Liberal columnist Maureen Dowd has been called many things during her journalistic career. As one of the premiere opinion writers for The New York Times, her audience is vast and her columns read widely. Despite the snarky nonsense that she usually writes, her opinion matters and usually influences many other opinions. So it was that when she chose to write about Israeli foreign policy (i.e., their relations with the United States) that she got herself into a bit of a tempest with the Jewish community.
In her opinion piece last weekend about Mitt Romney’s and Paul Ryan’s views on relations with Israel—which she titled “Neocons Slither Back”—Dowd wrote that “Ryan was moving his mouth, but the voice was the neocon puppet master Dan Senor.” She went on to bemoan what she viewed as a lack of direction on Israel and the Middle East by the Romney campaign (and Republicans in general), claiming that it was being informed and directed by Senor, who managed to “graft a Manichaean worldview onto the foreign affairs neophyte.” Perhaps, but this is not what got Dowd into trouble with the Jewish community. This is standard Dowd hyperbole, written specifically to inflict shock and awe.
Later in the article, Dowd referenced a comment about Obama made by Paul Wolfowitz. Dowd wrote: “Paul Wolfowitz, an Iraq war architect, weighed in on Fox News, slimily asserting that President Obama should not be allowed to ‘slither through’ without a clear position on Libya.” This is where Dowd got the title for her piece; she was trying to “flip the script” on the Republicans by using their own criticism of Obama’s foreign policy against them. The rhetorical trick backfired on her as Jews went apoplectic about the idea of a “slithering snake” being applied to them.
Representative of many other commentators, Jeffery Goldberg, a high-profile reporter for The Atlantic had this to say: “Maureen may not know this, but she is peddling an old stereotype, that gentile leaders are dolts unable to resist the machinations and manipulations of clever and snake-like Jews.” Jonathan Tobin, Senior Editor for Commentary magazine wrote: “Though those who write about ‘neocons slithering’ are clearly intending to stoke prejudice, even Obama has paid lip service to the fact that a nuclear Iran is a deadly threat to the entire Middle East as well as to the interests of the United States.” Other similar remarks were legion this week from other journalists wishing to condemn Dowd’s views and distance themselves from her.
What is particularly frustrating about the media backlash against Dowd is the hypocritical nature of it. While I am certainly no supporter or defender of Dowd’s views, I am perplexed how a metaphor can be used in only one direction. No anti-Semitism was implied when Wolfowitz made his original comments about Obama being able to “slither through” on Libya, but when Dowd turns the phrase around and applies it to Israeli policy it suddenly has an anti-Semitic bias. The New York Times response to the firestorm was succinct and, in my view, the correct one: “No fair-minded reading of Maureen Dowd’s column supports the allegations you and others are making. She makes no reference, direct or implied, to anyone’s religion.” Indeed, Dowd never once referenced the religion of Judaism, only the nation of Israel. It is getting to the point where any public statement about Israel is read as an agenda about the entire Jewish religion. Apparently, it is perfectly OK to speak about a vast neocon conspiracy, but it is not OK to make a comparison to a snake in any situation where Israel is involved. Is it OK to call them “thin-skinned” or would that be anti-Semitic too?