‘Jew-ish.’ ” At the same time, far-left antisemites must be scratching their heads, wondering how the Jews managed to become both so hateful and so attractive that an antisemite felt the need to somehow become one of us.
This may be darkly amusing, but it does not change the seriousness of what Santos has done. In an atmosphere of intensifying antisemitism, he has cheapened Jewish identity and suffering. This will undoubtedly encourage others to, at the very least, take the issue of Jewish safety and security less seriously at precisely the moment when it must be taken very seriously indeed.
It is important to emphasize that Santos’ false claim to be Jewish was fantastically offensive and unquestionably antisemitic. This was particularly the case because Santos not only lied about being Jewish but lied about being the descendant of Holocaust survivors. For Jews, the Holocaust is a sacred tragedy, and to appropriate it for one’s own selfish aims is an appalling act of moral larceny—a kind of secular blasphemy.
Even if Santos had not appropriated the Holocaust experience, his actions would still be antisemitic. In America today, Jews are a targeted community. We are engaged in a difficult struggle to protect ourselves physically and psychologically from a wave of antisemitism that has crossed religious and political divides. To lie about being Jewish cheapens that struggle, Jewish identity, and at the end of its terrible logic, Jewish life itself.
It is not surprising that Santos has echoed the sentiments of some of America’s worst antisemites, such as Kanye West. West went so far as to claim, “The funny thing is I actually can’t be Anti Semitic because black people are actually Jew.” The paradox is a perfect one: On the one hand, West hates the Jews; on the other, he selfishly seeks to exonerate himself by appropriating Jewish identity. Santos has largely done the same thing.
To be fair, it is unclear whether Santos hates the Jews as intensely as West, but what is certain is that he is part and parcel of a political movement that does. Santos has been an outspoken proponent of the far-right for some time. In particular, he attended the Jan. 6, 2021 rally that led directly to the attack on the Capitol, and spoke rapturously of former president Donald Trump’s “full awesomeness” at the event.
It is quite telling indeed that one of Santos’ few defenders has been Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has previously made antisemitic statements of her own, bizarrely claiming that the Rothschild family is using space-based weapons to disrupt the climate.
The New York Times reported that Santos attended a Manhattan gala in December 2022 at which Greene said of the Jan. 6 attack “if Steve Bannon and I had organized that, we would have won.” Also in attendance at the gala was white nationalist Peter Brimelow of the racist site VDare, which — among other deplorables — publishes the virulent antisemite Kevin MacDonald.
The most important question at the moment, however, is what the Republican Party will do about Santos. At the moment, far too many Republicans have failed to speak out against him. The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), which had previously feted Santos as a fellow member of the Jewish community, has thankfully done so, with CEO Matt Brooks saying, “He deceived us and misrepresented his heritage. … He will not be welcome at any future RJC event.”
The Republican Party as a whole should follow the RJC’s lead, because the situation is clear: Antisemitism in any form, including the appropriation and exploitation of Jewish identity and suffering, cannot be tolerated. The Republicans often criticize the Democrats for harboring antisemites like Ilhan Omar, and they are right to do so. But the Republicans must hold themselves to the same standard as they do their political rivals.
It is clear what the Republicans must do: They must either force Santos to step aside or move to remove him from office. A special election should then be called in order to send a better candidate to Congress, one who will be part of the solution to the threat of antisemitism, rather than part of the problem.