The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
NPR talk show host Diane Rehm had the following exchange yesterday with Senator Bernard Sanders:
"Senator, you have dual citizenship with Israel…"
"Well, no I do not have dual citizenship with Israel. I'm an American. I don't know where that question came from. I am an American citizen, and I have visited Israel on a couple of occasions. No, I'm an American citizen, period."
"I understand from a list we have gotten that you were on that list, forgive me if that is…" Rehm said.
After Sanders noted that he knows that there is a lot of nonsense circulating on the Internet, Rehm pressed on, "Are there members of Congress who do have dual citizenship or is that part of the fable?"
Rehm later explained that she found the list in question in a Facebook comment. CNN today explains how it all came about:
The awkward exchange with Sanders stemmed from a post on the radio show's Facebook page, which promoted the upcoming interview with the Vermont senator and said, "What do you want to ask?"
Nothing unusual about that. Shows solicit questions from listeners all the time.
One of the responses, from a user named Ryan, said, "Senator Sanders—you hold dual Israeli/American citizenship. Why should the president of our country be allowed to maintain full citizenship in another country at the same time?"
That comment—"liked" by several other Facebook users—is what triggered the on-air error.
Producer Denise Couture included the comment (and three others from Facebook) in the prep material that was given to Rehm before the interview.
Nothing unusual about that, either. Hosts are routinely given articles and suggested questions.
But Ryan's comment was rooted in misinformation.
Now that can't be all that there is to it, because Rehm also alluded to a list of Congressmen with dual citizenship; one assumes that Couture did a Google search to verify the question, and found such a list. Unfortunately, the only such lists on the Internet come from its darker corners, falsely that various prominent American Jewish political figures are dual Israeli citizens. (In the CNN piece, an NPR spokesperson says that Couture found an article about dual citizens in Congress, but the only articles on that theme that readily come up are about alleged Jewish dual citizens of Israel.)
That's not to say it wasn't an innocent mistake, but it does raise the question of why both Couture and Rehm fell for an anti-Semitic hoax.
For the answer, I think we need to look at what passes for "mainstream" discourse in circles that are highly critical of Israel and its American supporters.
Consider that in 2005, when he was perhaps the most influential progressive commenter on the Middle East, University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole wrote this of Bush Administration official Doug Feith: "Having a Likudnik as the number three man in the Pentagon is a nightmare for American national security, since Feith could never be trusted to put US interests over those of Ariel Sharon." Feith, according to Cole, "played fast and loose with the truth … on behalf of on behalf of a non-American political party, the Likud coalition of Israel."
Or go back to 2007, when Yale University professor David Bromwich took an innocuous statement by Elliott Abrams to the effect that Jews, as a minority religion bound by a unique covenant, stand somewhat apart from the rest of society unless they live in Israel, and claimed that Abrams had written that Israel is a "country with which he confessed himself uniquely at one," an interpretation that it's hard to believe a professor of English could come up with honestly.
Or consider from 2012 the willingness of several prominent liberal bloggers to call American supporters of Israel "Israel-firsters," and, in some cases, to continue to defend doing so even after it was revealed that the term had migrated from "white nationalist" sites to the "progressive" anti-Zionist left.
Then consider that since Bernie Sanders announced he was running for president, he has been pilloried on a variety of "progressive" websites such as this one for not holding "progressive" views on Israel, i.e., for not being hostile to Israel. The (false) assumption is that someone on the left would naturally be anti-Israel, unless he had some ulterior motive.
Given this context, in which it's become acceptable on a wide swath of the left to question the motivations of Jews who support Israel, and in which it's considered anomalous for a strong progressive to be at all sympathetic to Israel (and Sanders is both sympathetic and often quite critical), I don't find it entirely shocking that a website listing Sanders and other prominent Jews as Israeli citizens didn't strike Rehm and her staff as inherently ridiculous.
Note that I'm not suggesting that Rehm herself is hostile to Jews in any way. In fact, the opposite may very well be true; in educated American mainstream liberal circles, the level of anti-Semitism is quite low, which can lower can lower the "immune system" of liberals like Rehm when real anti-Semitism pops up. Even the individuals noted above-Cole, Bromwich, etc.-likely have nothing against Jews, per se; they just are hostile to Israel or at least its current policies.
As a result, in some cases they don't mind playing on age-old anti-Semitic themes to advance their agenda. In other cases, they are so certain that their negative views of Israel are correct that they truly can't believe that anyone would disagree with them unless they were blinded by loyalty to Israel. When they make what might otherwise seem to be scurrilous accusation, they are not being disingenuous.
In any event, strange accusations about supporters of Israel, especially Jewish supporters, have become sufficiently commonplace that what should have seemed like an obvious anti-Semitic hoax didn't ring any alarm bells.
UPDATE: Another one from the archives: Joe Klein accusing "Jewish neconservatives" of putting Israel's interests before those of the United States.
Meanwhile, Josh Marshall isn't impressed with Rehm's apology, which he describe as BS.