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Glenn Beck, fear and the Jewish community

By Joseph Dana

There is an old joke about two stocky Austrian men walking down a street in Vienna. One of the men turns to the other with an open newspaper and says, “Here you can see again how a totally justified anti-Semitism is being misused for a cheap critique of Israel!” Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek often uses this joke to demonstrate how potentially dangerous some Christian Zionist support for Israel can be for the Jewish community. Indeed, the sentiment expressed in Zizek’s joke was on display last Wednesday as American political pundit Glenn Beck began his ‘restoring courage’ spectacle in Jerusalem.

Glenn Beck is one of America’s most controversial political commentators due to his mix of radically conservative politics and fiery anti-left rhetoric. This year, Beck’s vicious attacks of Democrats like George Soros got him fired from Fox News, the conservative 24-hour news channel owned by Rupert Murdoch, but it did not impede his programme of stoking the flames of conservatism in the United States.

After Beck was fired from Fox News, he set his sights on cultivating a close relationship with the Israeli government. In July, the newly independent radio host addressed a special session of Israeli politicians in Jerusalem. Beck openly endorsed Israel’s controversial policies in the occupied Palestinian territories using deceptive language to describe Israeli courage in the face of overwhelming problems with the Arab world. For Beck, Israel at the centre of a clash of civilisations and a global battle between good and evil.

For some in the Israeli government, worried about the wave of revolution sweeping the Middle East and Palestinian attempts to declare statehood at the United Nations in September, Beck has become a fast friend. Like other Christian Zionist leaders in the United States, Beck employs language saturated in fear of the Arab world and his complete lack of obloquy for Israel’s clear violations of international law fit nicely with Israeli campaigns to stem international isolation.

While Israeli leaders embrace Beck, many Jews in the United States have openly criticised him for using anti-Semitic tropes. Jewish leaders such the conservative Abraham Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League and Rabbi Eric Yoffe, the president of the Union of Reform Judaism have cited Beck’s routine references to anti-Jewish writers such as Elizabeth Dilling as evidence that Beck might not be a friend to the Jews.

Standing under the golden dome of the rock next to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, Beck delivered a sunset speech about restoring “courage” in the US. He praised Israeli leaders deeply connected to the settlement project inside the occupied West Bank for their charity to Palestinians but mostly focused on attacking international bodies such as the United Nations who, in Beck’s imagination, unfairly tarnish Israel’s image. Praising Israeli courage in the face of adversity, Beck elevated Israel to a near mythic model of how Western countries should face the issues which define our age, most specifically, conflicts between East and West.

Just before his events in Israel, Beck labelled Israel’s tent protesters — a movement with 87% public support demanding a reallocation of economic resources inside Israeli society — as leftist socialists with possible links to global Islamic networks. The idiocy of his statements dried up much of Beck’s popular support inside Israel, a possible reason for the extremely low turnout to his events in Jerusalem and outside of Haifa, but did not stop the warm relationship between Beck and senior Israeli officials such as Likud Knesset Member and chair of the committee for immigration, absorption and diaspora affairs Danny Danon.

Towards the end of Beck’s sermon in Jerusalem he flatly rejected claims that Israel is practicing a form of Apartheid in the West Bank. “Next week, I am travelling to Cape Town to see what Apartheid really looked like,” Beck told a jubilant crowd of wealthy American Christian Zionists, “some say Israel is practicing Apartheid, and it is not!”

Compared with other diaspora communities, the Jews of South Africa have maintained extremely tight bonds with the State of Israel, formed in part because of a strict allegiance to Zionism formulated in Zionist youth movements’ which engender deep psychological bonds to the state and the idea of a Jewish national homeland. Unwavering support for Israel, no matter its policies, has been the majority trend among South African Jews, especially in the post-apartheid years. In comparison, the Jewish community of the United States — the largest and strongest in the world — has become more nuanced in its approach to Israel in the last 25 years.

Group 18, the pro-Israel advocacy outfit which hosted Beck in Cape Town, has dedicated enormous resources to defending an image of Israel which is light on factual analysis and heavy on an emotional pull, which describes an Israel under attack from international forces which seeks to isolate the small Mediterranean country through boycotts similar to the ones which helped to end apartheid in South Africa. While Group 18 is certainly the fringe of pro-Israel advocacy in South Africa, part of its success is the exploitation of fear and insecurity inside the Jewish community.

Efforts to protect Israel from international isolation over its treatment of Palestinians, similar to the isolation which South Africa experienced during apartheid, have pushed some of the most vocal pro-Israel supporters into the hands of people with narrow and dangerous political goals. As the international community wakes up to Israeli intransigence regarding international law and the occupation, Israel’s remaining friends might turn out to be anti-Semites.

Joseph Dana is a journalist based in Tel Aviv. He is a senior writer at the Israeli web magazine+972.com.