An unnerving bunch, these Jewish public moralizers. Just when you think you’ve got their propaganda down pat, along comes a shift in U.S. power and they turn the whole game upside down.
Remember when it was bad form to analogize Israel’s army of occupation to the Nazis? Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (who has accused more people of anti-Semitism than I could conveniently list in this space) professed to be shocked by Roger Waters’ stricture against performing in occupied Palestine as the equivalent of “play[ing] for the Vichy government in occupied France.”
For “likening Jews to Nazi collaborators,” wrote an outraged Boteach, Waters was a “stench” who deserved – and got – a finger-wagging lecture from the rabbi: “[Y]ou have no decency, you have no heart, you have no soul.”
Well, that was then. Today it’s David Friedman, Donald Trump’s pick for US ambassador to Israel, who publicly accuses the liberal-Zionist Jews of J Street of being even worse “than kapos – Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps.” But these days, “likening Jews to Nazi collaborators” isn’t the unforgivable sin it used to be – at least, not according to Rabbi Boteach, who insists that although his “language was inappropriate,” Friedman is a “fine man,” whose smear was “consistent with the views of most Jews and Israelis.”
Maybe you think the cheesy Boteach too easy a target? But he isn’t the only one playing the game. Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s executive director for public policy, has had nothing but praise for Friedman, telling JTA that the ambassador-to-be accurately represents the opinions of those Jews (a majority in the Orthodox community, according to Diament) who voted for Trump. Right-wing publicist Ira Stoll went even farther in the Orthodox Algemeiner, fuming that the New York Times revealed a “bias” against “pro-Israel Jews” just by reporting Friedman’s “worse than kapos” slander. (Stoll also gave a plug to the repressive dictatorship of Azerbaijan – of all things – presumably because, as the Times reports, its government “buys advanced weapons systems from Israel in return for oil.”)
Now, you don’t have to be a genius to pick up the pattern behind all this backtracking. Just as Donald Trump’s swaggering anti-Muslim bigotry overshadowed his moral failings in the eyes of an Islamophobic Orthodox rabbinate, David Friedman’s over-the-top advocacy for Israel’s illegal occupation has forced Jewish pundits to rethink their distaste for comparisons between Jews and Nazis – as long as the comparisons are drawn in the name of the Jewish state.
Just in case anyone still missed the point, the Orthodox Jewish Press gushed that Friedman has already outlined a “plan” for the Mideast according to which, in his own words, “[r]adicalized Palestinian terrorists need to be rooted out and eliminated” so that “the remainder – perhaps the majority – of Palestinians” can “benefit” from Israel’s absorption of the entire West Bank. Take a moment to reflect on the meaning of those words – the “terrorists” who must be “eliminated” make up, “perhaps,” less than half the total Palestinian population – and you’ll realize that this prospective diplomat may actually be on record encouraging genocide, to say nothing of his utter contempt for international law. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is precisely why the God-loving folks at the Jewish Press don’t mind if Friedman also violates the old taboo about “likening Jews to Nazi collaborators.”
But what about simple, old-fashioned anti-Semitism? Surely the Jewish moralists still disapprove of that?
Well, not any more – not if it comes from Trump & Co. Less than 10 months have passed since Bethany Mandel, an outspoken Jewish conservative, complained that she encountered “such terrifying and profound anti-Semitism” from Trump supporters after tweeting a few critical comments about the candidate “that I bought a gun earlier this month.” Mandel noted that “Breitbart News, now little more than a platform for Trump boosters,” was a favorite locus for anti-Semitic harassment.
The Daily Beast agreed with Mandel, detailing how Breitbart – and its executive chairman, Steve Bannon – had “unleashe[d] hate mobs” at its critics during the presidential campaign. The Beast quoted Jewish neo-conservative John Podhoretz, who described tangling with “literally neo-Nazi White supremacists” after criticizing Trump and Breitbart. “[T]here is some overlap here [with Breitbart and Trump],” Podhoretz said. “I don’t think I can attribute being a supporter of Trump to being a validator or an expresser of these opinions…but something was let loose by him.”
So what happened when Steve Bannon himself – the executive at the center of all this anti-Semitic baiting – was named as one of President-elect Trump’s closest advisers?
By now, you know the answer: even anti-Semitism is kosher if it bears the Trump label.
Predictably, Rabbi Boteach was among the first buyers of the new brand, posting pictures of himself alongside the alt-right Svengali and adding, “Steve Bannon has shown great support for Israel & this administration promises to be very strong for the Jewish state.” Mind you, this was the same Boteach who publicly chided an old friend, Senator Cory Booker, when the latter supported President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran; evidently Boteach goes into forgive-and-forget mode only when Israeli expansionism stands to benefit.
Lori Lowenthal Marcus’ defense of Bannon in the Jewish Press was, if anything, more shameful, not only because she blamed the victims of Jew-baiting for their own “negative energy” but because she dismissed explicit testimony about Bannon’s dislike of Jews as “claims made by an ex-wife during divorce proceedings.” Holocaust deniers have been known to complain of vindictive anti-Semitism charges, and the unreliability of the “spurned woman” is a favorite truism of misogynists; but to find a female Jewish journalist embracing both stereotypes, just to promote someone with Bannon’s unsavory record, is pretty breathtaking. Oh, yes – Marcus did note that “Bannon denies the charge.” I guess that ought to settle the matter.
Even the liberal columnist J.J. Goldberg couldn’t bring himself to call the ethos around Trump by its right name – a vortex of bigotry and fear politics in which Jew-hatred is already playing its inevitable part. Calling the case against Bannon “almost comically flimsy,” Goldberg disposed of it with his own almost comically flimsy rationalization: what mainly motivates the alt-right, he wrote, “is not prejudice but actual policy opposition to the social agenda of the Jewish advocacy community” on such things as “pluralism, minority rights, church-state separation and international engagement.” Well, that may be so, like Goldberg’s helpful reminder that “Muslim/leftist Israel bashing” is also “sometimes” driven by “sharp disagreement…with Israeli policies and action.” But how does that explain away the storm of abuse in which, under Bannon’s leadership, Trump critics were called things like “slimy Jewess” and “fit for the oven”? Unless that sort of hate speech is a fringe phenomenon in the alt-right – and it isn’t – there’s simply no comparing it with condemnation of a country’s violent abuses, however emotionally rendered.
Goldberg’s equivocation is not only unfair to critics of Israel; it blinks the very real ugliness of the alt-right bigotry channeled by Bannon. Breitbart News itself has helpfully explained the difference between the alt-right and neo-Nazi skinheads: “Skinheads, by and large, are low-information, low-IQ thugs driven by the thrill of violence and tribal hatred. The alternative right are a much smarter group of people.” Got that? Bannon’s crowd is different from skinheads because they’re smarter than skinheads.
And here’s Ben Shapiro explaining why Bannon’s influence at Breitbart News was one of the reasons he left: “[The late] Andrew Breitbart despised racism. Truly despised it…. He insisted that racial stories be treated with special care to avoid even the whiff of racism. [But] with Bannon embracing Trump, all that changed. Now Breitbart has become the alt-right go-to website…pushing white ethno-nationalism as a legitimate response to political correctness, and the comment section turning into a cesspool for white supremacist mememakers.”
After testimony like that, what are Jewish liberals waiting for before they take on the Trump gang? A new Un-American Activities inquisition?
Myself, I don’t think the problem is a shortage of information or a lack of intelligence. I don’t even see it as a failure of political will.
No, I’m afraid the problem is at once simpler and deeper. For too long, Jewish leadership has thought of itself less as the guardian of a high moral tradition than as the protector of a tribe, whose interests – whether in terms of political influence in the US or of military power in Israel – come before every other consideration. Trump’s thuggish ethnocentrism naturally appeals to the thuggish Rabbi Boteach, and to a rabbinate that sold out its moral capital to Jewish-Israeli power politics a long time ago. Meanwhile, on the liberal side, mainstream Jewish moralists like Goldberg have always been careful to exempt Israel from the imperatives of their own progressivism. If they didn’t, they couldn’t bask in the reflected glory of Jewish power.
So, in the end, the Trumps, Bannons, Boteachs and Goldbergs of the world all meet in one place: a place where might makes right, where Realpolitik covers bigotry, where massive violence and apartheid can call themselves diplomacy, and where telling the truth about all this is the one thing that can never happen.
Of course, there are Jews – and others – who have broken free of those bonds and are calling Trump and his crowd what they deserve to be called. But unless the Jewish mainstream, and especially its leadership, lends its collective voice to the criticism and stands up wholeheartedly against the dark cloud descending on Washington, it risks plunging the American Jewish community into moral irrelevance. Heaven help us all if religious leadership chooses that route.