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Richard Cohen
Offensive -- but Not Anti-Semitic

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By Richard Cohen
Thursday, March 13, 2003; Page A23

Ariel Sharon, the prime minister of Israel, was conceived in a Nazi concentration camp during the 1940s. His father was a Nazi officer and his mother was a Jewish prisoner. These facts come to me via the miracle of e-mail from someone who did not know that Sharon was born in 1928 in what was to become Israel. Facts are stubborn things, as John Adams once observed -- especially to the anti-Semite.

So it is equally easy to brush aside the fact that the Clinton administration, which favored the containment of Iraq, had many more Jews in important positions than does the pro-war Bush administration. In all the White House and the Cabinet, I can identify only one Jew -- Ari Fleischer, the president's press secretary. I guess he is the one who is pushing the United States to war.

The proposition that pro-Israel Jews are behind the impending war in Iraq has become a staple of the Internet, where all things are true. Now it has been advanced by Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), who alleged that the march to war would long ago have come to parade rest if the organized Jewish community opposed it. For this remark, Moran has been roundly denounced by many of his fellow Democrats and asked to quit Congress by some influential members of his Northern Virginia community. He vows to do no such thing.

I'm with him on that. His profuse, serial apologies ought to suffice: "I should not have singled out the Jewish community and regret giving any impression that its members are somehow responsible for the course of action being pursued by the administration, or are somehow behind an impending war." He even volunteered that his daughter is about to marry a Jewish man and is converting to Judaism. Whether she will therefore change her views on the impending war is not yet clear.

What is clear, however, is that Moran's remarks have produced an overreaction. In the first place, his reference to Jews did not come out of left field. He was attending an antiwar meeting at a church when a woman who identified herself as Jewish wondered out loud why more Jews were not present. It was then that Moran said, "If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war in Iraq, we would not be doing this. The leaders of the Jewish community are influential enough that they could change the direction of where this is going, and I think they should."

Moran was wrong on several points. Opinion polls suggest that Jews hold approximately the same views on the war as do Americans in general. What's more, a glance at the leaders of the antiwar movement indicates that many of them are Jews. Last but not least, it's preposterous to suggest that George Bush would heed the Jewish community, which largely votes Democratic, over his conservative Christian base, whose support of the war approaches 102 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percent.

But Jews are politically potent -- and no one knows that better than a member of Congress. Their activism, their prominence in political life, is a fact. What's more, one reason -- and it is one among many -- that the United States is almost uniquely pro-Israel is that the American Jewish community makes its weight felt. Moran, who at times has been highly critical of Israel, knows this better than almost anyone.

Moran clearly overstated the case and mangled his facts. But he did not dip into hoary theories about Jewish conspiracies -- control of finance, the media, etc. -- and seemed to limit himself to the political arena. He seemed -- seemed -- to have quickly realized his mistake and appreciated how his words could wound. Nothing in his record suggests that he is an anti-Semite.

That's important. American political life is going to become even more sterile than it already is if a single remark can ruin a career. Context -- seven terms in Congress -- ought to matter. Trent Lott's remarks in praise of Strom Thurmond's racist presidential campaign were part of a pattern. He had said similar things before, and besides, they were shockingly unambiguous. If Moran's remarks fit a pattern, it is not that of an anti-Semite but of a politician who plays Russian roulette almost every time he opens his mouth.

A characteristic of the anti-Semite is an immunity to facts or logic, as with my e-mail correspondent and his discovery of Ariel Sharon's paternity. What I read into Moran's remarks is not enmity or bigotry but rather a tin ear -- the inability to hear how his words might sound to others. That's not a firing offense. It was merely offensive.

2003 The Washington Post Company