Exploiting religious divisions for political gain

Accusations of anti-Semitism are being used as a partisan weapon in the the Lieberman-Lamont race.

Published August 8, 2006 6:52PM (EDT)

Whatever the outcome is Tuesday night in the Lamont-Lieberman race, this contest should be remembered for the clear emergence of an ugly and alarming development -- namely, the unabashed and undiluted use of anti-Semitism accusations as a partisan tool to win elections. And that tactic is clearly part of a growing right-wing reliance upon the basest and most divisive tactics of identity politics and religious tribalism.

In recent weeks, as Lieberman supporters became more fearful that their candidate could actually lose, accusations that Lieberman opponents are motivated by anti-Semitism have become commonplace. Bill Kristol's latest column is titled "Anti-war, Anti-Israel, Anti-Joe," and Kristol claims that "Democrats have adopted a 'European' attitude toward Israel. And toward the United States. That is the meaning of Connecticut Democrats' likely repudiation of Joe Lieberman." A column on Hugh Hewitt's blog, promoted today by Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds, alleges that there has "been a disquieting whiff of anti-Semitism in the anti-Lieberman campaign." Dean Barnett wrote in the Weekly Standard: "Some Americans believe that Israel should not exist. And these are the Americans that Lamont and other Democrats have so eagerly embraced."

Marshall Whittman Monday insinuated darkly that "the degree of left hatred (sic) toward Joe sometimes betrays something deeper," and then came right out with it: "Anti-Semitism will often not speak its name directly, but there is a distinct undercurrent that may explain some of the irrational venom." The Lieberman camp itself has blamed what it claims is a "growing strain of anti-Semitism" for opposition to the senator. As the New York Times put it in a recent article: "Some of Mr. Lieberman's supporters say there is a strain of anti-Semitism in the antiwar left that could make Jewish voters uneasy about supporting Mr. Lamont."

This increasingly aggressive use of anti-Semitism accusations as a political weapon is visible beyond Connecticut. Indeed, it appears to be a prominent weapon in the Republican arsenal as the GOP battles to maintain control of Congress this year. Within the last several weeks, the Weekly Standard has been publishing articles suggesting that Jews ought to feel obligated to vote Republican because of President Bush's support for Israel and the supposedly substantial anti-Semitism on "the left."

One such article, by David Gelernter and titled "When Will They Ever Learn?" (referring to Jewish support for Democrats), argued that Jews "who continue to insist on voting Democratic" provide a "lesson in self-destructive nihilism," and that Jewish support for Democrats is part of the "tragic history of [Jewish Americans] acting against their own professed interests." Writing about that article, Scott Johnson of the Powerline blog argued that the reason "why so may American Jews hate the president who stands by Israel" is because they are not true adherents to Judaism; instead, "the true religion of the American Jews within Professor Gelernter's sights is liberalism."

This number of examples, within such a short period of time, constitutes a clear trend. And it is an ugly and divisive trend, where accusations of anti-Semitism become just another partisan plaything designed to sow yet more tribalistic divisions among Americans for domestic political gain. Accusing those who oppose Jewish candidates of anti-Semitism, or instructing American Jews that they must vote Republican, is to descend to the lowest levels of political manipulation.

The anti-Semitism accusations themselves are too frivolous to merit much discussion. These same accusers will be the first to claim, with no intended irony, that the favored candidate of the "far left" is Jewish Sen. Russell Feingold -- the candidate who has had a massive lead among Daily Kos readers in its last several presidential straw polls. Beyond that, the notion that the Bush administration's foreign policy is better for Israel is highly debatable, and, in any event, the suggestion that Jewish Americans must vote in American political elections based upon dual loyalty to Israel is offensive and indescribably divisive.

In one sense, there is nothing new about these efforts to create religious divisions for partisan gain. Republicans spent 2004 attacking the authenticity of John Kerry's Roman Catholicism, insisting that good Catholics were compelled to vote for Bush and that Kerry -- to use the GOP's phrase -- was "wrong for Catholics." These religious smears reached their low point with the crusade by certain prominent Republican Catholics to deny Communion to Kerry. As Reason magazine documented, dividing the electorate based on religious lines was central to the GOP strategy: "Throughout the 2004 campaign, [Karl] Rove maintained that, if Bush won the Catholic vote, he would be reelected. Rove was right."

But the naked and widespread political exploitation of anti-Semitism on a national level is new. And it is, in equal parts, reprehensible and dangerous. The Lieberman race leaves no doubt that dividing Americans along religious lines to try to win elections is becoming a more widely used and acceptable tactic.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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