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.
In July 2010, Beck defended himself against critics who charged he held “the Jews” responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. Beck stressed to his radio audience that crucifixion was a path Jesus chose for himself, adding, “Well, technically the Romans, yes, carried out the will of the Sanhedrin. The Jews wanted him executed. Now, does that make me all of a sudden anti-Jewish? No! There is no one more pro-Israel and more pro-Jew than I am.”
When several Jewish leaders called Beck an anti-Semite for his depiction of Soros, the ZOA issued a lengthy press release defending him. It was Beck’s “powerful and sincere” love for Israel, Klein told the Forward, that merited him winning the ZOA’s inaugural Dr. Miriam & Sheldon Adelson Defender of Israel Award.
“I invited him to receive the award, and tears came to his eyes,” said Klein, who was making his way toward Beck for a photo in the corner of the Hyatt’s VIP lounge just before the gala was set to begin. “That’s how it happened.”
Soon after the VIP session, Beck was ushered into the main banquet hall for the first course of dinner: a slice of grilled salmon on a bed of greens. Two of Beck’s bodyguards hovered near the place settings for Beck and his wife, Tania, at a table in the center of the room. “It is good to have Mormons who like Israel,” said one attendee who was watching the proceedings. (Beck converted to Mormonism in 1999.)
In another three hours, Beck would take to the dais at the front of the room. In the meantime, Alan Mazurek, president of the Long Island chapter of the ZOA, called the gala to order, asking Ros-Lehtinen to come forward. “The ZOA is one of the few national organizations not afraid to have the word ‘Zionist,’ in its name,” Mazurek said by way of introduction. “Make no mistake about it — anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”
Ros-Lehtinen, another award winner, was the first big name of the evening, and she began her speech by pointing out two women in the audience from the settlement of Kedumim, not far from the Palestinian city of Nablus in the West Bank. “You are wondering, what is the true impediment to peace?” Ros-Lehtinen asked as she gestured toward the women. “You know the Palestinians would be negotiating for peace with Israel” were it not for them, she said facetiously. The room quieted. Seeming to gather that the audience didn’t quite get the joke, she added, that the women are “not an impediment, but a solution.”
Moving into more familiar territory, Ros-Lehtinen described the Iranian nuclear threat against Israel and her campaign against the Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations. After withholding and then eventually releasing U.S. funds to the Palestinian Authority in her role as the chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Ros-Lehtinen introduced in September the United Nations Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act to cut funding to U.N. organizations that recognize Palestinian statehood.
“The U.N. cannot be nudged to reform,” she said. “There must be consequences to inaction.”
Another two award winners later, Bachmann took the stage, lightly chiding Klein for neglecting to mention that she was running for the Republican nomination for president when he introduced her moments earlier. Like Ros-Lehtinen before her, Bachmann focused on the Iranian threat, comparing the Iranian president to Hitler.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bachmann said — adding an extra syllable to his last name — is “another madman… Millions of Jews are at the precipice of losing their lives today.”
With the proceedings now breaking for the main course, several ZOA attendees made a beeline for Beck, who was sitting between Adelson and his wife, Tania. “The ZOA is now like the Academy Awards!” one onlooker exclaimed. “All these celebrities!” Beck stood for an on-camera interview. “What about Jerusalem?” a reporter asked, adding, “People want to cut it up and give away pieces of it.”
Beck responded: “It is the eternal capital of Israel. It is His capital. Period.”
At a table nearby, a small pile of papers depicting the map of Israel began to smolder, someone having placed the papers perilously close to a votive candle. Another attendee smothered the burning papers with a bread roll.
Just before Beck sat back down for dinner, the Forward squeezed in a question of its own: “Why do you think you are getting this award?” Beck looked pensive.
“Quite honestly, it is a little sad that I would get this award,” he replied. “It shows how alone the Jewish people and Israel are. All I’m doing is speaking the truth. Why is that worthy of an award?”
Contact Naomi Zeveloff at firstname.lastname@example.org