The right-wing grassroots activists who gathered in National Harbor, Maryland at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference were front and center for the national media to observe. The results were not always pretty, or easily understood, outside of the context of the conservative bubble.
Among the most egregious speeches was that of National Rifle Association head Wayne LaPierre, who sought to rally the pro-gun rights faithful in the wake of the anti-NRA backlash after the school massacre in Parkland, Florida.
LaPierre responded with a rant that was aimed at convincing supporters that the left was coming to take their guns, undermine the Constitution and transform the United States into a "socialist" nation.
Both LaPierre and the NRA are fair game for criticism. But while he can be accused of being tone deaf to opponents’ arguments and engaging in conspiratorial thinking, the charge that he is guilty of dog whistling to the anti-Semites is one that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
For some on the left who are already predisposed to think the worst of the NRA and conservatives, jumping to conclusions about the right and anti-Semitism is second nature. But merely tallying up the Jewish names mentioned by as NRA opponents - in a speech that never once mentioned Jews or Jewish issues - isn’t enough to make a case for dog whistling, let alone anti-Semitism.
But the reason for this has as much to do with the central role of Jews in American politics as it does with the fact that the NRA and LaPierre have no record of anti-Semitism or anti-Semitic intent.
It’s true that the context of a CPAC conference in which some of the worst aspects of the culture wars of the Trump era were on view makes it a bit easier to put the worst possible interpretation on LaPierre’s speech.
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The decision of the organizers from the American Conservative Union to welcome Marion Marechal-LePen of France’s National Front was inexcusable. So, too, was the booing of the brilliant conservative columnist and author Mona Charen, when she denounced the invitation to LePen and pointed out the hypocrisy of right-wingers who damned Bill Clinton for his misbehavior but find excuses for the likes of President Donald Trump and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore.
It’s possible to argue that CPAC demonstrated the way invective and populist rage in which opponents must be demonized rather than merely opposed has contributed to the dismal state of public discourse during the Trump presidency. But to go from there to assumptions about anti-Semitism doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
It’s true that LaPierre mentioned a number of Jews when he talked about the forces arrayed against the NRA. The list includes billionaires George Soros, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senator Bernie Sanders with long dead left-wing ideologue Saul Alinsky and Karl Marx thrown in for good measure.
Had those been the only names mentioned, that would have been suspicious.
But he did criticize others, such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy. The notion that the NRA is solely focused on liberal Jews - even though most major Jewish groups and the religious denominations are in the forefront of the fight for more gun control laws - as its opponents is false.
The right’s talk about Alinsky is widely regarded by many on the left as part of a conspiratorial mindset that inevitably targets Jews. The same is true whenever Soros’s name comes up, since he has been targeted by anti-Semites in Eastern Europe and elsewhere as a symbol of the evils of currency manipulation, a theme that fits into traditional stereotypes invoked by Jew haters.
But when right-wingers hear the name Alinsky, they only think about leftist ideology and the way the left has continually outflanked them, not Jews.
As for Soros, the motives of some of his critics are suspect. He has been fodder for anti-Semitic incitement in places like Hungary. But even if we treat his record of controversial international financial dealings as out of bounds, he is also one of the largest donors to liberal and Democratic political efforts in the United States. It is possible to criticize him for his politics - as is the case with his counterparts on the right like the Koch Brothers and others - without being anti-Semitic.
The same is true for Bloomberg. The former mayor of New York is not just some random billionaire whose name was plucked out of the air by LaPierre. He is the founder of a major anti-gun rights political operation that has actually out spent the NRA when it intervened in local races where gun control was an issue.
Steyer is the prime donor and the face of the movement to impeach Trump as well as a major backer of liberal efforts on guns.
The point is any list of the forces opposing the NRA that didn’t mention that trio would be incomplete.
The same is true of Schumer, the point man in the Senate for gun control as well as Sanders, the iconic leader of the American left since his 2016 primary challenge to Hillary Clinton.
But if that still sounds a like a lot of Jews, it’s useful to remember that - as opposed to earlier eras when Jewish names were invoked to assert that Jews had unique and sinister power - there is nothing particularly remarkable about there being a lot of powerful Jews in 2018 America and that most of them are opposed to the NRA.
There are no barriers to advancement for Jews in virtually every segment of American society including finance and politics. It has long since ceased to be the case that well known Jews were known primarily for their background rather than their achievements.
It is only extremists, on the left as well as the right, who view the names of prominent Jewish political players, and see only Jews rather than liberals or conservatives. Not everything involving Jews is about anti-Semitism. Sometimes it’s just a matter of politics that involves Jews.
Nor, despite the inexplicable presence of LePen at one of the conference’s many events, is the CPAC audience predisposed to anti-Semitism.
Whenever Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was mentioned, cheers rocked every CPAC forum. This illustrated the fact that conservatives and Republicans are a virtual lockstep pro-Israel movement. The only people on the right who harbor anti-Jewish attitudes are the fever swamp dwellers of the Klan and the extreme alt-right who don’t have a place in the ACU’s ranks.
At a moment in history when a wave of anti-Semitism largely linked to hate for Israel is sweeping across much of the globe, the issue of dog whistling is an important one.
But the accusations lobbed at LaPierre have more to do with a dysfunctional bifurcated political culture in which opponents are demonized rather than any actual anti-Semitic intent, let alone a record of such hate, on his part.
It should be possible to oppose the NRA without dragging in such specious charges. There is enough real anti-Semitism for Jews to worry about now on both the far right and the left without including LaPierre in the discussion solely because his views on guns are so detested by so many American Jews.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS and a contributor to National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin