It isn't just members of the US Congress who are making a beeline for Israel for summer vacation (more than 80 members of Congress are enjoying all-expenses-paid trips to the Holy Land). Glenn Beck, the far-right radio personality and ardent Zionist, is heading there soon and is currently seeking to drum up support for his "Restoring Courage" event scheduled for Jerusalem on Aug. 24.
Just as the Fonz's days were numbered the moment he jumped over a shark-infested pen on his summer trip to California (I originally misidentified the infamous shark-jump as having taken place in Hawaii, thanks to readers for pointing out the error), Mr. Beck is in danger of alienating a large section of his target audience on his coming vacation.
The 600 or so tickets for the event at Jerusalem's Davidson Center are sold out, but Beck has been eager to get large numbers of Israelis and foreigners to turn out for a public broadcast. He's not making that task any easier for himself. While Beck often proclaims his love for Israel and Israelis, a recent broadcast makes it clear that he views a vast swath of the Israeli public with contempt.
Last week on Beck's online show, he and his cohorts dismissed the hundreds of thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets of Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities complaining about rising prices, particularly for housing, as "from the far left" and implied they are communists. In a segment dripping with sarcasm, they said the protesters' demand for higher income taxes on the wealthy was evidence they "hate the rich."
Beck and Co. responded to Israeli demonstrators' calls that a right to housing be enshrined in law by saying that "worked out well for the Soviets." They even speculated that the protesters had ties to violent Islamist groups.
Beck himself almost veered close to a Nazi comparison when speculating about the relationships between the Israeli protesters and Muslim groups, suggesting with guilt-by-invented-association logic that they support violence.
First he implies that global leftists have organized the protests. "I wonder if there’s any financing behind [the protests] ... look to see if there’s any leftist global financing in Tel Aviv," he says. "And don’t look to see if there’s any Islamist group that’s joining them," he continues in a sarcastic tone that makes it very clear he thinks what follows is very likely. "Well, the National Socialists [Nazis] got together with [Islamists] but that's completely ... OK, the communists and the Islamists got together, but that's completely isolated ... well, it's happening in Egypt and in Libya, but there's nothing to look into there."
That the German Nazis were "leftists," that the Nazis were somehow aligned with Islamist groups interested in the creation of a global caliphate, and that the modern left is somehow connected with both, is an article of faith in the Beckian worldview. But to make the connection in regards to hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews, the vast majority of them supporters (not entirely surprisingly) of the Zionist project, was an interesting step for an American commentator who's been embraced by some members of Israel's current government.
Beck continues on the dangers of the Israeli protesters linking up with violent Islamists: "I hate to even bring this up, the Islamists are saying that in Israel they’d like to have these riots, um, I’m sorry, these gatherings every Friday now … because they can help and they go to mosque and bring everyone out on the streets on Fridays, it’s going to be good."
Then he asks one of his fellow commentators if he remembers a trip they made to Israel a few years ago. "Remember when they’d get out of the mosque, and it was so great, because they were so moved by the spirit and they were so full of love and joy and then they would go right there to the wall and then would drop giant stones on the heads of Jews that were praying underneath, yeah it was a beautiful gesture."
The talk-show host appears to be referring to the Western Wall, where security is usually extremely tight between Jews praying there and Muslims praying at the nearby Al Aqsa mosque. And his tic-tac-toe logic about the housing protest – moving from leftist to Nazi to Islamists dropping stones on Jews' heads – is unlikely to convince many in Israel. The country, after all, has a strong socialist history. And while it has veered far more sharply toward a more laissez-faire American approach in recent decades, clearly a huge swath of the Israeli public is uncomfortable with that change.
Josh Mitnick reported from Tel Aviv on the housing protests for us last week, and what he found there bears little resemblance to Beck's theory.
"Leaders of the socioeconomic protests that began last month on Tel Aviv's tony Rothschild Boulevard have largely avoided debates over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an effort to appeal to a broad range of Israelis and thus maximize pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin's Netanyahu's government," he writes. "The protests are at root a criticism of Israel’s shift to a free-market economy over the past 20 years, and a call for the government to reassert itself on behalf of the middle and working classes."
He wrote in an earlier piece: "the increasingly mainstream character of the demonstrations reflects an Israeli middle class that is struggling to make ends meet despite robust growth and an all-time low in unemployment. Josh noted that Mr. Netanyahu's approval rating plummeted from 51 percent to 32 percent in one poll since the housing protests began.
There are signs that Beck is struggling to promote his event. Writing on the left-leaning 972 blog, Mya Guarnieri notes an online ad seeking foreign citizens to act as ambassadors to "stand with Israel" at the Aug. 24 event. She responded to an e-mail on the ad asking if participants would be paid for acting as ambassadors, and writes that a senior aide to Likud lawmaker Danny Danon responded, "depends where you are from." Mr. Danon is a Beck fan. He invited him to speak before a Knesset committee earlier this year and has helped organize his travels in the country.
Beck has long been a divisive figure for Jews. In January, a group of 400 Reform rabbis (reform Jews are generally less strict in their application of Jewish religious law and call for a modernization of the faith) published an open letter in Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal criticizing Roger Ailes, Beck, and Mr. Murdoch's Fox News for, in their minds, trivializing the Holocaust. The immediately precipitating event was Beck's characterization of billionaire philanthropist George Soros, a Holocaust survivor, as a Nazi collaborator. Beck's Fox program was cancelled a few months later.
"You diminish the memory and meaning of the Holocaust when you use it to discredit any individual or organization you disagree with. That is what Fox News has done in recent weeks, and it is not only 'left-wing rabbis' who think so," they wrote. "It is not appropriate to call executives of another news agency 'Nazis.' And it is not appropriate to make literally hundreds of on-air references to the Holocaust and Nazis when characterizing people with whom you disagree ... We respectfully request that Glenn Beck be sanctioned by Fox News for his completely unacceptable attacks on a survivor of the Holocaust and Roger Ailes apologize for his dismissive remarks about rabbis' sensitivity to how the Holocaust is used on the air."
In February, Beck responded by saying: "Reformed rabbis are generally political in nature. It's almost like Islam – radicalized Islam – in a way to where radicalized Islam is less about religion than it is about politics."
Though Beck may have been counting for more support in Orthodox Jewish corners in Israel, there are signs that he's not winning more friends in that camp either. Writing this morning on the English website of Arutz Sheva, a pro-settler and religious Zionist Israeli news service, Heshy Rossenwasser, criticized the Israeli right's love affair with Beck.
"Any voice in the wilderness sounding a note of support to us comes as a breath of fresh air, and we welcome it with such ardor that we are willing to overlook potential faults and pitfalls – namely, that his seemingly pure and good-hearted motives just barely conceal political agendas and religious ideologies that ought to give Jews much pause," he writes.
"And now that Beck has spoken before the Knesset and is given the green light in the staging of his 'Courage' rally, he believes he has earned the right to pontificate about all matters Israeli. Specifically, he has called the current 'tent city' protests in Tel Aviv and other locations the doing of 'communists,' calling into question the financing of these protests and suggesting a sinister connection between the protesters in Israel and world socialism, framing the whole matter in the context of the sort of anarchists who protest G-8 meetings, and squeezing the square peg of what should be an internal Israeli matter into the round hole of his us-and-them, liberal-versus-conservative worldview. Whether he is right or not, let him go on back to where he came from and stick to things he might actually know a thing or two about, and let Jews and Israelis handle Jewish and Israeli matters."