Friday, January 29, 2010

Jewish Fact Check #4: Rush Limbaugh and the Jews

With the advent of Media Matters, there seems to be far too much attention paid to every utterance by Rush Limbaugh and other conservative talk-show hosts. Yes, Limbaugh is an extraordinarily influential political commentator, but he's just that--a commentator who hosts a talk show and whose first responsibility is to entertain his audience for three hours a day. He's not an elected official, or running for office, and I'm not sure why every time he says something controversial, Republican officeholders are urged to condemn it. (Do Democratic officeholders get asked to denounce every wacky thing Keith Olbermann says, or that appears on the Daily Kos Web site? Of course not, and they shouldn't be.)

But people keep talking about it--the latest is a group of Jewish organizations, generally on the right of the spectrum, who have come to Rush's defense--so I thought it would be worthwhile to at least look at what exactly Rush said. Was it "borderline anti-Semitic"? In my opinion, that's pushing it. But was it foolish and somewhat offensive? Yes.

I don't know Rush Limbaugh, and I have no reason to believe he holds any animus towards Jews. And while I've never heard him discuss Israel, I believe what his defenders have said, that he's been a supporter of the Jewish state. But it appears that what was a clumsy attempt to reprhase the old joke that "Jews earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans" resulted in him actually reiterating a old anti-Semitic trope.

First, though, the kookiest thing Rush said was here:
Scott Brown had a lot of success with independents, and that’s -- that’s what Jewish liberals like to call themselves when they’re asked. They call themselves independents before they’ll refer to themselves as -- as liberals. So if Jewish people who voted 78 percent for Obama -- which is far higher than any other group except African-Americans -- if Jewish people gave Obama 78 percent of their vote, what if they’re experiencing buyer’s remorse like all these people in Massachusetts did? Do you realize how important this could be? …

Jewish liberals like to call themselves independents? Where does this happen? Has Rush actually talked to a Jewish liberal who called himself an independent, because I haven't. In fact, I've heard a couple Jewish conservatives call themselves independents because they might not want to be known as conservatives in the overwhelmingly liberal Jewish community, but not liberals. I have heard some Jewish liberals with liberal domestic policy views but more conservative foreign policy opinions call themselves "Scoop Jackson Democrats"--but that's hardly calling oneself independent. Who does Rush talk to in Palm Beach that fed him this silliness?

Perhaps Rush realizes he doesn't know what he's talking about, because he then tries a different tack to make the Jews have "buyer's remorse" about Obama point -- while also starting a pitch (which he doesn't fully complete until afterwards) to read Norman Podhoretz's book "Why are Jews Liberals?"

If you have often wondered just out of, you know, a legitimately curious political sense -- if you have asked yourself why are so many Jewish people, liberal, what when it seemed so much of what liberals do would be anathema to Jewish people, particularly abortion, but any number of things -- taxes, tax increase. Look it -- you know something, folks?

There are a lot of people, when you say banker, people think Jewish. People who have prejudice, people who have, you know -- what's the best way to say -- a little prejudice about them. To some people, bankers -- code word for Jewish -- and guess who Obama's assaulting? He's assaulting bankers. He's assaulting money people. And a lot of those people on Wall Street are Jewish. So I wonder if there's starting to be some buyer's remorse there.

OK, I'm going to skip over opening the abortion can of worms (trying to keep this relatively short) and just go to the tax reference. Rush here in the first paragraph, in saying that he thinks Jews would oppose tax increases,is making that basic argument I referred to earlier: Jews on average have a high income, and those with higher incomes tend to oppose tax increases, so one would think that Jews would oppose those who support higher taxes (generally liberals)--but they don't. Fine, it's a point that's been made before and nothing is particularly controversial about it as an academic matter.

But then he gets into trouble. He says people who are bigoted often associate banking with Jews. True. He then says this: "To some people, bankers -- code word for Jewish -- and guess who Obama's assaulting? He's assaulting bankers. He's assaulting money people."

So what is Rush saying here? He appears to be charging Obama with playing to anti-Semites by attacking bankers, or, less charitably, just charging Obama with anti-Semitism for going after banks. This is ridiculous. Banks were a big reason for the recession, and people are legitimately mad because the banks are now making lots of money again. One can disagree with the policy of urging a tax on banks, but I haven't seen any evidence of this being promoted with any kind of targeting of Jews. If the president were going around talking about the bank tax while reciting the name Goldman Sachs and a list of names of other Jewish sounding bankers, then there would be a reason to worry. But that's not what's happening.

Then Rush went even further to try to find support for his Jews have "buyer's remorse" argument by restating the line he just attributed to those with prejudice as fact: "And a lot of those people on Wall Street are Jewish. So I wonder if there's starting to be some buyer's remorse there."

Factually, I suppose Rush is correct that there are a lot of Jews employed on Wall Street. But what exactly does that have to do with how Jews feel about Obama? Nothing--except Rush seems to think it's a key factor.

What he has done is kind of remarkable. He's essentially said, "People who think Jews control the banks are prejudiced, but, remember, there do happen to be a lot of Jews who work at banks--and they're probably mad at Obama because they're concerned about money and he'd be cutting into their profits." So he's just proceeded to renounce an anti-Semitic stereotype, and then three seconds later turn around and essentially testify to its truth.

Rush has said his remarks were taken out of context. That's not true. Did he misspeak? Perhaps. What he did do is casually reiterate the stereotype that Jews are bankers only concerned about money--in the service of making a political argument. That's not cool, and something that's worthy of some criticism.

Norman Podhoretz, in his defense of Rush, makes the point that anti-Semitism is a much more serious problem on the left these days than the right. It's a point worthy of argument, but I don't necessarily disagree with him. In my 13 years in Jewish journalism, the most scared I've ever been as a Jew was at the anti-globalization rally outside the AIPAC conference a few years back. As the crowd started to chant "Shut it down" in reference to AIPAC, I, in the mood to be a smartass, asked loudly and somewhat rhetorically to the crowd around me, "Why 'Shut it down?' What did they do?" One woman started yelling at me, "You're probably one of them!" and I started to get some nasty looks. As it turned out, nothing happened, although I was pretty creeped out by the whole thing.. But just because there's anti-Semitism on the left, though, doesn't mean that everyone on the right gets a pass if they say something inappropriate. Rush Limbaugh may be a supporter of Jews and Israel, but he could use a little bit of education in this instance.

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Anonymous John said...

Excellent, interesting post...and pretty even-handed. Well done!

I look forward to the next Jewish Fact Check...and the next American Idol update, of course...John

2/1/10, 4:20 PM  
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