By Dana Milbank
Sunday, January 30, 2011; A15
After MSNBC let go Keith Olbermann last week, Glenn Beck couldn't resist celebrating. "Keith Olbermann is the biggest pain in the ass in the world," he judged.
But Olbermann's departure really should give Beck pause: With political speech coming under new scrutiny, how much longer can Beck's brutal routine continue at Fox News?
The latest omen of Beck's end times came on Thursday - Holocaust Remembrance Day - when 400 rabbis representing all four branches of American Judaism took out an ad demanding that Beck be sanctioned for "monstrous" and "beyond repugnant" use of "anti-Semitic imagery" in going after Holocaust survivor George Soros.
A Fox News spokesman brushed off the complaint in the usual fashion, attributing it to a "Soros-backed left-wing political organization." But that's not going to fly: The statement's signatories included the chief executive of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and his predecessor, the dean of the conservative Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical school and a number of orthodox rabbis.
Beck has outlasted past complaints over his race baiting, his violent words and his conspiracy theories. He's not new to questionable talk about Jews (years ago he called Barbra Streisand a "big-nosed cross-eyed freak"), and for the past couple of years his Nazi accusations against opponents have come by the hundreds.
But in June, he promoted on air the work of a Nazi sympathizer, Elizabeth Dilling, who had referred, in writings Beck didn't mention, to Eisenhower as "Ike the kike" and Kennedy's New Frontier as the "Jew Frontier." A few days later, Beck referred to Soros's Jewish ancestry, accused him of currency manipulation and said "he's got disturbing hair in his nose."
On July 13, Beck told his Fox News viewers: "Jesus conquered death. He wasn't victimized. . . . If he was a victim, and this theology was true, then Jesus would have come back from the dead and made the Jews pay for what they did." (After complaints, Beck clarified that "the Romans, not the Jews, put Jesus to death.")
Then came Nov. 9, which - by sheer coincidence, no doubt - happens to be the anniversary of Kristallnacht, a precursor of the Holocaust. Beck chose that day to launch a three-night series attacking Soros as "the puppet master."
"The prime minister of Malaysia called Soros an 'unscrupulous profiteer,' " Beck reported. "In Thailand, he was branded the 'economic war criminal.' They also said that he sucks the blood from people."
Puppet master. Unscrupulous banker. Bloodsucker. These are hoary anti-Semitic stereotypes. The Malaysian leader's words cited by Beck came from remarks describing a Jewish conspiracy against Muslims.
And Beck wasn't done. He called Soros "a collaborator" with Nazis who "saw people into the gas chambers," and "a Jewish boy helping send the Jews to the death camps." In fact, Soros's father had hidden the boy from the Nazis by placing him with a Hungarian man assigned to record belongings of Jewish families that had fled.
"It is not appropriate to accuse a 14-year-old Jew hiding with a Christian family in Nazi-occupied Hungary of sending his people to death camps," the 400 rabbis said in their ad on Thursday.
Beck responded on his radio show by joking with his sidekicks that "attacks are coming out at me now that I'm anti-Semitic." Beck employed a variation of a defense he has used before: that he's not anti-Semitic because he's pro-Israel and is a fierce critic of Iran.
He is pro-Israel, but that's irrelevant: Many conservative Christians support Israel out of a belief that it will help bring about the Second Coming. Being pro-Israel and pro-Jew aren't the same.
Beck's warm thoughts about Israel, for example, don't excuse what he did two weeks ago on Fox News, when he identified nine men responsible for the "era of the big lie." He spoke of them as propagandists who saw themselves as an "intelligent minority" manipulating the masses. Of the nine men Beck attacked, eight were Jews. "A classic case of anti-Semitic dog-whistling," alleged Jeff Goldberg of the Atlantic.
Seventy-five years ago, Father Charles Coughlin, the celebrated "radio priest" of the Great Depression, lost his mass-media platform as he moved from veiled references to "driving the money changers from the temple" to overt anti-Semitism. Now, Beck clings to Fox News's support as evidence that he has not crossed this line.
"Could I put on three hours of television with nothing but lies and smear and keep my job against the most powerful man [Soros] and the most powerful groups in the world?" he asked one night.
It's a question Rupert Murdoch has to confront.