When the search for anti-Semitism falls flat

The NRA is fair game for criticism, but accusing it of targeting Jews is not only wrong, it misunderstands the central role Jews play in American society and politics.

National Rifle Association head Wayne LaPierre. Credit: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons.
National Rifle Association head Wayne LaPierre. Credit: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

In the week after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., a lot of people who are upset about gun violence have been concentrating their fire on the National Rifle Association. That’s understandable. The 5 million-member-strong NRA is a powerhouse Washington lobby and has played a key role in thwarting efforts to pass more laws restricting gun ownership. That makes them fair game for criticism.

National Rifle Association head Wayne LaPierre. Credit: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons.

So when Wayne LaPierre, the group’s longtime executive vice president, made his first major speech since Parkland, it was likely to be expected that he would say things that would rally his supporters and anger the NRA’s opponents. But who knew his remarks would start a discussion about anti-Semitism?

As it so happens, in the course of what was a typically over-the-top defense of gun rights and skewering of the group’s opponents, LaPierre didn’t actually mention the word “Jew” or talk about anti-Semitism. But some of his left-wing Jewish listeners weren’t fooled. Articles in The Forward and Haaretz tallied up the Jewish names in his speech and jumped to a conclusion. As far as they were concerned, any speech that mentions prominent liberal billionaires like George Soros, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer (who spend their money opposing the NRA), ticks off Sens. Chuck Schumer and Bernie Sanders, and includes the usual denunciation of left-wing activist guru of the past Saul Alinsky—and then gives a shout-out to Communist Manifesto author Karl Marx—can’t be viewed as anything but an anti-Semitic dog whistle. They also assumed that he was aiming those whistles at what they thought was a rabid crowd of Jew-haters at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.

Those who played this game were accurate in so far as the number of Jews cited in LaPierre’s speech. But their thesis about dog-whistling falls flat. The reasons have less to do with the fact that whatever you may think of its views on gun laws, the NRA is not an anti-Semitic organization, and more to do with a fundamental misunderstanding about the role of Jews in 21st-century American society.

The point about counting the Jews among the opponents of the NRA is that it would be odd for anyone assessing the forces leading the struggle against the group without noting most of the people on that list.

Sen. Schumer is, after all, the Senate Minority Leader and the point man on Democratic efforts to pass gun laws. A former presidential candidate, Sanders is an iconic leader of the left-wing of the party. Soros is arguably the nation’s leading funder of liberal causes. The same might be said of Bloomberg since the former mayor of New York City operates an anti-gun nonprofit organization and funds political-action committees that have outspent the NRA in some key elections.

It’s the mention of Steyer by those accusing LaPierre of anti-Semitism that is particularly interesting. As it happens, I have written about Steyer a number of times concerning his environmental stands, and the fact that he is pouring a considerable part of the fortune he earned as a hedge-fund trader to pay for a campaign pushing for President Trump’s impeachment. Still, I was actually unaware that he was Jewish.

Call me uninformed, but I’d never stumbled upon public notice of his religious background in any of the coverage about him. As it turns out, some basic research shows that he has a Jewish father. That means he’s a Jew in the eyes of the Reform movement . . . and also makes him eligible to play on Israel’s team in the World Baseball Classic. All of which is good enough for me to count him as a member of the tribe, if he is inclined to identify as one.

Digging deeper, a look at the many charities he supports also shows no sign of much Jewish interest, though he does donate to the Council on American Islamic Relations, more commonly known as CAIR, which began life as a political front for the Hamas terrorist organization.

My point is not to question Steyer’s Jewish bona fides if he should wish to claim them, but to observe that it is possible for a man with Jewish origins to become a leading figure in American society without the Jewish angle ever becoming an issue.

It hardly needs to be said that there really are no barriers to advancement for Jews in virtually any sector of American society, especially finance and politics. A century ago, any Jew of distinction was primarily known for the fact that he or she was Jewish, and yet still famous or accomplished. But in 2018, nobody cares who is Jewish except lunatics dwelling in fever swamps of the extreme left or extreme right.

More to the point: If you were amassing a list of prominent opponents of the NRA, such as the one LaPierre spouted about, it would be impossible to do so without naming many Jews primarily or even solely known for their politics.

To listen to LaPierre’s speech and to only hear Jewish names, rather than liberal anti-gun personalities, is an example of the kind of distorted thinking that does little to combat real anti-Semitism, yet tells us a lot about those seeking to demonize and delegitimize their right-wing opponents.

Nor is there any evidence, other than his hostility to Jewish liberals who disagree with him about guns, as well as to historic figures like Alinsky and Marx, that LaPierre has any problems with Jews. Equally absurd is the assumption by left-wing writers that CPAC is composed of anti-Semites. To the contrary, CPAC is a bastion of support for Israel and the Jewish people. Among the loudest cheers U.S. Vice President Mike Pence got during his CPAC speech was his mention of the administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

It ought to be possible to discuss the NRA and its leader—and even to criticize them harshly if you oppose its positions or his tone of speech—without raising false charges about dog-whistling about Jews. But unfortunately, in our bifurcated and dysfunctional political culture, it’s permissible to say anything, no matter how specious, about opponents. In this case, some Jewish leftists think the world only makes sense if, despite all the evidence to the contrary, they can believe that their conservative opponents are also anti-Semites.

At a time when there is a rising tide of anti-Semitism rooted in hatred for Israel sweeping over the globe, trying to cast someone like LaPierre as a Jew-hater is more than just inaccurate and defamatory. It undermines the fight against real anti-Semitism.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — the Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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