Is the turbulent health care debate bad for the Jews?

A swastika painted on a sign in front of the office of U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) illustrated the increasingly raucous nature of the health care debate. (Office of U.S. Rep. David Scott)

A swastika painted on a sign in front of the office of U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) illustrated the increasingly raucous nature of the health care debate. (Office of U.S. Rep. David Scott)

NEW YORK (JTA) — When U.S. Rep. Travis Childers announced several months ago that he was headed to Israel, the trip was billed as an opportunity to boost economic development. But by the time the Mississippi Democrat arrived earlier this month, the trip suddenly became a flash point in one local corner of the nation’s increasingly bitter health care debate.

Alan Lange, the founder of the Mississippi political and legal Web site Y’all Politics, didn’t like that Childers was spending part of the congressional recess out of town instead of at home talking to constituents about health care reform. So on Aug. 9 he posted a video to YouTube slamming the congressman.

With “Hava Nagila” playing in the background, the video highlighted Childers’ recent comment that he would like to talk to constituents about health care — “If they’re civil.” The words “Go make some new friends” then appeared on the screen, followed by a photo of an Orthodox Jew in Israel as the narrator said, “Tell ’em we said ‘hi.’ ” Next came the words “And grab a souvenir yarmulke” and a picture of a yarmulke emblazoned with “Obama ’08.” The video ended with the words “Come on back home, Travis.”

A few days later Lange took down the video, explaining that several Jewish friends had told him that it contained “imagery that was ‘on the line’ and could be taken the wrong way without the political context.”

“I messed up,” Lange said in an Aug. 12 statement posted to his blog. “I apologize to those who might have taken offense to it.”

Lange stands out — for saying he’s sorry. As bloggers, radio hosts and protesters ratchet up their rhetoric in the fight against health care reform, many are unapologetically utilizing inflammatory rhetoric and imagery — often in ways that could be expected to raise alarms in some corners of the Jewish community.

Protesters and radio talking heads, notably Rush Limbaugh, have been comparing the Obama administration to Nazis. A Democratic congressman had a swastika drawn on the sign in front of his office. Bloggers are exploiting images of Anne Frank, tagging her with the Obama health care plan’s symbol instead of a yellow star.

“Historically, whenever there are turbulent times, it’s always bad for the Jews,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance, and the current environment is “unstable” with “a lot of turbulence.”

Referring to Lange’s video, Hier said, “When there’s turbulence, people make sinister remarks, question every motive.”

“The breakdown of civility is normally a danger for minority groups, period,” said Michael Berenbaum, a professor of Jewish studies at American Jewish University in Los Angeles and the project director during the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

“It’s a particular danger for Jews” because “the climate in which we thrive is one where there is security,” he said, noting that the worst period of anti-Semitism in the United States was in the post-Great Depression 1930s, where there was no economic security.

Berenbaum, though, said the fact that the Wall Street financial crisis last fall — and the ensuing Bernard Madoff scandal — did not result in a wave of anti-Semitism is likely a positive sign for the Jewish community.

“All the ingredients for a monumental uptick were there and it didn’t materialize,” he said.

Berenbaum speculated, however, that with an African-American president and a new Latino Supreme Court justice, other minority groups could instead draw the ire of some disgruntled Americans.

Deborah Lipstadt, a modern Jewish and Holocaust studies professor at Emory University , also said she did not see any specific reason for the Jewish community to be concerned.

“Civil discord is never good for society” and Jews are part of society, Lipstadt said. But “I’m not willing to go there yet.”

Bill Nigut, Southeast Region director for the Anti-Defamation League in Atlanta, said the “first casualty” of the ratcheting up of the health care debate has been a “respectful democratic process.” He voiced disgust at the entrance of Nazi symbols and rhetoric, including the painting of a swastika on a sign in front of the office of U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.)

“It’s dangerous for all Americans if we can’t have civilized debates,” Nigut said. “You can’t invoke one of the most heinous criminals in the world” when debating the health care system.

The months prior to the health care debate has seen an uptick in activity from militant and extremists groups, which is always a concern for Jews and other minority groups, Nigut said.

Lipstadt, who won a libel suit brought against her in a British court by revisionist historian David Irving, said she was appalled by the use of Nazi analogies in the debate, calling it “dangerous” and a “form of Holocaust denial” because “it’s a denial of what Nazism is.”

She added that she did not think those employing the false analogies were anti-Semites, but just had “no shame” and would “say anything to make their point.”

Berenbaum said Nazi analogies are utilized so frequently because the Holocaust is the “negative absolute in contemporary discourse” — it is something everyone can agree was evil. But he said even Jews overuse Holocaust comparisons when they compare Yasser Arafat or the president of Iran to Hitler.

Berenbaum also had particular scorn for those comparing the Obama health care plan to Nazi policies.

For instance, he noted that the right to be informed of and consent to one’s medical treatment grew out of the Nuremberg trials — because that’s “the antithesis of what the Nazis did.”

“The idea that you’re entitled to meet with your physician is the embodiment of Nuremberg ethics,” he said.

“Anyone who uses the Nazi analogy,” he said, “has no idea what Nazi medicine was about.”

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