Ted Cruz was recently asked to react to Donald Trump’s comments about his wife’s relationship with Goldman Sachs. Cruz retorted that for the billionaire “to make this attack, to use a New York term, it’s the height of chutzpah.”
Dropping the word chutzpah, even if sounds a little awkward coming from Cruz, works in this context. There’s really no effective English equivalent. “Audacity,” “guts,” “nerve,” “boldness;” all of them are fine, but none of them really have the punch of “chutzpah.”
But if you’re a lefty columnist adept at ferreting out nefarious conservative dog whistles, the word also conveys anti-Semitism. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank—who makes a habit of embellishing innocuous statements with imaginary bigotry— explains that voters were finally given a clue as Cruz meant about New York Values: “For Cruz, ‘New York’ is another way of saying ‘Jewish.’”
Now, I realize that some Jewish liberals act as if abortion rights or high marginal tax rates were chiseled into the Ten Commandments, but that’s not the case. And because these Democrats often conflate liberalism and Judaism, it’s not surprising that they get a little paranoid about Republicans. But like him or not, Cruz has never actually said anything anti-Semitic, or taken any position that could be construed as anti-Semitic—quite the opposite.
Yet, somehow they know the truth.
The New Republic’s Twitter essayist Heer Jeet, who last week heard a dog whistle from Cruz accusing Marco Rubio of being gay, says J’accuse…!: “Chutzpah is a Yiddish word, so a ‘New York term’ means one inflected by a dialect associated with Jewish immigrants and their descendants.”
Hmm. Yes, there are many Jews in New York. I know: I’m Jewish, and I grew up there. Many of us had Jewish immigrant grandparents or parents. I also know that “chutzpah” is one of the numerous Yiddish words that non-Jews use (or, at least, used to use) in daily life. For some reason, the ones that come to mind are “putz” and “schmuck.” But non-Jews would sometimes throw Yiddish words in sentences, like: no ‘mensch’ would use this dumb ‘schtick.’”
Yiddish is also used by non-Jewish politicians all over the country.
“You may not be able to point to a lot of legislative accomplishments with this group of Republicans in Congress, but you’ve gotta give these folks credit for their chutzpah,” said Barack Obama in a December email that carried the subject line “Chutzpah.” (Wow. Is he implying that Congress is under the thumb of the Zionist lobby!?)
“Hillary Clinton suggesting that Donald Trump is being used in an ISIS recruiting video, man, talk about chutzpah,” said Jeb Bush recently.
“To compare himself to Bob Dole, to John McCain, to John Kerry, to Barack Obama, that takes a lot of gall, a lot of chutzpah,” said Harry Reid about Marco Rubio.
“It takes a lot of chutzpah” to say “this is the slowest recovery in history,” explained Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire.
The above were culled from only the past few months. Are all of these politicians guilty of intimating “Jew!”—or is it only Cruz because he’s a meanie conservative who wants to…? What does he want to do?
Is he signaling anti-Semitic Marco Rubio voters in New Hampshire? Is he signaling Donald Trump voters? Because, you know, the gold-plated WASPy billionaire from Queens is not Jewish, which I’m sure the vast majority of people are aware of. Or is he, by using the word chutzpah, really saying: you don’t want these imaginary Jewish values of Trump.
If that’s the case, Cruz has done an abysmal job. He’s been about as pro-Israel as any politician. This doesn’t mean Jews should automatically embrace him, but it’d be peculiar positioning for candidate vying for the Bircher vote. Guys who have actively sought the Orthodox Jewish vote—“I share a great many values with the Jewish community and the Orthodox community,” Cruz told one group not long ago—don’t usually use this kind of coded language. Then again, these imaginary dog whistles probably say more about how many liberals view the middle of America than it does about middle of America.
One of my favorite uses of the word, incidentally, can be found in a piece from 2008, called “The Audacity of Chutzpah,” where a Washington Post columnist named Dana Milbank mocks Democrats who are concerned that Obama might not turn out to be a greatest friend of Israel. What a bunch of nuts, right?
Many of the same hypersensitive pundits who are on high alert for any allusion to “Jew” were comfortable defending the Obama administration’s policy of sending billions of dollars to a Holocaust-denying regime that funds terrorism targeting Jews. Many of the same thin-skinned pundits see bigotry lurking under every GOP position, freely regurgitated the administration’s vapid talking points often used by people who justify and rationalize terror against Jews in the Middle East. If you’re a Jew who is offended by “chutzpah” but not by Iran, maybe it’s time to reevaluate your sensitivities.