Wednesday, January 13, 2010


A week or two ago my old friend Bill Berkowitz gave me a call about a commentary he was working on concerning Jews and the Tea Party movement. He wanted some comments and thoughts from me. The commentary is now out and linked short remarks are included at the end.

The following is from BuzzFlash.

The Tea Party Movement's Jewish Problem


By Bill Berkowitz

Some tea partiers have insensitively used Holocaust imagery, while others are blaming Jews for the country’s economic problems.

While some Tea Party supporters have shamelessly used the Jewish historical experience – especially Holocaust imagery – to press their case, other tea partiers have taken to blaming the Jews for causing the nation’s current difficult economic conditions. At TP rallies some protesters have carried signs comparing President Obama’s efforts to achieve health care reform with the Nazi’s pursuit of the final solution; the eradication of the Jews. Some carry signs blaming Jewish bankers for the economic crisis. Helpless victims or manipulative money lenders; these anti-Semitic stereotypes add to the already smoldering cauldron of conspiracy theories manifest in the Tea Party movement.

Can this movement, which claims to be grassroots and populist but has become a cash cow for several long-time right wing organizations; that is steeped in conspiracy theories whose daggers are pointed directly at Jews; that has attracted numerous avowed racists to its banner; and, that has no discernable interest in Israel; attract the support of a significant numbers of Jews?

If it doesn’t become a broader movement and attract Jews, Muslims, atheists, and people of color, will it forever be relegated to the margins of the political landscape?

Jews have by and large not been flocking to the Tea Party movement; those Jews that might be involved in Tea Party activities are more likely to be attracted to its libertarian views as opposed to traditional family social issues; and, it is very difficult to determine exactly how many Jews – secular or religious – are involved with Tea Party activities.

Ilya Shapiro, a Senior Fellow in Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute and the Editor-in-Chief of the Cato Supreme Court Review, acknowledged that while he didn’t have “any real information” about the role of Jews in the Tea Party movement, he sensed that while “Jews are by no means exempt from the disillusionment with Obama that has now infected all of what was the president’s base — not many Jews are in the tea party movement because most Jews live in urban centers far from the most active tea party organizations. But,” he added, “I could be misperceiving both the Jewish population and the tea party movement.”

“I haven't noticed any differences in support for the Tea Party movement between conservative/libertarian Jews and Christians,” John Hawkins, a “professional blogger” who runs Right Wing News, Linkiest, and Viral Footage, told me. “My assumption is that percentage wise, you'd probably see as many Jews at a Tea Party as you would at any other conservative event, but it would be hard to verify that without polling. Of course, some liberal Jewish groups don't seem fond of the Tea Parties, but they're hostile to pretty much everything conservative, so that's no surprise.”

“I have not seen any indication of Jewish interest in the Tea Party; it seems to me that the TP target audience for promotion has been to the right-wing talk radio world, and right wing Jews don’t tune in to those frequencies,” Jane Hunter, the co-director of JewsOnFirst – a four+-year-old project developed to “oppose the growing strength of the Christian right and the accelerating pace of its theocratic agenda,” told me. “The Tea Party audience is the far-right grass-roots, which has never been the Jewish point of intersection with the Republican Party.”

“I doubt there will ever be many Jews involved with the Tea Party movement for the simple reason that most American Jews are not political conservatives,” Rob Boston, senior policy analyst for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told me via e-mail. “Exit polls showed that 78 percent of Jews voted for Obama. This bloc is not fertile recruiting ground for a movement anchored in far-right paranoia, hatred of the government and a virulent strain of political extremism that borders on neo-fascism.”

Using the Jewish experience

In two recent articles in the conservative publication The American Thinker -- a daily internet publication which claims to be “devoted to the thoughtful exploration of issues of importance to Americans” – both Harold Witkov and Stuart Schwartz used the Jewish historical experience and ethos to compare tea partiers to the Jewish Maccabees (Witkov), and claim that “Seniors were America’s new Jews” (Schwartz).

In his piece, Witkov, who has been in educational sales for almost thirty years and is a freelance writer and cartoonist, claimed that “In a way, today's American Tea Party patriots are following the lead of the Jewish Maccabees of ancient times; average citizens awakened by systematic government takeovers, and the specter of vanishing freedoms.”

Schwartz, a member of the faculty at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, claimed that “Seniors are America's new Jews,” because the Obama Administration “has embraced a worldview that allows them to go after seniors in much the same manner that tyrants (and the United Nations) have used Jew-bashing as a tool to accumulate power and steal wealth.”

The most revolting display of the lack of sensitivity to Jews, while blaming Jews for the economic crisis came during a November Republican Party-sponsored anti-health care reform Tea Party in Washington, D.C. David A. Harris, President of the National Jewish Democratic Council, condemned the use of Holocaust imagery on signs, saying that GOP leaders including House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), House Republican Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA), and House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-IN) “stood before a crowd that included a banner protesting health care reform and displaying corpses from the Holocaust. Yet another sign charged that ‘Obama takes his orders from the Rothchilds’ [sic]. Such vile invocations of Nazi and Holocaust rhetoric have been condemned in recent weeks by rabbinic movements, The Interfaith Alliance, and The American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants."

Last April, California Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring, condemned the use of anti-Semitic material promoting the April 15 Tea Party in San Mateo County. "The taxpayer movement is incredibly important for California, and we applaud the success of the tea parties that took place across the state on April 15. Because we remain intensely interested in the growth and success of the mainstream taxpayer movement, we strongly condemn the use of anti-Semitic imagery in the promotion of the recent event in San Mateo County.”

Right Wing News’ John Hawkins feels it is unfair to paint the Tea Party movement with the anti-Semitic brush. He argues that “The number of Tea Partiers blaming Jews for our financial difficulties is, from what I have seen, infinitesimal. I'm sure they exist, because anti-Semitism exists, but as a general rule, the Right in America is considerably more friendly to Jews and Israel than the Left.

“In fact, he added, “I can almost guarantee you that there were 10 rabidly pro-Palestinian, anti-Jewish protesters at the anti-war rallies for every complete moron who would show up at a Tea Party blaming Jews for our financial difficulties. I'd also suggest to you that if you were comparing anti-war rallies to Tea Parties, you'd find considerably more comparisons to Hitler/Nazis/etc at the anti-war rallies -- although some of it shows up at Tea Parties as well.”

”I'm sure the Tea Party movement will attempt to show that it has Jewish support by highlighting the few Jews who sign on,” Americans United’s Rob Boston pointed out. “This is an old tactic and one used by Religious Right organizations as well,” Boston pointed out. “Over the years, Religious Right groups have attempted to show that they have Jewish support by including speeches by people like Rabbi Daniel Lapin. But the fact that they have to use a guy like Lapin -- who, to be blunt, is frequently incoherent and obviously not very smart -- over and over again shows the dearth of true Jewish support for the far right. I'm sure the Tea Party crowd will win over a few Jews, but my guess is if you gather them all together, you'll be able to fit them in a closet with room to spare.”

“It seems to me that historically Jews have not been a big part of populist movements in this country, most particularly right wing ones with a racist tinge (as most right wing populist movements are), nor have they been big worriers about the issues the tea party people worry about - including the racist and conspiratorial stuff,” Randy Gould, longtime anti-racist activist and editor of The Oread Daily, told me.

“I don't hear many Jews being in a tizzy over Obama turning the country socialist, bail outs, or a take over of health care by the federal government. Further since Jews voted overwhelmingly for Obama, I don't think they would be drawn to the anti-Obama stuff. Plus there doesn't seem to be much mention of Israel in the Tea Party stuff. On top of all this there aren't many Jews anyway who want to hang out with folks who probably could be convinced Jews have horns.”

Right Wing News’ John Hawkins pointed out that “The Tea Party is a decentralized movement that largely gets judged by the crowds of people who show up in different spots all over the country. Asking how many Jews are participating is like asking what percentage of them are Italian-American or Polish-American -- you can't just look at the crowd and tell. I doubt if it's a question anyone will be able to definitively answer.”

There is no doubt that there are Jews involved with the Tea Party movement, particularly amongst its more libertarian-minded participants. However, if Tea Party organizers are as politically savvy as some of its Religious Right forebears, it might try to tamp down its more virulent anti-Semitic participants while at the same time keeping an eye out for a handful of charismatic Jewish personalities to point to as Tea Party allies.

Meanwhile, a seasoned kibitzer might say that if you put all the Jews that have attended Tea Party rallies together, you still wouldn’t have enough for a minion.

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