By Symi Rom-Rymer
Perhaps the winter weather is making people a little crazy or perhaps liberals, fed up with current political narrative, are just itching to remove the gloves. Whatever the reason, a willingness to venture onto Republican turf has been on the rise these past few weeks. First, there was President Obama who, in a riveting piece of political theater, took on the House Republicans during their annual retreat in Baltimore. Then, just a few days ago, Jon Stewart appeared on Fox as a guest of Bill O’Reilly.
(Can someone explain to me why he is so popular? Political views aside, he comes across as so condescending and self-righteous—why do viewers find that appealing? Or is he just that way when non-Republicans are on his show? If someone could let me know without my having to watch more of him, that would be much appreciated).
Anyway, as I was watching O’Reilly “vet” Stewart on his opinions about Iran and its quest for nuclear weapons, he suddenly brought up the fact that Stewart is Jewish. I thought: “is he seriously going to ask Stewart why he doesn’t, as a Jew, support Israel’s hawkish approach to Iran?” He didn’t. Instead, he said:
O’Reilly: “You’re a Jewish guy, right?”
O’Reilly: “I believe Ahmadinejad wants to drive you and all the other Jewish people into the sea.”
Stewart: “So? I cannot control that.”
Stewart then went on to explain his position on Iran and nuclear weapons, deftly ignoring O’Reilly’s ham-fisted attempt to conflate the Iranian government’s concrete threat against Israel with a more abstract threat against global Jewry. (To see the whole exchange, click here.)
O’Reilly’s comment bothered me on several levels. First of all, once he realized Stewart wasn’t rising to his bait, he decided to up the ante by focusing on Stewart’s religion. Just because Stewart is Jewish doesn’t mean he only see issues like Iran from a particular perspective. Furthermore, by emphasizing Iran’s direct threat to “the Jewish people” and linking that to Stewart personally, O’Reilly implied that he should analyze the situation primarily through an emotional framework. Secondly, by emphasizing Stewart’s religion, O’Reilly suggested that Stewart, and other American Jews, is somehow apart from the rest of Americans. There are many reasons why the US does not want Iran to develop nuclear weapons. These concerns are shared across religious, ethnic, and political lines. Should Iran get the bomb, it could have deadly consequences not just for Israel, not just for Jews, but also for Americans and other Western countries. In other words, whole swaths of the world would be at greater risk if this were to happen. Why, then, should Stewart be asked only react as a Jew? Is he not also in danger as an American? As a Western male?
Based on his show and what he has said in interviews, Stewart’s religion does not seem to influence his political views. But even if being Jewish was the main way he defined himself politically, that is for him to bring up. O’Reilly use of Stewart’s religion as a tool to goad him into siding with him, implies that Stewart’s concern for Jews should override his views about what is in America’s best interests. Although this particular exchange was done somewhat tongue-in-cheek, O’Reilly’s comments reflect a larger, troubling phenomenon in which complex worldviews are unacceptable and only simplistic narratives can prevail—in this case, within a Jewish context. Once again I’m reminded why I dislike Fox News.
Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe. She has been published in JTA, The Christian Science Monitor and Jewcy.