Politicians, Jewish advocacy groups, and Rabbis have been highly critical of methods used by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to win reelection last week, particularly his short-lived public renunciation of a two-state solution to the Palestinian crisis and his 11th-hour bid to bolster his supporters by warning that “Arab voters are coming in droves to the ballot boxes.” President Barack Obama said the remarks were “contrary to what is the best of Israel’s traditions,” the New York Times editorial board called them “desperate, and craven,” and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, noted the tactics were a “naked appeal to his hard-right bases’ fears rather than their hopes.” Several others, including Reform Rabbi Zinkow, said the prime minister’s comments “sound racist.”
But talk show host and self-professed liberal Bill Maher attempted to stifle the growing criticism of Netanyahu on Saturday night. Speaking to a panel that included a GOP strategist and a former Republican lawmaker, Maher challenged claims that the prime minister’s remarks were racist by, confusingly, pointing to America’s own history of using racist political tactics.
“I guess that is racist, in the strictest sense — he’s bringing race into the equation,” Maher said of Netanyahu’s remarks. “But, first of all, like Reagan didn’t win races with racism? Or Nixon? Or Bush? Like they didn’t play the race card? Reagan opened his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, remember that? Remember Willie Horton?”
Maher’s second rant on the subject took an even more bizarre turn, with the host trying to add “a little perspective” by outlining a hypothetical scenario in which America is under siege from “black nations.” He also drew comparisons between Netanyahu’s election and America’s internment of Japanese people during World War II.
“I heard a lot of commentators here say, it would been as if Mitt Romney, in 2012, on the eve of the election said, ‘black voters are coming out in droves to the polls,’” he said. “But I don’t know if that’s really a great analogy. I think that would be a good analogy if America was a country that was surrounded by 12 or 13 completely black nations who had militarily attacked us many times, including as recently as last year. Would we let them vote? I don’t know. When we were attacked by the Japanese, we didn’t just not let them vote, we rounded them up and put them in camps.”
A video of the exchange is below.
Maher’s defense of Netanyahu goes significantly farther than conservatives who have either ignored or dismissed the prime minister’s remarks. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told CNN that Obama and other critics of Netanyahu should “get over it,” adding, “Get over your temper tantrum, Mr. President.” Similarly, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) shrugged off the comments on ABC’s This Week, saying they amounted to little more than “election rhetoric.” Several other Republican lawmakers have simply declined to acknowledge the comments altogether, congratulating Netanyahu on his victory instead.
Maher is well-known for his inflammatory style, but has come under fire from fellow progressives in recent months for making insensitive or even judgmental comments about Muslims. In 2014, Maher was famously criticized by actor Ben Affleck after the talk show host compared Islam to the mafia and said “It’s the only religion that acts like the mafia that will [expletive] kill you if you say the wrong thing, paint the wrong picture or write the wrong book.” Maher also has attempted to conflate all of Islam with the actions of the militant terrorist group ISIS, telling Charlie Rose there is “connecting tissue” between ISIS and the rest of the Muslim and adding “The Qur’an absolutely has on every page stuff that’s horrible about how the infidels should be treated.”
AP reports that Netanyahu has officially apologized for his remarks about Arab Israelis during the election. According to Haaretz, the prime minister told a group of leaders from minority Israeli groups “I know the things I said a few days ago hurt some Israeli citizens … My actions as prime minister, including massive investment in minority sectors, prove the exact opposite.”
He also added: “I see myself as the prime minister of each and every one of you, of all Israeli citizens without differentiating between religions, races and sex. I see in all Israeli citizens partners in building the State of Israel, one that is thriving and safe for all Israeli citizens.”