Politics

The Political Smearing of Ben Rhodes

And the lessons conservatives and progressives alike can take from it.

Ben Rhodes sits onstage, smiling and holding a microphone
Former Obama administration official Ben Rhodes in 2019. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Many of the evils of history—racism, sexism, anti-Catholicism, homophobia—have been rolled back by brave people who opened the eyes of their fellow citizens to prejudice. But in politics, accusations of bigotry are sometimes used as weapons. The usual pattern is that progressives accuse conservatives of prejudice, and conservatives complain that they’re being smeared or “canceled.” But when the debate turns to Israel, the roles are often reversed. On that subject, it’s the conservatives who tend to allege bigotry, in the form of anti-Semitism, and it’s the progressives who feel slandered. It’s worth taking a look at one such incident, to see how the debate over prejudice looks from the other side’s point of view.

Advertisement

The incident in question stems from a Feb. 10 podcast conversation between Peter Beinart, the host of Occupied Thoughts, and Ben Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser to President Barack Obama. Israel hawks, led by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, pounced on Rhodes’ remarks in the interview, accusing him of “Jew hating” and of denouncing “all Jews.” An article in the Federalist claimed that Rhodes had spewed “antisemitic tropes directed toward Israel, its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Jews.” Len Khodorkovsky, a former deputy assistant secretary of state under President Donald Trump, demanded that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum fire Rhodes from its board for “his anti-Semitic views.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

None of these charges was true. In the podcast, Rhodes and Beinart (Beinart is a practicing Jew; Rhodes is half-Jewish by birth) dismantled the myth of Jews as a monolith. Rhodes distinguished the Jewish community from the “pro-Israel community,” which, as he explained, includes many Christians and excludes some Jews. He distinguished Jewish Americans from Israelis, who feel more strongly the fears that come with living in Israel. He distinguished “liberal” Jews from “right-wing” Jews, noting that some Jews support divestment from companies that exploit Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. He also distinguished “practicing” Jews from people “of Jewish origin,” such as himself. At one point, he said he’d been called a “fake Jew.”

Advertisement

One influential player in the U.S.-Israel relationship, Rhodes argued, was the “pro-Likud media in the United States.” In their attacks on the podcast, some critics construed that phrase as a coded slam at Israel. But Rhodes was distinguishing between Likud—Israel’s leading conservative party—and the diversity of Israel as a whole. He extended this point about political diversity to the United States, noting that Netanyahu had meddled in American politics by working with congressional Republicans to undermine Obama. The larger fight, Rhodes implied, isn’t between Jews and non-Jews or between America and Israel. It’s between progressives in both countries and conservatives in both countries.

Advertisement

Rhodes agreed that religion has empowered the right in this conflict. But the religion that’s driving that shift, he argued, isn’t Judaism. It’s Christianity. “The Christian evangelical community’s … embrace of the most right-wing brand of Israeli politics,” he explained, has empowered “right-wing Jewish perspectives in the American Jewish community.” These evangelicals see themselves as allies of Jews. But in reality, said Rhodes, they’re siding with some Jews against others. In effect, he lamented, they’ve “shrunk the space, in a way, for the Jewish debate that usually happens around Israel.”

Advertisement

Once you understand the power of Christianity in this debate, the caricature of the “Israel lobby” as a Jewish conspiracy collapses. Rhodes described foreign policy meetings at which he and other people of Jewish ancestry were present, but “the presence that wasn’t in the room was very powerful, which was the evangelical Christian movement. … That is not about Jews.” Beinart added that both he and Rhodes rejected the myth of a “Protocols of the Elders of Zion conspiracy.” (That didn’t stop some critics from accusing Rhodes of “going all Protocols of Zion on Peter Beinart’s podcast.”)

Adam Kredo, a writer at the Washington Free Beacon, tweeted that in the podcast, Rhodes claimed “that Jews use money to threaten/pressure lawmakers into doing their bidding.” What Rhodes actually said was that money is a pervasive tool in politics. “It’s true for everything” from “the gun industry” to “the fossil fuel industry,” he observed. “It’s not a Jewish-specific thing.” Beinart pointed out that many Americans who complain about the influence of money in politics change their tune when Israel comes up, protesting that “it’s anti-Semitic to mention it in this context.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

Rhodes did talk about the influence of Jews in U.S. foreign policy. But his point wasn’t that Jews had too much power. (Rhodes and Beinart agreed, in Beinart’s words, that “every community” should be well represented.) What bothered Rhodes was the absence of Arab Americans. He told Beinart that at one meeting about Israel, “I remember looking around the room … and every single one of us in the meeting was Jewish or of Jewish kind of origin, like me.” That wasn’t “inherently wrong,” he noted, but “I just remember thinking … what if everybody in this room was an Arab American?”

The worst smear of Rhodes has come from Pompeo. In a tweet that has recirculated thousands of times, the former secretary of state accused Rhodes of alleging that “all Jews” were “corrupt and cruel.” Rhodes said the opposite. In the podcast, he was telling a story about a conversation he’d had with a Hungarian man of Jewish origin. They were puzzling over Netanyahu’s alliance with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whom Rhodes bluntly called “an anti-Semite.” In the conversation with his Hungarian companion, Rhodes speculated that perhaps Netanyahu thought “Jews have been screwed throughout history by a corrupt, cruel world,” and therefore, “we just have to be corrupt and cruel ourselves. … And if I’ve got to make friends with a guy like Orban, I’m going to do it.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

The moral of the story, as Rhodes told it, was his Hungarian companion’s response: “A world in which ethno-nationalism is predominant is not a good world for the Jews.” That’s the point Rhodes was making in the podcast: Wise Jews, unlike ruthless ones, understand that cruelty and collaboration with bigots are self-destructive.

The attack on Rhodes is ironic in part because he explained in the podcast how and why such attacks are orchestrated. Crying anti-Semitism, he noted, is sometimes part of a political strategy to advance right-wing views in the guise of Judaism. It allows the “whole debate around Israel to be framed by Bibi Netanyahu and Mike Pompeo and [Sen.] Tom Cotton,” he argued. By smearing Rhodes, Pompeo proved the point: Anyone who criticizes the right’s position is labeled a bigot.

Advertisement

Conservatives have long complained that the same thing, in other contexts, is done to them. Some, including Trump, have been accurately charged with racism. But others, such as Sen. Marco Rubio, then-Judge Amy Coney Barrett, and Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandmann and his mother, have been unjustly accused. In these cases, allegations of bigotry—even when raised or repeated by some people in sincere error—are deployed by others as weapons. They’re used not to open eyes, but to shut down political debate. Some people on the right have felt the sting of that kind of injustice. Many more resent it. They shouldn’t have done it to Ben Rhodes.

Advertisement