November 16, 2018

To those who hear anti-Semitism when it is not there

I’ve learned a new term: “dog whistle.” The term was used by Lee Smith, a political columnist for the online magazine Tablet, who wrote that President Barack Obama was “hinting broadly at anti-Semitic conceits — like dual loyalties, moneyed interests, Jewish lobbies — to scare off Democrats tempted to vote against” the Iran nuclear deal. Obama didn’t say Jews were leading the opposition, but he hinted at a frequency that sensitive ears could hear — he dog whistled.

As someone who has spent his life studying anti-Semitism, you’d think my hearing would be extra-sensitive. But I heard the president’s speech at American University (AU) and heard nothing of the sort. In fact, I heard a man going out of his way to make sure that he had paid attention to the concerns of Israel and American Jewish organizations even as he disagreed with them.

At AU, the president said, “Many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran nuclear deal.” That is true. Former United States Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton suggested that this is an appropriate time to attack Iran — and Bolton is not Jewish. 

The president went on to say, “I do think it is important to acknowledge another more understandable motivation behind the opposition to this deal, or at least skepticism to this deal, and that is a sincere affinity for our friend and ally Israel. An affinity that, as someone who has been a stalwart friend to Israel throughout my career, I deeply share.”

The president went on to say: “No one can blame Israelis for having a deep skepticism about any dealings with a government like Iran’s — which includes leaders who have denied the Holocaust, embrace an ideology of anti-Semitism, facilitate the flow of rockets that are arrayed on Israel’s borders are pointed at Tel Aviv. In such a dangerous neighborhood, Israel has to be vigilant, and it rightly insists that it cannot depend on any other country — even its great friend the United States — for its own security. So we have to take seriously concerns in Israel.”

These certainly don’t sound like the words of an anti-Semite, but rather of a Zionist. These are the words of someone who believes Israel has the right to defend itself, and who has assisted Israel in its self-defense. These words reflect the ethos of Zionism far better than those of former Gov. Mike Huckabee, who believes that the president is somehow on the verge of sending Jews to the ovens — as if Israel has no IsraelDefense Forces and is not a strong, secure nation. (After those comments, Huckabee had the audacity to travel to Israel to raise funds.)

In his AU speech, the president attacked the predominance of money in our political life. And when the president said “money,” his opponents heard “Jewish” money — which he did not say — and immediately made the anti-Semitic associations. They heard anti-Semitism. I did not.

But let’s be truthful. Let’s be unapologetic. Jews are powerful. Let us not deny it. It is much better to be powerful than powerless. We are never as powerful as our enemies imagine us to be, nor as powerless as we sometimes see ourselves.

Some Jews, not all and not most, are wealthy, let us not deny it either. It is better to be wealthy than poor.

There is a massive, ongoing lobbying effort against the agreement. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has suspended all staff vacations, amassed a $30 million fund and flown in 700 of its top supporters to oppose the agreement. Full-page ads appear in prominent newspapers — general and Jewish. The prime minister of Israel has spoken to 10,000 American Jews. Israeli officials have been flown in to speak to Jewish audiences. American Jewish organizations are mobilizing significant resources. Are we to pretend that there is not an intense lobbying effort? By calling attention to that lobbying effort, is one somehow saying that lobbying is illegitimate, inappropriate and not within the general practices of American life?

Those who hear dog whistles when they aren’t being blown reflect a deep insecurity about being American, Jewish and pro-Israel. They dread the idea of being accused of dual loyalties—as if all of us don’t live with conflicting loyalties. There is no reason to pretend that many Jews — I wish it were many more — have loyalty to the State of Israel. I certainly do, though my loyalty does not necessarily translate into support for the policies of the government of Israel and its prime minister. These same Jews have loyalty  and pledge allegiance to the United States, the land in which they live and vote. I certainly do. These loyalties are often harmonious. U.S. interests and Israeli interests most often — but not always — coincide; after all, we are allies. The best of U.S. values and the best of Israeli values often coincide; after all, we are both democratic societies committed to human rights and human dignity. When they clash, there is tension, and American Jews are torn. The president has acknowledged the legitimacy of Jewish affinity to Israel time and again. To be torn is not to be treasonous; to be torn is not to be disloyal. 

To my ears, what the president said is not anti-Semitic; it is fact. But opponents of the agreement argue that overriding the veto and embarrassing the president of the United States and making him powerless before the world, isolating Israel and the United States and permitting Iran to get the bomb without violating an agreement, is in the best interest of the United States. So they yell, “Dog whistle!” 

But there is no dog whistle. Israel’s prime minister has chosen, for reasons of his own, to become a political adversary of the president of the United States. The American Jewish establishment, in aligning with him, has pushed itself into a lose-lose situation. If the president’s veto is overturned, most of the sanctions will end; the U.S. and Israel will be isolated; Iran will be unencumbered to develop a nuclear bomb; U.S. leadership in the world will be diminished, which is profoundly dangerous to Israel; and anti-Semites — or those suspected of being anti-Semites, such as “The Israel Lobby” authors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer — will have what they will regard as clear and convincing evidence that Jews control America. Many American Jews — who are more supportive of the deal than the general American populace — will be further alienated from Jewish institutional life.

If the deal goes through, American Jews will have flexed their muscles but still demonstrated that what the president determines to be in U.S. national interest almost always prevails. The American public and the world will discover that the prime minister of Israel does not speak for the Jews, and that Jewish organizations represent their donors, rather than the Jews in whose name they speak.

I would not be concerned with the charges of anti-Semitism, except that they lower the bar beyond recognition. There are real anti-Semites — dangerous anti-Semites — in this world. Jews uniquely understand the history of people who have hated and murdered us just for being Jewish. To say that Barack Obama is an anti-Semite, or even insinuate he hates Jews, dangerously misrepresents the real danger of actual anti-Semites and anti-Semitism.

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his A Jew blog at