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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