Terra Incognita: McCarthyism!

For all the hysteria, no government is behind the "campaigns against groups and people on the Left."

March 30, 2010 23:09
4 minute read.
Joseph Raymond McCarthy.

mccarthy 311. (photo credit: Library of Congress)


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Hardly a week goes by here without the claim, usually by groups on the Left, that people are being silenced and censored by McCarthyism. In an October 2009 article, Benjamin Pogrund claimed that university groups such as Isracampus and Israel Academic Monitor were attacking leftist professors in “classic McCarthyite style.” David Newman of Ben-Gurion University has written that “the academic McCarthyism of the right endangers Israeli democracy and society. It threatens the very basis of freedom of speech.”

The hullabaloo over Naomi Chazan, former Knesset member, professor and chief of the New Israel Fund, in early 2010 resulted in a wave of claims of McCarthyism. An interview with her by Donald Macintyre in The Independent was titled “The new McCarthyism sweeping Israel.” Hagai El-ad of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel claimed “these are classic McCarthy techniques, portraying our organizations as enemies of the state.”

Then earlier this month, the Education Ministry ordered its logo removed from a Web site called Common Ground that is supported by the Abraham Fund, an organization that claims it supports “coexistence.” In response, a senior official at a non-governmental organization claimed that “this is a McCarthyist period we’re going through.” Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal and many others have, in recent years, joined the chorus claiming McCarthyism is growing in Israel.

When Joel Kovel, author of the anti-Israel book Overcoming Zionism, was sacked at Bard College, one commentator claimed it was a sign of “McCarthyism.” In a 2007 article in The Nation, Larry Cohler-Esses argued that Nadia Abu el-Haj, a Barnard professor, was a victim of McCarthyism because pro-Israel groups were angered that someone they perceived as a radical ideologue was up for tenure; “This is the modus operandi of the New McCarthyism. It targets a new enemy for our era: Muslims, Arabs and others in the Middle East field who are identified as stepping over an unstated line in criticizing Israel.”

IT IS obvious that a lot of people think that McCarthyism is in the air. But do their fears and claims truly illustrate knowledge of what McCarthyism was? The use of words like “McCarthyism,” “apartheid” and “Nazism” in contemporary parlance should require that those using them and those reading them at least have a modicum of understanding of what they originally described.

Joseph McCarthy was born in 1908 and raised on a farm in rural Wisconsin. At 33 he served as a Marine Corps officer in World War II and was decorated. McCarthy was elected to the US Senate in the postwar Republican landslide. He came to the nation’s attention in 1950 with his speech at Wheeling, West Virginia in which he claimed that “the State Department is infested with communists.”

In 1953, after winning reelection, McCarthy was made head of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, an obscure body that he transformed into a center of investigations into communist influence in the US administration. He used this committee and his legal lieutenants, such as Bobby Kennedy, to go after government bodies such as Voice of America and the International Information Agency (an overseas library program).

In 1954 McCarthy laid into the US Army and ran afoul of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had so recently left the service to become president. By this time, the American public had tired of McCarthy’s claims and outbursts and famed journalist Edward Murrow noted, “We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.”

By December 1954 it was all over. McCarthy was censured by the Senate and he died two and a half years later.

The irony of McCarthy’s life is that his activities became associated with “McCarthyism.” In fact it was the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the House of Representatives that became infamous for blacklists and subpoenaing civilians, such as Hollywood writers. It was this committee that demanded to know: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?”

The blacklist was a series of directives by Hollywood studio executives in which they refused to hire communists. Many of the Hollywood directors affected were Jewish. Never did the US government order people to be fired.

The truth about McCarthyism is that while originally some people had their careers harmed or ruined by having been, or accused of having been, communists, the claim of being a “victim” of McCarthyism has been far more helpful to people’s careers than actually being a victim was ever harmful. Those who today claim they are victims of McCarthyism dream of being victims; they want to be the lone voice standing up to the government.

But theirs is a fantasy, no government is behind the campaigns against Haj, Chazan or the Abraham Fund. Instead, private individuals, expressing their right to freedom of speech, have condemned the activities of those they disagree with. When, several years ago, a student at the Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School penned an editorial on Ynet about how his professors were using the classroom to spread anti-Israel propaganda, he was called in by administrators to explain himself; “they basically made me promise not to write anything else.”

He didn’t cry “McCarthyism!”

Those who cry McCarthyism want attention. They are fear-mongers and extremists with little understanding of the concept of free speech and less understanding of history.

The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University.

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