The last few weeks have been a fascinating insight into the language used to describe a powerful lobby in Washington. I’m not talking about the extremes here; I’m talking about mainstream left-of-center media. Let’s focus for a minute on the New York Times. Here are a handful of quotes from the paper’s recent editorial comments on the NRA, in chronological order:
“Americans puzzled by the growing gap between popular support for gun controls and Washington lawmakers’ obeisance to the gun lobby should know about the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation … This charity shows how deeply rooted the influence of the gun industry is on Capitol Hill and why getting sensible gun measures out of Congress is so hard, even after young children are massacred in their classrooms,” – NYT editorial, March 13.
“President Obama is being shouted down by the gun lobby … the president has been unable to break through the blockade set up by one of the most powerful and relentless lobbies in Washington… Polls show that more than 80 percent of Americans support universal background checks, but where are those Americans in this debate? The best-organized voices that officials have heard are those thwarting common sense on guns, forcing lawmakers to curl up and cower,” – NYT, April 4.
“South Dakota is currently leading the race to the bottom by arming teachers in their classrooms, but just wait; the pandering to the gun lobby is ferociously competitive,” – Bill Keller, March 24.
“Enactment of much-needed gun control legislation is being suffocated by thralldom to the gun lobby,” – a NYT letter, March 30.
“These senators made their decision based on political fear and on cold calculations about the money of special interests like the National Rifle Association, which in the last election cycle spent around $25 million on contributions, lobbying and outside spending,” – Gabby Giffords, NYT, April 17, in an op-ed called “A Senate In The Gun Lobby’s Grip.”
Pay attention to the rhetoric: the gun lobby holds the Senate in “thralldom”; senators fear its power to wreak revenge on them electorally or through advertisements – they are forced to “curl up and cower”; they exhibit “obeisance” to this small but intense lobby; they are in the lobby’s “grip.” The gun lobby is regarded as the reason there is a gap between public opinion broadly and the Senate’s voting patterns.
This is all Chuck Hagel ever said about the Israel lobby. The chief smear artist, Greater Israel fanatic Bret Stephens, called use of the word “intimidates” with respect to the Israeli Lobby as “ripe” with the “odor of prejudice”. In Stephens’ words:
The word “intimidates” ascribes to the so-called Jewish lobby powers that are at once vast, invisible and malevolent; and because it suggests that legislators who adopt positions friendly to that lobby are doing so not from political conviction but out of personal fear.
But that theme is exactly what has been ubiquitous in the NYT for the last few months – with respect to the NRA. Take Gabby Giffords’ words:
These senators made their decision based on political fear and on cold calculations about the money of special interests …
And yet no one has accused her of bigotry. Has it occurred to Stephens et al that she wasn’t being bigoted about the power of the NRA over Senators, and that “fear” of the NRA’s ability to destroy political careers is salient here. It is just as salient with AIPAC or creepier groups like Bill Kristol’s ludicrously titled “Emergency Committee for Israel,” – more so, in fact, given that almost every AIPAC initiative gets close to 100 percent support. Note, for example, how, during Israel’s pulverization of Gaza’s people and infrastructure in 2009, the American public was evenly divided. Not the Congress. As Glenn Greenwald noted at the time:
Not only does Rasmussen find that Americans generally “are closely divided over whether the Jewish state should be taking military action against militants in the Gaza Strip” (44-41%, with 15% undecided), but Democratic voters overwhelmingly oppose the Israeli offensive — by a 24-point margin (31-55%). By stark constrast, Republicans, as one would expect (in light of their history of supporting virtually any proposed attack on Arabs and Muslims), overwhelmingly support the Israeli bombing campaign (62-27%).
And remember that Rasmussen over-polls white older Republicans. So how did the US Congress react?
It unanimously passed by a voice vote a resolution backing Israel’s right to self-defense which Glenn described as a “completely one-sided, non-binding resolution that expresses unequivocal support for the Israeli war, and heaps all the blame for the conflict on Hamas and none of it on Israel.” AIPAC subsequently bragged about it.
My point is simply that talking about the Israel lobby in exactly the same way that everyone talks about the gun lobby is not and never has been ipso facto anti-Semitism. It is simply using very familiar rhetoric to bemoan the overweening influence of special interest groups in distorting public policy. The gun debate, it seems to me, proves this definitively, revealing the cynical, calculated wolf-crying behind the usual charges of anti-Semitism.
Imagine an op-ed in the New York Times which used exactly the same language about AIPAC as used about the NRA. Let’s look at those examples again.
“Americans are puzzled by the growing gap between popular opposition to West Bank settlements and Washington lawmakers’ obeisance to the Israel lobby …” “The pandering to the Israel lobby is ferociously competitive” … “Freezing Israeli settlement growth is being suffocated by thralldom to the Israel lobby” … “Polls show that Americans support an end to the West Bank settlements by 2 – 1 … but where are those Americans in this debate? The best-organized voices that officials have heard are those thwarting common sense, forcing lawmakers to curl up and cower” … “A Senate In The Israel Lobby’s Grip.”
Bret Stephens would find all this self-evidently anti-Semitic. The truth is that it is simply anti-special interest group. Yes, language describing nefarious lobbies behind the scenes pulling strings to get their way has been used in the past by anti-Semites. But if that kind of language is barred with sole respect to the Greater Israel Lobby, then the debate is effectively crippled – which is, of course, the point. For so long, the anti-Semitism card has been disgracefully, cynically played so that we can be stopped from debating the undemocratic distortion of our politics by special interest groups – in this case arguing for a foreign country’s brutal pounding of a de facto refugee camp.
Mercifully, the blogosphere has begun to break this double standard. Better late than never. One simple word of advice to bloggers writing about this: do not be bullied by threats. You will be smeared as a bigot, as I have been many times. But that says a whole lot more about them than it does about you.
(Photo: The American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbyist line up outside of Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. on March 5, 2013. By Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call/via Getty.)