The other day New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman slugged his opinion piece on Ilhan Omar with the statement: “The congresswoman and I have a lot in common—but not her stance on Israel.” The commonality reference was mainly to the congressional distinct in Minneapolis that Omar represents and where Friedman grew up, and which now as then is home to a large number of politically liberal Jews.
That’s right: Omar won election because a lot, or enough, Jewish Democrats favored her over a more centrist candidate in the Democratic primary, and then over her Republican challenger this past November. Any buyers’ remorse yet, do you suppose?
But I can beat that, Tom: What do Ilhan Omar and Spiro Agnew share in common, and which includes their views on Israel?
Spiro who? For those who are too young to remember, Spiro Agnew was born in Baltimore, got elected Governor of Maryland in 1966, and then became Richard Nixon’s Vice-President until he resigned under pressure of (fully justified) financial impropriety accusations in October 1973. He died in well-deserved obscurity in September 1996 at the age of 77.
Ilhan Omar was born in Mogadishu on October 4, 1981—the same day as my eldest son, as it happens. That makes her 37 and, as is apparent, very much alive.
So what do the two have in common? They are both captives of the brain-addling condition of Jewcentricity, the tendency to exaggerate the role of Jews and all things pertaining to them—in one of four ways.
Stripped down to its skivvies, the thesis of Jewcentricity is that four modes of exaggerating the importance of Jews exist, and that to understand fully any one mode requires a grasp of the other three. That is because the four interact, each type often goading others on.
The four modes derive from a simple two-by-two matrix: Jews do it and non-Jews do it; some do it with positive affect and others with negative affect. So there are Jews who do it with a positive affect: chauvinists. There are Jews who do it with a negative affect: self-hating Jews. There are non-Jews who do it with a positive affect: philo-Semites. And, infamously, there are non-Jews who do it with a negative affect: anti-Semites.
Agnew and Omar fall into this last category, it being understood that anti-Semitism comes in a variety of shades, from eliminationist/genocidal all the way to “country club” preppy bigotry, and everything—including anti-Zionism when it masks anti-Semitism—in between.
Most people are not Jewcentric. They have better things to do with their time and energy. But when it comes to stereotyped exaggerations, it’s hard to think of a group that has been more subject for a longer time to funhouse mirror distortions than Jews. Of course, Jewcentrics don’t realize that they are in the throes of Jewcentricity. They think they’re being rational and objective. But others can detect the malady with ease if they know the telltale signs, all of which elide on aspects of obsession. There are basically three such signs.
First, the exaggerations of true dyed-in-the-wool Jewcentrics manifest only with regard to Jews, despite the obvious fact that the general impact profile of any group of people can be exaggerated. Second, Jews are singled out for having specific characteristics, abilities, or powers even though lots of other group actors have them, too. And third, conspiracy theory logic, with presumptions of monolithic actors and “hidden hand” connections, is always present to one degree or another—even in examples of positive-affect Jewcentricity. This explains the Jewcentric tendency to leap from the specific to the general in one bounding lurch, ascribing to all Jews what motivates some or a few or even one Jew.
With this basic framework in mind, we can now proceed to tell two stories whose inner themes intertwine despite being separated by more than forty years in time.
The Spiro-Fahd Story
For a reason I don’t care enough about to untangle, Rachel Maddow recently decided to investigate the sordid history of Spiro Agnew. I found out about her interest when friends brought to my attention her on-the-air revelation of documents showing a connection circa 1980 between the disgraced Vice President and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.
Also aired on her February 21 show was a document written by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988 as he was campaigning for the presidency. In a handwritten note, the elder Bush thanked Agnew for his willingness to consult on Bush’s Dan Quayle problem. The purpose of showing this document, presumably, was to besmirch the reputation of the recently deceased former President, and the Republican establishment with him, for having had anything to do with a character like Agnew, even in private, so many years after his disgrace.
The truth could’ve been rather different: Bush could have been merely brushing off the pesky and needy Agnew in the polite manner in which he was accomplished. The text of the brief note allows for several interpretations of motive.
There is irony in Maddow’s accusatory interest in Agnew. Born in 1973, the year of Agnew’s resignation, Maddow can’t possibly remember the 1966 Governor’s race in Maryland, or the conditions that preceded it.
But I do.
During the 1950s, slot machine gambling was legal in Maryland, at least in a few counties. Out along route 301, around Waldorf on the Eastern shore, a long string of gambling establishments existed on both sides of the road, which at the time was something well short of a highway. I remember one of these establishments well: It was called the Wigwam, and was constructed to look like a wigwam, except of course made out of metal and steel. It occupied the space of about half a basketball court. In the center was a barbecued-ribs dispensing operation, and against one wall was a Wurlitzer jukebox. The rest of the place was packed with slot machines cheek by jowl.
My parents used to drag me to this place when I was a kid once or twice a summer. The two of them would start shoving coins into these machines, stopping only to light another cigarette, and pretty soon forgot all about me. I was bored and the noise was deafening, so I figured out how to get small change from my parents so that I could play the jukebox, sitting on the floor right in front of the speaker to drown out the slot noise. I heard Connie Francis sing “Lipstick on Your Collar” about 5,000 times over those years.
Anyway, the slot-machine business, which was supposed to provide resources for Maryland’s public schools, ended up being the source of massive corruption. The mafia came down from New Jersey and New York, and before long some locals were paying their mortgages with multiple rolls of coins. Honest merchants who disliked gambling were hard put not to allow machines in their establishments, and most of them took to just shutting up lest bricks get mysteriously heaved through their storefront windows.
Eventually, the slime grew so large that a backlash developed, and the up and coming Spiro Agnew opposed gambling. When he later ran as a Republican for Governor in 1966—herein the irony—he was the more liberal candidate. He ran against George P. Mahoney, an old-fashioned Dixiecrat racist whose campaign slogan was, “A man’s home is his castle.” Translation in the context of those times: If a person wants to be a bigot, it’s no one’s business but his own. Agnew campaigned on integrating the schools, pledged that schools would be properly funded from other revenue streams, and promised a statewide non-discrimination law. Once he was elected, he actually did all those things.
Richard Nixon, who had run in 1968 on a dog-whistle racist law-and-order platform, picked Agnew as his running mate because Agnew was usefully to his left at a time before liberal Republicans became extinct, and he was governor of a swing state to boot.
Once Nixon won the election and wished then to appear more presidential, however, Agnew became the Administration’s designated attack dog to the President’s right. It helped Agnew to do this job that H. Rap Brown had staged a riot in Cambridge, Maryland in 1967, during his time as governor. Armed with speeches written by Pat Buchanan, and later by William Safire, Agnew performed his role with aplomb. It was a pioneering effort of sorts. It is perhaps not too much to say that Agnew was Trump before Trump was Trump. And it was during that period that the Agnew-Saudi connection first formed. That connection, revealed on Maddow’s show, concerns events that took place in 1980. Khalid was the Saudi King and Fahd the Crown Prince. But the connection went back at least nine years before.
Agnew first met King Faisal of Saudi Arabia in 1971 when he was in Iran representing the United States at the celebration of the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire. Often called “the most expensive party ever,” the Shah set up tents in the Iranian desert. Agnew, who loved to play pool, brought along a pool table on a military transport plane and had it set up in his lavish tent. In the tent next to him was King Faisal, who heard the noises of colliding billiard balls and came over Agnew’s tent to see what was going on. Agnew and Faisal struck up a friendship that night, and that is how Agnew formed his first contacts in Saudi Arabia. Agnew then traveled to Saudi Arabia, where Faisal presented him with a golden dagger.
After Agnew resigned, he used his connections in Saudi Arabia to land contracts for his business selling military uniforms. In one of history’s ironies, Agnew was in Saudi Arabia on the day, in August 1974, that Nixon resigned.
That, then, is background for the 1980 events described by Maddow: Agnew pleaded with Crown Prince Fahd to give him fairly substantial sums of money, $200,000 for a six-month period to start, so that he could continue his intrepid effort to oppose Zionist schemes to pervert U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Agnew had come to believe a somewhat distended version of the standard traditional State Department Arabist plaint: that the Jewish lobby had bent U.S. policy in a way that harmed U.S. interests with the Arabs.
There had been hints of this thinking in a 1976 novel that Agnew published, a novel that in turn evoked a classic New York Times column from the aforementioned Bill Safire, entitled “Agnew and the Jews.” In the column, Safire argued that Agnew turned against all the Jews because some few Jewish associates in Maryland had turned state’s evidence against him, plea bargaining in essence, in the real estate developers’ kick-back scheme that got Agnew booted out of office three years earlier. Jewcentricity at work…
The Arabist argument is not rare, even today. John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt made it in book form not that long ago, and the argument in and of itself does not make one an anti-Zionist, let alone an anti-Semite. If Zionists want to be Zionists, fine, so the defense goes; only they shouldn’t do it at the expense of a sound American policy.
Against the long pull of history, however, the Arabist argument does not hold up. The U.S.-Israeli special relationship has not prevented very good working U.S. relationships with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Oman, Egypt (after 1972), Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia. On the contrary, long before Iran concentrated Arab minds, the closeness of U.S.-Israeli relations actually acted as an incentive for those Arab leaders seeking U.S. friendship and/or mediation with regard to Israel. The additional irony is that this insight became the basis for U.S. policy during the time Agnew was Vice President, specifically, after the War of Attrition and the Jordanian Civil War in the 1969-71 period.
But Agnew, disgraced, marginalized, and without hale income in the years after his resignation, adopted a particularly conspiratorial version of the Arabist cant. What is not ironic is that Agnew’s plea to Crown Prince Fahd was not in vain. A subsequent message from Agnew to Fahd thanks him for turning over the money. Yes, the Saudi royal family, at the pinnacle of the regime, was in those days not above funding efforts internal to the United States to harm U.S.-Israeli relations.
Saudi (and Emirati) dog-whistle anti-Semitism is not entirely a thing of the past. For example, whenever the regime’s publicists want to attack the Al-Thanis in Qatar, which they want to do very regularly lately, one of their methods is to show high-ranking Qataris smiling and shaking hands with Jews of various sorts. And of course, the Qataris return the favor to the Al-Saud in precisely the same way. That said, it is hard to imagine the current Saudi Crown Prince secretly financing explicitly anti-Israel activities inside the United States, using a U.S. citizen as a vehicle, as was the case in 1980. We should perhaps be grateful for small mercies.
That Agnew was murderously anti-Semitic as opposed to self-interestedly and delusionally anti-Zionist seems unlikely. But that he became Jewcentric over time, after his fall, is clear. He apparently didn’t care that Armenian and Greek lobbies tried to influence U.S. policy toward Turkey, or that the Taiwan lobby tried to derail the normalization of relations with China. He only cared about the Zionists. It was all a unified secret plot, as his novel had it. The Zionists had all this money that gave them entrée to inner circles; what, and the oil lobby on the other side of the issue didn’t?! This is Jewcentric obsession right out of central casting.
A final note on the Agnew saga: In all of his correspondence with Crown Prince Fahd, Agnew never mentions the word Jews; he always and only uses the word Zionists. Rachel Maddow, on the other hand, never referred to Zionists during the February 21 show—only to the Jews. She, in effect, makes the two proper nouns synonymous, strongly implying that Agnew was an anti-Semite. As if Democrats by definition cannot be anti-Semitic because Republicans can be and often are?
How somebody with a doctorate in politics from Oxford University could be so sloppy with language is a little hard to figure. So this is probably not sloppiness but deliberate insinuation of a particularly nasty and defensivist [see: Ilhan Omar] kind. Alas, I am not an expert on Dr. Maddow. I watch very little television, and watch her show basically never. Having to sit through the February 21 show twice via YouTube, so as not to miss any details, reminded me of a trip to the dentist. I can’t understand why anybody watches her, except perhaps as a form of tedium therapy.
The Ilhan Omar Story
Spiro Agnew’s Saudi connection is very old news compared to the volcanic flow caused lately by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. This flow is multilayered. The obvious, top layer is about U.S. Middle East policy, and specifically policy toward Israel. The less obvious but probably more important explanatory layer is the deliberate attempt by self-styled “progressives”—more accurately, “social justice” warriors peddling a para-Marxist, anti-Enlightenment theory of all politics as inherently and only conflictual—to seize control of the Democratic Party. And what issue has become the vanguard of that effort? Israel and the Jews. Jewcentricity lives, and comes in oh so handy.
Things did not start out quite this way. The other Muslim woman newly elected to Congress, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan’s 13th District, distinguished herself right out of the gate, on January 3, by saying: “We’re gonna go in there and we’re going to impeach the motherfucker.” That, of course, was music to the ears of the President and his supporters, and to anyone wishing to caricature and denigrate Muslim women. Ms. Tlaib apparently lacks much impulse control, the presence of which enables most normal people to reserve such language with respect to Donald Trump to exclusively private use.
Ilhan Omar, on the other hand, has all the impulse control she needs. When she says things guaranteed to start a fight, she says them with staff assistance—which she plainly needs—and with full deliberation. She is, in short, a designated provocateur.
So it doesn’t really matter what she says or thinks, prevaricating this way and that over BDS and the two-state solution, because the foreign policy aspects of this spectacle are not what her minders most care about right now. They care about seizing control of the Democratic Party by polarizing opinion over everything Jewish, and wagering that the younger insurgent set, which includes plenty of anti-Israel Jews, will in due course defeat the forces of the status quo—in due course meaning before primary season gets going in earnest.
And that is what set the stage for yesterday’s anti-hate resolution passed by the Congress. This was the Democratic leadership’s way of clubbing to death, with a huge wet ecumenical all-ethnicity mop, the problem that Omar et al. had created. The result, aside from the waste of time it occasioned? A resolution so ridiculously anodyne that only Torquemada could have objected to it in principle.
This all started in Minnesota, but it has not stayed there. Omar was chosen to run against an outstanding and popular centrist Democrat who had been Speaker of the Minnesota House, Margaret Kelliher. Charged up by that upset win, the focus has now shifted to the national level. All energy is being focused on the “near enemy,” the Hillary remnant of tired, aging conventionalists. The “far enemy,” the Republican Party or what remains of it, can wait until November 2020.
When Ms. Omar made her initial mid-February comment about it being “all about the Benjamins, baby,” I confess I wasn’t really paying attention. I thought she was referring to the upcoming April 9 Israeli election between two Benjamins: Gantz and Netanyahu. Once I figured out what she was actually talking about, it had a very familiar ring. It was just the old Israel lobby argument, with anti-Semitic money tropes draped over it, the same argument (without the drapes) that Spiro Agnew made years ago, but this time coming out of the mouth of a 37-year-old Somali woman.
Then, more recently, came the dual-loyalty accusation. A pattern was forming. But between the two statements something else became clear: This woman is almost encyclopedically ignorant about everything concerned with her new job. She has no idea what she’s talking about most of the time. Perhaps her BA from North Dakota State University didn’t prepare her adequately for the intricacies of national-level policy debates.
Why do I say that? In mid-February, Elliott Abrams, the recently appointed State Department special envoy for Venezuela policy, appeared before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Ms. Omar improbably sits on that Committee, and began her questioning by calling Abrams “Mr. Adams,” which she never corrected. She then read a statement in which she mispronounced many words, including most of the proper nouns. The statement was a potted history of Mr. Abrams’s supposed perfidies in office, and offered the following declaration: “I don’t understand why members of this committee should find any testimony that you give today to be truthful.” She refused to let Abrams respond.
Ms. Omar then asked Abrams whether he would “support crimes against humanity or genocide if you would believe they were serving U.S. interests as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua,” implying that, just as the Maduro government claims, any U.S. attempts to defend Venezuelan democracy would by definition be a “U.S. backed coup.” She then told Abrams that she wanted to know if “a genocide will take place and you will look the other way because American interests were being upheld.” There followed a few more “have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife” style questions, including one in which Omar asked if Abrams saw a massacre in Salvador that took place in 1982, before Omar was out of diapers, as “a fabulous achievement.” Abrams answered, “I don’t believe this line of questioning is meant to be real questions and so I will not reply.”
Now, I have known Elliott Abrams for many years, and he would be the second to tell you, after me, that the two of us disagree about many things. But we agree here: No U.S. government official, even in a degraded Administration like this one, should swallow such deliberate disrespect without comment.
Clearly, Ms. Omar had no idea who Elliot Abrams was, or what offices he held years ago, or had even the slightest grasp of any of those issues. It was equally clear that she knows nothing about Venezuela, and that she could not possibly have written the statement she read—seeing as how she could barely manage even to read it. I doubt that Ms. Omar knows enough about any of these subjects to be effectively malicious; the same cannot be said for her handlers and scriptwriters.
And then came the dual-loyalty provocation, when she tweeted that she wanted to “talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” The reaction was furious and immediate, as intended by the taunt.
One reason for its fury is that the accusation is not entirely baseless. Some American Jews, who are not dual citizens and have never considered becoming dual citizens, do basically take the view “not my country right or wrong.” There are American Jews whose politics are single-issue pro-Israel politics, and who tend to be well to the right within both the American and Israeli political universes. For decades, too, a cottage industry has operated among American Jews designed to reconcile the Enlightenment universalism that Jews both appreciate and need about America with the particularist pride they feel in being Jews. The jujitsu act this involves has at times created difficult choices even for those with centrist and leftist views amid the nerve-wracking fluctuations of U.S.-Israeli relations. And sometimes those choices have produced procrustean rationales for the sake of avoiding the appearance of dual loyalty.
But it is almost too easy to see the Jewcentric character of Omar’s remark. She criticizes Israel and Israel’s supporters, but she never raises the matter of the Palestinian Authority’s incitement, corruption, and mismanagement. How can someone who (sometimes) claims to support a two-state solution do that? She never doubts that Israel’s behavior is the cause of all that is wrong with the region, the most hearty of all Jewcentric delusions over the years. She therefore has not a word to say about the de facto Iranian occupation of several Arab capitals, about its support for the use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians, about its willful crushing of Lebanese democracy. Not one word because, as with Venezuela and as was always the case amid the adversary culture during the Cold War, all sins of foreign governments are automatically forgiven, overlooked, or explained away so long as the government in question is an anti-American authoritarian government.
Moreover, as others have noted, it is beyond foolish for a Muslim-American politician, a member of a minority religion regularly attacked for a supposed lack of loyalty to the United States, to say such things. It is astonishing that she doesn’t recognize the blindingly self-incriminating character of her comments. Ms. Omar needs to invest in some mirrors, and perhaps get better tactical advice.
And, of course, the use of classic anti-Semitic tropes and inflammatory tweets will have exactly the opposite effect on the subject that Ms. Omar claims to be protesting about. They will polarize a debate over U.S. policies toward Israel that arguably needs to happen, and they will polarize it to the extent that it cannot happen rationally or constructively. This could turn out to be a genuine wasted opportunity particularly if Benyamin Gantz becomes the next Israeli Prime Minister.
Some want to give Ms. Omar the benefit of the doubt, calling her naïve and inexperienced. Maybe. But what if her enemy, and more importantly the enemy of her handlers, is really folks like Representatives Lowey, Engel, Nadler, and Pelosi? That changes things, doesn’t it?
A larger context gives the present fury its deeper meaning. Let me be blunt as to what that context is: The “Golden Age” of American Jewry, such as it is or was, is over. But, thanks to Jewish forms of Jewcentricity, most American Jews cannot bring themselves even to think such a thing. This twice-chosen group of people—equally proud of American universalism and Jewish particularism, grateful for standing at the nexus of two cosmic exceptionalisms—is all but paralyzed intellectually by its own special concoction of hubris and escrowed fear.
The Golden Age is over for three interlocking, or better cascading, reasons. The first, most recent, and least important involves the shortsighted, selfish actions that undermined the tradition of bipartisan U.S. support for Israel. Between Bibi Netanyahu, John Boehner, and AIPAC as a shadhan (matchmaker), the Israeli Prime Minister managed to use a Congressional end run to blindside the President of the United States from the dais of the Capitol. This took place, just over four years ago, at the height of both the Iran nuclear deal negotiations and Netanyahu’s previous re-election campaign.
The joint short-term purpose of this scheme was to help re-elect Netanyahu and to make it appear that Republicans were more supportive of Israeli security than Democrats. The price has been to politicize U.S. support for Israel, first between the parties and now within the one that has been political home to most American Jews for more than a century.
So second down the cascade, support for Israel among Democrats has been waning anyway; the antics of February 2015 just accelerated the trend. One reason, obvious to everyone, has been a growing disjunction between the policies of the current Likud-dominated Israeli government and the core political sentiments of most American Jews. But a more important reason, especially in recent years, has to do with the identity politics focus that has overtaken the Democrats. As American demographic change brings nearer a population characterized by a majority of minorities, the Democrats’ political strategy has been to amalgamate these minority communities as such into a winning coalition.
The consequence of the shift was already in evidence during the Democratic National Convention in 2012, when a proposal—uncontroversial politically in earlier years—for Democrats to acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s capital elicited loud howls of “no” from the convention floor. By the 2016 convention, the Black Lives Matter movement had all but become a part of the Democratic Party—at least no one in the Party leadership dared risk telling it that it was not wanted within. But the Black Lives Matter platform contains the following language:
The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people. . . . Israel is an apartheid state with over 50 laws on the books that sanction discrimination against the Palestinian people.
The fact that mainstream Democratic Party politicians did not disown this by-now standard-on-the-Left but still outrageous statement paved the way for the so-called progressive caucus to lock in and amplify these sentiments within the party. I have little doubt that Ms. Omar affirms this view, and little doubt that we will hear much more of it from Democratic politicians in the future. The anti-Zionism of the American Left will grow loud, and the noise it will make as it joins the anti-Semitism of alt-Right pro-Trump Republicans will be deafening.
Third in the cascade, and most important, is the self-inflicted demographic holocaust of the American Jewish community. Both the unusual educational-professional characteristics and the political clout of American Jews are diminishing as serious Jewish education and practice remain in near free fall. Intermarriage rates for non-Orthodox American Jews, by far still the majority of those who affiliate as Jews, are somewhere around 72 percent according to the latest data. Most of those families will instill either trivial or no Jewish content at all in the education of their children. You need not be a mathematical genius to calculate the cumulative effects two to three generations out.
Anti-Semitism has not and does not cause this in America, contrary to some delusional and self-interested claims. Anti-Semitism, historically, has more often served as a solution for assimilation—to the point of mass murder, but obviously not beyond. So no, some combination of selfishness and indiscipline nurtured by the novelty of affluence has caused it; but it is so much more convenient to blame others.
In sum, Jews will become less important politically as their numbers shrink and they likely become less distinct from other Americans in terms of educational achievement and income levels; the Democratic Party is growing increasingly antipathetic to their interests and resentful of their legacy claims on party positions; and Israel is becoming more closely tied to Republican politics—a place where most American Jews in the age of Trump simply will not go. They are not interested in making common cause with “some good people” the President saw mustering around a Nazi flag in Charlottesville the summer before last.
As a politically homeless, smaller, and less influential community, the future of American Jewry is grim—especially so if the trajectory of our shock-inflected political rhetoric jumps the violence threshold. At least some older, intelligent, politically savvy, and experienced Jews privately know all this, or suspect it. They know, too, that the main trend lines are not reversible. That is why the tweets of Ilham Omar resonate so loudly in their heads.
It’s more than enough to make you miss Spiro Agnew.