Smear­ing the Pres­i­dent

J.J. Gold­berg on the dan­gers of false ac­cu­sa­tion.

Forward Magazine - - News - J. J. Gold­berg Con­tact J.J. Gold­berg at gold­berg@for­ward.com

The cam­paign against Pres­i­dent Obama’s Iran nu­clear deal tends to­ward the apoc­a­lyp­tic even when it’s in re­pose. Right now it’s vir­tu­ally jump­ing the rails, plung­ing into a swamp of anti-Obama con­spir­acy the­ory, with a gag­gle of con­ser­va­tive pun­dits openly ac­cus­ing the pres­i­dent of anti-Semitism.

The charge has been a sta­ple of the ex­treme far right since Obama first be­gan his White House bid in 2007. Un­til re­cent weeks, though, it wasn’t com­mon in the main­stream. Now it’s spread­ing like a chem­i­cal spill in a coal miner’s backyard creek.

As the the­ory goes, Obama’s re­cent com­ment about money and lob­by­ists mo­bi­liz­ing to stop the deal is ac­tu­ally a veiled ref­er­ence to Jewish donors and pro-Is­rael lob­by­ists. In men­tion­ing them, he’s sup­pos­edly try­ing to si­lence his op­po­nents by threat­en­ing to un­leash the anti-Semites.

Not that cer­tain Jewish donors and a brigade of pro-Is­rael lob­by­ists aren’t mo­bi­liz­ing to stop the deal. They are, en­er­get­i­cally. It’s just that it’s rude to say so. The pres­i­dent is sup­posed to pre­tend he doesn’t no­tice.

Tech­ni­cally, the Jewish com­mu­nity is tan­gen­tial to the main act. The ac­tual show­down takes place in Septem­ber on Capi­tol Hill. The fault line will be par­ti­san, not re­li­gious. Un­til then, though, the the­atrics are heav­ily pop­u­lated by Jewish ac­tivists. Is­rael’s wel­fare is Item No. 1 in the de­bate, at least for much of the op­po­si­tion.

And lest we for­get, the field mar­shal lead­ing the anti-deal troops is Is­rael’s prime min­is­ter, Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu. His de­lib­er­ate cen­tral­ity to the drama rad­i­cally en­hances his Amer­i­can Jewish al­lies’ vis­i­bil­ity. In ef­fect, Ne­tanyahu has turned the Iran de­bate into a global bat­tle of the Jewish peo­ple against the great world pow­ers.

It’s fan­tas­ti­cally fool­hardy. For­mer Is­raeli jus­tice min­is­ter Tzipi Livni is call­ing for an ur­gent Knes­set in­quiry into Ne­tanyahu’s anti-deal cam­paign, its le­gal­ity and pos­si­ble dam­age to Is­rael-U.S. re­la­tions.

State­side, the Obama-as-anti-Semite theme seems fa­mil­iar, but it ac­tu­ally sur­faced sud­denly. It hap­pened July 22, right af­ter the pres­i­dent ap­peared on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” The pres­i­dent said that if peo­ple fa­vor­ing the deal con­tacted their rep­re­sen­ta­tives, they’d be heard. In­deed, he said, “the same is true on ev­ery sin­gle is­sue. If peo­ple are en­gaged, even­tu­ally the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem re­sponds. De­spite the money, de­spite the lob­by­ists, it still re­sponds.” A neu­tral ob­server might read this as a com­ment on Amer­ica’s cur­rent de­bate over money in pol­i­tics and cit­i­zens’ feel­ing of pow­er­less­ness in shap­ing pol­icy. But some Jewish con­ser­va­tives read it dif­fer­ently. Lee Smith, right- wing po­lit­i­cal colum­nist for the online mag­a­zine Tablet, called it a “dog-whis­tle.” He claimed Obama was “hint­ing broadly at anti-Semitic con­ceits — like dual loy­al­ties, mon­eyed in­ter­ests, Jewish lob­bies — to scare off Democrats tempted to vote against” the deal. He pre­dicted that if any Democrats did op­pose it, Obama was “go­ing to tar them as dual loy­al­ists who are will­ing to send Amer­i­cans out to make war on be­half of Jewish causes.” That’s a dra­matic pre­dic­tion, based on rather slim ev­i­dence. But it’s clas­sic Smith.

Jonathan Tobin, online editor of Com­men­tary, called the “Daily Show” com­ment a “smear.” When the pres­i­dent pre­dicts that war will re­sult from the deal’s de­feat, Tobin wrote, he’s la­bel­ing op­po­nents “war­mon­gers.” And since “money and lob­by­ists” is ob­vi­ously code for “Jews,” Obama is call­ing Jews war­mon­gers, ready to send other peo­ple’s sons to die.

Tobin fur­ther dis­missed Obama’s claim that the “only al­ter­na­tive to his ap­pease­ment of Iran would be war.” Now, you might think call­ing Obama’s ne­go­ti­a­tion “ap­pease­ment” is it­self a smear, im­plic­itly iden­ti­fy­ing Obama with Neville Cham­ber­lain, who handed Cze­choslo­vakia to Hitler in 1938. But one man’s smear is another man’s Speak­ing Truth To Power.

Two days af­ter the “Daily Show” ap­pear­ance, the hys­te­ria es­ca­lated. Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry, ad­dress­ing the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions on July 24, fret­ted that if the Is­raeliled op­po­si­tion cam­paign suc­cess­fully sinks the deal, the re­sult­ing re­gional chaos might pro­voke anger that would leave Is­rael more “iso­lated” than ever. That drew a whole new round of hys­te­ria. Kerry’s worry was some­how rein­ter­preted as a threat. Holo­caust polemi­cist Rafael Med­off, writ­ing in The Weekly Stan­dard, in­ge­niously com­bined Kerry’s “threat” with Obama’s “money and lob­by­ists” to dis­cover that Kerry was threat­en­ing Amer­i­can Jews.

As Au­gust be­gan, the op­po­nents’ rhetoric boiled over. The pres­i­dent’s Au­gust 5 speech at Amer­i­can Univer­sity, by re­assert­ing Amer­i­can com­mit­ment to Is­rael’s se­cu­rity while not­ing “tem­po­rary fric­tion with a dear friend and ally,” drove them to new heights of fury. Tablet mag­a­zine, in an un­signed ed­i­to­rial Au­gust 7, said it “can’t stom­ach” Obama’s “use of Jew-bait­ing and other bla­tant and ret­ro­grade forms of racial and eth­nic prej­u­dice” — a “sick­en­ing new de­vel­op­ment in Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal dis­course.” The ev­i­dence: the “money” and “lob­by­ing” memes from “The Daily Show,” plus some weird new twists. To wit: Obama’s ex­pressed sym­pa­thy last Jan­uary for Demo­cratic sen­a­tors fac­ing pres­sure from “donors and oth­ers,” trans­formed into an ac­cu­sa­tion of “selling their votes to shad­owy lob­by­ists.” Obama ar­gu­ing the deal was in Amer­ica’s best in­ter­est, re­framed as Obama ac­cus­ing crit­ics “of act­ing con­trary to the best in­ter­ests of the United States.”

“It’s the kind of dark, nasty stuff we might ex­pect to hear at a white power rally, not from the Pres­i­dent of the United States,” Tablet said. Whew.

Not all was gloom and doom. Back at The Weekly Stan­dard, for­mer Bush na­tional se­cu­rity aide El­liott Abrams struck a note of lev­ity, prob­a­bly un­in­ten­tional, in an Au­gust 8 de­nun­ci­a­tion of Obama’s sup­posed flir­ta­tion with anti-Semitism. Like Tablet, he re­vived the Jan­uary New York Times re­port about Obama, sen­a­tors and donors to ex­press shock — shock! — that sen­a­tors might be do­ing their donors’ bid­ding. Like ev­ery­one else, he’s in a lather over dual loy­alty.

But the laughs don’t stop there. Abrams was per­turbed at Obama’s claim at AU that “many of the same peo­ple who ar­gued for the war in Iraq are now mak­ing the case against the Iran nu­clear deal.” Obama warned that if there’s no deal, they’ll soon be call­ing for war against Iran. Abrams was in­censed. He had ev­ery right to be. He was one of the most prom­i­nent peo­ple ar­gu­ing for war in 2003 and op­pos­ing the Iran deal now. Who bet­ter than he to deny the charges?

Not that they won’t call for war if it looks like Iran is get­ting a bomb. Those con­ser­va­tives have been crit­i­ciz­ing Obama for years for be­ing too slow to open fire — in Syria, in Libya, in Iraq. They’ve re­peat­edly al­leged that he can’t be trusted to ex­er­cise the mil­i­tary op­tion against Iran, if war be­comes nec­es­sary. And they’ve proven again and again that they have an ex­traor­di­nar­ily low bar for what con­sti­tutes “nec­es­sary.”

To protest to­day that war is sud­denly the last thing on their minds is silly. To call the ac­cu­sa­tion anti-Semitic — to cry foul over the sus­pi­cion that they might do to­mor­row what they’ve done ev­ery time be­fore — is hyp­o­crit­i­cal, and of­fen­sively so.

Let’s be clear: Con­ser­va­tives have ev­ery right to ad­vo­cate their views. Is­rael’s leader has ev­ery right to de­fend his coun­try’s in­ter­ests as he sees them, even if oth­ers see them dif­fer­ently. Even if he stands alone. But they cross a line when they call oth­ers big­ots for notic­ing what they’re do­ing. And to do so in the name of an Amer­i­can Jewish com­mu­nity that didn’t sign up for this fight is out­ra­geous.

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