Rabbis sign on to Jewish Funds for Justice battle with Beck, Fox News

By Ben Harris, JTA

NEW YORK — The 400 rabbis who took Glenn Beck and Fox News to task in full-page ads last week did so under the name of a Jewish organization not generally known for policing the use of Holocaust imagery.

Jewish Funds for Justice, which paid for the same ad in two newspapers and whose name and logo appear at the top, is a social justice group that typically focuses on poverty issues. But it has found its highest profile issue in an ongoing spat with Beck over his frequent use of Nazi comparisons to disparage his mostly liberal political opponents.

JFSJ reportedly paid in the six figures for the ad in the Jan. 27 edition of The Wall Street Journal, which was timed to coincide with International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The advertisement took the form of an open letter to Fox chief Rupert Murdoch asking him to sanction Beck. An identical ad also appeared in the Forward.

“We share a belief that the Holocaust, of course, can and should be discussed appropriately in the media,” the letter said. “But that is not what we have seen at Fox News.”

Fox dismissed the ad as politically motivated, and some in the Jewish community agreed. A fringe group calling itself Jewish Americans for Sarah Palin called the ad “highly partisan” for ignoring many other misuses of the Holocaust in public discourse.

Even Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, a group that frequently leads the charge againt Holocaust analogies, called the ad “bizarre” and criticized its timing and the singling-out of conservatives. In October, the ADL honored Murdoch with its International Leadership Award.

JFSJ and Beck have been trading media salvos for months, but the proximate cause of the ads was Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes’ comment in November that there are “some left-wing rabbis who basically don’t think that anybody can ever use the word Holocaust on the air.”

Ailes was defending a recently aired Fox expose on George Soros titled “The Puppet Master,” which accused the Jewish financier of funding a conspiratorial “shadow government” and manipulating regimes and currencies to his own benefit. The broadcast was condemned widely by liberal pundits and some Jewish leaders who said that it flirted with anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Others, including Foxman, accused Beck of “ignorance and insensitivity” but stopped short of calling him anti-Semitic. Beck has insisted that he is “pro-Jew” and “pro-Israel,” and his defenders note that he did not overtly link his conspiracy theories to Soros’ Jewishness. 

Following the Ailes interview, JFSJ said it began casting about for ways to make a public statement at the urging of rabbis.

“From our perspective, we didn’t move forward with this until it was clear that there was a wide range of rabbis, and that they wanted to speak out and send a message to Rupert Murdoch,” said Mik Moore, the JFSJ’s chief strategy officer.

The rabbis who signed the statement include the leaders of the main Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist institutions. No leader of a major Orthodox institution was even asked to sign, and few individual Orthodox rabbis did.

According to Moore, JFSJ only started speaking out against Fox when Beck began his assaults on “social justice,” calling them “Marxist code words” and urging his audience to abandon their churches if the phrase is mentioned from the pulpit. JFSJ shot back with a website, “Haik U Glenn Beck,” which invited users to respond to Beck with Japanese poetry.

In May, Beck attacked the CEO of JFSJ, Simon Greer, on his show after Greer, in a column urging that government engage in the effort to solve various social ills, called Beck a “con man” in the opening sentence. Beck said Greer was setting the stage for genocide.

“A Jew, of all people, should know that,” Beck railed. “This is exactly the kind of talk that led to the death camps in Germany.”

According to The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, who is writing a book about Beck, since Obama’s inauguration the talk show host has referred to Nazis or Nazism 202 times and to Adolf Hitler 147 times. Joseph Goebbels garnered 24 mentions.

Ailes met last summer with representatives of JFSJ, as well as Rabbi Steve Gutow, the head of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and Rabbi David Ellenson of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Greer says Fox agreed that Beck had crossed the line and promised to show more sensitivity to the use of Holocaust rhetoric. Fox disputes Greer’s account, saying its officials made no promises and stood fully behind Beck.

Uncharacteristically, Beck has not spoken publicly since the ads appeared last week. But his producer, Joel Cheatwood, who participated in the summer meeting, dismissed JFSJ as a “George Soros-backed left-wing political organization that has been trying to engage Glenn Beck primarily for publicity purposes.”

JFSJ says the only money it gets from Soros comes from the financier’s Open Society Institute, which funds a range of pro-democracy initiatives around the world, among them the Funders Collaborative for Youth Organizing, a Brooklyn organization that promotes philanthropic investment in young people of color. Soros’ funding is merely channeled through JFSJ and does not benefit the group itself.

“We’d be thrilled to get money from George Soros,” Moore said, “but no.”