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Lessons from the Birmingham election

We have grown accustomed on a national level to a less than ideal situation when it comes to political debate. Nastiness. Sowing dissension throughout the ranks of voters. Bullying and divisiveness. And now this offensive problem has arrived at the doorstep of the Birmingham community.

As we have seen throughout the country, from the highest office to the most local, political dialogue has deteriorated, with neighbor pitted against neighbor and communities torn apart as people take sides against one another. Last year, we witnessed it take place in an acrimonious primary and general election in Bloomfield Township. This year, sadly, a new low has been breached between individuals involved in the Birmingham City Commission election, with one side alleging the spreading of lies and big money involvement and the other asserting anti-Semitism.

Both charges come heavily weighted with major ramifications not only for the individuals involved, but for the whole community.

As a refresher, Birmingham City Commissioner Clinton Baller has been accused of sending an email newsletter which includes what some say are anti-Semitic tropes and accusations against supporters of former commission candidate David Bloom, who lost in the recent election. And following complaints, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) weighed in, sending a letter to the city, stating Baller employed language used by people who circulate anti-Semitic tropes. In response, Baller said his ex-wife, son and stepson are Jewish – and his email letter wasn't anti-Semitic, “it was political.”

In this instance, we happen to agree with Baller. Supporters of Baller – and Baller himself – may be surprised to find us in his corner, as we are not always – but as students of politics, racism and anti-Semitic incidents and language, we caution those who would throw that term about wantonly. Are we experts? No. But one of us is a practicing Jew, a child of a Holocaust survivor, and knows something about anti-Semitism.

Baller routinely sends out email newsletter communications to residents with his viewpoints and opinions, which are his own perspectives, not the city's, nor the commission's. While city officials aren't crazy about that, and would prefer commissioners air their viewpoints at public meetings and, following a vote on an issue, speak with one voice to the community, in this era of political polarization, there's not much that can currently be done about Baller's penchant for sending dispatches.

But there should be.

Without a doubt, Baller's emails – as this batch was – are often caustic, vitriolic, and downright offensive to those he targets. His opposition to former ally David Bloom and Andrew Haig, both candidates, were scathing and at times downright malicious – not a great reflection on him as a commissioner. His attacks on two affluent donors to their campaign, both of whom are Jewish, were clearly targeted as “wealthy” people who he felt were “buying the election,” which was questionable in and of itself, and less as an anti-Semitic statement.

Yes, the ADL pointed out certain words in Baller's email newsletter, such as “willing marionette” “cabal,” and “buying the ponies,” can be “common anti-Jewish themes that can promote hatred of the Jewish community,” but the terms have also been used in a variety of political situations over the centuries that have nothing to do with the Jewish people, dating all the way back to the 1600s in England and throughout a number of presidential administrations in recent times here.

The city of Birmingham has some policies relative to racial and anti-Semitic behavior, so city manager Tom Marcus rightly asked the Birmingham Ethics Board to rule on this incident.

The ethics panel on Tuesday, November 16, arrived at pretty much the same conclusion, hesitating to label Baller's email as anti-Semitic and declining to call for formal hearings on charges that the city commissioner had violated city ethics policies.

But members of the ethics board offered some good advice to city officials for the future. Members seemed to collectively feel that the current ethics ordinance and policies covering racism and anti-Semitic behavior need to be revisited and updated. Further, there was the suggestion that the city must grapple with addressing the use of social media and all other forms of communication by those representing the city. This should be a priority for the city's leaders.

Meanwhile, this incident should be a reminder of how easy it is for one voice to sow discordance among the entire community. Baller should give some thought to whether he should continue sending out his missives in the future. 


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