Two high-profile nomination battles have left the American Jewish Committee in a lonely position: out front on behalf of a Middle East scholar condemned by Democrats and Arab groups and on the sidelines in the fight against one of President Bush’s most controversial judicial nominees.
Of the three so-called Jewish defense agencies, a list that also includes the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress, the committee was the only group to issue a statement last week supporting the nomination of scholar Daniel Pipes to the U.S. Institute of Peace. It was also the only member of the organizational trio to stick to its general policy of not weighing in on lower-court judicial nomination fights and decline to join the mounting opposition against William Pryor Jr., Bush’s pick for a seat on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Both nominations reached critical junctures July 23, with the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee endorsing Pryor, who is being opposed by a growing number of Jewish and liberal groups upset by his opposition to abortion rights and staunch criticisms of court decisions upholding church-state separation. Meanwhile, that same day, Democratic members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee, including Tom Harkin of Iowa and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, unleashed a torrent of criticism against Pipes, appearing to side with Arab and Muslim groups that charge the scholar with harboring an anti-Islamic bias.
The vote on Pipes was delayed due to the lack of a quorum at Wednesday’s meeting. A Democratic source on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee suggested to the Forward that Republican senators chose not to attend the meeting in order to head off a controversial vote, hoping the White House would either withdraw the nomination or appoint Pipes when Congress is out of session.
During the poorly attended meeting, Kennedy blasted Pipes, director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, for once describing Muslim immigrants in writing as “brown-skinned peoples cooking strange foods and not exactly maintaining Germanic standards of hygiene.”
“The views of this nominee are longstanding, well known and decidedly one-sided,” Kennedy said. “And they are not the words of one committed to bridging differences and bringing peace.”
After the hearing, AJCommittee’s executive director, David Harris, warned that sinking the Pipes nomination would send a dangerous message. “Rejecting this nomination would have a chilling effect on the important political discourse about the threat of Islamic radicalism,” Harris said.
While the ADL had also voiced support for Pipes back in April, it did not issue any statement last week in his defense. No position on Pipes has been taken by AJCongress.
The AJCommittee’s decision to stand firmly with Pipes, coupled with the decision to sit out the Pryor fight, appeared to lend ammunition to those who argue that the committee has shifted its emphasis during the last decade from liberal domestic issues to more hawkish foreign policy causes. Yet several outside observers and former committee officials countered that it would be a mistake to base such claims on the organization’s backing of Pipes and decision not to take on Pryor. The committee, observers noted, continues to be a staunch defender of church-state separation on many fronts, and the other two defense agencies have taken increasingly hawkish stands on Israel-related issues since the outbreak of the intifada. Several observers argued that the various positions staked out by Jewish groups in recent weeks reflect a more subtle process of ranking and prioritizing responses to the greatest threats facing American Jews.
“The peril facing Israel and the peril that Islamism poses here… outweighs the compulsion to get on the scoreboard” regarding the judicial nomination, said Steven Steinlight, the organization’s former national affairs director.
Steinlight also argued that the committee’s influence with Republicans on domestic issues is relatively limited, so that speaking out against Pryor would have been largely symbolic. Without directly crossing the White House by opposing the nomination, Steinlight said, the committee “can point to the issues that Pryor represents and say that the politics don’t make any sense now.”
“My guess is that they don’t want to further antagonize an administration that is doing good things with Israel,” Steinlight said.
As for the decision to support Pipes, Steinlight said, “This is a no-brainer for anyone who knows the AJCommittee. They wouldn’t have done anything else. They are Scoop Jackson Democrats, hard-asses when it comes to foreign policy.”
An expert on radical Islam, Pipes has angered Arab organizations with his longstanding warnings of the threat that Islamic fundamentalism poses to American security. He has vigorously advocated for aggressive military action by the United States as the best solution to the conflicts in the Middle East, defended racial and religious profiling in law enforcement, and urged that mosques become targets of police and anti-terrorism surveillance. Detractors also point to Campus Watch, a Web site run by the Middle East Forum that monitors the work of Middle East scholars for pro-Arab bias, arguing that it crosses the line into academic McCarthyism.
Several Democrats on the committee who are opposed to the nomination asked for a hearing on Pipes before a vote is called, saying more discussion was needed. Senator John Warner, a Virginia Republican, said that he was unsure how he would vote on the nomination, leading to speculation that Democrats could garner enough support to kill Pipes’s nomination before it reaches the full Senate.
Only one of the half-dozen senators who remained for the discussion about Pipes at the July 23 meeting, Republican John Ensign of Nevada, backed Pipes. Ensign described the nominee’s positions as “realities” and said that his controversial writings should not disqualify him from taking part in the diplomatic process.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the leading pro-Israel group in Washington, also supports the nomination of Pipes and is “making sure the appropriate people know about it,” spokeswoman Rebecca Dinar said.