The last few weeks, I’ve been having a polite debate with some of my friends who work in the public relations industry: What amounts to a credible response in the face of apparent, serious lapses in judgment?
I contend that admitting a mistake, apologizing and making amends goes a lot further than obfuscating and making excuses. Those who advise CEOs and other such business leaders agree with me and say they tell their clients the exact same thing. Those who make a living crafting communications strategies for politicians, on the other hand, say good luck getting a public official to ever admit a mistake.
Three recent cases involving two Philadelphia-area legislators and one legislative hopeful — and all involving issues of pressing concern to the Jewish community — put this reality in stark relief.
In the newly redrawn 1st Congressional District, businessman and Democratic nominee Scott Wallace made the first relevant headlines. Right after the close of last month’s primary, his campaign manager attempted to distance the candidate from news that the charitable fund he leads as a co-chair disbursed tens of thousands of dollars to groups that promote the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
“The grants in question were made by a member of the Wallace Global Fund’s leadership from a discretionary fund that other leadership did not exercise authority over,” the spokesman said at the time, going on to castigate Republicans for what he called a “shameless attack.” Wallace himself issued typical boilerplate denouncing the BDS movement and asserting that, as a “J Street Democrat,” he was “unequivocally pro-Israel, pro-peace and pro-democracy.”
The explanations — in public and in private — were not enough for Democratic Jewish Outreach Pennsylvania, which declined to endorse Wallace in his race to unseat the Republican incumbent, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick. “As an organization that cares deeply about Israel, we’re not comfortable with what is, at best, carelessness,” Burt Siegel, the former executive director of the local Jewish Community Relations Council and a member of DJOP’s steering committee, said.
Apparent carelessness was also at play over at Team Fitzpatrick just a couple of weeks later, when news surfaced that the GOP congressman had attended an event honoring Polish victims of an airline crash at which several people known for promulgating anti-Semitic views had spoken. A member of Fitzpatrick’s staff had also presented a certificate honoring one of them, Antoni Macierewicz. Considering Fitzpatrick’s legislative record backing the Jewish state — as opposed to Wallace merely donating money to J Street upon its founding years ago — the incident had all the makings of a congressional staffer failing to carefully vet an honoree and event program.
Indeed, Fitzpatrick’s apology was quick and unequivocal, as was that of his elder brother, former Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, who held the same seat in Congress until last year and had regularly attended the annual commemoration. The congressman’s office said that it “had no understanding of [Macierewicz’s] anti-Semitic past. … After reviewing his past, we completely disavow those anti-Semitic remarks.” It also called the work of Macierewicz and another speaker at the event, Ewa Kurek, “abhorrent and repulsive.” The Simon Wiesenthal Center, which initially raised concern about Fitzpatrick’s attendance at the commemoration, later commended the congressman for his about face.
It is not my role to tell voters in Bucks County — or anywhere, for that matter — who they should vote for, as I don’t use this column to endorse candidates. And what Fitzpatrick or Wallace would end up doing on behalf of Israel in the next Congress is not guaranteed, irrespective of their past statements and actions. But transparency and clarity on Israel and anti-Semitism are a must in order to keep the trust of Jewish voters, and it appears that Wallace has a long way to go.
Sometimes, though, even an apology, however weak, can be an incredibly rare thing among the political class. More often than not, an elected official will double down instead of reversing course.
The current president has offered plenty of examples of this, but in the newly redrawn 3rd Congressional District, so has Democratic Rep. Dwight Evans, who is running for re-election against Republican nominee Bryan Leib. Evans recently added his name to a piece of legislation as anti-Israel as it is unlikely to ever become law, making one wonder the utility of doing so if not solely to appease such virulently anti-Israel and pro-BDS groups as Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace and Churches for Middle East Peace.
The bill in question, HR 4391, the Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act, would “require the secretary of state to certify that United States funds do not support military detention, interrogation, abuse or ill-treatment of Palestinian children,” buying into the canard that the detention of children is a uniquely Israeli problem. The bill neither acknowledges that many of those engaging in violence against Israeli troops are children nor condemns Hamas and other Palestinian groups for arming children and using them as human shields.
When I requested 10 minutes to speak with the congressman about his co-sponsorship, knowing that JVP and other groups had been actively lobbying on behalf of the bill and that Evans might not have a clear picture of what was at stake, I received a terse written statement from the congressman.
“The human rights of all children should be protected,” he said. “The purpose of this act is to promote and protect the human rights of Palestinian children. Regardless of guilt or innocence, children in conflict of the law are entitled to special protections and all due process rights under international human rights law and policy. Under this legislation, no children will be detained in conditions that violate international law.
“Moreover, as a strong supporter of Israel, I believe in a balanced approach,” he added, noting that he co-sponsored legislation that would reimpose sanctions on Iran and fund Israel’s military needs.
Neither of those bills require political fortitude, but merely common sense. As far as Evans’ “balanced approach” and his concern for children — who doesn’t care about children? — what would be far more indicative of his pro-Israel bona fides would be to co-sponsor HR 6034, the Palestinian Authority Educational Curriculum Transparency Act. That bill would mandate annual reports about the brainwashing of Palestinian children to hate Israel and support violence against Israelis, a known problem for those of us who have been advocating for peace for decades. Evans has yet to support it.
Unfortunately, what appears to have been a lapse in judgment or an act of carelessness has actually been a conscious decision by Evans to back the Palestinian narrative of oppression, ignoring the attacks that Israel faces on a near-daily basis. As a constituent, I would have been satisfied with an apology, but at least the truth came out.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.