The debate over the Iran nuclear agreement, like most political debates these days, has reached the inevitable stage where the policy content of the debate has become subordinate to a meta-argument over hidden bias. President Obama’s opponents began the debate with the conviction that he failed to appreciate the deep anti-Semitism that animates Iran’s regime. They have since progressed to the belief that Obama himself has engaged in anti-Semitism. Obama is “dog whistling” supporters who harbor fears of “the power of a bunch of disloyal bureaucrats eager to shed American blood for Israel,” frets Eli Lake. In The Weekly Standard, Bush administration veteran Elliott Abrams charges the president with “feeding a deep line of anti-Semitism that accuses American Jews of getting America into wars.” Lee Smith, writing for the Jewish magazine Tablet, claims Obama is “hinting broadly at anti-Semitic conceits — like dual loyalties, moneyed interests, Jewish lobby” and calling his opponents “dual loyalists who are willing to send Americans out to make war on behalf of Jewish causes.” Tablet’s editors have endorsed Smith’s accusations.
It is certainly true that anti-Semitic themes reliably crop up in elements of left-wing discussions of foreign policy and the Middle East. Many anti-Zionists harbor paranoid suspicions of Jewish political power, and insist on seeing Jewish hawks as inhabiting a special, nefarious role within the American right, thus giving Jews an exaggerated responsibility for American foreign policy in the Middle East in general, and the Iraq War in particular. They likewise persist in portraying support for Israel as a form of dual loyalty. (A Daily Kos cartoon this weekend portraying Senator Charles Schumer — a Jewish Democrat who opposes the Iran deal — as a “traitor” offers a recent and relatively typical example of this tendency.)
But where is the evidence that Obama himself has engaged in this kind of rhetoric? His critics rely heavily on the power of translation. The various J’accuse! columns are filled with inflammatory terms — “disloyal,” “Jewish lobby” — that the authors use to describe Obama, but that Obama did not actually use. The headline for Abrams’s column in The Weekly Standard — “Obama and the ‘Amen Corner’” — features a phrase uttered not by Obama but by Pat Buchanan more than two decades ago. In the absence of direct evidence, or even indirect evidence, the critics instead read deeply into straightforward claims Obama has made.
His most inflammatory passage is from a speech defending the Iran deal last month, in which Obama reminded his audience that most of the critics of the deal argued for the Iraq War:
Between now and the congressional vote in September, you are going to hear a lot of arguments against this deal, backed by tens of millions of dollars in advertising. And if the rhetoric in these ads and the accompanying commentary sounds familiar, it should, for many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran nuclear deal.
This reference to supporters of the Iraq War could be seen as anti-Semitic if Obama considered the Iraq War a Jewish project. But he has never said anything like this, and there’s no reason to think he believes it. Obama’s invocation of the Iraq War is anti-Semitic if you assume that Obama’s criticism of the Iraq War is rooted in anti-Semitism. The anti-Semitic theme is implanted completely by his critics. It exists nowhere in or near the text of Obama’s own words.
The other line seized upon by the critics comes via news reports. The offending passage is a New York Times report that “The president said he understood the pressures that senators face from donors and others.” This seems like not just an obvious description of political reality, but a sympathetic one. Lobbying and political donations play an important role in American politics on a wide range of issues, including foreign policy. It’s not anti-Semitic to acknowledge the existence of a pro-Israel lobby, nor is it anti-Semitic to criticize lobbyists — a common rhetorical trope in politics. What’s anti-Semitic is to treat this lobby as singularly nefarious. Obama’s reported statement merely acknowledges the obvious fact that there is lobbying against the Iran deal and expresses sympathy with senators who need to account for this lobbying. Now, here is Abrams, in The Weekly Standard, surrounding Obama’s anodyne statement with lurid meanings plucked from his own runaway imagination:
Mr. Obama has started arguing that the opposition comes from people who are in the pay of big donors, or who put Israel’s security first. This practice actually began in January, when the president met with all Democratic senators and discussed the Iran negotiations. According to The New York Times’s report, “The president said he understood the pressures that senators face from donors and others, but he urged the lawmakers to take the long view rather than make a move for short-term political gain.”
The statement would have been bad enough had the president referred only to “short term political gain.” By doing so he was saying critics of the coming Iran deal had no real principled objections and were simply playing politics with national security. It was vintage Obama: there’s no real debate here, just my principles and the dirty political motives of those who disagree.
But that’s not all he said, and “Donors and others” was a clear reference to opposition from AIPAC and the Jewish community. Lest anyone misunderstand, the president and his close supporters have been even clearer as the debate has gotten hotter. The basic idea is simple: to oppose the president’s Iran deal means you want war with Iran, you’re an Israeli agent, you are in the pay of Jewish donors, and you are abandoning the best interests of the United States.
This is a triumph of interpretation over text. Abrams’s logic is that Obama said “donors,” and by “donors” he means “Jews,” and by “Jews” he means “Israeli agents subverting the interests of the United States.” Thus, by digging through multiple layers of alleged rhetorical obfuscation, Abrams is able to uncover a meaning that is nowhere to be found in the words themselves.
Abrams does not mention that Obama’s actual speech on Iran explicitly makes the case that opposing the Iran deal on the grounds of concern for Israel is a legitimate and justifiable position for Americans to take:
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. …
I recognize that prime minister Netanyahu disagrees, disagrees strongly. I do not doubt his sincerity, but I believe he is wrong. I believe the facts support this deal. I believe they are in America’s interests and Israel’s interests, and as president of the United States it would be an abrogation of my constitutional duty to act against my best judgment simply because it causes temporary friction with a dear friend and ally.
Obama allows that some of his opponents oppose the Iran deal because they consider it harmful to Israel’s interests, and this is a perfectly fine reason to oppose it, but that Obama believes the deal is good for Israel. Not only does Obama not make a charge of dual loyalty, he goes out of his way to say that even if Americans want to oppose his deal on pro-Israel grounds, they have every right to do so.
Both Lake and Smith accuse Obama of — in their term — “dog whistling.” The use of the phrase is revealing. A dog whistle can be a real thing. When Jesse Helms ran an ad denouncing affirmative action, he was obviously appealing to a deeper sentiment than mere advocacy of color-blind hiring practices. Of course, the “dog whistle” analysis can also be used to ignore plain meanings and interrogate the hidden motivations of an idea without evidence to support such a charge. Normally, conservatives use “dog whistle” as a punch line. But they are happy to enforce their own p.c. when the politics suit them.
Update: Wall Street Journal editorial-page columnist Bret Stephens today repeats the charge that Obama is exploiting anti-Semitism. Here is the relevant portion of Stephens’s argument, in its entirety:
Apparently, he thinks there’s nothing amiss in suggesting that the only thing standing between the present moment and the broad, sunlit uplands of a denuclearized Iran is the Jewish state and its warmongering Beltway lobbyists.
That slur in particular was the loudest dog whistle heard in Washington since Pat Buchanan said in 1990 that the Gulf War —advocated by columnists like Abe Rosenthaland Charles Krauthammer—would be fought by “American kids with names like McAllister, Murphy, Gonzales and Leroy Brown.” Then again, Mr. Buchanan wasn’t the president.
Notice that Stephens does not quote a single word of Obama’s. His entire characterization of Obama’s alleged anti-Semitism rests on a paraphrase. Instead he quotes Pat Buchanan. It seems weird to argue that a figure said something anti-Semitic and then, rather than quote the anti-Semitic thing that person allegedly said, quote an anti-Semitic thing said 25 years ago, by a figure in another party who loathes him.