An ugly old tradition is back: exploiting anti-Semitism to break the backs of popular movements that threaten the power of the wealthiest 1 percent of our population. It is being used to undermine the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has conservatives in a state of near panic.
I don't know the first time the tactic was used, although it dates back almost to the beginning of the Jewish diaspora.
Perhaps its most famous use was by the viciously anti-Semitic Czar Nicholas, whose supporters concocted the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" at the start of the 20th century to prevent Russians from joining socialist movements and other reform efforts that were fighting to get the czar to cede some power to an elected parliament.
The Protocols were a forged document purporting to show that a cabal of Jews met regularly to solidify their supposed control of the entire world. According to the Protocols, Jews were behind socialist and liberal movements but also ran the banks and Wall Street. (A modern version of this ridiculous theme was a staple on Glenn Beck's television program that ran on Fox News until being canceled this summer.)
The Protocols have had a long life, used by the czar, the Nazis, and even today by extremist and fringe Muslim groups opposed to the existence of Israel.
But they were primarily used not so much against the Jews as against reform and revolution. Linking a progressive movement to the Jews would destroy progressive movements and preserve the power of those in control.
Perhaps not surprisingly, a bizarre variant of this phenomenon is now being deployed against Occupy Wall Street.
Because utilizing anti-Semitism directly would not succeed in this country today, the reactionary defenders of the economic status quo are using the flip side of the coin: the fear of being labeled anti-Semitic. They are accusing Occupy Wall Street of anti-Semitism, relying on the old myth that Wall Street is Jewish and hence that opposition to Wall Street's agenda is just opposition to Jews.
Not surprisingly, the first right-wing commentator to use this formulation in the Obama era was Rush Limbaugh. In 2010, Limbaugh told his radio audience that Jews might be having "buyer's remorse" about having voted for President Barack Obama because "[h]e's assaulting bankers. He's assaulting money people. And a lot of those people on Wall Street are Jewish."
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) condemned those remarks, labeling them a "new low" for Limbaugh. ADL National Director Abe Foxman explained that Limbaugh's references to "Jews and money" were "offensive and inappropriate."
Foxman continued: "While the age-old stereotype about Jews and money has a long and sordid history, it also remains one of the main pillars of anti-Semitism and is widely accepted by many Americans."
And now the "age-old stereotype" is back, flipped on its head by right-wingers who seek to discredit Occupy Wall Street by accusing it of anti-Semitism, an accusation based on the idea, as Foxman said, "widely accepted by many Americans," that Wall Street is Jewish.
One of the first conservatives after Limbaugh to use this tactic was the usually quite proper Ivy League conservative, New York Times columnist David Brooks. In an October 10 column dismissing the Wall Street protests as "trivial sideshows," Brooks wrote:
Take the Occupy Wall Street movement. This uprising was sparked by the magazine Adbusters, previously best known for the 2004 essay, "Why Won't Anyone Say They Are Jewish?" — an investigative report that identified some of the most influential Jews in America and their nefarious grip on policy.
Interesting. Brooks essentially is charging that a magazine few have heard of "sparked" the movement and, even worse, tainting the movement with anti-Semitism by bringing up an article that magazine published seven years ago about the Jewish "grip" on policy. Quite a reach.
And then yesterday the Emergency Committee For Israel, a far-right Republican group run by Bill Kristol, issued a video flat-out accusing Occupy Wall Street of anti-Semitism, with side swipes at leading Democrats (what a coincidence!) like President Obama and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who have sympathized with the movement and are therefore, by implication, probably anti-Semitic themselves.
The Emergency Committee's evidence is presented in the video, which shows three anti-Semites and two anti-Semitic signs among the protesters. That's it, out of a crowd of thousands. (Far be it from me to guess at the number of anti-Semites who might be at a Tea Party event, but they don't define that movement either. Mass movements attract all kinds of people, some invariably unsavory.)
In any case, the Emergency Committee for Israel is not concerned about anti-Semitism or Israel. It is, rather, dedicated to defeating Democrats and promoting its billionaire donors' economic interests. During the 2010 congressional campaigns, it produced videos almost as deceitful as the Wall Street video that lied about Democratic candidates. It used Israel and Jews as devices to direct money and votes toward the Republicans. (See this profile.)
In attacking Occupy Wall Street, the Emergency Committee's goal is simply to smear Democrats. If, in the process, it reinforces the stereotype that Jews and Wall Street are interchangeable, so what? How different is that from its usual practice of suggesting strongly that American Jews should vote only based on Israel's supposed interests, not America's? To put it not-so-mildly, the Emergency Committee for Israel does not care about fueling anti-Semitism in America.
Because that last video of a couple of anti-Semites may have left a bad taste in your mouth, here's another one. It was shot at the Wall Street demonstration on Yom Kippur Eve and it features not a few anti-Semites but thousands of Jews celebrating the holiest day of the Jewish year, a day dedicated to the same ideals as Occupy Wall Street: repentance for putting our desires before the needs of the poor, the homeless, and the exploited.
In this video, Occupy Wall Street is repenting for greed. Wall Street itself is silent.