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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Obama should condemn anti-Semitic tone on Iran deal

In this July 16, 2015 file photo, Sen.

In this July 16, 2015 file photo, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) walks on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo Credit: AP / Susan Walsh

The contentious debate about the nuclear deal with Iran has turned into a troubling controversy over the loyalties of American Jews and coded anti-Semitism.

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson has accused President Barack Obama of being anti-Semitic in his dismissal of Israel's concerns about the agreement. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who intends to vote against it, has faced a backlash that includes attacks on his Jewish heritage. Conservatives have accused the White House and its supporters of using bigoted innuendo to portray the deal's opponents as a Jewish cabal -- while liberals have accused conservatives of playing the anti-Semitism card to silence debate.

Carson's claim that Obama is knowingly sacrificing Israel's safety rather than disagreeing with the Israeli leadership's view of the security risks seems a stretch. But a far more specific claim of anti-Semitic "dog whistles," backed by the Jewish online magazine Tablet, stems from a speech Obama gave last month. In it, he asserted that arguments against the deal are "backed by tens of millions of dollars" and come from "many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq."

Some, including Tablet's own contributors Matt Duss and Todd Gitlin, believe it's paranoid to see this as a veiled reference to Jews. Yet Jewish wealth used for nefarious purposes is a sadly familiar trope, and the notion that Jews got America to fight "Israel's war" in Iraq is an equally familiar theme -- both on the anti-Israel far left and on the racist far right.

Obama defenders say there's no reason to believe the president shares this notion. Others, such as Tablet's Lee Smith, note that none of the leading proponents of the war in Iraq -- Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld -- are vocally opposing the Iran deal. (Conversely, the Israeli government was not exactly cheerleading for the Iraq invasion.) The main overlap is among hawkish American pundits -- often dubbed "neocons" -- many of whom are, in fact, Jewish.

Was Obama playing to this ugly sentiment? None of us are mind-readers; it is worth noting that in the same speech, he mentioned concern for the security of Israel, our ally, as a legitimate (if, in his view, misguided) reason to oppose the Iran agreement.

In a way, this debate is an ironic reversal of the usual polemics on racial issues, in which liberals often accuse the right of using code words while conservatives often accuse the left of playing the race card. In both cases, finding the middle ground between speech-stifling hypervigilance and tolerance of toxic rhetoric is no easy task.

The merits of the Iran deal, and its potential drawbacks both for Israel's security and for that of the West, are a separate and complex question. (Skeptics include not only Israel, whose criticism Obama has singled out, but Saudi Arabia and exiled Iranian dissidents.) What's not in dispute is that the West is witnessing a disturbing surge in anti-Semitism barely cloaked in opposition to Israeli policies. American Jewish reggae star Matisyahu has just been dropped from a Spanish music festival because of pressure from anti-Israel groups.

Unfortunately, it is also a fact that some zealous supporters of the Iran deal are openly echoing this bigotry. The #DumpSchumer Twitter hashtag is a cesspool of anti-Jewish venom. A cartoon on the left-wing site The Daily Kos cartoon shows the senator as Woodchuck Schumer standing next to an Israeli flag and labels him a traitor.

The president should speak out clearly that such hateful language has no place in our discourse. It would go a long way toward clearing the air.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.


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