America's most famous talk-show host brings his brand of chutzpah to Jerusalem. Are Israelis listening?
- By Michael A. CohenMichael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation.
JERUSALEM – For the global traveler who ventures to the city of Jerusalem, a visit to the world’s holiest place has been known to occasionally generate a unique and overwhelming reaction known as Jerusalem syndrome. This phenomenon can lead to a host of delusions and psychoses that generally revolve around the discovery by the afflicted that they are a Messiah-like figure, or perhaps a New Age prophet.
Listening on Wednesday night to Glenn Beck speak/preach/lecture in the shadow of the Dome of the Rock, the Al-Aqsa mosque, and the Western Wall, and a stone’s throw from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher — and depart the stage with a musical passage from Fiddler on the Roof — I couldn’t help think that he too had caught a bit of this Jerusalem bug.
"In Israel you can find people who will stand against incredible odds, against the entire tide of global opinion, just because it’s right, just because it’s good, and just because it’s true," Beck told the crowd of several hundred people and a smattering of empty chairs.
It takes a certain level of chutzpah to travel to one of the more contested places on Earth — and a place of awesome spiritual power — and preach to thousands of "believers," Jews and Christian alike, that they must remain steadfast in their support for Israel. It takes even more chutzpah for someone like Beck, who is neither a preacher nor a man of the cloth, but in fact a radio disc jockey and former television host to do it. Yet he appears to be making a rather smooth transition from political rabble-rouser to messianic spokesman.
Lacking in chutzpah has never really been Beck’s problem — and in his speech on the night of Aug. 24, it certainly showed.
First there was Beck’s veneration of his own prophesying skills. During his rambling sermon, he noted some of his far-reaching and correct prognostications: like in 1999, when he said that Osama bin Laden would attack the United States; and his later prediction that global financial markets would "seize up" and housing markets would crash, that there would be riots in Europe, and that upheaval in the Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere would bring more violence to Israel’s borders. (Then again, Beck’s assurances that the U.S. government’s Cash for Clunkers car-repurchasing program would be used to take over people’s computers and that President Barack Obama is intent on creating a national security force to take over the country didn’t come to fruition … yet.)
Nonetheless, the fact that there was an incident last week near the southern city of Eilat that killed eight Israelis was yet more "evidence" that Beck is more than just a mere media personality. While Beck said that "it didn’t take a prophet to see these things," it wasn’t difficult to draw the conclusion that he thinks himself something of a soothsayer whose warnings in Jerusalem of "mounting threats," "growing evil," and "falling darkness" should clearly be listened to and heeded.
Then there was Beck’s extraordinary admiration for the "Jewish people," which was both pedantic and deeply infantilizing. He speaks of Jews and Israelis like some American politicians speak of the "American people" — as if they all share the same set of values and aspirations. But the complicated truth is that this isn’t true in the United States, and it most certainly is not true in Israel today.
Beck seems to believe that the purity of Jews comes not from their actions or their behavior, but rather from their very self-identification as adherents to Judaism — "Love the Jewish people as they are," he said on Sunday at a rally in Caesarea. It’s almost as if Beck has never really spent any time with either Jews or Israelis, who, as the old joke goes, if you meet two of them, chances are you’ll hear three opinions.
The great irony of Beck’s adoration for the "Jewish people" is that he has a troubling pattern of flirting with virulent anti-Semitism. On his former Fox TV show, Beck "exposed" George Soros, a Hungarian-born Jew, as a puppet master controlling the U.S. government and economy, a presentation that writer Michelle Goldberg called "a symphony of anti-Semitic dog-whistles." And earlier this year, he named nine individuals who were enemies of the United States and humanity — eight of whom just happened to be Jews.
Some Israelis in attendance at Beck’s rally seemed oblivious to his past statements or even his status in the United States as a right-wing extremist. Of course, for those in Israel who share Beck’s views on the Arab-Israeli conflict — and the nature of the Palestinian threat to Israel — Beck’s anti-Semitism and reputation for right-wing demagoguery is likely of little concern. And, lo and behold, there was Beck, proclaiming that there is more courage in one Israeli soldier than exists in the "cold heart of every United Nations bureaucrat" — an impressive triple bank shot that combined Beck’s newfound love of the Jews with his hatred for government institutions and a delegitimization of the United Nations as it prepares to take up the issue of Palestinian statehood in September. As one Israeli rally-goer said to a colleague of mine, "I support Glenn Beck because Glenn Beck supports Israel."
Apparently that’s enough.
The Israeli government appears to share this sentiment. It provided the radio DJ and bestselling author with both the opportunity to speak and event advertising across the city. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat even made an appearance, warming up the crowd for Beck by pledging that, under Israeli rule, the holy places of Jerusalem will remain open and undivided — a pledge that, to a large extent, is in search of a problem.
Israel’s adoring welcome to Beck was yet another step in the process to strengthen its base of support among American Christian evangelicals. In fact, in the viewing area outside Jerusalem’s Safra Square, Beck’s Christian followers, many of whom he brought to Israel just for this event, sat in the VIP seats in the front (thousands of others watched in 1,400 viewing "parties" around the world). The Israelis sat in the cheap seats behind them.
But the greatest piece of chutzpah was Beck’s event title: Restoring Courage. In Beck’s world, standing up for Israel is an act of unique unselfishness. But it’s an odd position, as it is hard to think of a less controversial stance in the United States today than standing up for Israel’s security. As I strolled through the Old City of Jerusalem on Aug. 23, I came across Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) and later House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and did not get the sense that either man was paying a heavy political price for demonstrating his support for the Jewish state.
Indeed, had Beck wanted to see courage in Israel and Palestine, he perhaps should have taken the time to meet the members of Solidarity, a group of young Israeli activists protesting against the eviction of longtime Palestinian residents of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Solidarity members have been targeted by lawsuits, threatened with professional sanction, and accused by their own compatriots of being traitors to the state of Israel and the Jewish people.
Or perhaps Beck could have met members of the NGO, Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli soldiers that provide current soldiers and reservists with a platform to speak about their experiences in the territories. They could have taken Beck on one of their regular tours of the West Bank town of Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the occupied territories. These tours are meant to be an eye-opening experience for Israelis, who may not be familiar with the fact that to accommodate the needs of fewer than 1,000 Jewish settlers, more than 30,000 Palestinians in Hebron are forced to walk on a separate side of the street and are unable to operate shops in the city center or walk out the front doors of their own homes because they run directly in front of Jewish access roads. The result is that the old city of Hebron has today become a ghost town.
Beck may not know it, but the greatest act of audacity in Israel today is standing up to an increasingly toxic status quo that largely rejects the possibility of compromise with Palestinians and is grudgingly accepting the slow creep of laws that strike at the heart of Israel’s democratic character. In recent weeks, the Israeli Knesset passed a law that threatens any Israeli citizen with potential civil penalty for publicly endorsing boycotts directed at Israel. Pending legislation would set up McCarthy-style committees to investigate left-leaning groups or even cancel Arabic as an official Israeli language. Human rights groups and NGOs that focus on these issues have found themselves under increasing pressure and intimidation. It was an effort that Beck perhaps unintentionally legitimized in his remarks, blasting the "so-called human rights organizations" that accommodate evil and, in Beck’s words, have lost their "moral standing."
In Beck’s world, courage is a trait solely attributed to those who support Israel in its current form, not those who seek an alternative and more equitable future. But when it comes to preaching against the troubles that afflict not just Palestinians but the Israeli people, writ large — well, it would take some real chutzpah to talk about those.