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By Menachem Z. Rosensaft
professor, Cornell Law School
In 1995, right-wing Israeli demonstrations opposing any political accommodation with the Palestinians featured posters depicting Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the uniform of a Nazi SS officer. The message was duly received. On November 5, 1995, Yigal Amir, a far-right Israeli law student assassinated Rabin at a Tel Aviv peace rally.
Members of Israel’s mainstream right-wing political parties, some of whom had spoken at the demonstrations in question, were quick to distance themselves from Rabin’s murderer. This was not what they had intended, they said. They did not see the posters. They could not be held responsible for the insane behavior of a deranged extremist.
We should keep the Rabin assassination in mind as Rush Limbaugh, arguably the most influential ideologue of today’s American conservative movement, compares the Obama administration’s health care reform initiative to Nazism and the president himself to Hitler.
“Obama’s got a health care logo that’s right out of Adolf Hitler’s playbook” and “Obama is asking citizens to rat each other out like Hitler did,” Limbaugh told the millions who faithfully tune in to his radio show. The president “is sending out his brownshirts to head up opposition to genuine American citizens who want no part of what Barack Obama stands for and is trying to stuff down our throats,” Limbaugh continued, and “Adolf Hitler, like Barack Obama, also ruled by dictate.”
Limbaugh is not alone in making the Hitler analogy. Demonstrators disrupting town hall meetings on health care reform have brandished images of President Obama with a Hitler-like mustache and signs with “Obama” written under a swastika. Earlier this year, the president of the Republican Women of Anne Arundel County in Maryland wrote on the group’s Web site that “Obama and Hitler have a great deal in common.”
From the outset, the strategy of some Republicans has been to delegitimize Barack Obama by depicting him as somehow dangerous and “un-American.”
First they brayed his middle name, Hussein, and noted that Obama sounds a lot like Osama. Then they called him a Muslim. When that didn’t stick, they accused him of “palling around with terrorists,” and then of being a socialist and a communist, all to no avail.
That was conventional politics, albeit of the gutter variety. By comparing President Obama to Hitler, however, Limbaugh is sending his national audience a subliminal but clear message of a wholly different sort. He may just as well be shouting “fire” in a crowded theater.
Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, has condemned the Nazi analogies in the health care debate as “outrageous, offensive and inappropriate.” Americans, he believes, “should be able to disagree on the issues without coloring it with Nazi imagery and comparisons to Hitler.”
Foxman is right, of course, but he does not go nearly far enough in his criticism. The problem is not just one of civility in political discourse. The real issue is that Limbaugh, with the tacit acquiescence of his corporate sponsors and the GOP establishment, is calling for sedition and worse.
If Limbaugh in his radio broadcast had made, in the words of the relevant federal statute, “any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States,” he would have been thrown off the air and would be awaiting trial on felony charges. But his likening of Obama to Hitler is the functional equivalent of calling for an act of violence against the President of the United States.
According to a recent Gallup Poll, a plurality of Americans consider Limbaugh to be “the main person who speaks for the Republican Party today.” John McCain sees Limbaugh as “a voice of a significant portion of our conservative movement in America” who “has a lot of people who listen very carefully to him.” Mitt Romney calls Limbaugh “a very powerful voice among conservatives. And I listen to him.” Rudy Giuliani has said that “to the extent that Rush Limbaugh energizes the base of the Republican Party, he’s a very valuable and important voice.” And Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele has anointed Limbaugh “a national conservative leader.”
McCain, Romney, Giuliani and Steele should now either unambiguously repudiate Limbaugh’s ugly rhetoric or be deemed to condone it. To paraphrase the old labor movement song, we are entitled to know which side they are on.
It is time for Republican leaders to take responsibility for Limbaugh’s words before they have dire if not tragic consequences.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is an adjunct professor at Cornell Law School and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.