At a Virginia town meeting on health care reform, a rabbi giving an opening prayer was shouted down by protesters claiming Democratic proposals would lead to euthanasia and more abortions.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass) became an instant YouTube hit by asking an angry town hall participant who waved a picture of President Barack Obama as Adolf Hitler, “On what planet do you spend most of your time?”
And in numerous town meetings placards have appeared with slogan like this: “Obama lies, Granny dies.”
Obama’s faltering health care drive has touched a national raw nerve. The resulting fury, exploited by a range of extremist groups and some partisans who have said they hope health care reform will be Obama’s “Waterloo,” has Jewish leaders deeply concerned.
“In a way it’s a perfect storm,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “The economic crisis, last year’s tensions on the immigration issue and, some would say, the election of Barack Obama are all festering in extremist circles, looking for an outlet.”
The apparent outlet is a health care reform backlash that has dominated this summer’s headlines. The resulting furor has greatly dimmed the Democrats’ chances of enacting meaningful reform his year. And it has also set off alarm bells in Jewish boardrooms.
“It’s the same kind of unfocused rage we saw a few years ago on the issue of illegal immigration,” said a leading Jewish community relations activist who asked that his name not be used. “In polls, people say they know there’s something wrong with the health care system. But flash the words ‘euthanasia’ and ‘Nazi’ and ‘socialism’ in front of them, and it taps all this built-up anger and the hunt for scapegoats.”
While favoring changes in a flawed health care system, most Jewish groups — even those most directly involved in this summer’s fierce congressional battle over Democratic proposals backed by the Obama administration — have steered clear of endorsing specific legislation.
Instead, groups such as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) and the United Jewish Communities, wary of getting caught in the partisan crossfire and representing constituencies that are far from unified on the best solution to the nation’s health care woes, are supporting specific aspects of the congressional proposals. Both have endorsed some kind of “public option” for providing health care coverage for those who can’t afford or get access to private or employer provided insurance, strengthening Medicaid and reducing inequities in access to quality health care.
Even among some of the Jewish groups involved, there has been a quiet retreat from conspicuous activism, the result of a backlash from more conservative major donors opposed to the Democratic proposals and fears about the intensity of the debate, as demonstrated in town meetings across the country.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has been the most active Jewish group in the fight. The National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) has created a Rabbis for Health Insurance Reform Website. The Democratic group has made the issue a top priority in recent weeks.
Other Jewish groups, while not weighing in on reform proposals, are beginning to focus more narrowly on the explosive backlash and the potentially dangerous forces the raging health care debate has unleashed.
“We are extraordinarily concerned,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Rabbi Cooper’s group has been most troubled about the extensive use of Holocaust allusions in this summer’s health care fights, including the anonymous e-mails circulating in the Jewish community suggesting White House health care staffers share the views of the infamous Dr. Joseph Mengele and talk show host Rush Limbaugh’s claim that the logo for the administration health reform effort is “damn close to the Nazi swastika logo.”
Rabbi Cooper worries that “if every debate about important national issues starts out with the ‘N word’ [for Nazi], the tragic legacy of the Nazi Holocaust is going to be lost. And it’s not just for the Jewish people; we’re still grappling with issues of genocide around the globe; the expropriation of this imagery makes it harder to address it appropriately.”
But he also said the “conspiracy-oriented extremism” driving much of the debate this summer is a here-and-now danger to all minorities.
Some are “using the health care debate as wallpaper for their extremist ideology,” he said. “The deeper concern is that, perhaps because of the instantaneous media world in which live, their extremism seems to be sticking.”
According to the ADL’s Foxman, traditional extremist groups have latched onto the fury surrounding the health care debate, fanning it and trying to use it to recruit to their cause.
“The Holocaust imagery and comparisons of President Obama to Hitler that have become ubiquitous at the town hall protests in the public debate over health care reform, have been strongly promoted and fueled by Lyndon LaRouche and his network of supporters,” the ADL said in a statement last month. The group also blasted Limbaugh’s Nazi analogies.
The LaRouche network has “produced signs, banners, pamphlets and other items that employ Nazi imagery and introduced them at many public forums around the country,” according to the ADL report. “Such Nazi imagery has appeared at many public forums, including at the August 17 event held by Congressman Barney Frank, where a member of the LaRouche Youth Movement held up for the cameras a picture of Obama with a Hitler mustache at a town meeting.”
The ADL called LaRouche a “longtime anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist and perennial presidential candidate” who has a history of “linking the AIDS crisis, the drug epidemic and international financial crises to prominent Jews and Jewish organizations.”
“There’s nothing new about the LaRouche organization using Hitler imagery with their conspiracy theories,” Foxman said. “They are being opportunistic in using this issue to flog their issue and get attention.”
What worries Jewish leaders: that kind of extremist language may gain unwarranted legitimacy from the statements by mainstream politicians such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin who claimed that Democratic plans mandate “death panels” and euthanasia.
Some Jewish leaders say the extremism is coming from both ends of the political spectrum.
“It’s true the issue has been hijacked, but I see extremism and incivility on both sides,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, the JCPA president. “When people begin to speak in a language that’s full of anger and outrage, the debate stops being about what’s best for the country. There aren’t enough people standing up and saying ‘no.’”
But a leading political historian dismissed that claim.
“The Republicans may not be the fomenters in the extremism we’re seeing, but they’re riding it, the way many rode the McCarthy hysteria,” said Allan J. Lichtman a political historian at the American University in Washington.
Lichtman said the current health care furor is related to a long tradition of American populism, “an angry belief that the special interests are manipulating society against hardworking people.”
But there’s an irony this time around, he said.
“Some of what we’re seeing is being encouraged and orchestrated by the very same big interests that the protesters claim to be decrying, including the health insurance industry,” he said.
While overt anti-Semitism hasn’t emerged as a major theme in the health care reform backlash, “the Jewish community should be very concerned,” Lichtman said. “Whenever hysteria and scapegoating seem to reign, Jews need to be on their guard, even when they are not specifically targets.”