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Simplistic, Yes; Anti-Semitic, No

March 21, 2003|William Saletan | William Saletan is chief political correspondent for Slate.

"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."

For that comment, Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.) has been forced out of the House Democratic leadership and is under pressure to resign from Congress. The charge against him is anti-Semitism.

But was it anti-Semitic? Moran's statement was simplistic and ill considered. But so is the charge against him. Anti-Semitism is a term commonly thrown around but seldom defined. Part of taking it seriously is applying it judiciously. What makes a remark anti-Semitic? Do Moran's words meet that standard, or was he railroaded?

Let's start with the basics: An anti-Semitic comment targets Jews. Moran's statement appears to qualify, but look at the context. According to witnesses, Moran was responding to a woman at an antiwar forum who had said she was Jewish and had asked why more Jews weren't there.

It's one thing to bring up Jewish influence unasked. It's another to discuss Jewish influence when you've been asked about Jewish participation by a Jew with good intentions.

But didn't he dump all blame for the war on Jews? Isn't that classic anti-Semitism? Actually, no. He called Jewish support a necessary condition for war. If not for the former, the latter wouldn't be happening. But one necessary condition doesn't rule out others. If it weren't for the voters of West Virginia, George W. Bush wouldn't be president. But the same could be said of New Hampshire or Nevada.

Moran generalized when he spoke erroneously of "the strong support of the Jewish community for this war." Perhaps he was trying to be politically correct by referring to our "community" and not individual Jews.

But it's easy to imagine the people Moran was thinking of: Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, Defense Policy Board Chairman Richard Perle and many pundits, think-tankers and political contributors. Most war supporters aren't Jewish. Nor is anyone in the Bush Cabinet. But many Jews are influential, and many Jews with influence in or with the administration strongly supported confronting Saddam Hussein.

You can make a good case that if it weren't for Wolfowitz, we wouldn't have gone to war. And you can make a good case that if Jews didn't have the kind of clout Moran suggested, he wouldn't have been forced out of his party's leadership by Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. According to the New York Times, "Democratic officials said Ms. Pelosi had been under pressure from Jewish groups and her own members to punish Mr. Moran." The Times wasn't being anti- Semitic. It was reporting a fact.

Many of Moran's critics say he doesn't deserve the benefit of the doubt, given his record of criticizing Israel. But hating Jews and opposing the policies of the Ariel Sharon government are two different things.

The days of the notorious anti-Semitism of Charles Lindbergh, Father Coughlin and President Nixon are over. They were wrong about us. We aren't ruthless or tribal or ungenerous. So let's not act as if we are.

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