Demonizing Glenn Beck

By Alex Joffe
Friday, August 26, 2011

Few American public figures equal Glenn Beck in his ability to inspire loathing from his enemies and affection from his admirers.  Beck was in Israel this past week for a series of public events—in effect, revival meetings.  He called the tour "Restoring Courage." The first event, which took place in the amphitheater at Caesaria, brought out a crowd of some 3000, mostly Americans Christians but some Israelis as well.  Christians, Beck told his enthused audience, "not only love Israel, but we love the Jewish people as they are."  With Beck onstage was Pastor John Hagee, who roused the crowd to even greater heights by pronouncing, in an echo of Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, "Ani Yisraeli."

Nothing about Beck's background, religious beliefs, or politics resonates with liberal Americans or most American Jews. Beck is a disc jockey, radio host, former Fox News TV personality, conservative firebrand, and enemy of the Obama administration and American liberalism. He was a substance abuser and a spiritual seeker before he settled on Mormonism. With his aggressive, comic, sometimes conspiratorial, and riveting style, alternately manic and maudlin, he is relentless in his stated pursuit of an American revival. And he is a passionate supporter of Israel and of Jews.

Predictably, some Jews are incensed. Writing about Beck's "Restoring Courage" tour in the Forward, Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf describes Beck as a "declining conservative loudmouth" whose "radical conservative positions" are "a real danger to the well-being of Israelis and Palestinians alike." (Sheizaf must have missed the fact that the radio show of this "declining conservative loudmouth" draws a huge audience, numerous as ever. Beck's new imprint with Simon & Schuster has already produced one bestseller.)

Following the same script, M.J. Rosenberg of the Media Matters Action Network calls Beck's tour an attempt to transform a "failed extreme right-wing demagogue into an international figure popular in a country that is special to many, if not most, Americans." Rosenberg ominously warns that if Israelis embrace Beck, they "will antagonize Democrats who almost universally despise Beck—but whose support for Israel is vital in maintaining the U.S.-Israel alliance." (Rosenberg must have missed the fact that support for Israel is flagging in the Democratic Party but remains solid among Christian evangelicals.)

Less hysterically, Jeffrey Goldberg laments in the Atlantic that Glenn Beck is emerging not only as a defender of Israel but as "the Israeli right's favorite American friend."  In other words, in Goldberg's view, "A man considered too extreme and unstable to appear on Fox News is invited to speak at the Knesset and hold rallies in Jerusalem."  Goldberg warns, "I fear that Beck's August 24 rally in Jerusalem might mark the moment when the cause of Israel . . . jumps the shark."  (Goldberg has missed the February 2011 Gallup poll that puts American support for Israel at a near-record 63 percent, nowhere close to shark-jumping levels.)

But it is the warning by Rachel Tabachnik in Haaretz that cuts to the heart of the matter.  If Israel welcomes Beck, she says, "Israel's relationship with mainstream Jewish-Americans will suffer immense damage."  By "mainstream," of course, she means liberal. Indeed, the warnings by all these commentators reveal more about liberal American (and Israeli) Jews than about Israel's general standing in America.

They are particularly tied up with attitudes toward Christianity, especially in its more conservative manifestations. To put it in a nutshell, the conservative social agenda strikes many liberal Jews (not to mention liberals in general) as a mortal threat to American society, which is to say the American society they have striven so hard to fashion in their own image. So entrenched in liberal American Jewish discourse are the fear and hatred of conservative and evangelical Christians that many speak as if the "fundamentalists" were Cossacks planning pogroms. In their view, only primitive and uneducated people can hold strong religious beliefs; in Beck's case, the lack of certified educational credentials is another sign of his mental deficiency.

When it comes to Israel, all this expresses itself in outbursts like the ones quoted above, cloaked in a pious concern for the position of Jews in general and indeed for the Jewish state. The fear, as expressed, is that Israel's actions will provoke a fatal alienation or create anti-Semitism in others.  The worry, as expressed, is that if Israelis accept support from the "wrong people"—that is, religious and political conservatives—the sky will fall. Put more candidly, the real fear may be that a strong connection between "Beck" and Israel will damage the position of liberal Jews themselves with their own social class.

But that position is already damaged, in the sense that it is badly out of synch both with much of Israel and with much of America. As in many red states, Israelis value big families, vigorous self-defense, and a version of energetic capitalism, even as they ensure the rights of gays and worry over social inequality. Despite external threats and internal convulsions, Israeli unity and national pride remain strong. As it happens, these virtues are also key elements of the broader American ethos, and—not at all coincidentally—of the evangelical support for Israel to which Beck gives voice.

It is not hard to find fault with Glenn Beck, and in particular with his conspiratorial style. But reasoned criticism is one thing, and cries of anathema are something else—howls of a "progressive" class out of step with, and marching far behind, those it would lead into the light.

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

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