The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, for all its flaws, is a genuine expression of the growing recognition in the United States that the government no longer serves the interests of the people. It has been described as an American version of the “Arab Spring,” driven by a sense of popular alienation from the elites who dominate the politics and economies of so many countries. Whatever its antecedents, the idea that the people must again have a voice in their own destinies clearly has a broad appeal, as the movement has sparked similar protests in Europe and Asia.
In the United States, because many of the activists describe themselves as progressive or liberal, the movement is increasingly reviled by conservative pundits as “un-American,” even though its objectives are frequently identical to those of the tea parties on the political right. There was, indeed, initially some confusion on how exactly to describe the developing threat. Leading neoconservative Charles Krauthammer of The Washington Post initially saw a radical chic rebellion as the “Starbucks-sipping, Levi’s-clad, iPhone-clutching protesters denounce corporate America.” He castigated the “indignant indolents saddled with their $50,000 student loans and English degrees [who] have decided that their lack of gainful employment is rooted in the malice of the millionaires.”
But then the perception changed when the protesters did not go away and grew in number, joined by a handful of labor unions, challenging the status quo more directly. The demonstrators were described as “attacking” the police, and media accounts were replete with the familiar slogans of the Vietnam War, that the protesters are dirty, libidinous, and Communist-inspired. Conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh called them “lousy hippies, thieves, rapists, purse snatchers, and muggers.” Glenn Beck, until recently a fixture on Fox television, described them as “lice-infested” misfits spreading disease, committing murders and rapes, and engaging in public defecation and fornication.
But a new formulation has been creeping into the invective. Because the attacks were on Wall Street, the movement was initially framed by some critics as anti-Semitic because of the large number of Jews who work in the financial services industry. Beck sees something even more insidious: Islamic radicalism that is aiming to overthrow the government of the United States. In his odd mixture of ostentatious religiosity and gutter politics, he describes how God speaks to us, noting, however, that the God who advises going around blowing things up is likely the “God of the Arab Spring.” In other words, for some so-called conservative commentators, an essential element that can be used to marginalize the protest movement is to label it Islamic.
Islamophobia is not exactly new, but it attained a greater popularity in the wake of 9/11. Everyone needs someone to blame when terrible events take place, and Islam, which is culturally alien to most Americans, is a convenient scapegoat, leading to campaigns vilifying Shariah law and raising suspicions about Muslims in general. It is perhaps no coincidence that the woman who is possibly the most vocal anti-Muslim in the United States, Pamela Geller, has been leading the charge linking anti-Semitism to the OWS movement. One Geller headline screams “Muslim Groups Back Occupy Wall Street Protesters.” Geller is successful in finding anti-Semitism and insidious Islamic influence in many places, enabled in her task by her conflation of anti-Israel with anti-Semitic. In her mind and those of her supporters, the two are essentially the same.
To be sure, some of the attempt to label the Occupy movement as anti-Semitic is purely political, an attempt to tie the protesters with President Barack Obama, who was once a community organizer and who has failed to strongly condemn the movement. But there is also a clear attempt being made to marginalize any and all criticism of Israel, which has recently been the focus of an increasingly open debate related to the more than $3 billion in foreign aid that it receives at a time when the United States economy is suffering.
Since it is a movement born from widespread frustration with the status quo and derived from many perspectives, the Occupy Wall Street crowd does not have any standardized or uniform message. To be sure, some protesters who have been linked to the movement are also highly critical of United States foreign policy, their message being that the constant wars have eroded the nation’s ability to deal with more serious problems at home. And some have connected Israel with those wars, not without reason. And there are indeed some that blame America’s Jews for the country’s ills, but they are a tiny minority, even if the media has done its best to find them and interview them. In fact, some American groups that are normally highly sensitive to the issue of anti-Semitism, including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, conducted their own investigations and determined that the movement is not anti-Semitic. So why do the attempts to link the movement to hatred of Jews continue?
For some in the media and the foreign policy punditry, any criticism of Israel, directly or implicitly, is unacceptable. Blogger Jennifer Rubin noted a sign held by an Arab American that said “Gaza Supports the Occupation of Wall Street,” which she described as a “vile scene.”
That is precisely what has triggered the neoconservative response in places like The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and the New York Post. In addition to Geller and the talk radio pantheon, the list of leading Republicans and self-styled conservatives who have attacked the Occupy movement is virtually a who’s who of the most passionate supporters of Israel and promoters of Islamophobia, many brought together by an organization called the Emergency Committee for Israel, which is headed by William Kristol of The Weekly Standard. ECI advocates the creation of a “pro-Israel presidency” for the United States.
Frank Gaffney, another leading herald of the Islamic threat to the United States, heads the Center for Security Policy. He has been described as “unhinged” partly for his extremist comments regarding Muslims, including saying recently, “They are trying to impose what are known as Shariah blasphemy laws, whereby anyone who says anything critical about Islam, no matter how true, is to be silenced. It is actually a capital offense.” In January 2011, Gaffney claimed that the American Conservative Union, a venerable right-wing Republican organization, had been infiltrated by the “Muslim Brotherhood.” He has also insisted that the purpose of building mosques is “to destroy Western civilization from within.” Gaffney has called for the creation of a new House Un-American Activities Committee to look into the activities of Muslims living in the United States, and he now links the Occupy crowd to communism and Nazism.
David Horowitz, founder of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, whose stated mission is to “combat the efforts of the radical left and its Islamist allies to destroy American values in a time of terror,” calls the Occupy supporters “morons” and “idiots.” Robert Spencer, who runs the website Jihad Watch, objected recently to a reality show depicting Muslim families in America by demanding that it include terrorists. He writes that “The Leftist/jihadist alliance has been on abundant display during the Occupy protests.” So the unanimity on the part of many pundits and politicians in condemning the Occupy Wall Street movement can be explained in terms of their other interests. Damaging President Obama is a high priority, but Occupiers’ explicit or implicit criticism of U.S. foreign policy also challenges the Israel-centric view of American national security, and the demands that foreign aid be eliminated or cut pose a rather more direct challenge, as Israel is a major recipient of such assistance. And the merest hint that American Muslims might be joining in the protests or sympathetic to them provides the necessary ammunition to discredit the rest of the message. As is so often the case in American politics, the punditry’s hostile response to Occupy Wall Street is really largely about Israel.