“Tom, you racist bigot, shut up.”
That sentence flew out of the radio like one of David's defiant stones. In three decades working for Rush Limbaugh, I'd never heard him smash-mouth a caller like that. But Tom in Philadelphia was blaming the Jews for the 9/11 attacks and Middle Eastern wars. Rush wouldn't allow it on his airwaves. Not so long as he drew breath.
Feb. 17 marks one year since America’s No. 1 talk show host passed away from lung cancer, returning his “talent on loan from God.” And it seems that ever since his voice fell silent, anti-Semitic ones have grown louder in the halls of Congress, at Amnesty International – even a certain TV show host who culturally appropriated a Jewish name.
At a time like this, Israelis must feel terribly alone. So it’s worth reminding them that they have allies in the tens of millions who loved “America's Anchorman,” listeners who could easily have fallen prey to the Western media's seductive hate. Instead, they gained an affection for the “tiny, tiny Israel” that Rush praised as our “lone ally” in the region.
Rush had a unique way of making complex issues understandable, of convincing Americans in a large nation protected by two oceans that they, too, had a stake in a small nation with its back to the sea. Unlike those who think meandering answers project intelligence, he wasn't afraid to give simple answers on good and evil.
When Iran's supreme dictator led chants of, “Death to Israel! Death to America!” official Washington shouted back, “They don't really mean it!” But Rush applied the wisdom attributed to a Holocaust survivor: “When someone tells you he wants to kill you, believe him.”
Rush’s journey to fellowship with the Jewish people began in 1993 when Rabbi Nate Segal invited him to see the Holy Land. They visited the usual tourist sites, but Rush sought out the average citizens – Arab, Christian, Jew –who make the country work, who run for bunkers when the sirens wail.
Then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, as well as future ones – Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon, and Benjamin Netanyahu – welcomed Rush as a visiting dignitary. But it was one of those everyday people – an IDF soldier – who left the most lasting impression.
Standing on the Golan Heights, he handed Rush a pair of binoculars and pointed out hostile nations on the horizon.
“Imagine a place in the United States,” Rush told his audience, “where you could go and see every country that wants to obliterate you.”
On the final night of that visit, the Israeli army's head of security welcomed the visitors into his office and asked if they had any unanswered questions. Always inquisitive, Rush did: “How could Israelis maintain their optimism with so much hatred aligned against them?”
The general smiled, produced a Torah, and handed it across his desk. A gift, he said, so Rush might understand the Jewish way of life, and carry home to America the source of Israel’s optimism, given by God to Moses at Mt. Sinai.
Years later, in the “Shut Up” call, Tom had demanded to know if Rush was Jewish. A defensive Gentile would be caught off guard and respond, “No!” validating the implication that there’s something shameful about Judaism.
But Rush shot back, “I have a rabbi,” confounding the caller, and added quickly, “I also know the rabbi's brother.” Far from falling back on the trope of having “Jewish friends,” Rush was bragging that he was part of their family.
On another occasion, a woman purred, “I like that you always tell the truth about certain people – those people.” Rush demanded to know exactly who she meant, exposing her to sunlight like a vampire.
In such moments, Rush showed his listeners that it wasn’t enough to stand with Israel, the nation. True courage means identifying yourself with the world's most despised minority. We will never know how many hearts he changed with that boldness, or how many we might yet tenderize by continuing to follow his example.
Just imagine if FDR had told Hitler to shut up (as his Republican predecessor Herbert Hoover did) and responded to his taunts of “Rosenfeld” by wearing the name with honor on his radio fireside chats.
Instead, as Rafael Medoff writes in “The Jews Should Keep Quiet: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust,” the president “made it clear on more than one occasion that” it was the Jews he wanted to shut up. Six million fell silent forever because behind his microphone, Roosevelt buttoned his lip.
Over his long career, Rush would consistently call out media outlets and anti-Semites in both parties for attacking Israel, often over made-for-TV atrocities spoon-fed to them by terrorists. Far from delivering peace, Rush said forcing Israel to fight with one hand tied behind her back only prolonged suffering on all sides.
“Unleash Israel,” he wrote in a 2001 op-ed the New York Times angrily rejected, “and Win Peace,” pointing out that the U.S. hadn’t ended what Hitler’s Axis allies started at Pearl Harbor by negotiation, but by forcing the Japanese warmongers to “sign on the line that is dotted” aboard the USS Missouri – named, appropriately, after Limbaugh's home state.
In the last year of his life, Rush fought cancer with all the tenacity of the defenders at Masada, demonstrating the optimism he’d been shown in the Torah. And while his death certificate listed his occupation as “Greatest Radio Host of All Time,” he would have been proud to have it read “Friend of Israel,” and welcome anyone who might wish to place a stone upon his grave.
After all, Rush Limbaugh might not have been Jewish, but he did have a rabbi.
Dean Karayanis @HistoryDean is a producer for the Clay Travis & Buck Sexton Show, longtime Rush Limbaugh staffer, and host of the History Author Show on iHeartRadio.