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The Curious Case of Newt Gingrich and the Jews

02/01/2012 01:33 pm ET | Updated Apr 02, 2012

For all the comment it has generated, one aspect of the Gingrich campaign that has gone undiscussed is its extraordinary relationship with Jews. All at once, he is completely dependent on them, pandering to them, and demonizing them.

He's dependent because a right-wing Jewish billionaire, who's made his money in casinos, is almost single-handedly keeping his campaign afloat. The $10 million that Sheldon and Miriam Adelson of Las Vegas have fed Gingrich's Super PAC resurrected his candidacy in South Carolina, then spared him from an even more humiliating defeat in Florida. In fact, since Gingrich has evidently held on to most of the second installment of their lucre, the Adelsons are effectively keeping his candidacy going going forward.

That a candidate attempting to appeal to the Christian right, who wraps himself in American values and virtues, is funding himself from poker chips and roulette tables might seem odd, but of course it's no stranger than the willingness of many evangelicals to overlook Gingrich's marital history. In the end, it seems, character is quite secondary.

Apart from making robo-calls claiming Mitt Romney denied Kosher food to Holocaust survivors in Massachusetts nursing homes -- which turns out not to be true -- the pandering consists of Gingrich's ongoing "my Israel, right or wrong" stance, which appeals not only to Adelson -- who, like many right-wing American Jews, can espouse their belligerent views on the Israeli-Palestinian question from the safety of the United States -- but to the Christian right as well. Thus, Gingrich has resurrected the perennial, demagogic pledge to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, something that, once in office, every president, Democrat and Republican alike, realizes is imprudent and inflammatory.

All this pro-Israel talk is likely to subside a bit now that the campaign has left Florida, with its motherlode of Jewish voters (most of them Democrats anyway) and moved on to heartland states with far smaller Jewish populations. But this is where the final component of Gingrich's strangely mixed attitude toward the Jews -- the demonization of them -- may raise its head even higher. Now, the target is Saul Alinsky.

Just who was this Saul Alinsky? Gingrich never explains, and for a reason: it's far more effective not to. Describing a bogey man only makes him less bogey-ish; merely conjuring him up is much more ominous. The particulars -- that Alinsky was a community organizer, that there was really nothing especially radical or ideological about him, that his tactics have sometimes been adopted by the right, that he died forty years ago -- are less important than the very sound of his name: foreign sounding, unmistakably Jewish (but not Israeli; it's Saul, not Shaul, and his last name wasn't Hebraicized, like, say, "Netanyahu"), vaguely alien, at least to those not familiar with Jews.

Gingrich is not an anti-Semite; for him, it would not just be odious, be suicidal. But his incantations of Alinsky's name are a classic anti-Semitic trope: the idea that left-wing, fundamentally unpatriotic and un-American Jews -- Gingrich contrasts Alinsky and his disciples with people who believe in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights -- lie somewhere in the shadows of our body politic, plotting conspiracies, pulling strings. In this instance, one of them is directing the President of the United States (along with, of course, the president's late Kenyan father) from the grave. In the darkest corners of American soul, where anti-Semitism still resides -- go online if you doubt it -- such suggestions resonate. One needn't be an anti-Semite to stir up anti-Semitism.

As a self-described serious historian -- serious enough to earn more than million and a half dollars from Fannie Mae for his "historical" services -- Gingrich should know that in trumpeting Alinsky's name around, he's taking a page out of Father Coughlin playbook. His inflammatory innuendo is so wrapped up in his philo-Semitic, pro-Likud slobbering that no one's even noticed. Or maybe it's that no one -- Democrats, Republicans, the press, and even Jews -- wants to say so. (The Anti-Defamation League is nowhere to be found.) Besides, useful idiots like the Adelsons are naïve and myopic enough to subsidize it!

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