The night before Yom Kippur, Richard Land, the keynote speaker at a Christian Coalition of Florida dinner in Orlando, said this about the Obama administration:
I want to put it to you bluntly. What they are attempting to do in health care, particularly in treating the elderly, is not something like what the Nazis did. It is precisely what the Nazis did.
Land isn’t some shock jock. He is president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public-policy arm of the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. And there’s no disputing the intent of Land’s words. He followed up by claiming that he was giving “the Dr. Josef Mengele Award” to White House medical adviser Ezekiel Emanuel.
But since then, there has been no response from the American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League or, apparently, any major Jewish organization. As the Nazi comparisons become increasingly common among opponents of health-care reform, the impolitic question arises: Why aren’t Jewish groups doing more to fight it?
It’s quite a feat for right-wingers to compare opponents to Nazis while simultaneously deriding them as Marxists, as though Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, whose armies killed more of each other’s citizens than any warring groups in human history, were somehow ideological buddies. But under the influence of Jonah Goldberg’s best-seller Liberal Fascism, conservative commentators did exactly this in the runup to the 2008 election, and have amped up their analogies ever since. In February, the Washington Times ran a photo of Hitler alongside an editorial comparing efforts to increase the efficiency of health-care information technology with Nazi euthanasia programs. In March, radio host Tammy Bruce said the stimulus bill created a “Nazi, fascist health czar,” with the result being, “We’re all going to die.” Over the summer, Rush Limbaugh said Obama was “sending out his brownshirts” to town-hall meetings, claimed the administration’s health-care logo “is damn close to a Nazi swastika,” and devoted considerable time to examining “similarities between the Democrat Party of today and the Nazi Party in Germany.” Glenn Beck compared GM dealership closures with Nazi deportations and pleaded with listeners to read Mein Kampf to understand Obama’s tactics.
Yet organized Jewish response has been scattershot and ineffective. On August 7, the ADL and AJC issued statements calling comments made by Limbaugh “offensive.” But Rush was comparing Obama to Hitler on air three days later. When a town-hall attendee asked Representative Barney Frank, “Why do you continue to support a Nazi policy, as Obama has?” he denounced her question as “vile, contemptible nonsense.” But Frank’s response didn’t trigger a broader reaction against Nazi comparisons; on the contrary, Fox News’ Steve Doocy slammed Frank for his “attitude.” (Pushy Jews!)
“Has everyone gone to the Hamptons?” Allison Gaudet Yarrow asked at the Jewish Daily Forward after the Frank exchange. “Why aren’t Jews everywhere loudly outraged that health care reform is being compared to the extermination of six million people?”
There are various explanations: Nonpartisan organizations typically avoid wading into partisan battles like health-care reform. Some Jewish leaders who feel estranged from Obama over Middle Eastern issues may not want to defend him. Others may not consider radio entertainers a serious political threat.
More than anything, though, in breaking the old rules of political debate, the radical right has created a new game, and Jewish groups haven’t figured out how to play it. Post–World War II, if a famous American referenced Hitler or the Holocaust, it was typically seen as a careless comparison or slip of the tongue or bad joke — a mistake. Jewish organizations would criticize such remarks and then either educate or shame the speaker into never making them again. Two weeks ago, after Florida Representative Alan Grayson, a Jewish Democrat, compared health care to a “Holocaust in America,” the ADL requested a retraction. Within one day, Grayson apologized. That’s how the cycle supposedly works. “Reverend Land’s comments are offensive and reprehensible,” Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, told us. “We will do what we do with all spiritual or political leaders who seem sincere about what they believe. We reach out, we explain to them, we ask them not to use such comparisons again. And we have had success.”
“There should be a common understanding that we do not use these kinds of analogies,” says Kenneth Bandler, spokesman for the American Jewish Committee. Sighing, he adds, “Maybe they haven’t been challenged sufficiently to take back what they’ve said.”
On Tuesday, the National Republican Congressional Committee linked via Twitter to a parody video of Hitler saying, among other things, “At least I still have [Nancy] Pelosi on my side.” That brought a sharp rebuke from the National Jewish Democratic Council, a group that seeks to strengthen ties between Jewish organizations and the Democratic Party. "The GOP and conservatives' use of Holocaust rhetoric has reached unprecedented levels. It has to stop," NJDC President David Harris said. (If you're wondering how this stuff trickles down, consider this: Yesterday, Obama's name was found imprinted with a swastika on a Massachusetts golf course.)
But Land, Limbaugh, and their ilk are immune to guilt; after all, they say, they are attacking, not promoting, Nazism. In August, Beck rationalized the painting of a swastika outside Georgia Democrat representative David Scott’s office: The vandals “are not saying, ‘We hate you because you’re a Jew,’” Beck told listeners. “They're saying, ‘We hate you because you’re a Nazi!’”
Ultimately, injecting Hitler analogies into subjects like Medicare reimbursement rates renders the Holocaust mundane, as though Nazis simply supported big government, rather than genocide. To keep the Holocaust defined as the specifically and racially targeted mass murder that it was, Jewish organizations are going to need a new political strategy. Because today’s radical right wants aggrieved Americans to see Barack Obama as Hitler without needing to see themselves as Jewish.