The commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, held at the former Nazi death camp in Poland on January 27, featured speakers warning about a new rise in antisemitism. “From broken windows to death camps was the blink of an eye,” said Moshe Kantor of the European Jewish Congress (New York Times, 1/27/05), referring to the brief time between the 1938 “Kristallnacht” attacks on Jewish neighborhoods and the hatching of the “final solution” in 1942.
The warnings from Auschwitz come at a time when police records and public opinion surveys show increasing antisemitism and anti-Jewish sentiment in many places around the globe. The story of resurgent antisemitism hasn’t been lost on the press.
For instance, the Associated Press reported (3/24/05) that Hitler’s autobiography is a bestseller in Turkey, and a Washington Post column (1/30/05) cited a poll showing two-thirds of Italians agree with the statement that “Jews secretly control financial and economic power as well as the media.” The New York Times (3/22/05) reported on a new study showing antisemitic crimes in France outpacing hate crimes targeting other groups.
So it’s puzzling that anti-Jewish outbursts by prominent U.S. commentators get so little attention from U.S. journalists—even when they occur on national television. But that’s what happened just weeks before the Auschwitz anniversary.
Shortly before Christmas last year, syndicated radio star and MSNBC host Don Imus called the book publishers Simon & Schuster “thieving Jews” (Imus in the Morning, 12/15/04), returning to the subject later in the program to offer a mock apology, saying that the phrase he used was “redundant.”
Antisemitism is nothing new on Imus’ show, which is notorious for its ethnic and sexual slurs. In 1998, for instance, Imus called Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz “that boner-nosed . . . beanie-wearing little Jew boy” (Newsday, 10/19/98).
When Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman complained about Imus’ Simon & Schuster slur, describing it in a letter (12/20/04) as “an age-old anti-Semitic canard that still, unfortunately, has great currency today,” Imus was defiant. “I wrote a two-word response across the face of [the letter],” Imus told listeners (1/4/05), “and sent it back to them.” Besides a handful of mentions in tabloid newspapers (New York Post, 1/5/05; Boston Herald, 1/7/05) and a short UPI report (1/5/05), the Imus affair received next to no coverage.
Rank bigotry isn’t exactly a surprise at MSNBC, the long-term employer of Pat Buchanan (Extra!, 11-12/90) and short-term home of syndicated radio host Michael Savage, who was fired from the cable news channel following a particularly virulent anti-gay tirade. Savage is a full-time bigot regularly targeting immigrants, women, gays and ethnic minorities, including Jews (Extra!, 3-4/03, 7-8/03)—despite (or perhaps because of) his own Jewish background.
Not long after leaving MSNBC, Savage, who still retains his widely syndicated radio show, became enraged at Richard Cohen, a Southern Poverty Law Center attorney who filed suit to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments from an Alabama courthouse. Savage’s attack on Cohen (11/13/04) reads like a passage from neo-Nazi literature:
Besides a mention in the Southern Poverty Law Center magazine Intelligence Report (Spring/04), there was virtually no coverage of Savage’s nationally broadcast anti-Semitic outburst.
The Jews who stole Christmas
Imus’ pre-Christmas rant occurred at a time when many conservative organizations and individuals seemed intent on erecting an anti-Christian bogeyman out of leftist and secular Grinches who they claimed were trying to do away with Christmas (Washington Post, 12/24/04). There was little substance to their charges beyond a department store chain changing its seasonal greeting from “Merry Christmas” to a more inclusive “Happy Holidays,” or that some group or other was challenging the display of a créche on public property. That didn’t prevent Fox’s Bill O’Reilly (O’Reilly Factor, 12/9/04) from claiming: “If they could, secularists would cancel Christmas as a holiday. That’s how much they fear the exposition of the philosophy of Jesus.”
Salon’s Eric Boehlert (12/16/04) explained the aggressive mobilization in defense of Christmas as post-election muscle-flexing:
Indeed, O’Reilly was one of the leading voices in the campaign, regularly featuring “Christmas Under Siege” segments on his O’Reilly Factor show. “Well, the giant has awakened,” declared O’Reilly, introducing one segment (12/20/04) targeting “media forces of darkness” who’d dared to criticize the defenders of Christmas. “Millions of Americans are now aware that the traditions of Christmas are under fire by committed secularists, people who do not want any public demonstration of spirituality.” In his usual self-dramatizing fashion, O’Reilly made the story about him: “The Factor has been exposing these anti-Christmas people and they are under heavy fire. So this weekend, some in the media stepped up to attack me.”
In fact, a handful of columnists had generally criticized the conservative campaign in defense of Christmas and its trumped-up evidence, but the columnists had singled out O’Reilly more pointedly for anti-Jewish remarks he’d made during the course of talking about the campaign.
O’Reilly had admonished a Jewish caller to his syndicated radio show (Radio Factor, 12/3/04) who complained about “Christmas going into the schools,” explaining that he’d grown up “with a resentment because I felt that people were trying to convert me to Christianity.” Declaring the U.S. “a predominantly Christian nation,” O’Reilly told the caller his views were “an affront to the majority” and told him where to go: “You have a federal holiday based on the philosopher Jesus. And you don’t wanna hear about it? Come on, if you are really offended, you gotta go to Israel, then.”
When O’Reilly’s “go to Israel” advice was criticized by the ADL’s Foxman in a letter denouncing O’Reilly’s remarks as “one of the oldest anti-Semitic canards about Jews, that they are not full citizens of a country,” the host dismissed Foxman as “a nut” and declared the ADL “an extremist group” (Media Matters, 12/9/04).
It wasn’t the first time O’Reilly had played on Jewish stereotypes. Earlier in 2004, when he was running interference for Mel Gibson’s Jew-baiting film The Passion of the Christ, O’Reilly asked one of his O’Reilly Factor guests (2/26/04) about the motivations of critics of the film: “Is it because that the major media in Hollywood and a lot of the secular press is controlled by Jewish people?”
Remarks like these drew the attention of a few columnists. As Frank Rich of the New York Times pointed out (12/19/04), in one ominous discussion of the anti-Christmas crowd on his radio show (12/9/04), O’Reilly made what sounded like a threat against non-Christian households: “Remember, more than 90 percent of American homes celebrate Christmas. But the small minority that is trying to impose its will on the majority is so vicious, so dishonest—and has to be dealt with.”
Though O’Reilly’s antics had all the sensational elements of a big story—the hottest name in cable news spouting bigotry and being confronted for it—besides Rich’s column and a handful of others (e.g., New York Daily News, 12/9/04; Denver Post, 12/19/04), O’Reilly largely avoided mainstream media coverage.
Hollywood = secular Jews
One holiday episode of nationally televised Jew-bashing did get some mention in the media (New York Times, 12/19/04; L.A. Times, 12/21/04). It happened on MSNBC’s Scarborough Country (12/8/04) during a discussion about Hollywood and the possibility of a “red state revolt” if Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 was nominated for Best Picture Oscar, and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was passed over. (In the end, neither was nominated.) The panel included four conservative guests, “moderated” by substitute host Pat Buchanan. All agreed that Hollywood was leftist, secular and anti-American.
Perhaps inspired by the general Hollywood bashing, panelist and Catholic League president Bill Donohue took it a giant step further: “Who really cares what Hollywood thinks? Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. . . . That’s why they hate this movie. It’s about Jesus Christ, and it’s about truth. It’s about the messiah.” Donohue continued: “Hollywood likes anal sex. They like to see the public square without nativity scenes. I like families. I like children. They like abortions. I believe in traditional values and restraint.”
How did the panel react? Expecting Buchanan to challenge antisemitism is a little like expecting Fox News to denounce conservative bias and, true to form, Buchanan didn’t raise an eyebrow. But panelist Rabbi Shmuley Boteach did speak up. While professing admiration for his fellow conservative, and agreeing with him about the pernicious influence of Hollywood, Boteach nevertheless confronted Donohue’s Jew-bashing: “That is a bunch of crap. Stop the antisemitic garbage.” Donohue was defiant, snapping back, “Who’s making the movies? The Irishmen?”
It’s not the Jews, it’s the Jews
Right-wing media watcher Brent Bozell thinks he knows who is making our godless television shows. Bozell, who presides over the Media Research Center (MRC) and the Parents Television Council (PTC), held a news conference call with reporters shortly before Christmas 2004 to discuss a new PTC study of television shows jointly undertaken with the right-wing National Religious Broadcasters. As Los Angeles Times media columnist Tim Rutten reported (12/18/04), the study found Hollywood television shows have “virtually no respect for religion.” Rutten quoted Bozell attempting to explain the findings:
Rutten spelled out what seems to be the message: “In other words, Bozell doesn’t want to say it too clearly, but the Jews control Hollywood.”
In reality, of course, Hollywood is controlled by the same giant conglomerates that control most news outlets (Extra!, 9-10/96)—the news outlets that tend to ignore antisemitism when it comes from powerful conservative broadcasters and political figures.
The vehemence of these nationally televised anti-Jewish outbursts, voiced by self-proclaimed defenders of Christianity and Christmas, suggests that an aggressive form of religious nationalism has emerged since last November’s elections. As the Times’ Rutten put it: “George Bush wasn’t the only guy who walked away from the last election believing he had a mandate.”
No one should be surprised when this nationalism, like all nationalisms, seeks scapegoats.
Confusing Israel Criticism and Antisemitism
While some examples of increasing antisemitism go little noted, considerable attention has been paid to dubious accusations that seem to equate criticism of Israel with antisemitism.
Before Harvard President Lawrence Summers drew fire for suggesting that women were inherently inferior at math and science, he stirred things up by proclaiming that a new form of antisemitism was menacing academia (New York Times, 9/21/02). “Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent,” said Summers, referring to a campaign to have Harvard disinvest in Israel to protest the occupation of Palestinian lands.
Publisher Mortimer Zuckerman (U.S. News & World Report, 11/3/03), author Phyllis Chesler (The New Antisemitism) and law professor Alan Dershowitz (The Case for Israel) have also argued for this expanded definition of antisemitism. “The harsh but undeniable truth is this: What some like to call anti-Zionism is, in reality, antisemitism—always, everywhere, and for all time,” wrote ADL director Abe Foxman in his 2002 book Never Again?. “Therefore, anti-Zionism is not a politically legitimate point of view but rather an expression of bigotry and hatred.”
The idea that being opposed to Zionism—the movement for a Jewish state—is inherently anti-Jewish is a dubious one. From its inception in the 1890s, many leading Jewish thinkers have opposed Zionism on the modernist grounds that secular states are preferable to religious ones, integration is preferable to separatism, and displacing one people to create a homeland for another is unjust (Nation, 2/2/04). Many if not most critics of Israel, however, are not opposed to Zionism as such, but have specific criticisms of the actions of the Israeli government.
Veteran Mideast correspondent Robert Fisk (Independent, 10/21/02) sees the delegitimization of such critics as a form of censorship: “The all-purpose slander of ‘antisemitism’ is now used with ever-increasing promiscuity against anyone—people who condemn the wickedness of Palestinian suicide bombings every bit as much as they do the cruelty of Israel’s repeated killing of children—in an attempt to shut them up.”
It is certainly true that some critics of Israel seem to be motivated by antisemitism; Pat Buchanan, for example, shows a concern for Palestinians that he rarely if ever displays for other oppressed Third World peoples. But other Jew-bashers are given a free pass because of the false equation of antisemitism with opposition to Israel.
For example, when then-Rep. Bob Dornan (R-Calif.), a strong supporter of Israel, called Soviet journalist Vladimir Posner a “disloyal, betraying little Jew” in 1986, pro-Israel congressmember Steven Solarz (D.-N.Y.) rushed to his defense, saying that the ethnic slur “should not be allowed to overshadow Bob’s long history of support and involvement with Israel.”
The Anti-Defamation League also backed Dornan, with spokesperson David Brodie saying that his attack on Posner was merely “unartful, unfortunate [and] inelegant” (AP, 2/28/86). Brodie added that the group he represented was regarded as “the last word on antisemitism. As far as ADL is concerned, this case is closed.”
Another downside of expanding the definition of antisemitism was pointed out by Uri Avnery (Tikkun, 11-12/02), an Israeli Jew who is a forceful critic of his country’s government: