Does vocal support for Israel give public figures a pass on just about anything else they say?
Case in point: A controversy that started Jan. 20 when popular conservative radio broadcaster Rush Limbaugh made a critical comment about Wall Street bankers, apparently linking them with Jews, escalated the next day when Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman issued a press release calling on Limbaugh to apologize and asserting that the media personality “reached a new low with his borderline anti-Semitic comments about Jews as bankers, their supposed influence on Wall Street, and how they vote.”
That was just the beginning of a worrisome storm still brewing, one that touches on the angry mood of the country and the power of the media to stir up conservative-liberal bitterness. It also suggests an evolving and narrowing definition of anti-Semitism among Jews.
Two days after his initial comment, Limbaugh said his offending words were taken out of context and insisted that he is “one of the most outspoken supporters of the Jewish people and of Israel.” He quoted extensively from stinging criticisms of the Foxman statement by former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz and National Review writer Michael Ledeen, both of whom praised Limbaugh for his love of Israel and berated the longtime ADL head for being politically selective in searching out anti-Semites.
Limbaugh made the point as well, insisting that Foxman “has a long history of seeing an anti-Semite under every conservative bed” while ignoring “the left … where the anti-Israel forces exist, including this administration.”
The radio host, with an audience of 20 million people a week, declared: “I want Foxman retired and replaced by somebody who fights for Jews and our friends.”
What followed was a barrage of support for Limbaugh as a friend of Israel and the Jews, including a statement saying the criticism was “unfounded,” signed by the Zionist Organization of America, American Friends of Likud, CAMERA, Emunah of America, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, National Council of Young Israel, and the Religious Zionists of America.
In an interview this week, Foxman, who has been with the ADL for 45 years, 23 in the top post, sounded shaken and angered by the volume and tone of the attacks on him, with many calling for his resignation.
No stranger to controversy over his remarks in recent years, most notably about actor-director Mel Gibson or former President Jimmy Carter, Foxman said, “I’ve never had a reaction like this.”
He claimed that “the right-wing Jewish community didn’t organize against the Goldstone Report [to the United Nations on Israel’s military actions in Gaza] as much as they did on this [his criticism of Limbaugh]. Even if you assume I exaggerated on Rush Limbaugh — even if I was wrong — do I deserve this?”
He said the anger against him reflects a new level of intolerance among some Jews. “It started with Carter,” he said, complaining that his attempt at nuance in dealing with the former president’s strong criticism of Israel — refusing to call him an anti-Semite and welcoming Carter’s recent “apology” for past statements — was seen as insufficiently tough, even though he referred to Carter’s past views on Israel as “wrong and destructive.”
Says Foxman of his critics on the right in the Jewish community: “They don’t like our independence. If you’re not doctrinaire, they try to destroy you. They don’t go after anti-Semites as much as they go against us.”
(It’s hard to say who “our” and “us” refer to here; Foxman is synonymous with the ADL to the extent that it is difficult, if not impossible — even for him, apparently — to distinguish between himself and the organization he heads.)
A passionate and powerful leader whose greatest strength and weakness may be his direct, outspoken personality, Foxman is upset that the definition of anti-Semitism is becoming blurred, with some Jewish critics on the right insisting that anyone who questions the policies of the Israeli government is an anti-Semite.
And on the other hand, “these people say, ‘If you love Israel, you’re guiltless’ ” when it comes to other questionable statements and positions, Foxman points out.
Which brings us back to Limbaugh, whose consistent and vocal support for Israel is well documented, but whose positions on domestic social and cultural issues are problematic to many Jews.
While Foxman insists he is an equal-opportunity critic, castigating people and groups on the left and right at times, depending on their statements and actions rather than their political viewpoints, clearly he touched a raw nerve among conservative Jews when he went after Limbaugh.
Zev Chafets, a former spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, has just spent two years researching and writing a book about Limbaugh. “I would be astonished,” he said, if the talk show host has ever made an anti-Israel or anti-Semitic statement.
Chafets, a veteran journalist and author who has championed the controversial Jewish-Evangelical Christian alliance, said Limbaugh is “one of the great strengths Israel and the Jewish people have in American public opinion,” and that it was a mistake to criticize him on that score.
He added that the Jewish community is fortunate that the leading voice of conservatives in this country is pro-Jewish, noting that “a right-wing voice with his [Limbaugh’s] power could cite the fact that the large majority of American Jews vote liberal, make the case that Hollywood is subverting American morals, etc., and could turn the American right against Israel.
“Just think if someone like Pat Buchanan was that voice — it could have been disastrous.”
This round in the Foxman-Limbaugh contest will die down as soon as the next big controversy captures our attention, but the lingering and larger issues remain — namely, the hate-mongering among hard-line liberals and conservatives, each convinced the opposition is evil; the ability of media hosts to stir up existing bad feelings and promote dark conspiracy theories rather than tamp down the nation’s anger; and the devaluation of the term “anti-Semitism” within the Jewish community itself.
An anti-Semite is someone who hates Jews. All too often in today’s world, anti-Semitic feelings are channeled against the state of Israel. But that does not mean that every critic of any Israeli policy is a Jew-hater.
There was a time when the American Jewish community saw its primary role as broadening support for Israel. Today, though, it seems like some among us spend more time trying to make our community ideologically pure, weeding out those who do not share our own specific views on Israel — in effect, narrowing rather than widening support.
That is a recipe for disaster, no matter which Israel you call your own.
And follow the Jewish Week on Twitter: start here.