A few months back, in a New York Times Magazine interview, movie director Lee Daniels described his struggle in getting financing for Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a film about a black domestic’s decades of service in the White House.
“The studios didn’t want to do it,” recalled Daniels, who is African-American. “They weren’t interested in this film at the budget that we had. The president of one studio told me, ‘If you were a Jewish filmmaker and this was a film about the Holocaust, we wouldn’t have this problem.’”
Interviewer Dave Itzkoff throws Daniels a lifeline, asking, “Meaning, because it’s about a black character, it wouldn’t attract a wide audience?”
“I think that’s what she meant,” said Daniels.
I don’t think that’s what she meant, or what Daniels meant in telling the story. This was an anecdote about Jewish influence in Hollywood. The studio exec was specifically comparing The Butler to other projects with a presumably narrow ethnic appeal — Holocaust films — that somehow have no trouble getting financing. For all I know, hers might be a true statement. And yet to bring this up flouts all kinds of taboos about Jewish power. Daniels may have been relieved that the interviewer closed the door on this potentially toxic topic.
Kanye West is finding out how toxic the topic can be. Last week the rapper explained to a radio interviewer why President Obama was having trouble passing his policies. “Man, let me tell you something about George Bush and oil money and Obama and no money,” West said. “People want to say Obama can’t make these moves or he’s not executing. That’s because he ain’t got those connections. Black people don’t have the same level of connections as Jewish people. Black people don’t have the same connection as oil people.”
The Anti-Defamation League denounced his remarks as “classic anti-Semitism” in that they raise the “age-old canard that Jews are all-powerful and control the levers of power in government.” The ADL asked for an apology.
Kanye’s remarks are unfortunate and wrongheaded on a number of levels, starting with accuracy: Like any national politician and party leader, Obama is plenty well-connected and is no slacker when it comes to raising money from Wall Street, labor unions, and Silicon Valley. And it’s creepy that in a discussion of political power, West almost immediately makes reference to Jews. Maybe he just meant to compare two historically discriminated-against minorities. But once you mention Jews and Big Oil in the same sentence, you can’t blame the ADL for sniffing “classic anti-Semitism.”
Given the relative affluence of the Jewish community and its disproportionate achievement in politics, finance, and academia, Kanye is probably right that on average blacks do not have the same influence as Jews. And given how many Jewish execs have risen to the top of the entertainment industry (in fact, Obama is just back from a West Coast fund-raising junket, where his hosts included Jeffrey Katzenberg, Marta Kauffman, and Michael Skloff), the studio president in Daniels’s anecdote may have been telling an uncomfortable truth about Hollywood’s soft spot for Holocaust projects.
And that’s the challenge of this whole topic: separating some of the inconvenient truths about Jewish achievement and influence from the awful ways they have been used against us.
Thomas Friedman wandered into this minefield last month. In a column about the interim deal with Iran, the Times columnist complained that “never have I seen more lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans — more willing to take Israel’s side against their own president’s. I’m certain this comes less from any careful consideration of the facts and more from a growing tendency by many American lawmakers to do whatever the Israel lobby asks them to do in order to garner Jewish votes and campaign donations.”
It’s a doozy of an assertion, combining a spoonful of dual loyalty, a dollop of extortion, and fistfuls of bribery. As Peter Beinart tweeted, Friedman was “basically daring [the] Jewish establishment to call him an anti-semite.” Either something changed in Friedman’s thinking or he forgot that he regretted similar comments in 2011, when he wrote that congressional ovations for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.”
“In retrospect I probably should have used a more precise term like ‘engineered’ by the Israel lobby — a term that does not suggest grand conspiracy theories that I don’t subscribe to,” Friedman said at the time.
Once again, a public figure starts with a truth — AIPAC and other pro-Israel lobbying groups are undeniably effective in promoting their policies on Capitol Hill — and whips it into a souffle of anti-Semitic tropes about control and chicanery.
Does that mean we can never talk about Jewish achievement and influence? No. But it means writers like Friedman ought to be a lot more responsible in tossing around charges of Jewish influence-peddling. Friedman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning political and foreign affairs analyst, not a rapper or film director. I can think of at least three reasons besides AIPAC why the average lawmaker might side with Israel in the current Iran crisis. If Friedman believes that lawmakers are voting their war chests instead of their consciences, he ought to write a column presenting the evidence.
Otherwise, he’s playing with fire.