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Pernicious Attempt To Brand Protest as Anti-Semitic

Is the Jewish congressional representative from heavily Jewish Long Island, Steve Israel, “standing with those calling for the killing of Jews”? Does the Jewish representative from heavily Jewish Florida, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, “agree with various calls for Jews to be ‘run out of the country’ and to oppose and ‘destroy’ the State of Israel”?

Sean Spicer, who holds the title of communications director of the Republican National Committee, apparently thinks these are reasonable questions. Or perhaps he merely thinks that some Jews are sufficiently stupid to think that they might be. But most likely, he thinks that if he can tar the protesters at Occupy Wall Street with the taint of these anti-Semitic statements, and condemn certain Democrats as guilty by association, he can gin up contributions to the Republican Party as he simultaneously weakens Jews’ instinctive identification with the Democratic Party.

Spicer is joined in this effort by something called the Emergency Committee for Israel, a group co-founded by neoconservative William Kristol, conservative Christian agitator Gary Bauer and Rachel Abrams, wife of disgraced neoconservative politico Elliott Abrams (convicted of lying to Congress during the Reagan administration), daughter of neoconservative activist Midge Decter and stepdaughter of Decter’s husband, former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz. They have produced and distributed a video that asks, “What is happening at the Occupy Wall Street protests?” only to cut to a gentleman who is holding a “Hitler’s Bankers” sign and can be seen screaming, “Jews control Wall Street.” This is followed by a shot of a nasty kid shouting at a Jewish man, “You’re a bum, Jew,” with another protester explaining that “the small ethnic Jewish population in this country, they have a firm grip on America’s media.

Interestingly, none of the above comments pertains to any Israeli emergencies, but let’s leave that aside for the moment. Clearly, conservatives both in and outside the Republican Party believe they see an opportunity to score political points with Jews by pretending that the Occupy Wall Street protests are shot through with anti-Semitism.

This is obviously false, and one suspects that the Jews are not so thick as to fail to notice it. When neoconservative (and former managing editor of the Forward) Ira Stoll took a stroll through the march after attending Occupy Simchat Torah services across the street with a yarmulke on, he was greeted by nothing but friendly responses. I enjoyed much the same experience after my family and I attended an extremely moving Occupy Kol Nidre service. In order to try to tar OWS as his comrades had, Stoll was forced to turn completely to the conditional tense, as in, “If the Occupy Wall Street movement does turn against the Jews…” it would resemble, in his opinion, America’s civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and perhaps even the Bolshevik Revolution. (I swear I am not making this up: “In the Soviet example, there were communists with Jewish backgrounds, but they eventually turned violently on the Jews in the Soviet Union,” Stoll writes on his blog, Future of Capitalism. “Here in New York, there are Jews both among the bankers and among the protesters against the bankers….”)

That the anti-Semitism charge against OWS is errant nonsense is evidenced by the fact that not even Abraham Foxman and his organization, the Anti-Defamation League, will sign on. Evidencing again the intellectual confusion that lies at the center of this misguided effort, Commentary’s Matthew Ackerman is worried that the movement is too Jewish. Rarely, he wrote, “has a movement so radical in its aims been tied so explicitly to a religious tradition….” And I suppose this, too, will somehow provide aid and comfort to the anti-Semites.

Conservatives, whether neo or otherwise, obviously believe they have cleverly seized a political opportunity with their neo-McCarthyite tactics, tactics that served them well when they sought to smear the opposition to George W. Bush’s disastrous war in Iraq with the insistence that its opponents were somehow responsible for the views of every nutty organization that joined its protest marches. Given OWS’s purposefully inchoate organizational structure — to say nothing of the heavy participation of proud and committed Jews — this latest effort takes on some of the absurdity of a Monty Python sketch. The fact that a few anti-Semites have congregated among the protesters is no more significant than the fact that they also tend to congregate in Times Square or Grand Central Station, often operating on orders from space aliens who send them messages through the fillings in their teeth. Should Jewish Democrats condemn them, as well? You can find anti-Semitism in a lot of places: on Fox News, in National Review, at Mel Gibson’s house. And conservatives seem to get on pretty well with those folk. The question to ask about anti-Semitism is not whether it exists, but whether its existence has any significant political or cultural implications.

Regarding OWS, much less the Democratic Party, the crazies with the silly signs are easily ignorable. Despite the worries of those like Stoll, this movement is not going to turn on Jews any more than it is going to storm the Tsar’s Winter Palace. But the recklessness of these conservative agitators to agitate against an obviously nonexistent threat can only backfire. It’s not that I worry that genuine anti-Semites will be let off the hook; I don’t think anti-Semitism has any significant following in the United States or enjoys any cache whatsoever, save in certain swamps where all forms of prejudice and xenophobia — like, for instance, Michele Bachmann/Rick Perry-style “birtherism” — also thrive. Rather the problem is that these Jews give gentiles the impression that everything has to be about them. The vast majority of Americans support the goals of OWS, according to all recent polling. The problems of “the 99% ”are clearly occupying the minds of millions of Americans, even if these people chose not to occupy Wall Street or their local bank plaza. If conservatives insist that these groups should be shunned because they can pick out a few possibly anti-Semitic crazies in the group, then wouldn’t it be fair for the rest of America to conclude that these people are willing to put their own narrow political agenda ahead of the good of the entire country?

And would they be entirely wrong?

Eric Alterman is a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and at the City of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. He also writes a column for The Nation.

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