Intratribal conflicts are the worst. A debate on the U.S. presidential election at the Ross Jewish Community Center in West Boynton Beach on August 21 should have been an occasion for reasoned discourse and public enlightenment. Instead, it was a hysterical (in both senses) screamfest, peppered with conspiracy-mongering and racial stereotyping. As always, the worst were full of a passionate intensity -- or a deceptive self-assurance.
"Should Jews Vote for Obama or Romney?" was the question. Making the case for Obama were Palm Beach County Democratic Party Chair Marc Alan Siegel and attorney/Reform rabbi/environmentalist Barry Silver. Team Romney was composed of self-described "patriot and Jewish and Israel activist" Alan Bergstein and "Christian Zionist" Tom Trento, who is either (according to him) "one of the leading academic activists in the United States" or (according to the Southern Poverty Law Center) an anti-Muslim hate group leader.
Siegel is smooth and mild-mannered, with a sly, easy smile. Silver, a one-time Florida State Representative, is boyish and earnest, with an idealism that verges on naivete. Bergstein is stiff and disapproving, with the rectitude of the high school principal he once was. Trento has a military look, bullet-headed and cheerfully thuggish. Stick a cigar in his mug and he's a combination of Dr. Strangelove's two generals, Buck Turgidson and Jack D. Ripper, he of the "precious bodily fluids."
As it turns out, Bergstein, Trento and Silver (!) are as anxious as Ripper to wage pre-emptive war. (Siegel later told us he's "from the Democratic Party's peace wing.")
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The debate drew an overflow crowd, at least one hundred more than the JCC was prepared for, and the doors were barred to late arrivals. Fire Ant spent the evening's first hour among an animated scrum in the building's lobby, where a pair of Real Housewives of Aventura pushed conspiracy theories about the nefarious George Soros and Obama's supposed Muslimism, stirring up passions among the stragglers. It was a foretaste of what was to follow.
When we were finally admitted it was question time, and audience members were lined up at microphones in the center and at the far side of the room. It appeared "Who Jews Should Vote For" meant "which candidate is the more fervent supporter of Israel" (leaving aside the question of what constitutes Israel's true best interest). So as hand to glove, argument raged about the nature of Islam and about Iran and its nuclear program. The tone of the questions ranged among hate, fear and disgust; the audience's kibitzing was uniformly ferocious.
But while the catcalls and hooting came equally from each camp, the intemperate questions came chiefly from Obama's critics.
"The blood of Jewish children will be on your hands" if we fail to bomb Iran, warned one. Another referred to the president as "a serious drug abuser." A third--in rejoinder to Obamanauts' concern for reproductive rights--framed the upcoming election as a choice between "the survival of Israel and free contraceptives." What passed for a reasonable tone was a local AIPAC leader's suggestion that whichever candidate prevailed in November should "arm Israel to do the [Iran] job."
Siegel and Silver were low-key and persistent in response. Siegel insisted that the Romneyites were simply misinformed, and repeatedly cited the remarks of Israeli leaders on their trust in Obama. Silver offered a green attack, saying "The GOP is willing to play Russian roulette with Planet Earth." (Silver's belief in the reality of climate change was debunked by a Romneyite who relied on the advice of a "good personal friend who was a number one graduate of the Bronx High School of Science.")
Bergstein offered two shopworn, bogus claims in his critique of Obama: 1) That Obama leaked word to Iran that Israel has access to airbases in the Central Asian republic of Azerbaijan, on Iran's northern border (Wikileaks indicated as much a good six months before unnamed U.S. officials voiced similar beliefs in March, and an Israeli general had suggested the same in 2006). 2) That the U.S. Navy under Obama's budget "has less ships than it did in 1939." This is a mis-repetition of a Romney line, both literally true but completely misleading, ignoring the earlier navy's lack of little things like aircraft carriers, guided missile frigates and nuclear submarines. If Bergstein or Romney want to put the 1939 navy up against the present day navy, they can get some seriously long odds in Vegas.
The evening's most revealing moment--and most stunningly crass remark--came courtesy of Bergstein.
In response to a question as to which presidential candidate would do more to provide "freedom and security to the United States and Israel"--"our homeland," according to the questioner--Bergstein, in tones weary with disgust, announced that it certainly wouldn't be Obama, who was "stripping trillions from the defense budget to hand out to people sitting on stoops drinking beer."
INTERIOR. BERGSTEIN'S MENTAL LANDSCAPE--SUNSET
Obama eases back at his desk in the Oval Office, puts down his crack pipe, picks up the phone, punches in a number. As the phone rings he takes another quick hit on the pipe.
CUT TO: INT. SEN. DANIEL INOUYE'S OFFICE
The phone RINGS. The SENATOR picks up.
CUT TO: INT. OVAL OFFICE--SAME
CUT TO: INT. SEN. INOUYE'S OFFICE--SAME
CUT TO: INT. OVAL OFFICE--SAME
Obama takes yet another hit on the crack pipe and lets out a long string of dark smoke, enwreathing his head like a niqab, from which a single gold tooth flashes out of a gaudy grill. Evil laughter follows. Fade to black.
Okay. It probably isn't that elaborate and bizarre. And Fire Ant isn't calling Bergstein a racist. In his private life Bergstein is probably a swell guy, a gentleman who never beats his wife and is unfailingly kind to children, small animals and people of color. But there's no denying his remark raised a curtain on a mind befouled with crude stereotypes. If he has any decency, when he next appears in public (another debate is in the works) he'll offer an apology to the president and the nation.
If Bergstein is merely deluded and pathetic, his compatriot Trento is a charlatan and a fascist in the classic mode. We'll deal with him in our next column.
Fire Ant--an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes fatal bite--covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org