Sometimes, when trying to stretch stories to fit into Tablet Magazine, I engage in what might be termed Jew-spotting or Jew-counting. It’s easier for me than for another writer because of the credibility bought by my presence at this magazine and on its masthead. Still, I try to observe a basic rule: somebody’s Jewishness can never be used as proof for something else about the person. Frequently I’ll try to use shared attributes of a group of people to prove something about Jewishness, but never the other way around. If something is Jewish (pace Lenny Bruce), that’s okay; if Jewish is something, that’s not. Armed with that rule, and with the understanding that Jewishness is extremely dialectical—very sensitive to doubts and criticism, such that its most strident attributes frequently exist alongside their exact opposites (ultra-religious and secular, socialist and free-market, etc.)—I’ve been able to write, I hope convincingly, about the “Jewishness” of subjects as diverse as advanced statistics in sports, of Casablanca, and, by writing about Christopher Hitchens, of radical politics. In this way, I’ve tried to avoid allowing my love of Jews to verge into the sort of philosemitism that Adam Kirsch rightly noted is the dialectical sibling of something far darker.
This blog post, written by Brooks Bayne (I’d never heard of him either, but the guy has more than 100,000 Twitter followers), is an object lesson in letting “Jew” do the talking. And this would be true if it were written philosemitically, although, of course, it’s written anti-Semitically (and yes, I see on Twitter that Bayne has a Jewish grandmother; because of course there have never been any Jewish anti-Semites). It’s about Sandra Fluke, who, if you haven’t been following, is a law student and activist who spoke in support of free contraception and was promptly called a “slut” by Rush Limbaugh, the extremely influential right-wing talk show host. Limbaugh apologized, sort of; some advertisers broke with his show; politicking was done. It turns out her boyfriend is one Adam Mutterperl, whose father is one Bill Mutterperl, who is involved in Democratic politics. Woe to the Mutterperls if Brooks Bayne finds out about the Soviet spy William Perl, born Mutterperl, and suggests a relation! (I have no idea if there is one.)
The whole thing is a vicious right-wing screed, total gutter rhetoric, but what’s interesting about it, and what makes it, in the final analysis, anti-Semitic, is that Jewishness proves certain things (never mind that the things it proves, such as having a commitment to social justice, are things many Jews are proud to be associated with). The Mutterperls aren’t just Jews who are socialists (they actually aren’t “socialists,” but never mind that, either), they subscribe to “the typical Jewish variant of socialism.” The family has ties to Brandeis, which is named after a Jew who was a socialist (statement of fact) and therefore makes all of its donors Jewish socialists (anti-Semitic supposition). The family has ties to Federation, “a Jewish ‘social’ organization” (here is where I started laughing). And they’re rich, which makes sense, cause, y’know, Jews. By the end, Bayne is just purely conspiracy theorizing, pointing to a bunch of Jewish names as proof of the connections among “well-connected leftist Jewish families on the East Coast.”
“Jewish Socialism is linked to a very progressive concept of the above tikkun olam,” Bayne writes. This is actually arguably true, if, again, dialectically unrigorous (since progressive Jews prompt the reactions of un-progressive Jews). What Bayne gets backward, in his fevered hate and his ulterior agenda, is which came first. There is something Jewish about socialism (even if most socialists, and most prominent socialists, are not and have not been Jewish); Edmund Wilson notes it in To The Finland Station, as have many other writers, Jewish and not. Marx, Freud, and Einstein all developed revolutionary theories and all were born to Jewish families, and I’d submit this isn’t a coincidence. But Bayne isn’t arguing there is something Jewish about socialism. He is relying on the premise that there is something socialistic about Jewishness. That’s why he is citing the mere existence of Jewish names as proof of a socialist conspiracy. This is not historical thinking. It is anti-Semitic thinking.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.