Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin, like many conservatives, believes the left has defined bigotry down. During the Republican Convention, when Chris Matthews said that Mitt Romney's joke about President Obama’s birth certificate—and his attack on Obama as soft on welfare—constituted racial code, Tobin called the MSNBC commentator "nearly unhinged." In fact, Tobin offered the GOP a blanket exoneration from any and all charges of racism, declaring that "the only dog whistles today being sounded are all from the left."
There’s a case to be made for this machmir definition of prejudice, for reserving the term "bigotry" for only the most baldest and crudest expressions of ethnic, racial or religious animus. Unfortunately, when the topic turns from racism against blacks to anti-Semitism against Jews, Tobin himself possesses an ear for dog whistles so sensitive it would make Al Sharpton proud. Take Tobin's recent post about Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, blogger for the liberal Catholic journal, Commonweal. I've never read a word Steinfels has written, but reading Tobin, you’d think she's a latter day Bohdan Khmelnytsky. Tobin compares Steinfels to the notoriously anti-Semitic priest, Charles Coughlin, and accuses her of being motivated by "Jew-hatred"—accusations that make Matthews' rant about Republican racism seem positively subtle by comparison.
Tobin's evidence? Steinfels "oppose[s] pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear program." She has expressed "support for the efforts of rabid anti-Zionist extremists like Mondoweiss editor Phillip Weiss [sic] and turncoat Israel critic M.J. Rosenberg." She "wrote with sympathy about Iran's historical grievances against the United States and the deaths of Iranian scientists." She offered "approval of the statement of support for Iran nukes of the 120-member Non-Aligned Movement that held its recent meeting in Tehran." She has written about Israel's culpability in the 1982 massacre at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Beirut without noting "that the militiamen who killed the Palestinians were actually Catholics." And she has joked that Republicans should "move the capital of the United States to Jerusalem."
All of the above quotes, it’s worth noting, are Tobin's. Except for one headline, he never quotes Steinfels, nor does he offer links to the specific posts he condemns. (Tobin contents himself with offering one link in his entire piece, which takes you a compendium of all of Steinfels's work).
But let's assume that Tobin’s paraphrasing is scrupulously accurate. If so, he has established that Steinfels is ultra-dovish on Iran, that she's said nice things about left-wing and even anti-Zionist Jews, and that she's made a dumb joke about the Israel devotion of the GOP. All of which, if true, suggests that she's not the most hard-headed commentator on Middle Eastern affairs. But nowhere in this litany does Tobin even prove that Steinfels is an anti-Zionist (i.e. someone who doesn't want Israel to exist as a Jewish state), let alone an anti-Semite. In fact, he doesn't even really try. He simply sneers at her lefty views and then accuses her of "Jew-hatred," as if that’s the only possible explanation for a political sensibility so remote from Commentary's.
Will being publicly called an anti-Semite hurt Steinfels's career? I don't know. What I do know is that there is not the slightest chance that Tobin's promiscuous accusation will hurt his career, just as Abe Foxman's unsubstantiated 2010 claim that Andrew Sullivan is an "anti-Semite" had no negative repercussions for his. In the American public arena today, there are serious costs to being accused of anti-Semitism and no real costs to unfairly accusing someone of anti-Semitism. It is that power imbalance that people like Tobin abuse and they will keep abusing it until more Jews feel a sense of rage at the injustice being committed in our names. Or, if not rage, then at least shame.