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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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Jewish Fact Check #3: Jennifer Rubin, J Street and the Univ. of Penn. Hillel

Jennifer Rubin at Commentary only wrote three sentences this morning about J Street, and yet she got enough wrong that it's worthy of a fact check. Here's the item, the first in her daily "Flotsam and Jetsam" post on the Contentions blog:

University of Pennsylvania’s Hillel is hosting J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami. Does Hillel not know that J Street doesn’t like to be known as a “pro-Israel” organization? One wonders what those who support Hillel must be thinking.

Rubin links to this page at the J Street Web site, which has information on the launch of "J Street Philadelphia," part of a national rollout of local J Street chapters planned for next month, and says that Penn's Hillel is "hosting" J Street and its executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami. The event is being held at Steinhardt Hall at the University of Pennsylvania campus, which, via a Google search, I discovered is the UPenn Hillel building. But the J Street announcement doesn't mention Hillel at all, just the building, and it's not like it's uncommon for Hillels (or any building for that matter) to rent space to an organization without actually endorsing it. (When I was a student at Duke University--and there wasn't a Duke Jewish center built yet--my fraternity used to rent the UNC Hillel House for our January semi-formal every year. I don't think anyone would have said UNC Hillel was "hosting" us or sponsoring us--we were just renting the space. And yes, I know this isn't a perfect analogy since the formal was closed to the public and the J Street event isn't, but I thought it sort of made my point anyway.)

But all the evidence above is speculative, so I sent an email to a J Street spokesperson, who responded that yes, the organization is renting the space from Hillel. Why didn't Rubin make that call or send that email to J Street? Don't know--could be laziness, or that she just wanted to stir up trouble among critics of J Street and knew that actually getting the correct information might stop her from doing that.

Rubin also isn't quite accurate on something else she writes in those brief three sentences. She says that J Street "doesn't like to be known as a 'pro-Israel' organization." But that's just not the case. Although some question whether they should be using the slogan, J Street clearly has always called itself a "pro-Israel, pro-peace" organization. Rubin is conflating J Street with its campus arm, J Street U. The Jerusalem Post reported back in October that J Street U has decided that individual chapters did not have to use "pro-Israel" in its slogan, J Street U denied it, and there was a lot of confusion and back and forth over the issue--and I'm still not really sure what the deal is. Suffice it to say that J Street U's Web site does not use the term "pro-Israel" to describe itself in its mission statement and decries polarizing voices using the terms "pro-Israel" and "pro-Palestinian"--but also states clearly that "as supporters of Israel, we are firmly committed to protecting the future of the State of Israel as a Jewish democratic homeland."

As for those of you reading this and asking, "What would be wrong if UPenn Hillel was hosting a speech from Jeremy Ben-Ami?" that's a legitimate question that is worthy of debate, but has nothing to do with fact-checking--and thus I'm not going to get into it. But you're welcome to hash that out in the comments.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Idol's back -- for the last season as we know it

As usual, I'm not going to do a recap of the audition episodes of Idol, because half of these people we'll probably never see again--and it's hard to tell how hard anyone is after twenty seconds of a capella singing.

I do want to say one thing, though: This show is likely dead next year when Simon is gone. To be honest, while I missed Paula, it didn't really have that much of an effect on tonight's show. But Simon was the whole show tonight. Every auditioner wants to see him. Every auditioner wants his approval. And it's not just in the auditions. When we get to the final round, when is the audience most excited? When Simon likes someone. Why did people start watching Idol in the first place? Because there was a judge who was willing to actually say people were bad when they were bad.

I have no idea whether the X-Factor will be successful. And I have no idea who will replace Simon on Idol. But I can't imagine Idol will continue to be successful without him.

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Friday, January 08, 2010

Jewish Fact Check #2: Stephen Walt's Smears

It's time for another "Jewish fact check," although my choice of targets, Steve Walt's blog post yesterday at Foreign Policy, is probably too easy because there's just so much wrong with it.

My former colleague at JTA, Ron Kampeas, has already done a masterful job explaining why Walt's argument doesn't make much sense, and is, as he put it, "simultaneously meaningless and contradictory." So I'll just break down how a few of the inaccuracies, distortions and false insinuations Walt throws out in service of that argument.

First of all, Walt states that the workshop he's talking about, teaching Jewish community members how to advocate on the issue of Iran, is sponsored by The Israel Project. It's true that The Israel Project is a sponsor of this Jan. 17 event, but in fact, they're just one of close to two dozen sponsors -- and not even the chief organizer of the event. That would be the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.

I suppose I could give Walt a little bit of a break on getting this wrong, since the email he received (which I received also) has a big Israel Project banner across it with a link to the group's Web site, obviously leading one initially to believe this was an Israel Project-led event. Except at the bottom of the e-mail there's a prominent link to the JCRC's Web site where it says more information can be found. And clicking that link clarly brings one to the JCRC Web site, which denotes that the program is the "JCRC's community-wide grass-roots advocacy training program" and lists the co-sponsors at the bottom of the page:

Anti-Defamation League DC Chapter, American Jewish Committee, Baltimore Zionist District, Birthright Israel NEXT DC, DC Council BBYO, DC JCC, Hadassah Greater Washington Area Chapter, JCCGW, JCRC of Greater Washington, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Jewish National Fund, National Jewish Democratic Council, Orthodox Union, Republican Jewish Coalition, StandWithUs, The Embassy of Israel, The Israel Project, The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, and The Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy

So how does Walt get this wrong? Is he just lazy and didn't click on the link? That seems the most likely explanation, although I can't imagine how one could write a blog post slamming an event and not even do the minimal amount of research -- such as clicking on a link -- before writing. After all, Walt fancies himself an "expert" on the "Israel lobby." He wrote a whole book about it with his buddy John Mearsheimer. You'd think such a an expert on the Jewish community would know the difference between a local JCRC and The Israel Project, wouldn't you?

There's also the possibility that Walt used The Israel Project because he wants to tar this event as supported only by certain individual organizations in the Jewish community and suggest that many other Jews don't back a strong stance against the possibility of Iranian nuclear weapons. But in fact, the JCRC is an organization which represents the public policy views of more than 200 D.C.-area Jewish organizations. Combine that with the federation, groups representing Democrats and Republicans and a bunch of other well-known organizations and it's clear the "Stop Iran" movement is pretty broad-based in the Jewish community. (That doesn't mean there aren't Jews around the country who oppose sanctions on Iran, just that they're well outnumbered among Jews active in the Jewish communal world.)

But what really bothered me about Walt's piece was this paragraph:

But notice that this event advertises an AIPAC representative, an Israeli diplomat and apparently several unnamed congressional legislative assistants. The latter are supposed to be public servants; we understand that they will be the objects of a lobbying groups efforts but here they seem to be actively helping one. Given the prominent role given to an official representative of a foreign government and the participation of several congressional aides, this event does seem to blur the line between being a purely domestic lobbying group and being something else. Isn't it a bit over-the-line to have an officially accredited diplomat give the plenary address to a workshop whose declared purpose is to teach Americans how to advocate on behalf of that same diplomat's country?

I once wrote that listening to Walt and Mearsheimer talk about the "Israel Lobby" reminded me of the classic Seinfeld episode where everyone thinks Jerry and George are gay, and they keep having to tell everyone, "We're not gay, not that there's anything wrong with that." Actually, that wasn't really right--in fact, it would be as if Jerry and George had added after "not that there's anything wrong with that" something like "but, just to be clear, we think being gay is really bad and that gays are destroying the country."

Walt says there's nothing wrong with the meeting he's writing about,and then makes ridiculous insinuations about how sinister and improper everything scheduled to happen at the meeting is.

Take his comment that it's somehow "over the line" to have an Israeli diplomat give the plenary address "to a workshop whose declared purpose is to teach Americans how to advocate on behalf of that same diplomat's country?"

What Walt is saying here is what's "over the line." He's apparently arguing that when he and Mearsheimer advocate in their book that the United States should have a less close relationship with Israel and that the U.S. should use its leverage to force an Israeli-Palestinian settlement -- a perfectly legitimate position -- that he's advocating in the best interests of the United States. But when other Americans advocate that it's in the best interests of the United States that Iran not have nuclear weapons, that's advocating not for the best interests of the United States but only on behalf of a foreign country? (Walt apparently forgot about all those Arab countries that are scared to death about Iran getting nukes, just to begin...)

Even more ridiculous is Walt's bizarre conspiracy-minded musings about the participation of unnamed "congressional legislative assistants" in the Jan. 17 conference -- he states that they are "supposed to be public servants; we understand that they will be the objects of a lobbying groups efforts but here they seem to be actively helping one."

This is baffling -- he's accusing congressional aides of engaging in .... politics! Imagine that! Having the staff of members of Congress speak to a group which supports their position on the Iran issue is no different than what happens every day in Washington -- members of Congress speaking to groups which agree with them on a particular issue and encouraging them to speak out and work to make their positions the position of the government. (Considering Walt has a Ph.D in political science and teaches at the Kennedy School of Government, it's pretty odd he doesn't know this.)

Let's take J Street, a group Walt likes -- although they don't like him much. They had a conference in October which culminated in the group lobbying on Capitol Hill. And guess what? They had five members of Congress speak at a conference plenary session, telling them how much they appreciated their efforts and telling them how important their work was. Wow, pretty controversial.

Oh, and then there was that rally for universal health care I went to last summer. You're not going to believe this, Professor Walt, but actual "public servants," otherwise known as staffers at the White House, were there and spoke to the crowd. They told them how important their help was to get health reform passed. "Over the line"? Um, no, just how things work in Washington.

So what's the difference between this and congressional staffers speaking to like-minded Americans about how best they can influence the debate on Iran? Pretty much nothing. I thought members of Congress were supposed to try to do all they can to convince their colleagues to vote their way. One of those things is educating voters on how best to get their message across to their own congresspeople. I thought this was how politics works. Why does Steven Walt only think it is nefarious when American Jews do it?

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