Midtown Manhattan was bustling with weekend traffic, pretzel vendors and tourists jamming the sidewalks, people from a panoply of ethnic groups and races jostling for space. But from the vantage point of the Hyatt Grand Hotel on 42nd Street, it was Germany in 1939. On the second floor of the hotel, former Fox news commentator Glenn Beck stood in front of a crowd of about 800 Jews and warned them of impending doom.
“It was said earlier tonight, a madman spoke in the 1930s and the world did not listen,” he said. “It is worse today, because madmen speak and the world hears, and it is aiding and abetting.”
Beck was the keynote speaker at the November 20 annual gala of the venerable Zionist Organization of America, a pro-Israel organization that is as hawkish as it is old. Wearing a teal-colored dress shirt, a bowtie and a pair of tortoiseshell glasses, Beck’s professorial appearance belied his preacher’s message: These are apocalyptic, anti-Zionist, Jew-hating times.
In Beck’s eyes, a force conspiring to “destroy Israel and the Western way of life” has wormed its way into the United States on the back of the global social protests, which spread from Tunisia to Egypt, to Europe and finally to New York in the form of Occupy Wall Street, whose members Beck compared to Nazi “brown shirts.” “We must not ignore it,” he said. “It is personal.”
“Someone asked me, ‘Why do you do this? Why is this so personal to you?’ I could give you 100 reasons,” Beck said. “The gift that I have received of standing with Israel, it has profoundly changed my life. It has fundamentally changed me as a person. It is a profound, profound gift.”
Beck’s “gift” was one shared by the 800 attendees, most of whom paid $550 a head to listen to Beck and several other luminaries — Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen; presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, and casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson — talk about what sets them apart on Israel.
With the exception of about 100 college students, the audience was mostly made up of middle-aged and elderly American Jews. Among the politicians present, there was nary a high-profile Democrat in sight. Senator Chuck Schumer, announced in pre-event publicity, was a no-show, and Anthony Weiner, the disgraced former congressman — usually a stalwart presence at the ZOA’s annual gala — had ceded his spot at the table to Republican Bob Turner, who now occupies his seat in New York’s Congressional District 9.
Though there was a hint of friendly Zionist one-upmanship between Adelson and ZOA President Morton Klein, what bonded these two and the rest of the people in the room together was the sense that they understood something that the rest of the American Jewish establishment does not. “As much as we all want peace with the Arabs, Israel can survive and thrive without peace with the Arabs,” Klein said. “We have since 1948.” Still, Klein warned, Israel is facing a litany of threats: campus anti-Semitism, the Iranian nuclear program, President Obama and Jewish philanthropist George Soros.
Soros, in fact, was the reason that Beck had been invited in the first place. Last year, Beck devoted two sessions of his Fox program to Soros — an early funder of dissident democratic movements in communist Eastern Europe, a funder of liberal American advocacy groups and political candidates and a significant contributor to dovish groups critical of Israeli policy, such as J Street. In the programs, Beck described Soros as a “puppet master” who had collapsed governments worldwide through his international financial machinations and as a teen-age collaborator with the Nazis in Hungary during World War II. The Anti-Defamation League and Commentary Magazine were among those who condemned Beck for the charges.
On another program, Beck highlighted individuals whom he described as the 20th century’s prime contributors to the “era of the Big Lie.” Of the nine Beck listed, eight — including Soros, Sigmund Freud, public relations icon Edward Bernays and former Pennsylvania governor Edward Rendell — were Jews.