“American Presidents have long been criticized for being too in thrall to the Jewish lobby. The American Jews influence US foreign policy and that explains Washington’s unwavering support for Israel.”
Who made this statement this past week?
(a) A disgruntled fringe neo-Nazi
(b) Some poor soul ranting on their Facebook page
(c) The BBC
Sadly, as you can see in the clip above, the answer is C. This ugly assertion is the host’s opening line in an episode of this past week’s BBC HARDtalk program. This vicious garbage isn’t “sort of” or “almost” anti-Semitic; it is the real thing: vivid, unapologetic, odious and wrong.
The BBC presenter, hopefully just reading a script that some fool of a writer threw up on the teleprompter, (or, as some readers suggest in the comments since this post first appeared, voicing a view that she does not personally endorse) gives voice to some of the dumbest and ugliest classic anti-Semitic tropes. To speak of “the Jews” in the aggregate, as though they form a monolithic super-entity with a single view and agenda, is exactly the kind of thinking that gutter anti-Semitism embraces in every age. To talk of an all-powerful “Jewish lobby” which controls American foreign policy is to embrace the paranoid fantasies of the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
But don’t take Via Meadia‘s word for it. Listen to some of Israel’s most strident critics in America–Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, authors of the deeply problematic The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy–explain just how wrongheaded the term “Jewish lobby” is. Responding to a negative review of their book in the NY Times, the professors write:
Gelb refers repeatedly to a “Jewish lobby,” despite the fact that we never employ the term in our book. Indeed, we explicitly rejected this label as inaccurate and misleading, both because the lobby includes non-Jews like the Christian Zionists and because many Jewish Americans do not support the hard-line policies favored by its most powerful elements. The Israel lobby, we emphasized, is defined by its “specific political agenda … not the religious or ethnic identity of those pushing it.”
(Full disclosure: Les Gelb, author of that review and former President of the Council on Foreign Relations is both a former boss and a valued friend. His review of the book was brilliant.)
Somehow, the BBC intro, which gaily and giddily rushes in where Walt and Mearsheimer fear to tread, managed to miss these basic truths. Apparently in educated British circles you can now voice the most virulent and stupid ideas as if they were simple common sense. What is this “Jewish influence” that the Beeb thinks makes a mockery of American democracy and controls the ignorant Gentile masses, who are but passive putty in the hands of their sinister Jewish overlords?
Is it George Soros, Barbra Streisand, Peter Beinart and Noam Chomsky? Is it John Hagee, Mitt Romney, Bill O’Reilly and Sarah Palin?
American Jews voted against George W. Bush in overwhelming numbers. American Jews gave far more money to the Gore and Kerry campaigns than to the Bush campaign. President Obama remains far more popular with American Jews than with any other ‘white’ ethnic group. Yet all over the world, George W. Bush’s Israel policy was seen as the result of the supposedly irresistible power of “Jewish” money and “Jewish” influence. In reality, if Jewish money and Jewish votes controlled the American political system, George W. Bush would never have gotten past the White House door. But little facts like that can’t disturb the Beeb’s serene faith in the overwhelming might and sinister Zionist fixation of “the Jews.”
And the opposition that derailed President Obama’s initial approach toward Israel? Obviously, those dirty Jews again — never mind that a majority supports him still. Facts live in one place and narratives live in another; there is no need for them ever to meet when you are broadcasting for the BBC.
No, the Beeb knows a Jewish lobby when it sees one. This taxpayer-supported broadcast would have viewers believe that there is a shared, sinister Jewish agenda being imposed upon the American body politic through “influence” rather than democracy. To the addled mind of the Jew hater, “the Jews” act in concert, of one mind, with irresistible force and with a single pernicious agenda. Israel policy is thus set by the fiat of the 1.8% of the population that is Jewish, rather than the prevailing opinions of the 98.2% that is not — a formulation that ignores both the diversity of views among the 1.8 percent and the political ideas and preferences of the non-Jewish majority.
The BBC host and her writers would doubtless bristle at the suggestion that they were uncritically blasting the most blatant and ignorant anti-Semitic tropes over the airwaves. After all, the host does forcefully interrogate Israel critic Norman Finkelstein in the interview that follows. There can be no denying that the episode makes a conscious effort to be fair-minded and is much, much better than its catastrophically nasty and inaccurate lead.
But this is why the casual deployment of the phrase “Jewish lobby” at its outset is so disquieting. The presence of the centuries-old canard on a respectable television show reminds us how difficult it can be to root out generations worth of cultural prejudice. The presenter’s opening assertion is so shocking not because she’s trying to be anti-Semitic, but because she’s trying so hard not to be–and yet fails to avoid the crudest kind of mistake.
Just as studies regularly show that subconscious racism still prevails in America even among those without a conscious racist bone in their bodies, moments like this on the BBC reveal just how difficult it truly is to eradicate anti-Semitic attitudes even in the most enlightened and progressive sectors of contemporary Europe.
But fight those attitudes we must. For when these dangerous assumptions about Jews are allowed to fester, they soon create an atmosphere which is dangerous for Jews and where violence against them becomes increasingly commonplace–as we are seeing today across Europe, from France to Sweden, not to mention the rising anti-Jewish invective in places like Germany, Hungary and Norway. If evils aren’t fought, they will grow.
Via Meadia spends quite a bit of time calling attention to the ominous rise of anti-Semitism around the world. It isn’t because we think that anti-Semitism is the only form of hate and bigotry in the world, or that we think that it is more important to fight prejudice against Jews than prejudice against other people. But anti-Semitism, besides being on the ascent at times when many other forms of hatred are mostly on the back foot, is particularly dangerous, and not just because of what anti-Semitism can do and has done to the Jews.
The rise of anti-Semitism is a sign of widespread social and cultural failure. It is a leading indicator of a loss of faith in liberal values and of a diminished capacity to understand the modern world and to thrive in it. Societies that tolerate anti-Semitism take a fateful step toward the loss of both freedom and prosperity. People who think “the Jews” run the banks lose the ability to understand, much less to operate financial systems. People who think “the Jews” dominate business through hidden structures can’t build or long maintain a successful modern economy. People who think “the Jews” dominate politics lose their ability to interpret political events, to diagnose social evils and to organize effectively for positive change. People who think “the Jews” run the media and control the news lose the ability to grasp what is happening around them. And people who think “the Jews” control America’s Middle Eastern policy lose the ability to understand, much less to influence, American policy in this vital part of the world. Emancipation from anti-Semitism is thus one of the necessary steps that many individuals and cultures have to take before they are able to act effectively and participate meaningfully in contemporary life.
Jew hatred isn’t more stupid or more wicked than other forms of racial and religious hatred. The anti-black bigot is as delusional as the Jew hater; hatred and prejudice of all kinds corrode the intelligence and degrade the spirit of everyone who suffers from them. But Jew hatred is more disempowering and self-defeating than most other kinds of hate because it involves not only negative emotions about a group of people but a deeply false set of ideas about how the world works.
Confident, forward-looking and dynamic societies are neither threatened by Jewish success nor offended by the cultural diversity that results from the free participation of Jews in civic and cultural life. They can come to grips with the vicissitudes of capitalist economics without being sidetracked by conspiracy theories and fantasies.
Failing societies and weak minds, on the other hand, are easily seduced by attractive but empty generalizations. The comment attributed to August Bebel that anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools can be extended to many other kinds of cheap and superficial errors that people make. The baffled, frustrated and the bewildered seek a grand, simplifying hypothesis that can bring some kind of ordered explanation to a confusing world; anti-Semitism is one of the glittering frauds that attract the overwhelmed and the uncomprehending.
Hitler and his followers believed that “the Jews” were responsible for Germany’s external and internal problems. They really believed that “the Jews” controlled American policy and that in both the US and the USSR “the Jews” worked systemically to weaken and degrade nations so foolish as to host them. Hitler really thought that “the Jews” in the United States and the USSR would inevitably make those countries his enemies — but that “the Jews” had so weakened and corrupted those countries with their destructive, parasitical behavior that neither the US nor the USSR could beat him in battle. Those errors weren’t just intellectual curiosities; they shaped the key strategic decisions that destroyed his regime. “The Jews” didn’t bring Hitler and his movement down, but his hateful and stupid ideas about them blinded him — and that blindness led to his fall even as it also led him and his followers to commit unspeakable crimes.
Not to compare them to Hitler, but Palestinians and Arabs under the delusion that “the Jews” are responsible for American policy in the Middle East have squandered tens of millions of dollars and wasted decades in foolish strategies to change American opinion based on this grotesque misconception of American realities. Europeans under that same delusion fail to grasp how American policy works, what its priorities and limits are, and where there is room for friendly outsiders to intervene with effect.
Jew haters don’t understand how the world works; anti-Semitism is both a cause and a consequence of a basic failure to comprehend the way pluralistic and liberal societies behave. As a result, nations and political establishments warped by this hatred tend to make one dumb decision after another — starting at shadows, warding off imaginary dangers, misunderstanding the nature of the problems they face.
Via Meadia‘s fight against anti-Semitism isn’t just about solidarity with threatened or scapegoated Jews. It is also about the fight for lucidity, liberalism and sound social and international policy. Where Jew hatred flourishes, no freedom is safe and no country is strong.
Anti-Semitism is not just a moral obscenity; it is the road to intellectual and political ruin. At Via Meadia we will do what we can to dissuade people from venturing down this blindest of alleys.
[Note: this is an updated version of the original post.]