Pausing to savor Ald. Burke’s anti-Semitism

The embattled alderman gives us a chance to take out our magnifying glass and categorize calumny.

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A large blue butterfly painted on the walls of a psychiatric hospital in Paris in 2019 by French street artist Christian Guemy.

A large blue butterfly painted on the walls of a psychiatric hospital in Paris in 2019 by French street artist Christian Guemy.

Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images

“You know as well as I do, Jews are Jews,” Ald. Ed Burke (14th) said into a federal wiretap, “and they’ll deal with Jews to the exclusion of everybody else, unless ... unless there’s a reason for them to use a Christian.”

My immediate response — I kid you not, I did this, first thing — was to consult “The Canterbury Tales.” Because there is something positively medieval to Burke’s remarks. Clannishness is such an old accusation to fling at Jews and illustrates the circular logic of bigotry: You exclude a people from society, wall them up in a ghetto, then denounce them for sticking together.

One trick of racism — and this doesn’t get mentioned enough — is to attack specific groups for doing what all people do. When somebody accuses Jews of being fond of money, I retort, “As opposed to ... what? All those people who aren’t?” Every single ethnic, religious and social group will at times interact among themselves and exclude outsiders.

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Jews stick together, just like Presbyterians, Lithuanians and Rotarians do. Yiddish was once a unifying tongue, now simply being Jewish is a language that Jews speak.

When I first had coffee with Rahm Emanuel, he started talking about Hanukkah, which was approaching. It confused me for a moment, because I didn’t know why the mayor would bring it up.

Then it dawned on me, with some horror, “Ohhh, it’s because we’re both Jews. He wants me to bond with him as a fellow Jew.” I couldn’t have been more aghast had he put his hand on my knee.

Accusations of prejudice fall into two broad categories. Complaints about actual harm that is suffered because of intolerance: hurtful remarks hurled, housing denied, police blithely killing people like yourself. Those are real evils that are legitimately decried.

But there is a second class, those who gin up imaginary prejudice because they’re bullies, and their fingers itch to grab the cudgel of victimhood. For them, crying about a supposed wrong done to themselves by a certain group is a ruse to justify their own hatreds.

When Donald Trump complained about Mexicans being criminals and rapists, he wasn’t doing so because he cares about crime, especially not rape. Rather, he wanted to make political hay by brutalizing and stigmatizing Latino immigrants, and this was his way of trying to make it seem OK to dupes. It worked.

Accusations of racism are also a way to deflect valid criticism. When I suggested in my column last week that a small band of Italian Americans should stop demanding Chicago honor a despised brute, Christopher Columbus, a few days passed — then, as if on cue, four or five aggrieved emails dribbled in, each sobbing a version of, “You HATE us! Boo hoo! Stop being a bigot.” As if rolling at the feet of a 15th-century murderer were central to their heritage.

At this point in my life, little offends me, and there’s no purpose in decrying Burke’s anti-Semitism. I’ll leave that to the Anti-Defamation League, which is demanding an apology from Burke. Toward what end? I only discuss it here the way a lepidopterist points excitedly to a Large Blue, a Phengaris arion, fluttering over the wildflowers. Look at that!

Ald. Ed Burke (14th) attends the City Council meeting at City Hall Wednesday morning.

Ald. Ed Burke (14th) attends the City Council meeting at City Hall Wednesday morning, the Council’s first in-person meeting in more than a year. On that same day, documents were made public revealing new details about the federal criminal case against Burke and the investigation that led to his racketeering indictment nearly two years ago.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

It’s one of the milder slurs. There are far worse. I can’t be the only Jew to smile, almost grateful Burke didn’t say something like, “Jews are Jews, and they’ll kidnap Christian children and use their blood to bake matzo.”

There are also many more recent libels: Jews are bringing in immigrants to dilute Aryan, whoops, Anglo-Saxon blood. Jews being behind the lie of climate change. The stick-together calumny is positively antique. After checking Chaucer, I noted Burke’s age: 77. There’s an out-of-it quality, as if he’d trotted out some centuries-old anti-Chinese trope about silk robes and opium dens.

Does Ed Burke really believe Jewish solidarity cost his law firm a client? I phoned Burke’s office Thursday, seeking response to this latest rotten tomato of shame to splat against his encrusted reputation. No answer.

Which is odd, because we used to talk occasionally, back in the day, when he wanted press attention. No surprise there. You know as well as I do, politicians are politicians, and they’ll deal with other politicians to the exclusion of everybody else, unless ... unless there’s a reason for them to use a journalist.

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