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Remorse code

One of my favorite bits from The Odd Couple comes during a flashback episode. Felix and Murray the cop are in the army together. Murray is feeling down in the dumps, and a sympathetic Felix asks if it’s because the men are making fun of Murray’s big nose.

Murray says, “I didn’t know the men are making fun of my nose!”

“They are,” says Felix. “I heard them. One said it looked like a two-car garage.”

The joke here, of course, is that Felix thinks he’s being helpful — kind of the way Rush Limbaugh did last week, when he suggested why Jews who voted for Obama should be feeling “buyer’s remorse.”

“There are a lot of people, when you say banker, people think Jewish,” Limbaugh said on his Jan. 20 broadcast. “People who have prejudice, people who have, you know — what’s the best way to say — a little prejudice about them. To some people, bankers — code word for Jewish — and guess who Obama’s assaulting? He’s assaulting bankers. He’s assaulting money people. And a lot of those people on Wall Street are Jewish. So I wonder if there’s starting to be some buyer’s remorse there.”

Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League jumped all over this one. He said Limbaugh’s remarks were “borderline anti-Semitic,” and trafficked in the “age-old stereotype about Jews and money.” He demanded an apology.

Rush is defiant. His website posted a defense of his remarks by Norman Podhoretz. The neoconservative icon noted that Limbaugh twice referred to “prejudiced people” who equate Jews with high finance. All Limbaugh was doing, writes Podhoretz, was expressing the “undeniable fact” that for prejudiced people “the words ‘banker’ and ‘Wall Street’ are code words for ‘Jewish.’”

Or was he? Michael Ledeen of the National Review Online also defended Limbaugh, agreeing that Jews should be feeling buyer’s remorse because of Obama’s “attacks on ‘greedy bankers’ (which Rush mentioned), free broadcasting, and of course the crusade against American medicine, all enterprises in which Jews have long flourished.”

Wait a second — I thought Podhoretz said Limbaugh was only referring to the opinions of “prejudiced people”? Then why is Ledeen agreeing that attacks on “greedy bankers” mean an attack on Jews?

Remember Felix, folks. The key thing about Limbaugh’s remarks is that it appears he’s trying to be sensitive to the Jews. But for his logic to work, Jews (like Ledeen, for instance), need to accept that the anti-Semites are right — we are a bunch of greedy bankers.

Limbaugh has gone down this road before. Last August, he equated the Democrats and the Nazis because both “were opposed to Jewish capitalism.” Again, to accept his logic, you have to accept the borderline anti-Semitic premise (in this case, that capitalism is somehow “Jewish”).

Or perhaps Limbaugh meant this: When Obama talks about bankers, he really means Jews. But Limbaugh wasn’t just talking about “code words.” He said, “a lot of those people on Wall Street are Jewish.” It’s sort of like telling a woman that dogcatchers hate women because “a lot of women are dogs.” It makes you the purveyor of prejudice, not the whistle-blower.

Foxman is right that Limbaugh’s remarks were “borderline anti-Semitic.” If Limbaugh weren’t interested in scoring the usual ideological points (“Mr. Foxman, if you really want to go after anti-Semitism you should first start looking at it on the Left,” he said the next day), he might have acknowledged that he stumbled, inadvertently or not, into toxic territory.

But Foxman doesn’t come off so well either. His statement slips into disingenuousness when he writes the following: “[Limbaugh’s] notion that Jews vote based on their religion, rather than on their interests as Americans, plays into the hands of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists.”

C’mon, Abe. It’s hardly anti-Semitic for someone to suggest that “Jews vote based on their religion” or group interests. We all talk about the “Jewish vote.” And by “we” I mean Jewish newspapers, mainstream pollsters, and all the major Jewish organizations. A politician would have to be an idiot to wander into districts with large Jewish populations and not consider the ways Jews, like all ethnic groups, vote their particular as well as general interests.

This whole episode is an object lesson in how not to talk about the ethnic vote. Jews do have voting tendencies (and a tendency is not the same thing as a conspiracy). Podhoretz’s most recent book is Why Are Jews Liberals? He asserts that conservative policies are in the best interests of a community as affluent, freedom-loving, and Israel-centric as the Jews, and wonders why a majority of Jews don’t agree with him. It’s a fair question, even if you reject his politics.

The difference between Podhoretz’s analysis of the Jewish vote and Limbaugh’s comes down to the central premise of modern anti-anti-Semitism. The goal is not to keep people from talking about the Jews, but to keep them from talking about the Jews using hurtful, false, and dangerous stereotypes. Feel free to talk about Jewish “liberals,” but spare us your demagoguery about Jewish “bankers.”

It’s the difference between making fun of someone’s politics, and making fun of his, well, his nose.

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