"America's Jews are under attack," declares Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. For those of you who are under the impression that it's Iraqis who are under attack, Hier explains: "The war on Iraq may be over in a matter of days, or perhaps weeks. But the war against the Jews will continue long after the troops have returned home."
Judging from Hier's memo, this war is being led by "bigots like [Pat] Buchanan and Rep. James Moran." I don't have the space to explore the perennial topic of whether neoconservative is code for Jew, whether Buchanan is anti-Semitic or simply likes to push the buttons of people who think he is. Let me focus instead on Moran, the Virginia Democrat who has caught flak in nearly Trent Lottian quantities for some stupid remarks he made at an anti-war forum on March 3. In response to an audience member who identified herself as Jewish and wondered why more of her coreligionists were not present, Moran said:
"If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with 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."
There were a couple of problems with Moran's statement. First, polls indicate that support for the war is no stronger among Jews than it is among the general population. An American Jewish Committee survey conducted in December and January put Jewish support at 59 percent, virtually the same as the overall support found in recent U.S. polls. The New York Times reports that "an aggregate of surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center from August 2002 to February 2003 found 52 percent of Jews in favor of military action, 32 percent opposed and 16 percent uncertain; among all Americans, the polling found 62 percent in favor, 28 percent opposed and 10 percent uncertain."
Second, the assumption that Jews are so powerful that they can start or end wars at will reinforces classic anti-Semitic stereotypes. Moran himself is Roman Catholic, and his church is staunchly against the war. How come the Jews, vastly outnumbered by Catholics (not to mention the mainline Protestants whose leaders also oppose the war), are so much more influential?
So Moran deserved to be criticized, and he was, by Jews and Christians, public officials and community leaders, Democrats and Republicans. His remarks were condemned as "reprehensible and anti-Semitic," "shocking…wrong…[and] inappropriate," "beyond inappropriate," "deplorable and offensive,"and "reminiscent of the accusations contained in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion," the 19th-century Russian hoax that ostensibly documents a Jewish conspiracy to control the world.
Moran started apologizing on March 10, and he is still at it. "I made some insensitive remarks that I deeply regret," he said. "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 declared, "I know in my heart that I am anything but anti-Semitic," noting that his daughter plans to marry a Jew and soon will be one herself, since she plans to convert. ("Whether she will therefore change her views on the impending war is not yet clear," quipped Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen.)
Moran's abject, repeated expressions of regret were not enough for his critics. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) forced him to give up his post as a regional whip for the Democrats. Six Jewish Democrats in Congress said he should not run for re-election. Six Northern Virginia rabbis did them one better, calling upon Moran to resign. I knew we were in the midst of a hysterical overreaction when I heard one of those rabbis compare Moran to Amalek, the savage tribe that attacked the Israelites on their way to Canaan and came to symbolize the Jews' mortal enemies throughout the ages.
Moran may be an idiot (there are other grounds for thinking so aside from his remarks about Jews), but he is not Amalek. And if every idiot in public office had to resign, Congress would have trouble getting a quorum. Maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing, but the reaction to Moran's comments still seems disproportionate.
Perhaps attempting an explanation, The Washington Post reports that "American Jewish organizations…are increasingly worried about an anti-Semitic backlash blaming Jewish officials in the Bush administration for any U.S. casualties." The story concedes that "the evidence is anecdotal." Northwestern University sociologist Charles Moskos, for instance, "noted that he recently received several e-mails and telephone calls from strangers asking, 'How many Jews are there in the Army? How many blacks will die for Israel?'"
No doubt anti-Semites will find a way to blame Jews for the war. Anti-Semites can find a way to blame Jews for bad weather. I expect to receive a few anti-Jewish tirades in response to this article. But will they be in any sense representative of mainstream opinion? Can Americans be convinced that they never really supported the war on Iraq, that they only thought they did because they were hypnotized by Paul Wolfowitz?
Jews in the United States probably are more secure than Jews have been anywhere at any time in history. In ancient Israel, they had to worry about marauding tribes on their borders (Amalek, for instance). In modern Israel, they have to worry about being blown to bits at a supermarket or pizzeria. Although Israel's political raison d'être is providing security for Jews, the sad fact is that they are safer here, at least for the time being.
Jews are so conditioned by history to fear the worst that they cannot quite adjust to this reality. Anything that smacks of anti-Semitism therefore triggers not just outrage but fear, which intensifies the outrage to the point where it becomes outrageous.
That is the charitable interpretation. Rabbi Hier—who told the Post that "it has now become in vogue to blame the war on Iraq on Jews"—suggests a more cynical view. "A NEW ANTISEMITIC VIRUS SEEKS TO BLAME ISRAEL AND ITS SUPPORTERS FOR THE WAR IN IRAQ!" screams the headline above his memo to "Concerned Center Friends." Who wouldn't be concerned, after a jolt like that? The memo closes with an appeal for money: "Please don't delay. It is so imperative that we have your support now to help us continue on with our work sounding the alarm on the dangerous falsehoods that are seeping into the American consciousness."
The last thing Jews need is more alarm. Whom can I pay to get calmly reasoned rebuttals instead?