Maureen Dowd and Anti-Semitic Imagery

September 16, 2012 § 14 Comments

Maureen Dowd’s column in this morning’s New York Times going after Dan Senor and other neoconservatives has made a lot of people upset. Titled “Neocons Slither Back,” it employs a number of disturbing classical anti-Semitic tropes and images. After quoting from Paul Ryan’s hawkish foreign policy speech to the Values Voter Summit, Dowd writes, “Ryan was moving his mouth, but the voice was the neocon puppet master Dan Senor,” and later describes him as the “ventriloquist” for Ryan and Mitt Romney. In talking about GOP foreign policy, she says, “After 9/11, the neocons captured one Republican president who was naïve about the world. Now, amid contagious Arab rage sparked on the 11th anniversary of 9/11, they have captured another would-be Republican president and vice president, both jejeune about the world.” Senor is Jewish and the term “neocon” has become an unfortunate shorthand for Jews in many circles, and the idea that Jewish advisors are pulling strings behind the scenes and controlling world events and weak-minded actors is as classically anti-Semitic as it gets.

I read the column last night and have to confess that none of this crossed my mind at all until Senor’s wife, Campbell Brown, tweeted out this critique of Dowd’s column alleging that it was anti-Semitic, at which point I re-read Dowd and it came across in a new light. I never call things out as as anti-Semitic unless they are extremely egregious since I do not think it is useful to water down the term so that the charge rarely carries much weight anymore, so perhaps my radar for this kind of thing needs to be recalibrated. My original inclination was that Senor’s Judaism was incidental in this case, and that there is an important distinction to be made between criticizing Jews because they are Jewish vs. criticizing people who happen to be Jewish. I was willing to give Dowd the benefit of the doubt because that is how the column read to me and because I have never had any sense from stuff that she has written that she is anti-Semitic or goes after Jews in particular. There is, however, the unfortunate fact that many people use the term neocon as a code of sorts to refer to Jews, and Dowd did not stop at criticizing Senor but brought neocons writ large into the picture. So after thinking about it overnight, I am still not prepared to tar Dowd as an anti-Semite, but there is no doubt that the column is deeply troubling to many and rightly so.

There is an issue this raises though, which is to what extent certain criticism of Jews should be off-limits given the sordid history of anti-Semitism. Had Dowd written a column without the marionette imagery, or if Senor were not Jewish, the anti-Semitism charge would have never been raised, but has been given the combination of the specific type of criticism leveled here along with the idea of Senor manipulating his Gentile bosses. Does that mean that criticizing Senor for pushing a hawkish interventionist policy as part of his advice to Romney and Ryan is completely out of bounds? It certainly shouldn’t be if you are a liberal columnist concerned with the possible return of George W. Bush’s first-term foreign policy agenda. I also think that as Jews, we do not want to arrive at a place where people think that they cannot direct legitimate criticism at us just because we happen to be Jewish and they do not want to run afoul of anti-Semitism. Some criticism is anti-Semitic but much is not, and it will not benefit the Jewish community long term if we hurl around the anti-Semitism charge in any but the most clear cut case. I know there are many who will argue that Dowd’s column meets that standard and I understand why. I just think we need to make sure that if someone wants to call out a Jewish public figure’s bad actions or poor policy prescriptions, there is a way to do it without it turning into a maelstrom of bigotry charges. Dowd should have been a lot more careful and sensitive to what she was implying, but I genuinely believe that this was a case of her coming down on Senor’s ideas rather than his ethnicity or undue influence.

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§ 14 Responses to Maureen Dowd and Anti-Semitic Imagery

  • I was not aware that Neocon is a synonym for Jewish; I don’t think her column was Anti-Semitic in any way. The accusation of Anti-Semitism is becoming a very convenient way to intimidate and silence legitimate criticism. This is unfortunate and possibly dangerous.

  • Bill Glover says:

    Your comments prompted me to read Dowd’s column. I detected not a shred of antisemitism in her very accurate observations on Dan Senor’s role in the Romney/Ryan campaign. Senor’s wife might be expected to defend him but suggesting that the use of the word “Neocon” is anti-Semitic is preposterous.

  • Bob Winter says:

    Sorry, you lost me. To describe someone like Senor given his past and his associations as a neocon, is simply accurate and a way of conveying information. I see nothing whatsoever in the context to suggest antisemitism; and, you suggest nothing about the context that is persuasive on the point. I expect you first reaction — that none of that nonsense crossed your mind when you first read the column — was the position you should have maintained on reflection.

  • a says:

    It’s not just the puppetmaster imagery. It’s also that Senor’s more of a Kissinger-type realist than a neocon, a distinction that (like lots of conceptual distinctions) probably doesn’t especially matter to Dowd. Lots of people don’t especially care about that distinction, and they don’t draw it at all when it comes to Jews. They think Jewish + hawk = neocon in all cases. It might well be that in most cases it’s anti-hawk passion rather than antisemitism that makes people who think like that blind to nuance. But then when the puppetmaster imagery’s added to the mix, one does sometimes wonder…

  • Mark says:

    Just as a factual matter what is it that makes Senor a “neocon”?

  • richardp says:

    Re “There is an issue this raises though, which is to what extent certain criticism of Jews should be off-limits given the sordid history of anti-Semitism.”
    To absolutely no extent if the subject has nothing to do with the very religion, race etc. of the criticised person. And yes, the claim that the word “neocon” may become “anti-Semitic” (in a cetrain context..) is indeed preposterous and sounds plainly paranoic.

  • Mark says:

    The problem with the term is that it has come to mean different things to different people. To some it’s a term covering anyone who supported the Iraq war. As A pointed out Senor doesn’t neatly fit as a neocon and was an aide to Bremer whom the neocons disliked, but he did support the war. The neocons themselves (I always think of Bill Kristol as the example) took a different view of the Arab Spring than did the Israeli government. On the other hand, if you’ve waded into the cesspool of comments on Daily Kos or HuffPo, anytime the Middle East comes up it is clear that many commentators equate NeoCons with Jews or their tools. Same for the guy at Adbusters who sparked the Occupy Movement (OWS itself contained a nice sprinkling of clear anti-semites). So, I disagree with RichardP – it’s not preposterous or paranoic to think the word and the other tropes Dowd raised are anti-semitic (it wasn’t the word neocon alone) but you also can’t say whether it was intended that way.

  • qqduckus says:

    Israel has not helped the situation by maintaining that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, which is of course a ludicrous proposal, especially considering how many Israelis criticize their own country. As suggested, this dilutes the meaning of the word and trivializes serious anti-Semitism.

  • Mark says:

    Further to my comment above. From Jeffrey Goldbery’s blog today:

    The left-wing activist Kalle Lasn, founder of Adbusters magazine, and the Occupy movement, made the connection clear in an infamous 2004 article entitled, “Why Won’t Anyone Say They Are Jewish?” Lasn, in the style of John Mearsheimer and Fred Malek, who are famous for cataloguing Jews, made a list of people he identified as Jewish neoconservatives for his readers. This is how he introduced the subject:

    ” Drawing attention to the Jewishness of the neocons is a tricky game. Anyone who does so can count on automatically being smeared as an anti-Semite….Here at Adbusters, we decided to tackle the issue head on and came up with a carefully researched list of who appear to be the 50 most influential neocons in the U.S. (see above). Deciding exactly who is a neocon is difficult since some neocons reject the term while others embrace it. Some shape policy from within the White House, while others are more peripheral, exacting influence indirectly as journalists, academics and think tank policy wonks. What they all share is the view that the U.S. is a benevolent hyper power that must protect itself by reshaping the rest of the world into its morally superior image. And half of them are Jewish.”

    (My favorite part of this was Lasn’s use of the word “smear” to describe what happens to people who make public lists of Jews they despise.)

    This article heavily influenced the discourse about neoconservatives on the far-left and far-right (which tend to agree on subjects including “Jewish power,” the “Jewish lobby,” Israel and Zionism.) Please see here and here, here, here, and here, for other extremist articles on the tight connection between Jews and neoconservatism.

  • [...] it does not have negative consequences because of the words’ valence as an anti-semitic trope.  As Michael Koplow argues “Dowd should have been a lot more careful and sensitive to what she was i…  However, Koplow adds a crucial further point that is missing in Goldberg’s piece by noting the [...]

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